Inclusive and sustainable development: A joined up social policy agenda?

In this piece, Social Policy Whisperer Paul Smyth reflects on inclusive and sustainable development, and asks the question of whether social policy can provide a unifying framework for a range of disparate social and environmental issues.


Every year I come away from my social policy Masters subject with a new puzzle.  This year I was reminded again of the diversity of student experience.  Not just their different countries of origin but their particular policy interests: industrial relations, urban planning, the environment, education and so on.  Can the discipline of social policy really cover such variety in a meaningful way?  And this was of more than academic interest.  Indeed a key discussion was could the disparate policy issues and constituencies be unified and activists gain a much needed common voice?  I think the students always come with the idea that social policy should provide the unifying framework.  But can it?

This was certainly the aim of the discipline as it developed after World War Two and theories such as citizenship (Marshall) and justice (Rawls) eventually evolved into the very applied social justice frameworks of the 1980s.  However these were gradually displaced with the rise of neoliberalism and once again economic growth – GDP - took over as the proxy for wellbeing.   Without a coherent theoretical centre social policy splintered into different disciplines which hardly spoke to each other eg education, health, housing and so on.  Indeed, for a time social policy became more or less identified with pensions, benefits and their funding with theory focussed on welfare dependency and activation.

The death of ‘trickle down’ welfare is changing all that. As the gulf has widened between what markets deliver and what people want (today’s legitimation crisis) the need for a new overarching social policy framework becomes pressing.  As The OECD (2017) says in ‘Time for Action’: “We are at a critical crossroad. For years we counted on economic growth as the only engine of prosperity… This model must be changed.  It needs to get away from the mantra of growing the pie first, and distribute it later.  It must become fair, people-centred and aspire to achieve multidimensional wellbeing.”

In our seminar, one foundation stone of a new unified social policy framework has been the theory and measurement of multidimensional wellbeing.  Gone with ‘trickle down’ economics has been the equation of welfare with consumer preferences expressed in the market.  Here, Sen’s capabilities approach has been a long term influence while recently Gough (2017) has revived his alternative needs based theory.  Bache and Reardon (2018) have traced the history of this movement from the development of ‘social indicators’ in the 1970s to now when welfare measures have well and truly been recast in terms of multidimensional wellbeing – most recently of course in the SDGs.  On the world stage trickle down should be no more, though this did not stop the Australian Treasury abandoning its Sen based wellbeing framework in 2017! 

The policy importance of this reunification of the social services and income support in a shared policy framework has been greatly magnified by the so called ‘eco-social turn’ in social policy.  This Whisperer must confess to have never quite seen how social and environmental policies could be integrated.  We would do the social policy.  Others would worry about the environment.  However, major recent works by writers like Fitzpatrick and Gough have demonstrated powerfully how the environment is not something external to society but can be understood in the same terms of capability sets or needs while raising the self same questions concerning who should be responsible and how to organise the policy response.  In our seminar we agreed that such conceptual work could be of critical importance in bringing the social and environmental constituencies together around a shared agenda.

Of course, identifying the different dimensions of eco-social wellbeing is only the beginning of our social policy renewal.  But they do resurrect the buried questions of citizenship entitlements and obligations, of social justice and equality.  As yet thinking on these is less advanced but we do see old embers bursting into flame.  Harvard’s Mounk (2017), for example, has opened a new chapter in the debates about welfare obligations and accountability.  Old horses like Rawls, Nozick, Sen and Co. get to race again but with a new destination.  Mounk allows some merit in embracing welfare obligations but wants to start a new political conversation aimed at reviving a once flourishing understanding of the obligations of all citizens to work for the common good.   Closer to home, Fook and Goodwin (2018) are reviving the grand history of social justice in social policy, from its origins in the great ‘Social Question’ of the nineteenth century to today.  It is of course early days but it is not too much to believe that works such as these will soon inform a robust renewal of social justice to reframe the rights and obligations of citizens as we seek to answer the Social Questions of today.

Masters seminars can indeed be challenging.  The question of a joined up policy agenda to frame social policy after neoliberalism is critical for both theory and action.  My sense now is that the retreat of growth as proxy for wellbeing makes such a framework both desirable and inevitable.  Social and environmental policy cannot be the subject of disparate and disconnected studies.  They interdepend and, along with other policy domains such as the economy and the law, reflect overarching assumptions about the kind of society we want.   It is this which is the stuff of social policy.



I.Bache and L. Reardon (2018) The Politics and Policy of Wellbeing Understanding the Rise and Significance of a New Agenda, EE, Cheltenham.

T Fitzpatrick (2016) ‘The Sixth Giant? Environmental Policy and the Labour Government, 1945-51’ Journal of Social Policy, Vol 45, No. 1, pp.65-82.

*J Fook and S Goodwin (2018) ‘Introducing Social Justice’, in A M Mealey et al (Eds)   Everyday Social Justice and Citizenship Perspectives for the 21st Century, , Routledge, London.

I Gough (2017) Heat, greed and human need: climate change, capitalism and sustainable wellbeing, Edward Elgar, Northampton.

OECD (2017) ‘Time to Act: making inclusive growth happen’ (Policy Brief), Paris

Y Mounk (2017) The Age of Responsibility Luck, Choice and the Welfare State, Harvard University Press, London