by Peter Taylor-Gooby, University of Kent
As many commentators have pointed out, the pressures facing modern welfare states are formidable. One response by government is to place greater emphasis on a policy-making paradigm which rests on an individual rational actor account of agency. This finds its intellectual home in the leading tradition of neo-classical economics, its ideological home in a politics of active citizenry and equality of opportunity and its institutional home in the mechanisms by which the Treasury currently directs social policy.
The resulting policies have strengths in delivering productivity improvements and responsiveness to consumer demand, but weaknesses in accommodating the value positions of an increasingly diverse society, in sustaining the social cohesion necessary to the continuance of state welfare and in confronting the structural basis of some social interests. These issues have traditionally been recognised in the sociology of values, the psychology of trust and the political science of power.
One strength of academic social policy is that it is a field of study in which a number of disciplines are deployed. The ascendancy of one paradigm may obscure the contribution of others. It is hard for social policy academics to gain recognition when they speak a different language from that of policy-making at the highest level.
Voluntary and community sector organisations have been increasingly engaged in the delivery of policy. This gives rise to dilemmas of responsibility to users and participants and the representation of their interests on the one hand, and the delivery of services in ways that meet the demands of an increasingly competitive environment on the other.