Social policy must reform itself or face oblivion

Academics will continue to have negligible impact on social policy unless they forge new collaborative relationships with service users, says Peter Beresford

April 29, 2016
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Two big questions are becoming ever more acute for academic social policy. First, why has it been in the doldrums for so long when the welfare state and welfare reform are rarely out of the headlines? Second, what, if anything, can social policy academics do about it?

Academic social policy has become increasingly marginal. Social policy academics appear an increasingly endangered species. The trend has been a drastic reduction in social policy courses. The professional association, the Social Policy Association, has only about 500 members.

I don’t believe it has to be like this, but changing the situation will require academic social policy itself to do some fundamental rethinking. That is hardly surprising, since we know the same is needed for the welfare state. Also, if we look back, as I have tried to do in my new book, All Our Welfare, we can get some important clues as to what the direction of change needs to be.

Historically, Fabian social policy academics were amazingly influential and often closely bound up with practical policy and politics. People such as the Webbs, William Beveridge, Richard Titmuss and even prime minister Clement Attlee offered their prescriptions and these became public policy. All this changed with the coming of Margaret Thatcher, who challenged the Fabians’ authority and condemned them as “paternalistic”. She called their bluff, showing they had little popular support and no real power base. She said there was “no such thing as society”. She rejected the theorising of key academics such as Peter Townsend, saying that his relative model of poverty was just about “inequality”, and that trying to better yourself was the good and right thing all of us wanted to do.  

Academic social policy has never recovered from this. To some extent it has shifted to the right, and some of its leading lights, such as Sir Julian Le Grand, have been happy to advise neoliberal governments. But, beyond that, it has little influence. Modern publics aren’t particularly interested in academic critiques of social policy, and modern governments know they don’t have to take any notice of them. This was highlighted by a letter that professors of social policy wrote to The Guardian on 27 March 2013, in which, in their capacity as “the UK’s leading experts on social policy and the welfare state”, they urged the government to reconsider the benefit cuts and “to ensure that no further public spending cuts are targeted on the poorest in our society”.

Two years later, on 6 May 2015, they wrote again to lament the fact that their “pleas went unheard”.

Not only do these tactics seem hopelessly misjudged, but the talk of professors as the “leading experts on social policy” seems appallingly out of tune with the trend over the past 30 years to recognise and value the lived experience and experiential knowledge of people such as patients and service users. It suggests professors still think they “know best” and ignores the emergence of new discourses about welfare from the new social movements of disabled people, mental health service users, people living with HIV and so on. It takes no account of the wider calls for user-led policy, provision and research and the enormous innovations coming from disabled people’s and service users’ organisations in both theory and practice. Significantly, it has been research and collective action initiated by such organisations that have been spearheading opposition to recent welfare reform, gaining increasing political and public support and perhaps playing a role in the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith as secretary of state for work and pensions after the spring Budget.

All this points to a new and more effective role for academic social policy and its advocates. This could be based on new collaborative relationships between academics and service users and their organisations, with academics supporting and spreading the word about service user innovations, taking a leaf from the emerging field of “mad studies” and forming new alliances with service users and practitioners to challenge traditional assumptions about definitions and meeting of needs. It would draw service users much more into the classroom and research, as we have increasingly been seeing in professional health and care learning. Both the research excellence framework’s impact element and the National Student Survey’s emphasis on student satisfaction provide academic social policy with new levers to do this. Yet it is still not happening routinely and is still not reflected in most social policy teaching, research or texts.

Such an approach would be much more likely to be owned by both academics and welfare service users. It would carry a lot more weight with the public than traditional left-of-centre condemnations of populist attacks on immigrants and welfare claimants. It is also likely to provide a much more effective challenge to so-far poorly evidenced neoliberal dogma about welfare reform. It would offer academic social policy new hope and opportunities, as well as strengthening the prospects for a sustainable welfare state for us all.     

Peter Beresford is professor of citizen participation at the University of Essex and emeritus professor at Brunel University London. His latest book, All Our Welfare: Towards Participatory Social Policy, was published by Policy Press this year.

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