On Social Policy

Big ideasA couple of days ago I was asked, at short notice, to write a brief introduction to Social Policy, suitable for young people interested in finding out more about the discipline.  Even though I only had a few minutes to write it somewhat inevitably I wrote more than could be used for that purpose. So I was given a firm edit. Here is the fuller version, in case it is of interest.

How does a society meet the needs of its members and promote their well-being? What sorts of things are seen as problems for individuals to cope with on their own? And which are problems that society more broadly has a reason, or an obligation, to address? Should we rely mainly on our families for help? Or should we expect governments to act for us? What about services provided by organisations in the private market? And what is the role for charity?

How do the answers to these questions differ between different countries or regions or cities? How do the answers differ in the same society at different points in time?

These are questions examined by the discipline of Social Policy. They generate lots of other important questions like: Who counts as a member of society? How would we know when the needs of a population have been met? Is it even possible to design and deliver policies that are totally successful in achieving this sort of objective?

Social Policy examines these questions by looking at key social issues such as poverty, unemployment, crime, poor health, illiteracy, inadequate housing, inequality, and violence. It draws on ideas from sociology, politics, economics and history to help understand policy and policy changes that have a big effect on people’s welfare – policies such as introducing compulsory education, privatisation, welfare reform or expecting hospitals to compete with each other to treat patients.

Studying Social Policy means studying how policy in Britain has tackled these issues at different points in history. But it also means understanding that the way we do things in Britain is unique. Other countries have come up with different answers. Their governments have made different decisions about how to organise their health service or whether the government should provide housing. We can learn interesting and important things from comparing these different decisions. One thing it helps us understand is that there are options: things could be different and still work successfully. But it also helps us understand that many different factors combine to contribute to making policy successful. It can often be difficult to copy policy success from elsewhere.

Social Policy examines key issues that face policy makers, both now and in the past, and the solutions they have offered. It puts theory and evidence to work to help us understand and interpret some of the most important issues facing society.


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Categories: Politics, Welfare State

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  1. Sort of postscript – I attended the Chamber of Commerce/Adam Smith Business School ‘Glasgow Talks’ this morning to hear Scottish First Minster Nicola Sturgeon. It was striking that a recurrent refrain of the Minister was the (‘inescapable’) relevance of ‘social’ policy to economic policy. Indeed, the Minster argued that getting the former policy domain right was essential to optimising policy ij the latter domain.
    Oh for the days when in Scotland you would more expect that public delivery – and to a hard bitten business audience – from a Labour Party Minster.