Social policy is about trying to find ways of understanding and improving society. It is also about trying to improve the welfare of all citizens
WHAT IS SOCIAL POLICY?
One may begin by stating that social policy, in it’s broadest sense, is about the welfare of people and is concerned with their social needs and the social problems they encounter. Social policy came about as an attempt to rectify social problems and offer some form of welfare aid and relief, whether earned, National Insurance contributions providing health cover, or not, some welfare benefits are provided irrespective of contribution or need; Child Benefit. One of the predominant functions surrounding social policy is the generation of questions. Questions relating to such issues as unemployment, education, health, income, housing and the personal social services and how they might be improved. How best to deal with crime including the huge problem of drug misuse; what to do about homelessness; how to protect children from neglect and abuse; should disruptive children be excluded from schools? And how best to provide adequate benefits and pensions to those who need them. Social Policy also raises questions of a more general nature, which require solutions; how should societies organise and structure education and medical care to meet the widely differing needs of citizens; what are the nature and causes of inequality and discrimination? How can the effectiveness of government policies or the workings of national institutions such as the criminal justice system or schools be properly assessed? An important part of the work of social policy is to explore the causes, scope and extent of social problems, both nationally and internationally. Having identified the problems, social policy then aims to go forward to consider the ways in which society, as a whole, attempts, or should attempt, to resolve or deal with these problems. Social Policy is concerned with the analysis of societies' responses to social need and includes many different aspects; economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, political science, politics, international studies, social history, development administration and cultural studies.
Social Policy is focused on those aspects of the economy, society and polity that are necessary to human existence and the means by which they can be provided. These basic human needs include,
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- food and shelter
- a sustainable and safe environment
- the promotion of health and treatment of the sick
- the care and support of those unable to live a fully independent life
- the education and training of individuals to a level that enables them fully to participate in their society.
Social Policy is designed to reflect the ways in which different societies have developed ways of meeting these needs, or, in some cases, have failed to do so. Some societies rely on informal
or family institutions, some on private markets and individual actions, some on governmental
actions through what is often termed the welfare state. Social policy is concerned with contemporary social issues, particularly those affecting living standards and quality of life. This includes issues, which often dominate the domestic political agenda - such as the NHS,
education, crime, work and unemployment, child abuse and homelessness. Behind these issues are larger questions about how social needs, rights and problems are constructed. About who pays for welfare, who provides it and who benefits from it. About the relationships between welfare and the world of work; and, more recently, about the evolution of social policy in a European context.
Social policy is about trying to find ways of understanding and improving society. It is also about trying to improve the welfare of all citizens, creating equal opportunity, meeting the needs of those who cannot provide for themselves, alleviating social problems (e.g. drug misuse, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence and crime). Addressing social issues (e.g. abortion, sex education and immigration control), giving recognition to disadvantaged and minority groups. There are two main methods, through which welfare policy, generated by social policy implementation, may be provided,
Formally through cash benefits or services by:
- Central government agencies
- Local authorities
- Voluntary agencies
- Private companies
Or through a more informal base:
- Family, friends or neighbours.
The above list shows that very few people would remain untouched by social policy implementation. No one person or group is so self-sufficient that they can survive without benefiting from social policy at some point in their lives. Indeed most people would have benefited from some form of social policy, even though they may have been unaware of it at the time.
- It may be through the NHS, the local authority or the Benefits Agency
- It may be through the control of environmental pollution
- It may be through anti-discrimination procedures
Social policy is a dynamic, ever changing process because social provision can always be
improved, made more efficient, more responsive, more flexible or more sensitive to people’s needs. The explanation given thus far would lead most people to believe that social policy serves society and communities well and in general it does. Social policies however can, and sometimes do, go wrong: Perhaps the basic rationale was at fault, the aims of the particular piece of social policy may have been unrealistic. Welfare organisations may be too remote and bureaucratic and welfare staff may be inadequately trained or selected or a wider audience and end users may not have been consulted properly; not enough research was undertaken. An excellent example of social policy going awry may be observed when the Conservative Government, under Margaret Thatcher, was forced to reconsider their Poll Tax (1990) rates system.
The implementation of social policy legislation often requires different people to observe different statutory rights and duties. Often it is agencies of the state, for example local authorities and health trusts that are endowed with specific responsibilities and powers and citizens that are endowed with rights or entitlements. However these agencies must operate within a fixed budget. This, reasonably obvious, contradiction of aims may produce almost intolerable levels of policy functionality. The Children Act 1989, for example, required social services departments to assess children and their families on a needs basis rather than a budget led one. This resulted in problems finding the resources to meet those needs and many clients identified needs that were simply not being met on the grounds of cost. This demonstrates that just because Parliament has introduced legislation, it does not mean that the legislation introduced will achieve its stated aims and objectives. (Mullard, 1995). This particular error of the Children Act was brought about simply because the agencies themselves have to produce policies and procedures to enable them to decide the fairest way of distributing resources, thereby targeting those most in need. This entails interpreting the law. Social services departments are frequently issued with guidance from the Department of Health to help them with this task. This does not result in a consistent service across the country, individual local authorities still have considerable leeway in the method of provision of services, although the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering and the recent Best Value campaign has imposed a preference for the private sector to actually provide services.
One of the fundamental themes in social policy is that of perspectives. A perspective is a collective term used to describe a particular way of looking at social policy, opinions as to what social policy is and what social policy should be. Most perspectives have an underlying set of values and can be based on certain assumptions. A liberal/social/democratic perspective for example believes that the state bears a responsibility [to] ensure it's citizens have at least their basic needs met, that they have equality of opportunity, that they must contribute from earned income in order to obtain the rights of citizenship and finally that the state must intervene in
the economy to ensure order and stability in the market. More, recent, policy changes have seen local authorities and government agencies undergoing change and the role that they play is moving away from providing services themselves, in-house provision, to that of purchasing and regulating provision from the private, voluntary and charitable sectors. (Langan, [ed] 1998). This may be seen as a move towards a more capitalist model of social policy, another perspective. A variation on this theme is when the provision remains in-house and the services are re-organised into 'quasi-markets'. This is where one sector or unit purchases services from another internally. This method of organisation is an attempt to introduce the capitalist perspective into local government while retaining some semblance of public control. The benefits of public agencies are still supposed to be present but are enhanced by the introduction of market forces without the need for full-scale privatisation. (Pilkington, 1998)
Social policy has broadened its scope to consider issues such as the family and transport, the environment, penal policy, gender inequalities, ageism, ethnicity and sexuality. At each stage, in the implementation of social policy politicians, managers, professionals and the public make choices. These choices can be about whom, public, private or voluntary sectors, should provide for those peoples who are in need. Other choices may centre on the issue of resources; are the required number of resources available and what remedies should be pursued. The choices may also concern the extent to which policies should be implemented or imposed and their consequences on different users or groups.
Two excellent, almost contradictory, statements that I believe, sum up the whole ideology of the tem ‘social policy’ are included below as I believe they offer, in a rather concise way, an excellent sense of social policy as an area of study.
"Social policy is the way that governments attempt to ensure that all citizens can lead a fulfilling and responsible life." (Mullard, 1995).
"Although preliminary definitions of social policy may be helpful, no definition tells the whole story" (Blakemore, 1998).
Blakemore, Ken (1998) Social Policy
Open University Press.
Langan, Mary [ed] (1998) Welfare: Needs, Rights and Risks
Mullard, Maurice (1995) Policy-making in Britain: an Introduction
Pilkington, Colin (1998) Issues in British Politics