An introduction to Social Policy

Social Policy: Theory and Practice - 3rd edition

Paul Spicker

Social Administration

Social Policy is an applied subject; it was developed to meet the needs of people who would be working in the public services. Social administration is the area of the field concerned with the practicalities of service organisation and delivery. In the US, it is dealt with as 'public policy' or 'policy analysis'.

Welfare pluralism: the mixed economy of welfare

For some, the idea of the 'welfare state' means the same as 'state welfare', and opposition is seen as a commitment to the 'private market'. This is a false choice. The state is not the only provider of welfare in any country, and the 'private market' does not consist of activity for profit, but a wide range of different motivations. There is a 'mixed economy of welfare'. The state does not operate in isolation; rather, it acts in conjunction with a number of non-statutory organisations. The state is actively involved in regulation, finance or subsidy, and direct provision. (The role of government in the mix is considered further in the page on politics.)

 There are five main sectors:

The public sector

There are four main arguments for public sector provision.

 The main arguments against are


Economic liberals argue that the private market is the best method of arranging the distribution of resources. Arthur Seldon argues that the price mechanism leads to

If poor people cannot afford services, we can give them the money to decide for themselves - as we do with food and clothing; there does not have to be a publicly provided service.

 The main arguments against this position are:

Beyond market failure, there is a simple problem with market provision. Markets give choices to producers as well as consumers. At the margins, there will always be some services that offer a lower rate of return, where something will not be provided, or services will not be offered. In any market, some things will not be done.

Private sector provision

It does not follow, because private firms work for profit, that they only work through the operation of the economic market. They also engage in the provision of welfare, including involvement in social policy, service delivery and redistributive welfare. The most common forms of involvement include:

Mutual aid

Mutual aid is sometimes represented as private, and sometimes as voluntary. There is a good case to consider this category as a sector in itself, because the organisation and behaviour of solidaristic groups is quite different from that of other non-profit organisations. Historically, mutual aid was one of the main foundations of welfare organisations, through trades unions, professional associations and friendly societies; in many countries, solidaristic services of this kind have continued to be one of the main focuses through which welfare is provided.

The central principle of mutual aid has been voluntary collective effort, which is both self-interested and supportive of others. People who enter such arrangements make some kind of contribution - such as paying a subscription, offering labour, or participating in management - and receive support on a mutual basis. The most common model is probably a system of voluntary insurance, usually for income maintenance or health care, which offers social protection in return for a basic contribution. But there are many other examples, including co-operatives, self-help groups, and the trades unions themselves.

The scope of mutual aid is considerable, but solidarity cannot be comprehensive: some people have a limited ability to contribute, and others are likely to be excluded by the conditions of membership.

The voluntary sector

The voluntary sector is extremely diverse, ranging from small local societies to large, very 'professional' agencies. Jones, Brown and Bradshaw classify the different types of volunteering as follows:

 The role of the voluntary sector is often supplementary to statutory services, but it can also be seen as complementary through:

The informal sector

The 'informal sector' consists of communities, friends, neighbours and kin. The emphasis on informal care has grown for three reasons:

This approach has led to a range of criticisms.

The public services

The public services are not directly equivalent to the "public sector". The public sector generally refers to organisations which are controlled directly by government. This can include services to the public, nationalised industries and the organs of government itself. The public services include state, voluntary and mutual organisations which have public objectives. They have four main characteristics:

Because the primary duty is based in policy, public services have to be cost-effective; most do not have the option of selecting beneficiaries.

The structure of public services

The structure of services varies with government structure, history, and service development; many developed economies have a complex hotch-potch of agencies, schemes and programmes. Billis outlines a scheme which helps to view the pattern systematically. He describes five levels, or 'strata', of service provision. They are:

5: Comprehensive field coverage This is the level of policy-making and planning, creating a framework of services to meet a range of needs. This level is sometimes missing where coverage is done through programmes and ad hoc services rather than by government.
4: Comprehensive service provision This is the organisation and direction of a service or programme, like a housing department or social services department. There is a broad territorial focus, and specific responses are not prescribed.
3: Systematic service provision This is a responsibility for performing particular functions within a service. Examples are schools, residential care homes or the units within a hospital.
2: Dealing with problems as situations This is generally the level at which professionals work; the test is that the professional is able to define the problem and the response. Doctors, social workers, health visitors, area housing managers and police officers work at this level.
1: Dealing with problems as demands. This is a reactive approach, where service is provided in response to a specific demand; the response made is prescribed for the person who makes it. Receptionists or social security clerical officers are examples. [5]

Social service management

There are two traditional models of administration: professionalism and bureaucracy. In later years there has been increasing emphasis on a different approach, that of 'management'; this has more recently focused on 'leadership'. 






Specialised competence

Leadership; administrative management

Functionally differentiated administrative tasks


Professional commitment

Personal incentives

Public service


Professional standards

Performance criteria

Responsibility to superiors




Rule based

The 'New Public Management'

The New Public Management (NPM) was an attempt to make public services operate more like businesses.  It had three principal elements:


Rational planningPolicy has to be put into practice. Service planning is a process of making implementation explicit. This is usually represented as either an 'incremental' or a 'rational-comprehensive' process. Incremental plans are based on what has gone before. The 'rational' model has seven stages:

The rational-comprehensive model asks for too much detail to be practical, but at least it helps to make things explicit. A minimally adequate plan needs a statement of aims, selection of methods, and an action plan covering implementation and criteria for evaluation.

Public finance

The sources of finance for public services are hugely varied: they include, for example, tax, levies, borrowing, charges, commercial profits, public subscription, sales of licences, voluntary donation, labour conscription and lottery funding. As a counterbalance, public services also tend to be limited by special rules which do not apply to private firms. For example, in order to avoid distortions in the operation of the independent sector, the public services may not be allowed to diversify activities or their financial base. In the interests of economic management, public services are not always allowed to 'vire' - to transfer money across budget heads; this means that they cannot carry losses or unspent funds across financial years, or use money allocated for one purpose for another.

Public expenditure commitments tend to be inflexible. This happens in part because many of the beneficiaries of public expenditure, like pensioners, have established entitlements, but also because macro-economic management calls for a degree of stability in overall spending patterns. Adjustments to budgets have to be made incrementally. Public sector budgeting is usually divided between revenue and capital expenditure.

Evaluating policy

Effectiveness The most basic form of evaluation of policy is to ask whether it meets its objectives. A policy is effective if it meets its aims. It is 'cost-effective' if it meets its aims at the lowest cost possible.

Efficiency. Efficiency is an economic concept, which should be distinguished clearly from effectiveness. A process is efficient if it produces goods at the lowest possible cost per unit. Achieving every aim may be inefficient, because some aims are more expensive and difficult than others, and because when agencies are straining to meet targets costs are likely to rise. Public services often have no choice about meeting certain aims - for example, keeping destitute people alive, or ensuring that long-term nursing care is available for frail elderly people - and they tend to aim for cost effectiveness rather than efficiency.

Equity. The principle of 'equity' or fairness is an important issue in service delivery. Equity means that like cases are treated alike. Procedural fairness is concerned with procedures, like non-discrimination; substantive fairness with outcomes. Le Grand points to several different measures:

Usually, there are other implicit criteria, which are only triggered when there are problems: examples are ethical assumptions, financial constraints, or political support.

Service delivery


Social policies have to affect someone, and any attempt to identify a client group specifically can be referred to as 'targeting'. Policies may be focused on a range of different groups: individuals, households, families, communities, and sections of the population. Distribution to everyone is exceptional - most 'universal' benefits are, in fact, categorical, and targeted at a broad class of people in need (like children or old people) as a way of addressing needs within the group.

Three main problems affect the efficiency of targeted services.

Targeting is sometimes confused with selectivity (services which are confined to the poor, or people in need); this has further problems associated with testing and exclusion. Some degree of targeting is unavoidable, and the main issue raised in practice is how to overcome these problems.


In the private sector, demand and supply are governed by the price mechanism. Higher prices mean more supply and less demand. In the public services, demand and supply may have to be rationed.

Supply can be limited through

Demand can be limited through


Officials have to make judgments in order to apply any general rule to a specific case. They are said to have 'discretion' when they are allowed to make decisions about the rules themselves. The exercise of judgment is not the same as discretion; discretion is necessary when there are no established rules to guide judgment. "Discretionary rules", which sound at first like a contradiction in terms, are rules which are developed to fill administrative gaps.

In some agencies, discretion will be exercised by the worker who is closest to the issue. Professional staff (like doctors and social workers) are given the scope to use discretion, making their own rules and methods of working according to general principles. In other agencies, discretion may be exercised by the managers of the agency; rules on 'management practice' may develop because there is no clear policy guidance. Discretionary rules and established practice can also develop because of workers' experience at the operational level. Lipsky calls this process 'street level bureaucracy' [7]; it is mainly found in the 'common sense' of office practice, though it can also feed back into organizational rules.

Discretion in social services is sometimes thought to drive out users' rights; if an official has the right to decide, the user does not. Rights are rather more complex, however; 'rights' in social security are not very strong even when the discretion of officers is limited, while the considerable discretion which doctors have has not undermined the view that their patients have rights.


Services, whether they are public or private, are not like the production of a commodity; they depend on the presence, and to some extent the engagement, of the service user.   Osborne and  his colleagues argue that all services are 'co-produced'. [8]  This is most clearly the case in social care, where the role of formal services may be marginal, but it is no less true of education, health care, social work and employment support.  In every case, the delivery of services depends on a relationship between the service and the service user. 

Boyle and Harris define co-production as "delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours." [9] The language of co-production has been described as part of a "shifting policy mindset", which emphasises user-defined outcomes, capacity building and an active role for service users. [10]   There have been powerful objections to the tendency of services to  do things to people, rather than engaging with them as co-producers.  Alternative approaches have taken the form of these have taken the form of rights-based delivery, user participation, choice-based systems and 'personalised' services.

Empowering users

The idea of 'empowerment' can be taken individually, to refer to the ability of each user to affect outcomes, or collectively, to refer to the status of disadvantaged and stigmatised groups. Its growing importance reflects long-standing concerns that social services may disempower the people who use them.

Deakin and Wright propose six tests for responsiveness to users.


  1. A Seldon, 1977, Charge!, Temple Smith.
  2. K Jones, J Brown, J Bradshaw, 1978, Issues in Social Policy, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  3. e.g. G Dalley, 1988, Ideologies of caring, Macmillan.
  4. P Spicker, The nature of a public service, International Journal of Public Administration, 32(11) 970-991.
  5. D Billis, 1993, Organising public and voluntary agencies, Routledge.
  6. J Le Grand, 1982, The strategy of equality, Allen and Unwin.
  7. M Lipsky, 1980, Street level bureaucracy, Sage.
  8. S Osborne, Z Radnor, G Nasi, 2013, A new theory for public service management?, American Review of Public Administration 43(2) pp 135-58.
  9. D Boyle, M Harris, The challenge of co-production, London: NESTA.
  10. C Pearson, J Ridley, S Hunter, 2014, Self-directed support, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, p.19.
  11. N Deakin, A Wright, 1990, Consuming public services, Routledge.

Further reading

P Spicker, Social policy: theory and practice, Policy Press 2014.
M Hill (ed), The policy process: a reader, Prentice Hall 1997.
N Flynn Public sector management, Prentice Hall 2007
H Glennerster, Understanding the cost of welfare, Policy Press 2017.
C Pollitt, Advanced introduction to public management and administration, Edward Elgar 2016.