Modernising the welfare state, edited by Martin Powell

Policy Press, 2008, x + 290 pp, pbk, 1 847 420398, £24.99, hbk 1 847 420404, £65

This edited collection examines the main changes to the welfare state since New Labour came to power in 1997, and asks whether the ‘Blair legacy’ of welfare reform constitutes a coherent ‘modernisation’ strategy across the different parts of the welfare state. The editor’s early verdict is that ‘the term [‘modernisation’] is rarely or poorly defined by government or commentators, and it appears to have many different meanings, which results in no generally accepted definition’ (p.3). This verdict is borne out by the final chapter’s careful analysis of the evidence and conclusions advanced in the intervening chapters.

As well as asking ‘what?’ change has occurred, the authors also ask ‘how much?’, and the editor’s analysis employs a threefold understanding of policymaking: goals (overall aims of policy-makers), techniques (how things are to be done), and settings (e.g., the level of a budget). First order change (in settings) happens all the time, second order change (of settings and techniques) happens frequently, but third order change (of goals, techniques and settings) constitutes a paradigm shift and happens only rarely. Each of the chapter authors asks whether paradigm shift has occurred, and in health, housing, social security, social care, education, criminal justice, risk, private welfare, choice, and conditionality paradigm shifts are discovered (see table 15.3 on p.266). (In their chapter ‘social investment: the discourse and the dimensions of change’, Alexander Dobrowolsky and Ruth Lister also find paradigm change, but for some reason this has been omitted from table 15.3).

There isn’t space in this review to discuss the different chapters in detail, but it is worth mentioning the conclusions of chapter 4 on ‘social security and welfare reform’ by Stephen McKay and Karen Rowlingson. ‘The UK social security system is a large, complex juggernaut that has grown in a largely incremental way over at least the last century’ (p.53). (We couldn’t have put it better).

Means testing remains a key feature of the UK system …. Radical change, or third order change …. is rare in the social security system and 10 years of New Labour have, in the main, failed to achieve such change. (p.53)

The authors of this chapter construct a list of what they suggest are third order changes: the commitment to end child and pensioner poverty; the National Minimum Wage; asset-based welfare; and the New Deal. Certainly putting the word ‘poverty’ back on the agenda has been a major change, but all of the changes in goals, techniques and settings are in quite circumscribed areas of the system, all of them can be understood as developments of existing trends, and none of them are unambiguously paradigm shifts. The authors express some surprise that Labour’s second term didn’t see more significant change.

The reason is surely the perceived complexity of the problem. Yes, every social policy field has its complexities, but the complexity of the ‘juggernaut’ and ministers’ relative inexperience in this complex field mean that it is easier to tinker than to create coordinated goal and technique change across the system as a whole: which is why we are still awaiting genuine paradigm shifts.

This book deserves careful study and anyone interested in social security reform should read at least chapters 1, 4, 8, 10 (pp.165-67), 12 and 15. Each of the chapters raises the question ‘What next?’ and this is particularly the case with chapter 4. Further work for the editor and authors on what would constitute genuine paradigm change in the social security system is required.

Can the juggernaut be turned?