The new welfare economy
A timely cross-disciplinary research program analyses whether marketisation has changed the nature of human services.
Program leader Professor Mitchell Dean says the Economic Insecurity, Public Governance and Neoliberal Paternalism study will bring overdue scrutiny to a regime of welfare delivery becoming increasingly commonplace in Australia.
"We have seen here the marketisation of a lot of social welfare, with services like employment and the provision of emergency services for families in distress contracted out to private and non-government organisations," he says.
"This reconfigured welfare state on one hand treats the users of these services as consumers with a choice. But at the same time it exercises the paternalistic notion that the recipients of welfare are not in a position to judge what is in their own best interests. Participating in these programs is a condition to maintaining welfare benefits and if they do not, they are penalised."
Researchers will examine the impact of this transformation in welfare governance in Australia over the past decade and compare it with the regimes in the USA and Denmark.
"This will allow us to contrast the situation in Australia with both a very liberal welfare state, in this case the USA, and a more social democratic welfare state," Dean says.
Another significant component of the research program will document how these changes are affecting social workers and other frontline welfare professionals who are employed to deliver services for private and non-government organisations.
This part of the study, conducted with focus groups from the Hunter and Sydney, will explore whether the new performance-based culture has redrawn professional boundaries and what impact it has had on employees' decision-making processes or exposure to stress.
"Marketisation creates the situation where agencies are pressed to do more with less resources and return a profit, so we want to look at the repercussions of that," Dean says.
By combining the disciplines of economics, sociology and public policy, the research will paint a detailed picture of what the new welfare regime means in terms of the social inclusion agenda.
"The wider question is about what is the best and most effective arrangement for the delivery of welfare services," Dean says.
The high-powered research team also includes renowned Social Work academic Professor Mel Gray as a Chief Investigator.
For Dean, a Professor of Sociology, the program fits neatly with his career-long research interests in society, liberalism and neoliberalism and public governance.
A prolific author of scholarly books, he is currently writing two new works. One looks at how concepts of society and social provision that were abandoned with globalisation are regaining credence and the other is on the concepts of power.
He is also involved in a collaborative project with researchers from the University of Queensland examining performance management in the public sector.