Social services psi position paper for discussion

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PSI Social Services Conference June 1995

PSI Social Services Conference


PSI position paper for discussion

The politics of social services

Concepts of Social Services - like the Public Service as a whole - are many and various, reflecting national structures and traditions. Not only is the line between "public" and "private" drawn differently between countries, it is also a line which has changed over time. Aspects of economic, social and political activity which over the decades were strategic or whose initiation or continuation was seen as being essential to progress, have often been taken under the wing of the public authorities. The reason was that, under a system of private enterprise, these activities were either ignored because they were financially unattractive or, conversely, were too attractive (and lucrative) to be left in private hands and thus rendered vulnerable to speculation.

The growth of the public sector can be interpreted in different ways. Over the centuries, the State sector has tended to grow because economic and social life has become more complex and because democracy, as an ideal and a process, has been widely seen as the right path to take. Collective decision making, collective accountability and collective responsibility are an integral part of democracy, and this collective activity is most equitably carried out by properly accountable public bodies.


But there is another view, one which has been prevalent in many countries over the past two decades, which takes a quite contrary stand, namely that collective action does not empower, but stifles personal freedom and restricts economic growth. This view advocates a neo-liberal approach of monetarism, privatisation, deregulation, contracting out and the diminution of the State; one of its chief spokespersons and executors, Margaret Thatcher, went as far as to insist that "there is no such thing as society, there are just individuals".
Neo-liberalism has caused immense harm and continues to do so; it encourages a fatally short-term perspective, and, on the economic front, makes short-term speculative profit its foremost objective, ignoring long-term growth. Some individuals and companies have made fortunes on the back of privatisation, but the majority of people have had to pay for that, not just in direct financial terms, but also in the destruction of the jobs and services which have fallen victim. The climate that it has created, with break-neck competition based on sub-standard employment conditions, is difficult to escape from. Companies which try to take a longer-term view and maintain decent working conditions are at a short-term disadvantage which, in recession, could lead to insolvency.
The consequences for social services are broadly threefold. Firstly, Reaganism, Thatcherism and their hybrids were to a large extent social and political objectives cloaked in economic terms, and this can be seen by the sort of sloganeering that they engendered, particularly "get big government off my back". The "nanny state" was also an expression to get across the idea that public services encouraged dependence, even idleness. In focusing on individual attainment, it also sought to apportion individual blame, so the implication was clearly made that unemployment was the fault of the unemployed, that unemployment was caused by workers "pricing themselves out of the market", that social security encouraged unemployment and, by extension, that those who received state help were basically parasitic.
Neo-liberals set out to devalue the State and the agencies that work on its behalf, especially social services, which have been widely portrayed as creating and perpetuating social problems rather than solving them.
Secondly, right-wing politicians have set about restructuring and demolishing social services, and cutting back the resources available to them. Alongside privatisation and contracting out has been the tendency to insinuate private sector methods and attitudes into social services.
A third aspect of the impact of neo-liberalism on social services is simply that the social services have been called on to take care of the casualties of unemployment, poverty, underdevelopment, as well as cope with demographic changes, structural adjustment and disease patterns. So, at the same time that resources were going down, the demands on social services and, consequently, the scale of individual workloads, have gone up. With services stretched beyond their limits, it is imperative that a concerted international offensive be mounted to promote and restore fundamental ideals of collective social action. No organisation is better placed to initiate this campaign than PSI.

Role of PSI

PSI's role has evolved over the years. As the public sector spread, so did PSI's membership and function, and it now encompasses a vast spectrum of employment and services. The common factor is not simply that the members are paid from the public purse or employed by a public or analogous body, but that they are employed in carrying out a service to the public. In other words, PSI has grown from being just a defender of public employees (although that is still a necessary function) and is now also a principal defender and promoter of the public service ethic.
PSI's principles on the public service have remained consistent with time, although at every Congress they have been refined to keep pace with events. In 1972, PSI set up a Health and Social Services Section which has met regularly since, and over the course of these meetings a World Policy Programme for the Health Service was adopted, first by a World Health Seminar in 1982, and then formally by the World Congress in 1985. In 1991 the Health and Social Services Committee decided to integrate social services into the Policy Programme, and the World Congress in 1993 adopted three relevant resolutions (see Appendices):

  • PSI World Wide Policy Programme for the Health & Social Services (Resolution No. 41)

  • Health and Social Services (Resolution No. 42)

  • World Wide Policy Programme for the Health and Social Services (Resolution No. 43).

To some extent, the debate had tended to focus on health services, possibly because the institutions and jobs that are part of the health care system are more easily identifiable than in social services, especially in an international context. However, these resolutions recognised that there must be close linkages between health services and social services so that both are geared towards prevailing needs, and involve an important preventative approach, so turning away from social control and towards poverty reduction and the elimination of misery. Not only does it make sense to tackle the root causes of social and health problems, but it also has wide implications for the sort of structures that are needed. Together with complementary trends in thinking about health care, the role of institutions has also been reviewed. Far more emphasis is put on a policy of community care than in preceding decades, albeit for different reasons. Unfortunately one of the major political motives for encouraging the decentralisation of care to the community has been to save money, and many breakdowns in community care can be clearly attributed to lack of resources.

This broad view of health and social services is important as it underlines their true role of providing security. Health and social services are not simply services to deal with the sick and the disadvantaged; they are the means through which many social objectives can be realised: equality of opportunity, the provision of financial security for periods of sickness, unemployment old age and child-rearing, housing, and employment services.
There are many areas of overlap between health services and social services, and these overlaps are very important. Social services, in particular, have a complex function of "networking", in that they act as a conduit of communication between individuals and the different services that those individuals need at a particular time.
Social services therefore have capacity to maximise the effectiveness of other services as well as to humanise them.

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