Social development as economic rationality

In a recent report which was published to coincide with the election of the new coalition government in Britain, New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) has brought out a report entitled Scaling Up for the Big Society. The report argues that if the voluntary sector is to respond to the challenge of decreased government spending, and increased participation of civil society in the solution of society’s problems, then civil servants, philanthropists and other funders will need reliable ways of telling whether a successful social project can be scaled up or not. NPC’s guide is intended to offer such a guide, and turns on the idea of achieving ‘results’.

Three guiding principles inform NPC’s thinking. The first is that charities should be assessed according to how they perform and what they achieve: ‘there should be no room for sentimentality, valuing charity simply for their existence.’ The second principle is that government can contract out service delivery to charities in areas where the state has traditionally failed to make a difference. And the third is that charities can also ‘deliver’ value for the taxpayer. Based on these three principles, NPC then goes on to identify the ways in which the civil servant/investor might go about choosing which charities to fund and scale up.

Both the guiding principles and the methods offered in the report give a very good example of what the scholar Barbara Townley refers to as economic rationality, where social phenomena, in this case social development, is reduced to a means to an end. It becomes a matter of rational calculation only whether to persist with a form of social development: practitioners, and the objects of their practice, almost completely disappear.The NPC report favours quantitative methods, which it regards as the most reliable means of discovering whether a charity is achieving what it set out to, cost-benefit calculations that show benefit to the tax payer, and rational/analytic methods of identifying those with investment potential. For the NPC, collecting evidence will demonstrate whether an approach is proven, or not proven. Once proven it needs to be codified, standardised and then supervised by a management team which is results-driven. The report implicitly draws on ideas from the natural science, and from an idealised form of rational economics, that once a method has been ‘proven’ then it can be scaled up and/or replicated.

Here are just a few of the difficulties that seem to me to arise from this way of thinking which we have explored elsewhere on this blog here.

NPC’s approach is a good example of what the current Minister for Work and Pensions, Ian Duncan Smith referred to as the ‘Tesco-isation’ of social development work, where scale, standardisation and the attainment of pre-reflected results is privileged. This kind of thinking arises again and again in the public sector, for example in the discussion around schooling, where it has been suggested that successful schools should scale up and unsuccessful ones wither away. This assumes, of course, that the scale of a school’s operation will have had nothing to do with its success in the first place. NPC, and others who call for organisations or interventions to be scaled up, assume that an organisation will be equally successful and just bigger, rather than concluding that it may become a completely different organisation. Indeed, scaling up may replicate exactly the same conditions that are supposed to have made the state ‘unsuccessful’ in its response to social problems in the first place, where a large, rationally calculating bureaucracy is obliged to respond to people’s particular, situated needs. By falsely transferring the kind of thinking that has proved very successful in, say, medicine or business to the domain of social development, NPC may be arguing for the very ways of working which it previously implicitly criticises.

Privileging the tax payer and the investor in social development and relying mostly on quantitative methods renders moral, ethical and political considerations invisible. Equally so those engaged in working in the particular projects, both as practitioners and ‘beneficiaries’. As the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed: ‘Reason is calculative, it can assess truths of fact and mathematical relations but nothing more. In the realm of practice therefore it can speak only of means. About ends it must be silent.’ For NPC, results are all, the means justify the ends. In the consideration of social phenomena as ‘problems’ waiting for  ‘solutions’ there is little opportunity for consideration of why they might be problems in the first place, or what the objects of our interventions may think and feel about being considered as such. Beneficiaries, clients or whatever term one would choose to use of those with whom we are engaging in social development, are substantially left out of the discussion and what is important and how the work is done.

In a discussion of how difficult it is to garner evidence of what works, the NPC argues that it is not enough for an organisation to adduce evidence from elsewhere. It is ironic, then that the NPC does exactly this when claiming that scaling up works by alluding to a report on social innovation from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. This report, Going to Scale: the Challenge of Replicating Social Programmes, sets out exactly the same kind of assumptions: that the success of social development can be ‘proved’, that success can be scaled up, and that this is best informed by causal, if-then analysis and systems thinking. One of the tautologous aspects of this kind of research then, is that there is a strong claim that it works on the grounds that others, using the same kind of thinking, say it does.

In this version of the Big Society politics, pluralism, surprise, improvisation and embodied, contextual social development seem to play little part. The Big Society in this incarnation comprises large scale social development programmes conceived of as investment opportunities for civil servants and philanthropists. The important moral questions about the way we do good to each other receive very little consideration.

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