Toward Renewing the Social Policy Agenda

by Robbie McClintock

Draft written while sepcial assistant to the Secretary of HEW, 1976.

Length: 2,500 words

Let me start with a brief explanation of what I mean by conceptual problems in social policy. We are fairly well equipped to act in the social policy sphere, for a great deal of legislation is on the books, put there generally under the goad of crisis and emergency, and we have large, quite professional bureaucracies to carry out actual and potential programs. We are not so well equipped, however, to think critically about the ends and processes of social policy. Most social policy research centers on the design and implementation of potential programs; it is useful in telling us how to do x and y, not whether we should do x or y. The operational determination of what we should do is, of course, a political question, one to be answered by the proper representatives of the people. The conceptual problems we face are not ones of giving answers to these questions of political commitment, but rather one of improving the conceptual principles available in the discussions that will lead to commitment by the proper authorities. The scholarly community will Fulfill its responsibility to the public as it makes available to the political discussants -- legislators, public officials, interest groups, the general public -- a more significant repertory of conceptual tools for the conduct of their discussions.

Unfortunately, I do not see the scholarly community doing much to provide such tools, at least not as much as is desirable. This deficiency strikes me as particularly acute in three areas: in efforts to improve planning for social policy; in efforts to strengthen the administration of social programs; and in efforts to clarify the relation of law to social policy_ In what follows, I indicate conceptual matters in these areas that need clarification.

I. Conceptual problems in improving planning for social policy. One of the key difficulties we face in developing domestic social policy is finding how to use the advantages of thoughtful planning without incurring the disadvantages of rigidity and unresponsiveness to unique conditions and changing circumstances. Americans have not been well disposed to governmental planning for its own sake, but they have adopted social legislation that entails planning, which as a result has become established in government as something of a necessary side-effect. In this situation we adopt planning techniques that seem convenient, most of which were originally developed for technical and economic purposes. We have an imperative to plan, but no well-developed concepts of social planning, a situation that has much to do, I think, with the endemic estrangement of the people from their government. To develop a sound repertory of concepts for social planning, we need to scrutinize, I have become convinced, at least four concepts that are too often ignored.

The first is that of social change. The aim of most all our domestic social policy is to effect social change, change in the conditions under which people live, yet we rarely address that intent directly and speak instead of solving this or that problem. Social change is far more comprehensive than problem solving, and social change is the process in which the most troublesome difficulties and ambiguities in social action arise. We cannot discuss those difficulties and ambiguities well, we cannot anticipate them and take them into account, if we continuously evade the topic. Hence I think that policy planning might be improved if we faced the concept of social change, refining it as best we can, seeing what it entails of people and what it means for people, examining the uses and limits of governmental planning in relation to it. One way towards refining it might be to use it to evaluate the social policy efforts of the 1960`s and early 1970's.

The second. concept is that of human integralness or wholeness. One can readily observe how our current social policy is categorically targeted, often merely for administrative convenience, in such ways that it does not treat human beings as whole persons. The needy person must shuttle among diverse health, education, social service, and income maintenance programs, to name only a few, at each 'having to settle questions of eligibility, requirements, and benefits. This situation makes for inefficiency and ineffectiveness, and there is widespread interest in the integration of services. This interest, however, will not translate into significant changes, I fear, unless we can clarify the concept of human wholeness, integralness. Presently we cannot speak with sufficient coherence and conviction about the whole person to make him central in social policy formation, and until we can the cate-gorical analysis of the person into discrete problems will persist.

The third concept is that of bonding institutions. The whole person is far more complicated than the isolated individual; the whole person enters into important interpersonal bonds that are crucial to his character, bonds of intimacy, bonds of proximity, bonds of purpose -- family, community, association. Social critics have long warned against anomie, contending that highly organized industrial civilization displaces individuals from bonding institutions, substituting legal contracts and impersonal contacts for interpersonal bonds through much of experience. Social problems may in large part take on their character as social problems because the dissolution of bonding institutions most sharply affects certain groups within society -- the displaced, the disadvantaged, those discriminated against, the aged -- who are left without sufficient interpersonal bonds to carry them through difficulties that are in essence personal. Despite this etiology, many of our social programs to help these groups are structured in ways that further weaken bonding institutions, and many others are at best neutral with respect to them. If we are ever to reverse this situation and make government, not one of the causes weakening bonding institutions, but a remedial influence strengthening them, we need to clarify the con-cept and begin to explore what positive, uses it can have in sound social planning.

The fourth concept is that of evaluation. In social planning, we have no concept of evaluation that really comes to terms with the problems of judging the worth of our efforts at social action. Social planning is dominated by social scientists, who for the most part are very careful about distinguishing between fact and value, until, that is, they are asked to perform evaluations. At that point their caution disappears: the values sought through a program are then translated into diverse tangibles, which are assiduously counted, and the counts are then analyzed and offered up as evaluation. Judging the quality of health care by the number of hospital beds per capita is rather like judging the quality of a literary work by the number of semicolons per page. The process is costly in time and effort, and it is not what it purports to be: nowhere is it shown that the values sought can be soundly judged from the sum of the facts presented. The problem, however, is to find a conceptually sound alternative. Our social programs have qualitative purposes, yet the thrust of modern thought has been to make us deeply skeptical of explicit value judgments. This makes real evaluation almost impossible, and in this situation a problem in philosophy becomes pressingly practical: we need a great deal of fundamental thinking about how the worth of social policy efforts can be soundly judged and about who is to do the judging.

II. Conceptual problems in strengthening the administration of social programs. The press of daily business in executive agencies makes it difficult to deal intelligently with fundamental issues that are nevertheless crucial to effective administration. In keeping up with the flow of events, one sees all sorts of questions that are significant to the_ events,. but are too profound to be dealt with at the time. Yet, on seeing them, one gets a tantalizing feeling: if only they could be dealt with, the problems here and now would be far more amenable to solution. These questions are neither purely administrative nor purely conceptual; rather they generally turn on the significance of fairly well-developed concepts for inescapable aspects of our administrative practice, and the administrator needs the help of the scholar to think through this question of significance and the general public needs the help of both the scholar and the administrator to find out where the predominance of conviction lies. The concepts are there and the situations are there, and what is needed is some good discussion about how the two relate. In the hope of provoking such discussion, in this section I put things in the form of questions and briefly explain what seems to be at stake through the questions.

First, what import does the rise of the Federal bureaucracy have for the American constitutional tradition? Is bureaucracy an unanticipated fourth branch of government? The Constitution says very little about administrative arrangements, mentioning them only in passing, yet those administrative arrangements have been the part of government that has expanded most significantly during the past hundred years and they have become the part of government most deeply involved in the lives of people. As an historic phenomenon, these arrangements are late nineteenth and twentieth century developments that are derived from principles somewhat dif-ferent from those informing our constitutional tradition. The legal basis for these arrangements, administrative law, is a very technical matter, and both the public and the administrator often feel an uncertainty about the nature of bureaucratic responsibility in a representative democracy, an uncertainty that often inhibits effec-tive action. Public discussions leading to the clarification of this responsibility might in the long-run greatly conduce to the improvement of administration.

Second, how should the federal bureaucracies carry out the legislative and adjudicative processes for which they are responsible? The concept relevant in this question is the separation of powers, for with the increasing importance of regulations in government, executive agencies have had delegated to them significant legislative and adjudicative powers. A few believe that any such delegation contravenes the separation of powers; more find that such delegations are both necessary and justifiable to one or another degree. What does not seem to have been discussed sufficiently is how legislative and adjudicative processes should be performed within administrative agencies so that they can be at once effective and in harmony with our political traditions. For instance, should the separation of powers be applied internally within governmental bureaucracies that combine executive, legislative, and judicial processes to create an internal system of checks and balances?

Third, are "humane" and "administration" antithetical? Can demands for efficiency be reconciled with demands for equity and both those with demands for compassion? Victor Thompson has contended provocatively that it is dysfunctional to expect administrative organizations to be humane; to do so is to expect them to be what they cannot be without compromising their essential character. Administrators in social policy find themselves beset by potentially divergent imperatives: they are at once to be efficient, equitable, and compassionate. It might lead to greater efficiency, equity, and compassion, if some fundamental discussion were generated about how these three concepts can be best reconciled with one another.

Fourth, can any single social problem be solved programmatically when all social problems are interrelated? The basic concept here is that of ecology. As things are in social policy, we try to act on all possible things in unrelated ways. It might be much more efficient and effective if we could learn how to act on the one right thing in a way that related to everything else. Our powers of social diagnosis, however, are deficient. We analyze and separate and study particular problems in a way that obscures the interrelationships. If we could build up our ecological understanding of social situations, we might be able to be far more productively selective in our administration of social programs.

Fifth, how do .e deal with forced choices among social need`? This question concerns the significance of the concept of limits for social policy. However stringent limits may be in our actions in nature, `hey are far more stringent in our social actions. Resources are limited. Talents are limited. Our capacities for com-mitment and caring are limited. Our social potential is limited; our social expectations often are not: it is not defeatism to seek that expectations be brought to as close an approximation of actual potentiality as possible. This problem of limits has excruciating effects in administrative practice. Our concepts of right and justice are all too often articulated without concern for the problem of limits. Each group articulates its conception of its just share without attention to the limits at work and then demands that share with all the fervor of one convinced of his perfect moral probity. To achieve justification, it is not enough simply to claim a particular share as one's just due, except in a situation where resources are unlimited. In a world of force choices, to achieve justification, one needs not only to show that a particular share as ones due, one needs further to show why, should one receive that share, others should receive less than is their due. The fact of limits is that which gives some standing to the ideal of the common good, the general welfare, the public interest, and too little has been done to elicit an awareness of limits in our public discussions of social policy.

Sixth, how can governmental activity be structured to best link with private, voluntary, personal efforts, and how might such links change the character of social action? Much of the debate that has accompanied the entry of the federal government into domestic social policy has been a debate whether such and such should be the responsibility of the private sector or the public sector. This either-or has no relation to reality, which is in everything a both-and. The important question is how the public and the private sectors can best be linked, and in this question, the concept of partnerships is central.

Seventh, is there an educative function for government? Much of what we expect government to help accomplish implies that it has educative powers and functions. This is especially true in domestic social policy, the upshot of which is supposed to be a greater realization of humane potential by persons, groups, the entire society. Yet much of what we expect government not to do implies that it should refrain from educating, at least insofar as propaganda, moralizing, and manipulation might possibly be techniques employed by an educative government. The problem here is that we are perhaps not clear enough about what education is and is not, and we might gain some clarity by looking at the concept of self-education in relation to self-governance and at both in relation to public action. Perhaps then we might be able to understand an educative function for government that would be conducive to the development of human potential but not intrusive and manipulative in its treatment of persons, liberating but not propagandistic.