Back to the future: The Victorian imagination of the Productivity Commission

The measured business model language of the recently released Productivity Commission Report on “More Effective Social Services” conceals a deeply disturbing set of ideological blinkers. The underlying dogma is that marketization will produce better public services. The narrow lens of supply and demand produces a predictable focus: greater consumer choice, better products, efficiency incentives and measures. However there is also a more deeply disguised, insidious and sinister narrative bias – particularly in relation to the development of social services.

Let’s go back a little in order to move forward. The Welfare State in the Aotearoa / New Zealand context had its own unique genesis. However, in common with similar nations, the intent was to ensure against the poverty and social suffering which results from unrestrained capitalism. Critically the shift was from the Charitable Aid model of moral self-responsibility to recognition of the structural determinants of social disadvantage. In the U.K. setting, for example, post-war state social services were designed to fight the five giant evils which William Beveridge famously associated with poverty: disease, want, ignorance, squalor and idleness (Townsend, 1970).

In addition to health, education, social security, and public housing, Parton (2014) reminds us of the pivotal role allotted to a ‘fifth social service’: social work! According to Parton the vision was for social work to “… provide the personalised, humanistic dimension of the welfare state, the primary tool being the social worker’s personality and use of relationships” (2014, p.2047). Social workers, even in the brave neoliberal universe of global markets, continue to engage in the lived worlds of socially disadvantaged people. In my opinion it is the vision of structural disadvantage generated by this engagement which sets social work apart.

Practice in this context generates a humanist and egalitarian world view which is in direct opposition to the simplistic neoliberal narrative. Let’s take it back another step. Neoliberal theory is the ideological script for globalised market production and development in the same way that classical liberal theory justified the first wave of capitalist development in Nineteenth Century Europe. As well as creating unprecedented production and private wealth this development also created social dislocation and suffering for those excluded and left behind. This was famously documented (in terms of the rudimentary social science of the times) by Charles Booth in his scientific study of poverty in London in the 1870s. Booth identified three distinct ‘classes’ within the ‘poor’: Class A – the irregularly employed but honest poor; Class B – the failing poor into which the honest poor could fall, and lastly Class C – an incapable and dangerous underclass (Himmelfarb, 1991).

Now, fast forward to Wellington, New Zealand, 2015. The Productivity Commission has borrowed Charles Booth’s late Nineteenth Century conceptions of causation and produced its own equally crude typology – social service recipients fall into four categories in this iteration – A, B, C and D. It is class D who are the difficult and dangerous ones who are repeatedly referred to in the document as ‘these people’. This designation distinguishes this ‘other’ from the deserving citizens who are imagined in such a discourse.

The key point I wish to stress is that we need to see beyond the ideological blindfold and recognise what social work tells us about social inequality and human worth. Social inequality results in relative deprivation. Relative deprivation can reproduce poor social outcomes across generations. This is an uncomfortable truth but it does not mean that the problem resides in a dangerous, work-shy, criminal, immoral underclass that reproduces itself. This is a convenient and highly misleading over-simplification. It blames the poor for their poverty and ignores the system which creates it. In the imagined neoliberal world of individual market choice and responsibility there is no need for the state social services envisaged by the architects of the welfare state. There is certainly no need for the inconvenient truth that the engaged practice of social work deals in – namely that ‘these people’ are the same as us.

No, we can release the five giants to crush the weak – this is, after all, the discipline of the market. Poverty is the spur of capitalism. For the safety of us all, however, we had better target Class D with all the efficiency and effectiveness we can muster. This is a Nineteenth Century prescription informed by a Nineteenth Century understanding of social suffering.

Ian Hyslop, Lecturer in Social Work, University of Auckland.

(The opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not represent the views of my employer, or any association to which I belong.)


Himmelfarb, G. (1991) Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

Townsend, P. (Ed.). (1970). The Fifth Social Service: A Critical Analysis of the Seebohm Proposals. London: The Fabian Society.

Parton, N. (2014). Social work, child protection and politics: Some critical and constructive reflections. British Journal of Social Work, 44(7), 2042–2056.

6 replies on “Back to the future: The Victorian imagination of the Productivity Commission”

Awesome blog Ian. Although of course the neoliberal ideal of “individual market choice” is actually an illusion. Someone seeking assistance with problem gambling actually doesn’t get to choose whether to seek help from the Problem Gambling Foundation or the Salvation Army, the Government has already made that choice through its funding contracts. Non Government Organisations in “the market” are now so constrained by these contracts that they are effectively becoming government departments.

Yes colleagues (Peter and David) … It is easy to get trapped into frameworks of debate that are imposed upon us – notions of efficiency and effectiveness are powerful partly because of their apparent ‘reasonableness’ – the common business sense of the neoliberal paradigm. You are right David that there are indications of some recognition that overly rigid contracting that sees social work as a baked bean factory ( ten visits for one hour to deliver an exact package) has its limitations – stifles innovation and too much time recording for productivity measurement. But as Peter points out this is really just a half step back towards the kind of autonomy NGOs once had – and we also now have these strange business mode references to bonds and niches and incentives. Real solutions exist outside of this technical / ideological framework. We are witnessing an ongoing upward redistribution of weath and opportunity to the privileged – the same interests who are now constructing the social services debate within these narrow parameters. This needs to be reversed and we need decent universal social services that treat people with respect. This is only outside the square if we let the narraitive be hijacked in this way.


Excellent analysis Ian. Just when I thought the More Effective Social Services Report was making some sense about more effective research around social problems and better contracting, you have highlighted some major risks and the blind spot of not recognising the poverty and inequality produced by an unfettered market.

The “uncomfortable truth” of oppressor and oppressed…Māori must be the ‘E class’ then… a people who (at least since forced urbanisation) intergenerationally have reproduced poor social outcomes…described as “dangerous” (violent as in ‘warrior gened’), “work-shy” (lazy), “criminal” (naturally untrustworthy), “immoral” (savages, incestuous)…like the war against the classes of poor, where they are blamed for their own state of existence…Māori are blamed for the ‘Māori problem’ of over-representation in every social statistic…and yet, “the system which creates this, is ignored”…in the same way Māori and their experience of ‘it’ is generalised into the greater mainstream mix of opinion pieces, academic research, policy and ministerial reports, rendering Māori invisible. Only the individual factors of Māori social needs are focused on (if indeed they are) because they are measurable, whilst determinants/drivers such as colonisation, structural discrimination (racism) and cultural genocide are ignored. This is proactive monoculturalism…very alive and well in Aotearoa!

Hi Paora – Thanks for the reminder!

You not wrong about the legacy of colonization, cultural imperialism and the reality of contemporary racism.

The ”choice’ which the deceptive common sense of the neoliberal argument is always pushing is not only seen through an individualized lens – it is always linked with “money”.

“While mindful of our terms of reference, we nevertheless believe that most of the difficulties Maori clients have with the Department are reflections of the socio-economic status of Maori in the community. In proposing a Maori perspective for the Department, we cannot ignore the lack of a Maori perspective in the community at large.” ( Puao Te Ata Tu – 1988, Pg. 17, no. 25. )

Some things change and some don’t. All we need do is look around us.

[…] At the risk of stating the obvious, it is important to be clear that that the CYF Review process, outcome and ongoing implementation, is not a neutral or dispassionate exercise. It has and will continue to be, politically and ideologically orchestrated. In this sense the ‘review’ has been about constructing a narrative to fit within a predetermined frame that is consistent with the Government’s wider social investment policy programme. The agenda is about reducing the downstream fiscal cost caused by ‘vulnerable’ people and “productivity”. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: