Mother tongue? Policy language, social enterprise, the UK and Australia

Chris Mason_Michael MoranChris Mason and Michael Moran

Social enterprise has emerged as an important vehicle of public sector reform globally but has received particular attention from policymakers in ‘liberal regimes’ such as the UK and Australia.

In our recent Policy & Politics article we set out to understand why two similar policy contexts – loosely-shared political cultures, institutional arrangements and importantly a common language – ended up engaging differently with a common policy idea, social enterprise.

To do so, we developed a unique policy data set constructed around social enterprise as it applied to a broad range of policy fields – from health and social care to resourcing the non-profit and voluntary sector – and policy initiatives.

Essentially, we traced the policy story of two linked regimes to understand how social enterprise policy narratives evolved from a comparative perspective. More broadly, this enabled us to explore empirically how policy actors communicate ideas. We traced the deeper engagement of UK policymakers with social enterprise and the narrower approach of their Australian counterparts to distinctive policy discourses.

UK policymakers adopted a broader policy posture: they engaged with social enterprise as a multifaceted policy idea requiring a multifaceted policy response. By contrast, Australian policymakers focused on a single idea – social finance – with shallower engagement with the sector and more pointedly the public sphere.

We labelled these contrasting policy discourses as polythetic and monothetic for the UK and Australia respectively, arguing that these strategies have led to either a broad or narrow policy focus.

The UK’s approach to social enterprise has been reflected in high-level platforms typified by election manifestos. In Australia a more pragmatic, so-called reform narrative has dominated. In our view, this reproduces each country’s political culture.

Our research shows that comparative institutional research, including historical institutionalist approaches, need to continue to look to ideas – and in particular the language of ideas – to understand policy development. In this era of ‘fake news’ and truth politics, we believe that extending the focus to analyse how ideas in policy studies are communicated helps to explain how and why particular ideas take different trajectories in different countries. Furthermore, we seek to encourage a deeper assessment of which ideas dominate in the public sphere, bringing policy actors more centrally into analysis. We hope this could lead to new possibilities for how we understand and debate the ideas and policies that affect our everyday lives.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Mason, Chris; Moran, Michael, Social enterprise and policy discourse: a comparative analysis of the United Kingdom and AustraliaPolicy & Politics, DOI: 10.1332/030557317X15133530312516

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Conceptualising the active welfare subject: welfare reform in discourse, policy and lived experience

Working-class discourses of politics, policy and health: ‘I don’t smoke; I don’t drink. The only thing wrong with me is my health’

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