Equality and the Governance of Welfare

Author: Dr Henry Tam

In the perennial quest for social justice, there is no red herring bigger than the one dragged out every time someone complains about inequality. In an instant we would be told that people were not the same in every respect, and to force them to be identical was outrageously oppressive. But who is saying that all differences should be eliminated from the human race?

One common caricature pretends that the world is filled with uber-egalitarians plotting to use authoritarian government powers to reduce everyone to the same level. Whoever has more talents or resources would under such a regime be made to hand over all the legitimate gains they have secured, until they are no better off than anyone else.

But the reason why this false picture is so often displayed is that it conveniently covers up the real problem of exploitation. Indisputably people possess different potentials, abilities, and resources at any given point in time, and they may use what they possess to generate a mix of beneficial and (unintended or otherwise) harmful effects. The question is how are they to decide what they should do and who will get what share of the benefits and harm.

One option is for those currently with greater power (due to their inherited wealth, corporate status, a windfall from risk-taking that paid off, or some other factor) to dictate their own terms to others. For example, others will do work for them but only for a tiny share of the proceeds; they will accumulate most of the rewards from the collective endeavours of ‘their’ workers; and the costs of dealing with the harmful effects from their activities (e.g., addiction, pollution, health deterioration) will be borne by others in society. This is indeed the default position if society collectively abstains from doing anything about it. Since individuals with lesser power by definition cannot stand up to those powerful enough to impose their wills on others, the only chance they have is through some form of collective governance.

Whether it is called ‘social security’ or ‘welfare’, a collective system is thus needed to protect everyone when some individuals and organisations, left to themselves, would embark on activities which serve a powerful few at the expense of others. To prevent negligence or exploitation taking hold, arrangements have to be put in place so that the people can democratically opt for policies and practices that would enable life-chances, precious resources, and what is produced by the efforts of many and not just a few, to be shared equitably.

It is therefore the role of government to help people to work together as equal citizens to work out how to protect themselves from exploitation and neglect. To do this, the governance of welfare has to be conducted transparently and inclusively. Instead of debating the ‘merits’ of absurd extremes such as dividing literally everything into equal portions to assign to individuals, or leaving unregulated transactions to remedy the problems they have created in the first place, we need to understand how the running of a welfare system can be continuously improved.

Based on the history of democratic politics and communitarian interactions, the factors that are critical to effective governance can be summarised under 9 key categories. These are grouped into three sets of guiding principles below:

A. Dedicated to Mutual Responsibility

1. Shared Mission

Any effective welfare system must be there to protect – and be seen to protect – everyone and anyone (not just some stigmatised group) who may suffer from the cruel circumstance of life. The shared mission of enhancing everyone’s security must be clearly maintained and consistently communicated.

Measures of success: How widely is the core mission owned and appreciated by all citizens? How convinced are they that they have a system which has the rules and capacity to achieve the stated mission?

2. Mutual Benefits

Welfare is about mutual support. So the system must establish and demonstrate a consensus on what each citizen would regard as the basic support they would need, and reciprocally what they are prepared to contribute so that the system can overall deliver that level of support to others.

Measures of success: Are there arrangements in place to prioritise, adjudicate & enforce the fair distribution of benefits? Are all members confident the arrangements will operate reliably and impartially?

3. Coherent Membership

Lack of clarity and transparency in defining its membership, and the rights and duties that go with it, is one of the most corrosive problems for any welfare system. It is essential to involve those whose membership is beyond dispute in deliberating and deciding the criteria for subsequent membership exclusion and inclusion. Only by doing this will people know what the implications are, for example, if certain people whose help they may need are excluded, and how their own needs in the future may be dismissed if they do not respond supportively to the needs of others.

Measures of success: Is there a sustainable and non-discriminatory process to recruiting, inducting, rejecting & expelling members? Do members know what is expected of them individually and that they will be held to account if they act irresponsibly?

B. Guided by Cooperative Enquiry

4. Collaborative Learning

What threatens people’s social security can change over time, and the most effective ways of countering such threats are not always clear. People who are fortunate to be well-off often do not understand what hardships those who have fallen on hard times have to endure. A welfare system should not be left in the hands of a remote group of experts, but all citizens should be enabled to learn together what welfare provisions are necessary and what policy changes should be made in the light of current evidence.

Measures of success: Is there a culture of lifelong learning in understanding welfare – the protection system to safeguard the most basic needs of citizens in a civilised society? Are citizens supported to engage in deliberative exchanges to inform their beliefs, policies, and practices?

5. Continuous Re-evaluation

No doctrine or assumption must be allowed to become the dogma of what constitutes legitimate welfare. What the privileged few in earlier times feel only they are entitled to may well in later times become general standards (Those who want to keep the gulf between the elite and others permanent might prefer to see only the rich given anaesthetics when operated on). Hygiene, nutrition, decent housing, relief from drudgery, the minimum standards ought to be raised as the wealth of the nation rises. 

Measures of success: How confident are citizens and administrative officials in questioning claims put forward by those in more highly ranked positions? Is everyone aware that nothing (in the name of ‘tradition’ or anything else) can be ring-fenced from empirical analysis? Is open and critical discussion of current and new ideas encouraged and facilitated?

6. Accessible Information

Communications should be given dedicated support so that nothing untoward is hidden and useful information is widely shared. Attempts to cover up serious suffering, and deny how particular policies and practices are actually causing more harm than good must be systematically exposed. Whistleblowers should be given immunity if their disclosure justifies it.

Measures of success: How reliable are the communication channels in place to facilitate inspection, audit, whistle-blowing, peer review to keep wrongdoing at bay? How easy is it for citizen’s to discover and access relevant and accurate information about the system’s past performance and future options?

C. Sustained through Citizen Participation

7. Joint Decision-Making

The system respects every member equally in being entitled to participate in the making of decisions that affect them, and enables all members to contribute to those decisions on an informed and deliberative basis. 

Measures of success: Are the procedures for decision-making clear to all citizens? How extensive are training and participation opportunities made available? And how effective are they in ensuring that no one will be ignored or disrespected? How well is joint decision-making facilitated so it is carried out rationally and inclusively?

8. Balanced Power

The welfare system can only be sustained if no one is permitted to possess so much power that they can intimidate or dictate terms to others. In addition to protecting individuals, the system itself needs to be protected from power elites who may seek to undermine it so that individual citizens become vulnerable to exploitation by the powerful and irresponsible.

Measures of success: Are there safeguards to stop individuals or groups having too much power? Is there a regular and effective redistribution of power so that even concentrated powers for emergencies are only granted on temporary basis? Are there checks and balances so that no one can hold others to ransom by threats?

9. Open Accountability

The welfare system needs to be protected by a robust accountability system so those entrusted with higher authority to act on behalf of all are unlikely to take actions that are against the wider interest of society or are to benefit themselves solely without due consent from citizens in general.

Measures of success: Are there transparent electoral or selection process to replace those with positions of authority? How easy is it to detect unjustifiable actions? Are there reliable mechanisms for all to trigger to summon potential wrongdoers to account for their actions? Are members supported in being vigilant in challenging decisions that appear to be illegitimate?


The nine elements set out above provide a starting point for considering how the governance of welfare should be assessed and improved. Each of those elements can be expanded with more details and backed by more examples of the difference they can make in practice. They are not self-contained so some of the processes entailed by one may well overlap with those proposed by another. They are meant to work in conjunction with each other to have the greatest impact. But having each one presented separately helps to focus attention when examining how well a particular element has been established and sustained. The welfare system we have does need reforming. But instead of allowing those who want to dismantle the system under the cloak of ‘reform’, we should press for genuine reforms by applying these 9 points of good governance that will get us closer to a system that serves us all as equal citizens.

Dr Tam wrote this article for his blog here.

The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Equality and the Governance of Welfare © Dr Henry Tam 2015.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.