Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Partnership and Participation: Contradictions and Tensions in the Social Policy Space

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Partnership and Participation: Contradictions and Tensions in the Social Policy Space

Article excerpt

A discursive approach to the policy space shaping community organisations

The current push to partnerships between government and communities has not come out of an empty space. A range of discursive shifts in market-led economies, emphasising greater transparency, increased accountability and provision of evidence-based services, has shaped policy-making and planning processes in the community sector (OECD, 2001:11). At the same time, government has contracted out services and promoted a complex range of partnerships with non-government organisations. Yet for many community organisations, this emerging policy space is creating contradictions and tensions that increase the complexity of local service systems. We suggest the discourses currently dominating the social policy space are operating as catalysts for this push to partnership and participation.

In this paper our interest is in the social policy space or environment impacting community organisations. We adopt Cass and Brennan's definition of community organisations as 'communities of interest, of identity, of location, dedicated to welfare service provision or advocacy and representation' (2002:260). We undertake a preliminary investigation of the social policy space because policy through its language and meanings is being deployed to transform community organisations. The concept of social policy space places less emphasis on the structures, practices and methods of state institutions and focuses more on how particular discourses and narratives make some things important and others insignificant, how they include some participants and organisations and exclude or marginalise others (Fischer, 2006:25). Thus, the use of the term space signals an approach that 'calls attention to the importance of analysing the underlying and implicit assumptions about social and political relations that organise and constitute spaces for participation' (Fischer, 2006:39n1). We adopt a discursive approach to this social policy space, following Ball who identifies the discursive capability of policy as an

   '.... economy of power' a set of technologies and practices which
   are realised and struggled over in local settings. Policy is both
   text and action, words and deeds, it is what is enacted as well as
   what is intended ... Policies are always incomplete insofar as they
   relate to or map on to the 'wild profusion' of local practice.
   Policies are crude and simple. Practice is sophisticated,
   contingent, complex and unstable. Policy as practice is created in
   a trialectic of dominance, resistance and chaos/freedom (Ball,
   1994:10-11).

In accordance with the idea of policy as discourse (Ball, 1994; Hajer & Wagenaar, 2003), we explore policy interventions as technologies used to mediate the meanings of discourses. According to Foucault, a discourse is a historically-situated set of thoughts, expressions and practices (1985). Discourse is not merely a synonym for language. It both enables and restrains what can and cannot be said (Barad, 2007). Levitas explains discourses are sets of interrelated concepts acting together as a matrix through which we understand the world. A discourse structures our understanding and 'governs the paths of action which appear to be open to us' (Levitas, 2005:3). Thus, we emphasise the power of discourse in constituting and shaping social reality (Fairclough, 1992, 1995; Foucault, 1977, 1984).

Within the community sector, this social policy space is discursive in that its language is not neutral. Rather, policy discourse shapes what is understood as normative and problematic; how, when and by whom particular issues are discussed or silenced; what interventions are promoted or restrained; what will be changed or continued. Language thereby provides 'a mechanism for rendering reality amenable to certain kinds of action' (Miller & Rose, 1993:81).

The deployment of policy is therefore important in structuring the activity of community organisations and catalysing new representations of the contemporary community organisation. …

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