Blog: The ‘enabling state’: An inconsistent vintage?

Welfare systems across northern Europe are in transition, in part, because the cultural changes of late capitalism rendered them unable to address individualised service needs. Created to mitigate the negative material outcomes produced by laissez faire capitalism – want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness – and emphasising equity-based accessibility, de-commodification and service standardisation, over time this model lost its transformative role as society around it changed, restricted eventually to retrospective interventions to correct market failure. On service delivery, public administration became increasingly risk-averse, focused on process and on reproducing ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions as cheaply as possible. The turn to NPM was the final attempt to squeeze the last drops of ‘efficiency’ out of this system.

Be bold, make mistakes – experimentalism, innovation and choice

The ‘Enabling State’ (Gilbert and Gilbert 1989; Gilbert 2004) subsequently emerged as a leading replacement candidate, promoting experimentalism, localism and ‘personal control’ buttressed by a dash of ‘public choice’ rhetoric on governance failure. Current public sector leadership, organisational culture and change management approaches thus inveigh us to “be bold, make mistakes” – indeed, there is a small plaque on our office wall encouraging, perhaps light-heartedly, exactly this! Economic and social change means that welfare strategies must also change. But what does this entail and how will it impact public service production and delivery?

The ‘enabling state’ is constituted by two interlinked processes; how the state administration (re-)organises itself and how relations between state, civil society and the individual – the social compact – are reconceptualised. The first essentially involves the reintroduction of innovation and risk-taking into governance and administration practice while the second envisages the creation of a new balance of rights and responsibilities between the social actors. This process however remains under-theorised while the language around it is fluid. The conceptual shift in state-form includes a mix of goals across the two processes; phenomenon-based administration and budgeting, stressing outcomes rather than process, the abandonment of universalism, the promotion of localism in service production and delivery, service co-production, promoting prevention rather than intervention and encouraging service integration. The red thread running through these ideas is that the obligation to self-improve is increased while the right to material assistance in times of need is circumscribed, bound up in the language of personal responsibility, self-betterment and entrepreneurial spirit. This thinking is being applied across governance levels encompassing all post-Lisbon EU policies, national labour market policies and municipal-level development strategies.

Finland and Scotland

My personal reference points, Finland (Kristensen 2011) and Scotland (Wallace 2013), have each embraced this new agenda though progress is greater in the administrative reorganisation area than in service delivery – Finland has promoted the ‘phenomenon-based’ concept across government while the devolved Scottish government implemented the National Performance Framework, signalling a departure from traditional public sector management to focus on outputs as departmental structures were abolished in a drive for policy integration. In terms of material service delivery however the results and logic of ‘enabling’ remain opaque. Finland and Scotland are also interesting in a comparative sense because their starting points are quite different. Finland is already highly ‘localised’ in its municipally-based welfare service production and delivery while Scotland retains the heritage of centralisation and the policy overlay of previous UK-level public management reform processes. While Scotland experiments with new forms of service delivery, Finland struggles with the realities of localism and scale in relation to service production and delivery exemplified by its recent failed health and social care reform process (SOTE).

Internally Consistent?

The (re)conceptualisation of the state and the reformulation of its administrative structures and practices is well conceived but does this approach really add anything new to questions of service production and delivery? The creation of a fragmented, ‘network-based’ system where accountability is uncertain when paired with the desire for greater ‘personal control’ sees one person’s ‘local choice’ clash with another’s ‘postcode lottery’. Similarly, basic access questions remain over the ability to engage as social capacity is exogenous to the choice and control agenda. Moreover, while a fundamental element of the ‘enabling state’ rhetoric is that traditional welfare structures have failed those most in need it is unclear how, at the sharp end of service accessibility – in a patient-doctor or parent-school interaction – those failed by the old system will benefit from the new. Finally, the role of markets in service delivery remains ‘the elephant in the room’. The new social compact involves significant re-commodification as the balance of rights and responsibilities is changed and while the third sector’s role in service delivery is promoted, questions remain over both its ability to fill basic service gaps beyond niche areas e.g. within the social care system, and – after three decades of marketisation – to find room in an increasingly private-sector dominated outsourcing market.

The ‘enabling state’ raises two issues – continual administrative renewal and innovation and the recasting of the ‘social compact’. Its answers however seem rather incongruent. The first promotes a dynamic recapturing of state purpose, though perhaps this is better captured in Mazzucato’s (2018) notion of the ‘entrepreneurial’ state, while the second provides significantly more continuity with current public choice-inspired practice. If ‘must try harder’ is the expectation of our times, it seems equally applicable here.


Chris Smith is MDI’s advisor.


Gilbert N and Gilbert B (1989) The Enabling State: Modern Welfare Capitalism in America (Oxford: OUP)

Gilbert N (2004) Transformation of the Welfare State: The Silent Surrender of Public Responsibility (Oxford: OUP)

Kristensen P-H (2011) ‘The Co-evolution of Experimentalist Business Systems and Enabling Welfare States: Nordic Countries in Transition’. In: Kristensen and Lilja (eds) Nordic Capitalisms and Globalization: New Forms of Economic Organisation and Welfare Institutions (Oxford: OUP)

Mazzucato M (2018) The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public versus Private Sector Myths (London: Penguin)

Wallace J (2013) The Rise of the Enabling State: A review of policy and evidence in the UK and Ireland (Dunfermline: CarnegieUK Trust)

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