Preparing for Tomorrow's Social Policy Agenda

Social Research and Demonstration Corporation Working Paper No. 02-04

176 Pages Posted: 22 Dec 2012 Last revised: 23 Apr 2013

Date Written: November 21, 2002


This 2002 strategic planning paper was prepared under contract for Human Resources Development Canada, a federal government department with a broad mandate for income security, social and labour market policies and programs. While the historical analysis of the paper is now dated, the main findings related to policy challenges and responses have stood the test of time. The proposed directions for policy development, and the approach taken to strategic planning, remain relevant today

The paper identified the main forces that were likely to dominate policy during the early 2000s: a continuation of the competitiveness and social cohesion pressures that had resulted in a preoccupation with lifelong learning; a new concern about a decline in percentage of the total population that will be employed; and a new shift towards incentives to later retirement. Five policy responses are indicated: First, the then current human development and skills agenda would continue as a dominant theme in the policy response for many years. In the medium-term, the emphasis should shift to learning (not skills) and to ways of translating the rhetoric of social investment into operational, evidence-driven programming. Second a policy shift towards encouraging life-course flexibility, which would reverse the trend toward policies that encourage longer schooling and earlier retirement. The goal of such a shift would be to support greater choice at the level of individuals and, at the level of society, more time being spent in work and learning over the course of people’s lives, with a more rational distribution of leisure over the course of life. Third, there should be a gradual shift towards a more integrated approach to social policy. Today income-at-a-point-in-time concepts still dominate income security policies, while active, preparing-for-life policies are mainly found in separate and fragmented systems – education, labour market integration, childcare, etc. Tomorrow there should be a more integrated, enabling-society, citizen-centred approach, including a new emphasis on life-course and asset perspectives. Fourth, emphasis should be placed on building a new capacity for making social investments effective. Today, policy has the rhetorical goal of social investment (getting payoffs in the future). However, policy designs are actually based on expenditures (getting payoffs in the present). Tomorrow, we should bring policy designs into line with their underlying social investment goals. This means switching to self-learning policies that use new information processing technologies to automatically incorporate lessons from what has worked best in similar circumstances in the past – i.e., real-time, evidence-driven programming. Fifth, is a new emphasis on using current information management technology to resolve a long-standing and central machinery-of-government problem – reconciling vertical integration (decision-making by or near the citizen/group most affected, while maintaining accountability and ministerial responsibility) and horizontal integration (harmonized action across a wide variety of program streams and responsible agencies)’

The paper provides practical examples of what needs to be done in all of these areas.

The paper deals with the inevitable risks of planning for an unknowable future by providing scenarios that are based not on the traditional approach of forecasting ahead based on past trends, but rather on the kind of futures that governments have indicated they would like to help construct.

Keywords: strategic planning, scenarios, social policy, income security, labour market policy, accountability, life-course, program integration

JEL Classification: H53, H55, I31, I32, I38, J20, J22, J24, J26

Suggested Citation

Hicks, Peter, Preparing for Tomorrow's Social Policy Agenda (November 21, 2002). Social Research and Demonstration Corporation Working Paper No. 02-04, Available at SSRN: or

Peter Hicks (Contact Author)

Peter Hicks Consulting ( email )

154 Crichton Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1M 1W2

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