From transactional welfare to relational welfare

Reform of our current welfare system is not working. We need a new set of services focused on helping people to grow and flourish, says Hilary Cottam

In Britain, 80% of available jobs are never advertised but filled by word of mouth; if you want to get a job you need a social network. Loneliness has proven to be a bigger killer than a lifetime of smoking; if you want to live long and well, you need strong social bonds.

Diabetes, obesity, it is the same story: chronic disease accounts for 80% of hospital costs yet our industrial medical system cannot cure or prevent these conditions. Only strong collective action and social support work. Everywhere in our social lives the case for relational welfare is becoming apparent.

Now, when much of what previously looked so certain – economic stability, functioning democratic institutions, infinite resources – looks fragile in more ways than one, people are asking new and different questions, to which the ideas behind relational welfare offer answers for three key reasons.

Firstly, the nature of the problems the welfare state is trying to solve have changed. Challenges such as ageing, chronic disease, climate change and the scale of entrenched inequality were not foreseen when our current welfare services were designed. There is a mis-match between these challenges and the institutions and services on offer.

Secondly, technology is pervasive and cheap and makes ideas that many of us could only dream of in the 1970s practical and real. Relational services have to be highly local to work – you cannot build a relationship with someone you don’t know. At the same time they need elements of central support – to share knowledge and reap economies of scale. Technology platforms make this possible.

Thirdly, current approaches to welfare reform have failed. It is now clear that market based reforms have rarely either saved money or improved outcomes. Rather the social and cultural effect of much of the last 15 years has been to intensify an outmoded transactional relationship, whilst obscuring the deeper systemic challenges. The efficiency narrative has run its course.

All of this means it is time to change the questions we are asking – not how can we reform existing institutions but how can we provide services that support people to grow and flourish in this century.

Relational welfare is not just a nice theory. At Participle we have created new examples of how this relational welfare can actually work.

Circle, our social enterprise which supports older people with lower level care and practical tasks whilst building a rich social network, and the Life programme, our work with families in crisis, shows how those who live in the most difficult of circumstances want to foster their capabilities if given both a genuine chance and the relationships that support a developmental conversation (as opposed to a transactional message).

The Life programme also shows what a difference relational work means to those on the front line. No-one becomes a housing officer or a social worker to fill out forms and yet too often this seems the reality. When offered the chance to work in a different culture and structure, we see the unleashing of the talent that exists at the front line of our services.

Backr is Participle’s early prototype of a service which fosters employability by building resilient social networks around those seeking work, at low cost. Backr provides someone to vouch for you, to support you and reflect with you. The community critically includes those in and out of work and strong connections to local business. Working with hundreds of people who were languishing in the current system and watching their lives transform within this different culture does feel akin to watching people leave a bad relationship.

The distinctive elements of these examples that characterise relational welfare are:

  • a focus on root causes;
  • being developmental, which means focused on fostering capabilities rather than (expensively) managing problems;
  • counting social change not things. The mantra is ‘don’t assess and refer me, enthuse and support me’.

Relational welfare models are open to all (like the problems they address) and – in direct contrast to the old models – the more who use relational services the stronger they are.

The state needs to actively support, seed and provide working models of different ways of organising, valuing and providing – that is alternatives to the domestic sphere and to the market.

Relationships are the glue that keep us together, the dimension that keep us human. It is we, the public, that need to build the movement for this change. So please visit our website – – and tell us what needs to happen to make relational welfare work. We need your ideas and thoughts and suggestions, please share them with us. All relationships matter.


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Martin Johnstone
Martin Johnstone
11 years ago

A fascinating post Hilary – it chimes closely with some work currently underway by the Carnegie UK Trust on the Enabling State. You can find out more at—place/enabling-state. This is a hugely important discussion – the challenge is how those at the edges of our society can also really benefit from a relational model.

Gerald Milward-Oliver
Gerald Milward-Oliver
11 years ago

Agree with everything you say, Hilary. But successive governments have sought to break down community-based relationships in favour of monetising them, all in the name of efficiency but actually in the name of removing state involvement in favour of private sector. Until the complete political and economic system of the past 35 years (including Labour’s years) is effectively challenged and changed, we won’t be able to address the real needs of the community. Everything you are doing is a step in the right direction, but we need more and more people to stand up against the rush by successive governments to turn every aspect of our lives into an opportunity for someone else to profit financially.

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