As consumers, we have witnessed huge changes in the last several decades in how we shop and interact with sellers of goods and services. These transactions are increasingly happening online, and they are also far more individualized than ever " just think about how Amazon, Expedia and Google are able to recommend particular products and services to us on the basis of our unique search histories.

Yet this transformation in the private marketplace has not carried over into government, particularly in the area of social policy. Since the foundational pillars of the welfare state were built and established in the 1960s and ”˜70s " medicare, the Canada Pension Plan and the modern-day employment insurance system, to name a few " social programs have mostly stayed the same. Policy-makers have certainly fine-tuned these programs, extending them in some areas and seeking to reduce costs in others. But their basic design and how governments interact with citizens in delivering them have largely remained the same.

Compared with the Amazon and Google experience, the welfare state has not been able to deliver programs and services with the flexibility needed to address the unique circumstances, preferences and aspirations of each citizen. Instead, because of limitations in technology and the lack of data and evidence, government programs are often restricted to addressing the broadly defined needs of broadly defined groups in a broadly uniform manner at a single point in time. Not only is this approach less effective than it could be, it is also increasingly at odds with what citizens expect from their service providers.

Thanks to a confluence of social, demographic and technological trends, we are now on the cusp of a significant change. Governments have the opportunity to radically improve the social and economic well-being of Canadians and the way in which we govern ourselves in the social policy arena.

I refer to these changes as the transformation from the welfare state to what I have called the ”œenabling society.” As the term suggests, the purpose of the enabling society is to make social policy more effective in enabling individuals to pursue their goals and achieve their full potential in life.

People’s access to benefits and programs should be in response to their needs and aspirations.

The enabling society builds on the many strengths of the welfare state but also corrects many of its content and governance weaknesses. It will allow us to finally address important problems that have always existed but were beyond the reach of traditional policy instruments. Reaching for the same high goals as does the welfare state, the enabling society would harness new technology and new approaches to deliver programs and services that are more individualized, flexible and focused on long-term outcomes over a person’s life. And it will simplify program delivery and make it more efficient, and engender more effective partnerships among government, citizens and civil society.

The enabling society is not a single idea or a particular utopia. It is the amalgamation of two things: first, recognition of the major forces that are now reshaping how we think about social policy; and, second, a framework in which social policy can be modernized and adapted to meet the new realities before us.

The essential feature of the mature enabling society would be a system of ”œbig statistics” that will deliver detailed information to policy-makers, service providers and citizens themselves about the kind of interventions that work best given an individual’s particular needs, circumstances or preferences. Although governments have been slow to adapt and adopt them, significant advances in statistical tools and technology over the last several decades now allow us to integrate this evidence through the design, delivery and governance of social policy. Just as advances have transformed the way companies operate and interact with consumers, there is tremendous opportunity to improve how governments reach citizens, respond to their needs and achieve outcomes for and, especially, with them. In the enabling society, social policy will finally be able to take a truly individualized approach that is based on a life-course perspective.

Citizens will benefit from more choice, better information and better decision-making as they pursue their own goals for learning, health, employment, caregiving and income security.

For governments, this paradigm will place a greater emphasis on working in collaboration, providing transparent data and information, and addressing intergenerational equity. Though this will require a new way of doing things, programs will contain self-learning feedback loops so that they continuously improve and evolve over time.

While the enabling society will change the architecture and governance of social policy in important ways, the exact shape this will take is not preordained. Governments and citizens will still ultimately have to grapple with the same debates about values, priorities and principles as they always have. It is our willingness to think differently and to develop the necessary tools to support an evidence-based approach that will define how transformative it will be.

Governments will have to emphasize collaboration, transparent data and information.

Of course, getting there will require an entirely new conversation about where social policy is headed. Current policy narratives are becoming stale and are grounded on false premises about the context in which social policy will evolve in coming years. Let me illustrate.

It is often said that as Canada’s population ages over the next several decades, we will face a number of fiscal and economic shocks, including a rapid increase in the cost of publicly insured health care, a shortage of workers and a potential drop in the standard of living for retirees due to inadequate savings. Many of these forecasts are based on outdated analysis that entirely misses how changing life-course patterns are already reshaping the structure of the labour force and, in turn, the dynamics of health and income later in life.

Since 1998, for example, the employment rate among men aged 60-64 has increased 15 percentage points, and among women aged 60-64 by nearly 25 percentage points. Significant increases have also been observed among people even older. One of the implications of this trend toward staying in employment later in life is that an increasing share of old age entitlements (for example, Old Age Security) will go to already well-off baby boomers in their 60s who are still working, often at their peak lifetime earnings.

In other words, the pension crisis in the coming years will be one where old age benefits result in increased inequality and, for some individuals, a misallocation of resources, where income is taken away in periods of life when it is badly needed and delivered in periods when it is less needed.

How people access benefits, the programs they use and the services they receive should respond to their unique needs and aspirations. If people want to work into their 70s in exchange for more time earlier in life to devote to learning, a different career or family and care responsibilities, they should have that flexibility. As they make these choices, citizens should also have access to the best information possible about what the outcomes are likely to be with the various programs, services and interventions available. And if they need support, they should not be refused as result of ageist policies, or program or jurisdictional silos.

This vision of social policy is very different from the one that thinkers and policy leaders typically articulate. For many years the public discourse on social policy has alternated between addressing important but relatively small gaps that need to be filled within the welfare state, and worrying about its fiscal sustainability. But little thought has been given to how we should respond to a world that is rapidly changing around us.

Our social policy should be rethought from the ground up. Our leaders should see the wisdom in this approach and the opportunities it affords us all. The question is whether we have the will and the foresight to guide and facilitate the transition to the enabling society.


Peter Hicks is a social policy consultant who served as assistant deputy minister at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. He is author of the IRPP’s forthcoming Policy Horizons essay, on which this article is based.