Government Purchase of Services in China: Similar Intentions, Different Policy Designs

Published date01 February 2017
AuthorZhuoyi Wen
Date01 February 2017
Lingnan University, Hong Kong
China has adopted purchase of services to facilitate the development of the societal sector, including social organisations, the so-
cial work profession and social services. Project-based and post-based purchases are two typical policy designs. Why do the local
states develop two different designs to serve similar intentions? The answers to this question contribute to the broader discussion
of policymaking and social development in China. Using the intention-capacity analytic framework, this study systemically
compares Guangzhous project-based model and Shenzhens post-based model by drawing upon an extensive review of policy
and archive documents, key informant interviews and f‌ield observations. The comparative study suggests that a pro-market ide-
ology and incomplete analytical capacity in policy learning directed the design thinking towards market mechanism and purchase
of services. Without the organisational conditions of social organisation and social work in Guangzhou, rapid growth in the social
work workforce became the top priority in Shenzhen. Meanwhile, the trustworthiness of newly developing social organisations is
another concern. All of these concerns underpinned the post-based design. Both models, with substantial f‌iscal support, succeed in
expanding the societal sectors. But the mix of market and hierarchy tools, for the post-based model in particular, is an obstacle in
further enabling social organisation and the social work profession. Copyright © 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
key wordspolicy design; policy capacity; policy instrument; purchase of services; project-based and post-based models; China
Social policy is crucial for human well-being, social development and state legitimacy. Meanwhile, it requires
signif‌icant f‌inancial and manpower resources (Dean, 2012). Given its politico-economic signif‌icance, social policy
must be carefully designed. Because of the changing landscape of social policy, including gender roles, labour
market and demographics, social services are increasingly at the centre of welfare state activities, and in some
countries, the expenditures for in-kind social services now exceed expenditures for in-cash transfers (Henriksen
et al., 2012). Contracting out has become a signature initiative of welfare reform, as countries attempt to modernise
social service systems through decentralisation and marketisation.
Various studies have investigated the effectiveness of contracting out social services in terms of cost containment
and quality enhancement. Under most circumstances, the efforts of policymakers have failed. Inadequate capacity to
design and monitor the procurement process is often blamed for the policy failure. However, while studies highlight
the importance of policy capacity for policy formulation and policy outcomes (Howlett et al., 2015), they often
overlook government intentions in designing the contracting out system.
The reason for this knowledge gap is that, originated from the welfare state crisis, contracting out for cost contain-
ment and quality enhancement has been taken for granted. The adoption of contracting out is thought to be shaped by
the ideologies of decentralisation and marketisation (Petersen et al., 2015). It was typically seen less as designed
than as emergentin an inevitable, quasi-automatic process involving the actions and interests of the multiple public
and private stakeholders active in complex modern societies and economies (Howlett, 2014).
*Correspondence to: Z. Wen, PhD, Asia-Pacif‌ic Institute of Ageing Studies, Lingnan University, Rm. 102, 1/F B. Y. Lam Bldg., 8 Castle Peak
Rd., Tuen Mun, N.T., Hong Kong. E-mail:
public administration and development
Public Admin. Dev. 37,6578 (2017)
Published online in Wiley Online Library
( DOI: 10.1002/pad.1792
Copyright © 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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