Skip to main content Accesibility Help

Between Ideas, Institutions and Interests: Analysing Third Way Welfare Reform Programmes in Germany and the United Kingdom


This article examines the policy detail of welfare state reform agendas in two countries in which self-proclaimed ‘Third Way’ governments have been in power – Germany and the United Kingdom – in order to explore the competing influences on social policy of an ostensibly common set of ideas and contrasting institutionalised policy legacies. In so doing, it assesses the analytic utility of Bevir and Rhodes’ ideationally rooted interpretive approach against institutionally rooted claims of path dependency. It concludes that while the interpretive approach rightly stresses the need for a stronger focus on ideas as an explanation for policy change, the detail of actual Third Way policy reforms can only be understood from within the two nations’ institutionalised policy legacies. In addition, it argues that policy networks have had a considerable influence on reform trajectories too. The article advocates a closer synthesis of perspectives centred around ideas, interests and institutions in order to further our understanding of processes of policy change.

Corresponding author
Hide All
Bevir, M. and Rhodes, R. A. W. (2003), Interpreting British Governance, London: Routledge.
Bevir, M. and Rhodes, R. A. W. (2004a), ‘Interpreting British governance’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 6: 2, 130–6.
Béland, D. (2005), ‘Ideas and social policy: an institutionalist perspective’, Social Policy and Administration, 39: 1, 118.
Bevir, M. and Rhodes, R. A. W. (2004b), ‘Interpretation as method, explanation and critique: a reply’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 6: 2, 156–64.
Blair, T. (1998), ‘Foreword’, in Department of Social Security, A New Contract for Welfare: Principles into Practice, CM 4101, London: Department for Social Security/Stationery Office.
Blair, T. and Schröder, G. (1999), Europe: The Third Way/Die Neue Mitte, London: Labour Party.
Bonoli, G. and Powell, M. (2002), ‘Third ways in Europe?’, Social Policy and Society, 1: 1, 5966.
Bonoli, G. and Powell, M. (2004), Social Democratic Party Policies in Contemporary Europe, London: Routledge.
Department of Health (1997), The New NHS: Modern and Dependable, CM 3807, London: Stationery Office.
Department of Social Security (1998), A New Contract for Welfare: Partnership in Pensions, CM 4179, London: HMSO.
Department of Work and Pensions (2006), Security in Retirement: Towards a New Pensions System, London: DWP.
Esping-Andersen, G. (1990), The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Estevez-Abe, M., Iversen, T. and Soskice, D. (2001), ‘Social protection and the formation of skills: a reinterpretation of the welfare state’, in Hall, P. and Soskice, D. (eds), Varieties of Capitalism: the Institutional Foundations of Competitive Advantage, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Finlayson, A. (2004), ‘The interpretive approach in political science: a symposium’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 6: 2, 129–65.
Giddens, A. (2001), The Global Third Way Debate, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Glendinning, C. (2003), ‘Health policies’, in Ellison, N. and Pierson, C. (eds), Developments in British Social Policy 2, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Green-Pedersen, C. and van Kersbergen, K. (2002), ‘The politics of the “third way” – the transformation of social democracy in Denmark and the Netherlands’, Party Politics, 8: 5, 507–24.
Green-Pedersen, C., van Kersbergen, K. and Hemerijck, A. (2001), ‘Neo-liberalism, the “third way” or what? Recent social democratic welfare policies in Denmark and the Netherlands’, Journal of European Public Policy, 8: 2, 307–25.
Greener, I. (2002), ‘Understanding NHS reform: the policy-transfer, social-learning, and path dependency perspectives’, Governance, 15: 2, 2547.
Hall, P. A. (1992), ‘The movement from Keynesianism to monetarism: institutional analysis and British economic policy in the 1970s’, in Steinmo, S., Thelen, K. and Longstreth, F. (eds), Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hall, P. A. (1993), ‘Policy paradigms, social learning and the state’, Comparative Politics, 25: 3, 275–96.
Hall, P. A. and Soskice, D. (2001), ‘An introduction to varieties of capitalism’, in Hall, P. A. and Soskice, D. (eds), Varieties of Capitalism: the Institutional Foundations of Competitive Advantage, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hartmann, A. K. (2003), ‘Patientennah, Leistungsstark, Finanzbewusst? Die Gesundheitspolitik der Rot-Grünen Bundesregierung 1998–2002’, in Egle, C., Ostheim, T. and Zohlnhöfer, R. (eds), Das Rot-Grüne Projekt. Eine Bilanz der Regierung Schröder 1998–2002, Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag.
Hartz, P. (2002), Modern Services on the Labour Market, Report of the Commission (Brochure A 306), Berlin: Ministry for Work and Social Security.
Hay, C. (2002), Political Analysis: A Critical Introduction, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Hemerijck, A. and Visser, J. (1999), ‘The Dutch model: an obvious candidate for the “third way”?’, 56, Archives Européennes de Sociologie, 40: 1, 103–21.
Hills, J. (2004), ‘Heading for retirement? National insurance, state pensions, and the future of the contributory principle in the UK’, Journal of Social Policy, 33: 3, 347–71.
Hinrichs, K. (2003), ‘The politics of pension reform in Germany’, paper presented to ‘Pension Reform in Europe: Shared Problems, Sharing Solutions?’, Conference, Hellenic Observatory/The European Institute, London School of Economics.
HM Treasury/Department for Work and Pensions (2003), Full Employment in Every Region, London: HMSO.
Hudson, J. and Lowe, S. (2004), Understanding the Policy Process: Analysing Welfare Policy and Practice, Bristol: The Policy Press.
Kingdon, J. (1995), Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies, London: Longman.
Larsen, C. A. (2002), ‘Policy paradigms and cross-national policy (mis)learning from the Danish employment miracle’, Journal of European Public Policy, 9: 5, 715–35.
Levi-Faur, D. (2006), ‘Varieties of regulatory capitalism: getting the most out of the comparative method’, Governance, 19: 3, 367–82.
Lewis, J. and Surrender, R. (2004), Welfare State Change – Towards a Third Way, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Marsh, D. and Rhodes, R. A. W. (eds) (1992a), Policy Networks in British Government, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Marsh, D. and Rhodes, R. A. W. (eds) (1992b), Implementing Thatcherite Policies: Audit of an Era, Buckingham: Open University Press.
Marsh, D. and Smith, M. J. (2000), ‘Understanding policy networks: towards a dialectical approach’, Political Studies, 48: 1, 421.
Merkel, W. (2000) ‘Die Dritten Wege der Sozialdemokratie in das 21. Jahrhundert’, Berliner Journal für Soziologie, 10: 1, 99124.
OECD (2006), Labour Force Statistics: 1985–2005, Paris: OECD.
Peck, J. and Theodore, N. (2001), ‘Exporting workfare/importing welfare-to-work: exploring the politics of Third Way policy transfer’, Political Geography, 20: 4, 427–60.
Pierson, C. (1998), ‘Contemporary challenges to welfare state development’, Political Studies, 46: 4, 777–94.
Pierson, P. (2001), ‘Coping with permanent austerity: welfare state restructuring in affluent democracies’, in Pierson, P. (ed.), The New Politics of the Welfare State, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pierson, P. (2004), Politics in Time: History, Institutions and Social Analysis, Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Rhodes, R. A. W. (1995), ‘The institutional approach’, in Marsh, D. and Stoker, G. (eds), Theory and Methods in Political Science, London: Macmillan.
Rhodes, R. A. W. (1997), Understanding Governance: Policy Networks, Governance, Reflexivity and Accountability, Buckingham: Open University Press.
Rhodes, R. A. W. (2004), Comments at the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Adelaide, September 2004.
Richardson, J. (2000), ‘Government, interest groups and policy change’, Political Studies, 48: 5, 1006–25.
Schmidt, M. G. (2003), ‘Rot-Grüne Sozialpolitik (1998–2002)’, in Egle, C., Ostheim, T. and Zohlnhöfer, R. (eds), Das Rot-Grüne Projekt: Eine Bilanz der Regierung Schröder 1998–2002, Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag.
Schröder, G. (2003), ‘Courage for peace and courage for change’, Policy Statement to the German Bundestag, 14 March, Berlin.
Schröter, E. (2004), ‘How many third ways comparing the British, French and German left in government’, Department of Political Science Working Paper PRI-7, University of California, Berkeley.
Seeleib-Kaiser, M. and Fleckstein, T. (2006), ‘Discourse, learning and welfare state change: the case of German labour market reform’, Paper presented to the 2006 Social Policy Association Conference, University of Birmingham.
Skocpol, T. and Amenta, E. (1986), ‘States and social policies’, Annual Review of Sociology, 12: 131–57.
Streeck, W. and Thelen, K. (2005), Beyond Continuity: Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taylor-Gooby, P. (ed.) (2005), Ideas and Welfare State Reform in Western Europe, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Social Policy
  • ISSN: 0047-2794
  • EISSN: 1469-7823
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-social-policy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed