The Impact of Austerity on Policy Capacity in Local Government

eckersley and tobin.pngPeter Eckersley and Paul Tobin

How can we identify the real impact of austerity on policy? Our recent article in Policy & Politics bridges the gaps between research on ‘cutback management’, ‘policy capacity’ and ‘policy dismantling’, finding that front-line and often short-term challenges are being prioritised over more hidden and medium-term threats. The results suggest a ticking time-bomb for discovering the real impacts of austerity – particularly in sectors such as the environment, where policymakers need to stay on top of scientific and societal developments in order to design effective approaches to problems.

Bridging existing literatures

Austerity measures have dominated decision-making within public services across many Western countries for the best part of a decade. Studies of their impacts tend to focus on the managerial and budgetary strategies that public bodies (often subnational governments) have adopted to cope with less money. More recently, research has looked at whether national governments and the European Union are trying to cut ‘red tape’ and weaken existing policies, in an attempt to stimulate private sector growth and reduce public spending. The findings from this latter set of studies have been mixed, suggesting that politicians have found it difficult to weaken or ‘dismantle’ current levels of public provision.

However, we felt that studies may have been looking for the wrong ‘type’ of policy weakening – and in the wrong place. In particular, we might expect that politicians and managers would want to reduce the visibility of any cuts (and thereby depoliticise them) for electoral reasons. As a result, they might reduce subnational funding substantially and focus on protecting ‘front-line’ services at the expense of ‘back-office’ functions. In other words, we might expect the biggest cuts to occur in those parts of the public sector that are responsible for supporting decision-making, rather than in front-line services such as hospitals, schools, social care, libraries, museums or leisure centres.

The threat of ‘zombification’

‘Policy capacity’ comprises the resources such as staff, money, networks skills and information upon which public bodies can draw to make informed choices about different strategic alternatives.  We may not be able to identify the impact of cuts to this capacity straightaway, because they will not have an immediate effect on the quality and quantity of public service provision. However, over the medium term, dismantling these ‘back-office’ functions will make it more difficult for public bodies to develop and implement policy. These issues are particularly relevant for the environment, because decision-makers in this sector need to stay up-to-date with scientific and other developments, in order to ensure that policies address emerging concerns and issues. If governments have less capacity to gather data that can inform decision-making, and are less able to enforce current regulations, there is a substantial risk that policies become ‘zombified’ – they exist ‘on paper’, but are effectively dead, because they are not evaluated, updated or implemented effectively.

Our results

With this risk of policy zombification in mind, we studied two cities in northern England that have been hit particularly hard by austerity cuts, experiencing real-term reductions in revenue ‘spending power’ of around 35% and 40%. We found that they had made some highly visible cuts to environmental provision, such as reducing the number of flower planters and the frequency of grass-cutting and litter-picking. However, we also identified some less obvious ways in which environmental policy had been weakened since austerity began in 2010. For example, many experienced planners had left the public sector in recent years, meaning that local authorities knew less about their powers under the UK’s sustainable development framework.

In another example, one council’s trading standards team reduced from fourteen people to just four between 2005 and 2018, making it much more reliant on residents for policy-relevant information. As a result, officers focused on investigating those breaches that mobilised local people (such as the sale of alcohol and tobacco to minors), rather than environmental legislation – for example, laws prohibiting the sale of incandescent lightbulbs, and products containing microbeads. Similarly, the other council we looked at was relying increasingly on regional partners for expertise and information to help develop its climate change strategy.

All of our interviewees stressed that any weakening of policy was not part of a deliberate strategy on their part, but rather a logical or even necessary outcome of central government funding cuts. Together with the fact that back-office functions are probably less important to voters than front-line services, our findings suggest that policy dismantling may be much more common than previously shown, hinting that the wider impacts of austerity on environmental protection will continue to be discovered in the years to come.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Eckersley, Peter & Tobin, Paul ‘The impact of austerity on policy capacity in local government’, Policy & Politics,  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X15613701303511

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Depoliticising austerity: narratives of the Portuguese debt crisis 2011–15

Local governance under austerity: hybrid organisations and hybrid officers [Open Access]

Austerity in the making: reconfiguring social policy through social impact bonds

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