Literature on austerity

The cuts that the Coalition government are currently making to public spending are unprecedented and have both short and long-term implications for public services (1). The sustained nature of the cuts – which has been termed ‘perma-austerity’ – are unprecedented in the modern welfare state. In many places these are leading to massive restructuring and rethinking of public services, but such a process also inevitably leads to individuals feeling protectionist over their particular component of public services. Some areas of the literature are quite negative about public servants in this context, stereotyping them as self-interested and seeking to protect their own domain, although there does not seem to be strong evidence to demonstrate that this is necessarily the case. In some places there are concerns that any cuts will led to deskilling of professionals as training budgets are cut and the scope of public services diminish. There may be resistance to taking on more generic and relational roles, prompted not by knee-jerk protectionism but by a fear that the future is a race-to-the-bottom flexible labour market. Some of the wariness about personalisation in social care, for example, has come from a suspicion that it is an attempt to ‘deprofessionalise’ social work (2).

Over the past few years health services have witnessed a series of reorganisations and the dismantling of Primary Care Trusts and their shift to Clinical Commissioning Groups. For some areas this reorganisation has been welcomed; the frame of austerity and the need to deliver efficiencies has proved to be a useful way to stimulate service improvement activity, where able and eager individuals have been able to take on roles. However in other areas institutional memory has been lost and any ground that may have been made in recent years has been surrendered as individuals have taken on new roles and got to grips with the complexity of health service delivery. In their study of health service reorganisations and sensemaking, Anna Coleman and colleagues (3) found that the more frequently reorganisations occur, the more likely it is that local areas become resistant to change and any alterations are made within the confines of former schemes. What this study shows is that institutions (formal and informal) play an important role in shaping responses to changes and in those areas where great change has happened actors find ways to resist further significant alterations. This may preclude the emergence of new roles in response to the need to cut budgets.

In research into local government responses to austerity, Lowndes and McCaughie (4) conclude that ‘ideational continuity seems to dominate within local government…witness in salami slicing tactics (less of the same) rather than bold new visions…local government currently sees a surprising lack of new ideas’ (pg. 543). However, they do conclude that this does not mean that nothing creative is happening and there is a particular emergence of work of institutional bricoleurs. What they mean by this are those individuals who bring together or recombine resources in particular ways to bring about opportunities. These are very much the sorts of skills involved in the resource-weaver role alluded to in Lesson 1 and seem to be important in times of financial constraint. Many of those in this study spoke of finding ways to keep their head above the water and to try and mitigate the effect of any cuts, suggesting people were not on the whole being catalysed into new ways of acting. However, the research did find some examples of expanded organisational repertoires where learning had been borrowed from other contexts (e.g. private firms).

Like any of the lessons set out here it is difficult to make definitive conclusions about what is happening; practice will vary around the country and some of the implications may not be felt for some time yet. The context of austerity rather perversely may both catalyse new roles to emerge as organisations have to fundamentally re-think the design and delivery of services, but also inhibit new roles from emerging as insufficient funding stops development.

  1. Taylor-Gooby P. The double crisis of the welfare state and what we can do about it. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 2013.
  2. Ferguson I. Increasing user choice or privatizing risk? British Journal of Social Work. 2007;37:387-403.
  3. Coleman A, Checkland K, Harrison S, Hiroeh U. Local histories and local sensemaking: A case of policy implementation in the English National Health Service. Policy & Politics. 2010;38(2):289.
  4. Lowndes V, McCaughie K. Weathering the perfect storm? Austerity and institutional resilience in local government. Policy & Politics. 2013;41(4):533-49.

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