Opinion: government environment bodies felt austerity hard. The Covid recovery is a chance to rebound

The legacy of government austerity is still felt by many agencies in government, writes Nick Kirsop-Taylor of the University of Exeter. But the government’s aim for the recovery from Covid gives them a chance to build back better too
Photo: Environment Agency

By Nick Kirsop-Taylor

16 Sep 2020

You can tell how current government ministers view of the effectiveness of austerity by the fact that talk of cutting the deficit through a return to similar spending restraint has been largely absent in the afterward of Covid-19, and the prime minister has declared there is no going back to the fiscal policy of the 2010s.

However, we can’t just wish away the austerity years or ignore their deep and lasting impacts on public services and departments going into the Covid-19 pandemic. Phillip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has argued (2019) that the austerity years caused more problems than they solved, and the legacy has meant agencies and departments were less resilient that they might have been.

This has implications for what we do next – and this is a particularly important for environmental agencies, who really suffered during the austerity years, and continue to be affected today. They are at the frontline of helping the UK deal with looming environmental and climate crises, and so understanding their post-austerity resilience is important.

In this blog I’m going to set out three particularly salient issues that these agencies currently face – issues of human resources, relationships, and mission – and the opportunity for renewal in a post-austerity – and post Covid-19 – world.

Human Resources

The challenge: Perhaps the biggest impact of the austerity period was the sheer volume of cuts in agency funding from government. This had the obvious implications of a reduction in staffing numbers, and in many cases led to reductions in discretionary activities in favour of statutory duties. Whilst there was perhaps some ‘fat to be trimmed’ – these funding reductions led to a) redundancies amongst the technical specialists –  critical to making these expert agencies, and b) a curtailment of professional and career development programmes. This meant that whilst agencies often maintained their breadth of expertise, the depth was expertise suffered.

The opportunity: Due to Brexit and the UK government’s 25-year strategy for nature (and forthcoming agriculture and environment bills) there is a need for these agencies to support the design of new agri-environmental policy and schemes. Moreover, the government is currently spending a lot of energy in projecting an international environmental agenda as part of the post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ agenda, which is leading to additional and new funding for environmental arms-length agencies. So, the opportunity is to not just replace those staff lost through austerity, but to #BuildBackBetter, as the government wishes, by replacing roles and designing and filling roles for the emergent challenges, technologies and international environmental leadership role envisaged.

Relationships

The challenge: Austerity also damaged the relationships between agencies and their friends and partners in civil society. The staff cuts outlined above led many agencies into closer relationships with government through shared roles and expertise, which in turn led to a growing distance between them and civil society partners who were having to rethink their own business strategies under funding pressures. This was made worse where communications were centralised – leading to a perception that environmental agencies were less effective at holding government to account.

The opportunity: Covid-19 is having an even more devastating impact on civil society partners than the austerity years did. In its wake there are going to be opportunities for environmental agencies to mend fences with struggling partners through offering targeting funding support, more partnering opportunities, and showing general solidarity with the sector in crisis (again).

Mission

The challenge: The funding cuts of the austerity years meant agencies had to cut staff, often this included specialists. Consequently, it made sense to share resources with ministerial departments and generally get closer to them. This was good for them in terms of getting closer to policy making and being able to really target their ideas at central decision-making. However, this also led to a perception from many civil society partners that they had somewhat lost their ‘arms-length’ impartiality, and this is problematic.

Opportunity: In the aftermath of Covid-19 any negative perceptions about impartiality might be redressed by refocusing on their mission as policy agnostic, evidence-based centers of expertise. And moreover, this doesn’t have to necessarily come at the cost of closeness to the central policy processes. Also, re-focusing on outreach and engagement activities with the wider ecosystem of civil society partners might go some way to mending the relationships damaged by austerity.

The austerity years had significant impacts on environmental agencies, but the aftermath of Covid-19 offers an opportunity for a reset – to somewhat draw a line under the damage caused by the austerity years and pivot towards their future roles and duties. As new funding flows to agencies to help deliver the ambitious ‘Global Britain’ environmental agenda there is a chance for them to mend fences with the partners in civil society who are also likely to be facing difficult times. And right now, these partners need help. Through re-focusing laser-like on their mandate as evidence-led experts working hand in hand with these partners there is an opportunity to transcend the legacy of austerity and dispel any perceptions about its effects on impartiality and effectiveness.

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