What Coronavirus might tell us about capacities and resilience’s in environmental public agencies after a decade of public austerity

By Nick Kirsop-Taylor, University of Exeter

The current coronavirus outbreak has exposed cracks in the NHS that can in many ways be linked to ten years of public sector austerity. But what might these cracks tell us about the resilience of other public agencies, such as environmental agencies who have faced similar funding pressures over the last ten years, and who face systemic challenges in the climate crisis and ecological crisis? In the blog I explore these questions to try and understand what the future of these agencies might look like.

Coronavirus, the NHS, and organisational resilience

The coronavirus outbreak is a national challenge larger than any the UK has experienced since World War Two. Some have suggested that this represents the major test of this political generation, others, that it is a foretaste of other systemic challenges coming down the road; that call for new political and economic thinking. Whilst some have argued that it exposes inherent flaws in liberal democratic political systems real analysis of this might have to wait till the afterward. Most agree that the response of the National Health Service (NHS) and its doctors, nurses and aligned health professionals has been fantastic. Although a popular appreciation of the NHS has been a consistent feature of British social attitudes surveys the preceding ten years of public sector austerity has been showed to of seriously damaged its capacities and capabilities. This period has seen a reduction in state funding compared to projections of need coupled to increases in competitive and commercial structures and reductions in core funding. These have led to increasingly fragmented and dis-jointed services and focus on outsourcing and efficiencies. And whilst the coronavirus might be precipitating a rapid roll back the marketisation and commercialised aspects of the NHS we are witnessing the consequences of when public austerity meets a public health emergency.

Global risks and national austerity

The national risk register recognises global pandemics as the most pressing risk in a world of growing systemic risks. Alongside these however are other systemic global environmental risks that threaten the UK — such as climate change and ecological degradation. Just as the NHS is accountable for mitigating against global public health risks (or at least managing the consequences) public environmental agencies are accountable for meeting the risks of global environmental risks. However, the last decade of austerity has seen these agencies similarly defunded with services increasingly fragmented and privatised to the private sector. Whilst these are normal and accepted aspects of the Thatcherism that has prevailed for the last thirty years. If however we can conclude from coronavirus that systemic challenges require collectivised responses that fragmented public agencies struggle to respond to, then we should be asking what have the impacts of austerity really been on these agencies, and what does this tell us about their capacities and capabilities in meeting challenges such as the climate crisis. Although one political narrative tells that ‘austerity is over’ others show how this only addresses the surface of the deep structural scars left by austerity on the human, social and technical resource capacities of public agencies.

Public environmental organisations and austerity

During austerity the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs saw the largest (real terms) cut in budget of any Ministerial department — and these rolled onto non-departmental semi-autonomous agencies such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and others which saw budget cuts of up to 40%. These have led to internal re-organisations, rationalisations of services, retrenchment towards core functions, declining staff morale and potentially, increasing risk aversion in addressing complex or challenging problems. These have had deep impacts on their human capital, intellectual capital, and institutional capabilities retained within agencies. Certainly, these agencies continue to be staffed by bright, talented and hardworking public servants that have been innovating and trying to lessen the impact of funding cuts throughout the austerity period. However, it can’t be ignored that these agencies have been diminished and made less resilient by austerity. Whilst short-term injections of cash might help (see: The budget 2020), the diminishing of these agencies is not a situation that is easily or quickly rectifiable.  

Uncertain futures

As other blogs on this website highlight, coronavirus might end up as a gateway to social and political change away from the consensus of the last forty years. The consequence of which might be the rejuvenation of strong and resilient public agencies at a cornerstone of managing systemic global risks and mobilising collectivised national responses to those risks that can’t be fully avoided. In contrast others (the fiscal hawks) will argue that, despite the political consequences to the current administration, the cost of coronavirus and an impending contraction of the economy needs to be met through further longer-term rationalisations of public services and agencies. The key question becomes will coronavirus lead to more or less resilient public environmental agencies? A question that will likely be answered by which school of political thought comes to the fore in the current administration in the afterward.

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