The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic followed a decade after the 2008 financial crisis and the related €85 billion European troika bailout of Ireland in 2010. The fallout led to a period of austerity with a significant range of expenditure cuts. These cuts had direct impacts on policy capacity of some sectors in society, including gendered interests, poorer communities and those delivering social services.
A decade later, austerity has had severe effects, particularly deepening the public service fault lines exposed during the pandemic. Social disinvestment has exacerbated existing underlying societal conditions, so that the pandemic is experienced unequally by groups of people of different class, ethnicity, gender and generation. Less has been said about how austerity also eroded the quality of local and social analysis available to policy makers, and how it has impacted who influences government’s pandemic responses.
The 2008 financial crisis and the consequent presence of the troika of the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the European Commission are associated with a healthy assessment of failures of policy analysis. This led to attempts to redress some capacity deficits, yet at the same time austerity eroded policy capacity in some sectors. Capacity for policy analysis in Ireland has grown unevenly: while economic policy capacity is arguably expanded, capacity for social documentation is eroded, with consequences for the management of COVID-19.
New models for longitudinal studies are yielding major insights, as are new forms of experiential and qualitative data. While generalist public service career patterns and ‘on the job’ skill development remain central, we see direct recruitment of sophisticated policy analysis skills and facilitation of professional career streams. Enhanced policy analysis is evident in entities like the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service (IGEES), the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (IFAC) and the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO). We see relatively strong capacity in some public health responses: the National Emergency Public Health Team (NEPHT) has capacity to draw on a range of skills, but we are not in such a good position to value the public health expertise. Stronger evidence bases better inform policymaking and enhance capacity to provide well-judged, informed, independent and timely counsel to the political system. The political system may not have sufficient scope to process and appropriately weigh such advice, and often filters it through a more qualitative form of local anecdotal constituency-based knowledge.
Irish social policy capacity has journeyed towards modernity, mobilising a range of new actors and institutions to create new forms of knowledge. The austerity period saw a ‘cutting back on equality’ where several social policy agencies experienced significant budget cuts or closure. The non-inclusive list includes the National Crime Council, National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, Education Disadvantage Committee, Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education, National Council on Ageing and Older People, Women’s Health Council, Combat Poverty Agency, Children Acts Advisory Board, Crisis Pregnancy Agency, Affordable Homes Partnership, Centre for Housing Research, Homeless Agency, National Economic and Social Forum, Office for Active Citizenship, Library Council and Comhar. Alongside their demise was a dramatic fall in funding of up to 35 per cent and related loss of 11,150 jobs in the voluntary and community sector. Civil society had to focus on immediate service delivery, and experienced an erosion of capacity for social documentation and policy analysis. At the same time, processes of marketisation and procurement inhibited advocacy and limited civil society’s voice and agency.
While some funding has been restored since 2013, other cuts remain in situ, and overall, social policy capacity remains reduced. A clear consequence of austerity was the reduction of gendered policy capacity reflected in severe cuts to key gender infrastructure, and delayed development of gender-disaggregated data and gender proofing of policy. Little surprise, therefore, that gender is not a variable of analysis in some pandemic-related income support and care-related policy decisions, and women’s voices are absent in key decision-making arenas. Family Resource Centres (FRCs) in disadvantaged communities were badly damaged by austerity. Budgets fell 30 per cent and, despite high levels of social distress and increased demand on services, were never restored to pre-2008 levels. Radical cuts in staffing meant FRCs had to focus on services and survival. Funding for social documentation virtually collapsed, the environment was inimical to fresh thinking, and acquired knowledge from valuable grounded work was not articulated in policy development. While FRC services were crucial for ensuring local support during the pandemic, FRCs were rarely consulted and little opportunity was taken to exploit their accumulated knowledge.
Austerity-era resource cuts impact on policy-opportunity structures, depleting both space and the capacity for social policy analysis, particularly within the equality and social justice sectors. Given ongoing social risks, and the likelihood of new societal crises (climate change, automation and digitalisation, COVID-19 mutation or an even worse and altogether new pandemic), Ireland needs to prepare for a future of permanent uncertainty. In the context of perpetual crises, Ireland should seek to rebalance investment in social policy capacity, voice and participation and ensure that no one is left behind or left out.
John Hogan is Lecturer in International Political Economy and Irish Politics at the Technological University Dublin. He is a policy advisor to the Irish government on lobbying regulations and former chair of the comparative policy section of the MPSA.
Mary P. Murphy is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University. Previously, she served as Commissioner in the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (2013-2017). She is currently a member of the Council of State.
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