Flexible framing: Analysing innovative austerity talk from a cultural perspective

Date01 September 2018
Published date01 September 2018
AuthorTom Overmans
Flexible framing: Analysing innovative austerity
talk from a cultural perspective
Tom Overmans
Utrecht University School of Governance,
Utrecht, The Netherlands
Tom Overmans, Utrecht University School of
Governance, Bijlhouwerstraat 6, Utrecht 3511
ZC, The Netherlands.
Email: j.f.a.overmans@uu.nl
This article examines how local policy elites conceptualize and
communicate potential innovations to overcome the fiscal crisis.
Four austerity frames based on cultural theory are developed: an
individualist, hierarchist, egalitarian and fatalist frame. Two expec-
tations are tested by tracing frame usage in austerity speeches by
the leadership in Birmingham, Cologne and Rotterdam. First, the
modest contribution of the individualist frame in NPM-sceptic
Cologne is confirmed, but no evidence is found of individualist
dominance in NPM-minded Birmingham. Second, it is shown that
leaders in Birmingham and Rotterdam combine elements of multi-
ple frames so as to create a new promising narrative which opens
up routes towards innovation. The importance of frame flexibility
is stressed to deal with the complexities of coping with the fiscal
crisis in ways that are logical (given available views) and innovative
(exploring alternative views), and highlight the importance of fur-
ther developing understandings of such (municipal) coping.
As a result of the global financial crisis (GFC) municipalities around the globe have been dealing with austerity
roughly between 2009 and 2016. Both in practice and academia a strong call for innovative responses has been
expressed, in addition to straight financial cuts (e.g., Raudla et al. 2015; Schmidt et al. 2017). Innovation, however, is
contested. In the field of public management, it is usually interpreted as a process of improving existing products and
services of public organizations (see Gillinson et al. 2010; Pollitt 2010). It is discussed in terms of efficiencygains and
doing more with less. Although spending less money is great in austere times, doing more of the same might not
always be a good thing. The relevance of looking only at improvements that fit with the fashionable doctrines can
severely limit perspective.
Following Sørensen and Torfing (2011), it is theorized that innovation is also about the exploration of new ideas
and concepts that go beyond the dominant doctrine. Being innovative, then, requires the ability to link alternative
worldviews and narratives to the major doctrines (see Hood 2000). It involves the capacity to explore unknown
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12412
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
© 2018 The Author. Public Administration published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
594 wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/padm Public Administration. 2018;96:594610.
metaphors as well as exploit dominant views, so that new narratives are established. The exploration of alternative
views, for instance, allows the development of ideas for insourcing services in market-oriented environments, or
using citizens' initiatives in climates that have been dominated by experts. Despite the increased attention for inno-
vation, it remains unclear how the development of innovative ideas evolves.
This article focuses on rhetorical innovation processes in municipalities that are in fiscal crisis. Emphasis is placed
on the frames that local policy elites use when communicating with the public the need for and direction of innova-
tion. The central research questions are:
How have local policy elites conceived the municipal fiscal crisis? To what extent have they used rhe-
torical aspects from alternative worldviews to move beyond the dominant doctrine and establish a
new narrative that paves the way for innovation?
I study the presence and usage of different worldviews and narratives by highlighting four austerity frames, building
on cultural theory (Douglas 1982). CT offers the possibility of tracing different conceptions of the crisis and innova-
tive solutions to deal with it, and helps to make sense of the local austerity debate. Two distinct though not strictly
mutually exclusive expectations are tested. First, drawing on Pollitt and Bouckaert (2011), I expect that the presence
of the individualist frame is related to the importance attached to the NPM philosophy. The NPM-expectation sug-
gests that the individualist frame is omnipresent in NPM-minded climates whereas it is largely absent in NPM-sceptic
climates. Second, I expect that austerity management is framed in ways that go beyond the dominant worldviews to
meet the desire for sweeping innovation. The variety-expectation suggests that more than one austerity frame is pre-
sent in the debates by which local policy elites attempt to set the agenda and pave the way for broader innovation.
I empirically analyse the rhetoric of local policy elites by studying austerity-related speeches. Policy elites are
referred to as those actors who hold political resources to be utilized to exert potential influence in various stages of
the municipal policy process, including agenda setting, policy analysis, policy formulation, policy implementation and
policy feedback(Moyer and Song 2016). Local policy elites, such as mayors, city council members, aldermen, and city
managers, are able to frame problems in a specific way, thereby shaping the course of action. Because the assess-
ment of speeches requires intensive analyses in multiple languages, the selection was limited to municipalities in
three countries. The analysis requires different cultural environments and different degrees of NPM embracement.
Because this variety was found in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, the cities of Birmingham, Cologne and Rot-
terdam were selected with a focus on the speeches of the dominant local policy elites.
The article is structured as follows. The next section positions this study in a broader debate by introducing CT
against the background of debates about the GFC. In the third section four diverging frames are constructed to
enable a systematic analysis of differences in austerity rhetoric. Section 4 details the methodology used to analyse
the expectations. The results of the empirical analysis are presented in section 5 and discussed in section 6. Some
conclusions are drawn in the final section.
The GFC that hit most countries in 2008 has been heavily debated. In the early days, debates about the conceptuali-
zation and communication of potential crisis solutions were primarily conducted by state leaders and international
actors from the EU, central banks and IMF. From 2009 onwards, when the GFC caused major deficits in the whole
public sector, the discussions emerged at the local level. The debates have been accompanied by a plethora of diverg-
ing narratives and rhetoric about what happened, who is responsible, and solutions to deal with the crisis (Lodge and
Wegrich 2011).

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