Date01 September 2016
Published date01 September 2016
doi: 10.1111/padm.12267
Since the Great Recession, some have argued that local governments have become ‘austerity
machines’ that cut and privatize services and undermine unions. Weconducted a national survey of
US municipalities in 2012 to examine how service provision level and delivery methods are related
to local stress and capacity, controlling for community need and place characteristics. We nd that
local governments are balancing the pressures of stress with community needs. They use alternative
revenue sources and service delivery methods (privatization and cooperation) to maintain services.
Unionization is not a barrier to innovation. Further, we nd that ethnically diverse suburbs are
providing more services than other suburbs, thus acting more like metro core cities. We nd that
the Great Recession has not dramatically shifted local government behaviour to a ‘new normal’ of
scal austerity. Instead, we nd municipalities practising ‘pragmatic municipalism’ to maintain
their public role.
Some scholars have described radical changes in the public sector after the Great Recession
(Martin et al. 2012; Peck 2014). Using case studies of distressed cities, political geogra-
phers have articulated a new theory of ‘austerity urbanism’ (Peck 2012, 2014; Donald et al.
2014), arguing that local governments are undermining public service delivery, citizen
well-being, and social equity (Glasmeier and Lee-Chuvala 2011; Richardson 2011; Don-
ald et al. 2014). In public administration, scholars have argued that scal stress leads to a
‘new normal’ of cutback management (Pandey 2010; Scorsone and Plerhoples 2010; Martin
et al. 2012).
Boin et al. (2005) argue that crisis management in the public sector can lead to defend-
ing, destroying, or reinventing the established order. While the austerity measures that
governments adopt have signicant implications for public services, public administra-
tion scholars do not see the emergence of an austerity regime that destroys the established
order. Our researchsupports this view. We conducted a national survey of US municipal-
ities in 2012 to provide a comprehensive picture of service delivery in the aftermath of the
2008 Recession. Instead of austerity urbanism, we nd that local governments are pursu-
ing a ‘pragmatic municipalism’ that balances community needs and defends traditional
local government services within the limits of scal stress.
Local governments in the US provide public services, but they also serve as spaces
of democracy (Denhardt and Denhardt 2000; Nalbandian et al. 2013). Planning scholars
have argued that cities can be leaders of progressive municipalism (Clavel 2010), but this
is not widespread. Local governments are limited by weak own-source revenue struc-
tures (heavy reliance on property taxes) and expenditure pressures from growing service
demands (Pagano and Johnston 2000; Joyce and Pattison 2010; Pollitt 2010). The American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided short-lived support to local govern-
ments (Johnson 2009), and some public nance scholars forecast a permanent, growing gap
between revenues and expenditures (Ward and Dadayan 2009). Moreover, the difculty
Yunji Kim is at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Universityof Wisconsin-Madison, USA as of January
2017. Mildred E. Warneris at the Department of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University, USA.
Public Administration Vol.94, No. 3, 2016 (789–805)
© 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
local governments face after the Great Recession could be seen as a ‘transboundary crisis’
(Ansell et al. 2010) that crosses political, functional, and time boundaries. Transboundary
crises are particularly difcult to manage because they require ‘extreme adaptation and
unprecedented cooperation’ (Ansell et al. 2010, p. 204). Crisis management in the public
sector also involves trade-offs between efciency, effectiveness, and embedded democratic
values (Boin et al. 2005), and some argue that the broader welfare state is under crisis after
the Great Recession (Kuisma 2013).
The debate on how local governments respond to scal stress is a question of local
government agency – strong agency in the form of progressive municipalism or ‘auster-
ity machines’ shaped by the structure of scarce resources. We use the lens of pragma-
tism in our study because a pragmatic focus on problem-solving resolves the articial
agency–structure dualism (Farjoun et al. 2015). We examine municipal service provision
and delivery after the Great Recession and nd that local governments are practising
‘pragmatic municipalism’, looking to diverse revenue sources and alternative delivery
methods to maintain service provision.
Empirical work on US local government behaviour after the 2008 Recession is still scant
and is limited to studies with small samples (e.g. Skidmore and Scorsone 2011; Nelson
2012; Peck 2012; Donald et al. 2014) or time frames that may not fully capture the impacts
of the Great Recession (e.g. Lobao and Adua 2011; Lobao et al. 2014). Given the time lag
between public nance and market pressures, 2012 is a crucial moment in which to exam-
ine local government behaviour. For example, US Census of Governments data show that
property tax revenues started declining two years after the recession began.
Local government responses to stress
The public management literature builds on Charles Levine’s (1978, 1979) work on cutback
management and argues that local governments make step-by-step cuts to manage scal
stress (Levine 1978; Wolman 1983). However, Downs and Rocke (1984) found that local
governments are severely limited by mandatory or uncontrollable expenditures, argu-
ing that government managers try to cope with the ‘rising cost of operating a permanent
bureaucracy and maintaining current service levels in the face of ination and structural
change (e.g. change in demographic or industrial base)’ (p. 340). Pagano (1988) found local
governments to be more resilient; able to adapt to their environment through cost shifting
mechanisms (e.g. user fees; special assessments; sharing capital costs with developers and
other governments). Meanwhile, Bartle (1996) and Pammer (1990) reported unstructured
responses during retrenchment processes, supporting the ‘garbage can model’ (Cohen
et al. 1972) that assumes that organizational decisions are haphazard outcomes.
In the 1980s, Wolman (1983) found that service cuts areusually last resorts because they
threaten the environmental stability of local governments, but Scorsone and Plerhoples
(2010) identied a new era of cutback management that emerged in the early 2000s. In this
new era, local governments relied more on budget cuts and restructuring, rather than tax
increases. In a study from the 1990s, Pagano and Johnston (2000) projected service cuts in
local governments due to structural problems of weak own-source revenues and poorly
targeted intergovernmental aid. Martin et al. (2012) suggest that service cuts will become
part of the ‘new normal’ for many local governments in post-2008 recession times. They
foresee local governments with fewer resources and smaller workforces having to make
signicant reforms in service delivery.
Public Administration Vol.94, No. 3, 2016 (789–805)
© 2016 John Wiley& Sons Ltd.

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