Rethinking scale in public administration: Scalecraft and frontline work in England's localism agenda

Published date01 December 2017
AuthorNatalie Papanastasiou
Date01 December 2017
Rethinking scale in public administration: Scalecraft
and frontline work in Englands localism agenda
Natalie Papanastasiou
Amsterdam Institute of Social Science
Research, Universiteit van Amsterdam,
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences
and Informatics, University of Edinburgh,
Edinburgh, UK
Natalie Papanastasiou, Amsterdam Institute of
Social Science Research, Universiteit van
Amsterdam, Amsterdam Roeterseilandcampus,
Building C, 4.03, Nieuwe Achtergracht
166, Amsterdam 1018 WV, The Netherlands.
Funding information
Economic and Social Research Council, Grant/
Award number: ESI01943X/1; Leverhulme
Trust, Grant/Award number: SAS-2016-048
This article reviews how scale concepts feature in governance
studies and demonstrates that scales are overwhelmingly used
descriptively. Questioning the meaning of scales has been consid-
ered peripheral to pursuing the aims of public administration stud-
ies, and the article calls for this to change by conceptualizing scale
as a political concept. Focusing on the localism agenda reflected in
Englandsacademy schools policy, the article empirically demon-
strates the political nature of scale by identifying how the local
functions as a powerful political discourse. Analysis shows scales
being used strategically by frontline workers, exposing scale as a
malleable concept for resisting or supporting political agendasa
practice which is called scalecraft. Revealing contrasting meanings
of the local enables analysis to suggest how and why localism has
been met with contrasting degrees of controversy. The article sug-
gests how this new approach to scale can be integrated in future
studies of governance and frontline work.
The concept of scale has been used to guide some of the longest standing questions in the study of public adminis-
tration. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine what form public administration studies would take if they ceased to rely
on categories of scale, such as the localand national, to structure their descriptions and analyses of the political
world. This is particularly striking in the study of governance where key conceptual theories such as centralization
decentralization, multi-level governance, and network governance all focus on how the outcomes of governance are
affected by the distribution of roles, responsibilities and powers across different scales.
This article argues that governance debates have a limited view of scale. Scale is typically used to describe geo-
graphical size, the level of governance, or a particular territory which has resulted in scale being treated as an objec-
tive feature of the political world that can be measured and identified (e.g., Newton 1982; Scharpf 1997;
Hutchcroft 2001). By using scale as a supportive feature of political analysis, studies of public administration have
overlooked how scales such as the localor nationalare fluid and full of meaning, and critically, that these mean-
ings are politicized (Jones 1998; Marston 2000; Kaiser and Nikiforova 2008; Moore 2008; Papanastasiou 2017a).
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12362
Public Administration. 2017;95:10431059. © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 1043
This article empirically demonstrates this claim and outlines why exploring the political meanings of scale matters in
the study of public administration.
This issue is specifically explored by demonstrating how political meanings of scale are key to the construc-
tion of political agendas and that this profoundly shapes how public administrators understand their work. The
article empirically explores the political strategies of frontline workers and introduces a concept called scalecraft
which allows for the investigation of political uses of scale in public administration. These theoretical arguments
are developed through examining the political agenda of localismin England. Localism broadly refers to the
reallocation of power from the centre to front-line managers, local democratic structures, local institutions and
local communities(Evans et al. 2013, p. 405). It is a powerful statecraft ambition featuring in Westminster-style
democracies which political administration scholars have revealed to take many forms and have debated its
strengths and weaknesses (Parvin 2009; Crowe 2011; Hildreth 2011; Hodgson and Spours 2012; Lawton and
Macaulay 2014).
This article approaches localism differently by using it as a lens which reveals the political uses of the localand
demonstrates how frontline workers directly respond to the political use of scale through adopting strategies of
scalecraft. The article empirically explores this through examining a specific manifestation of localism in education
policy called the academy schools policy. The policy has been framed as being part of the localism agenda because
it gives greater individual freedoms to schools, for example in areas such as curriculum, management practices, and
financial expenditure. The articles focus on the academy schools policy is highly significant because the policy has
been at the forefront of government attempts to promote localism in Englands education sector (Clarke and
Cochrane 2013).
The policy is understood to be radically changing school governance (Ball 2007), making it highly
appropriate for exploring the political nature of scale and, in this case, how public administrators respond to political
agendas whose political discourse is framed in scale terms.
The article makes two key contributions. First, it makes a theoretical contribution by identifying a problematic
assumption that underpins public administration studiesthat scales are objective, descriptive categories of the
political worldby highlighting the political meanings of scale. This adds a novel dimension to the existing govern-
ance literature by demonstrating that the meanings of scale are inextricably linked to the process of governing. The
article shows how frontline workers use scalecraft strategies to respond to the political agenda of localism. This
demonstrates how political meanings of scale are an integral dimension of frontline work strategies which serves to
augment existing understandings about discretion in frontline work (Lipsky 1971, 1980; Lowndes 1997; Sullivan
2007; Durose 2009, 2011). Second, it makes an empirical contribution by providing an in-depth study of the enact-
ment of localism in schools policy, with analysis drawing on 30 interviews with local authority officers, school princi-
pals, school governors, and school sponsors from two local authority case studies. By examining the practices of
frontline workers, the article shows how responses to localism expose the localas having diverse meanings that
are used to pursue particular political directions.
To convey these arguments, the article first briefly reviews how the concept of scale features in the governance
literature in order to highlight how scale is treated as an objective and measurable category of analysis. The article
then proposes how to conceptualize scale as political by introducing arguments from political geography. The next
section outlines the methods underpinning the empirical investigation of the theoretical claims, and justifies why
studying the localism agenda is a particularly useful empirical focus. After this the article presents the research find-
ings which, first, identify the dominant logicsin the case studies and, second, demonstrate the political meanings of
scale and how scalecraft is an essential feature of frontline work. The conclusion further clarifies the theoretical
contributions of the article and outlines how the findings have augmented understandings of scale in studies of gov-
ernance and frontline work.
Education policy is a devolved policy area in the UK.

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