Engaging with austerity: austerity management, discourse and the regimes of engagement

Sam Van Elk (2020)

PhD thesis, London: King’s College

Supervisors: Ewan Ferlie & Susan Trenholm

Abstract. Austerity is among contemporary public management’s defining features. Austerity management research traditionally focuses on the contents of budgetary changes and organisations’ broad strategies. While valuable, this high-level strategic lens comes at the expense of accounting for the austere situation’s turbulence and the grounded practices through which austerity is managed. Consequently, this thesis reconceptualises austerity management through Thévenot’s regimes of engagement (RE). This pragmatist lens better conceptualises actors’ situated dilemmas and consequent practices. Thévenot’s approach particularly suits austere environments, whose scarcity surfaces public organisations’ latent inter-goal conflicts: RE differentiates modes of action by the different goods people seek. To capture the national and organisational debate in whose context public managers operate, RE was combined with Critical Discourse Analysis. The resultant study focuses on a sector in which austerity management research is overdue: UK healthcare. It combines a case study of national policy with three organisational cases. Observations, interviews and documents are analysed discursively, processually and pragmatically. The resultant findings enable three theoretical contributions. The first emphasises the linguistic situating work we do to establish the nature of situations we encounter. It particularly emphasises its importance in shaping the national austerity situation. The second highlights an annual cycle of instability as organisations’ emphasis shifts between reporting acceptable financial plans and making those often highly optimistic numbers real. The third demonstrates that austerity destabilises the very coordination devices which people deploy to manage it. Together, these contributions conceptualise austerity management as a set of responses to a situation. It notes how austerity’s evaluative and situational instability undermine traditional ways of coordinating work despite uncertainty. This recasts austerity management as not only a set of financial choices but also a search for coordination. Such an approach is needed to do justice to the messy realities of austerity which public managers know so well.