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Article

Cohesion Policy and European Union Politics  

Simona Piattoni and Laura Polverari

Cohesion policy is one of the longest-standing features of the European construction; its roots have been traced as far back as the Treaty of Rome. Over time, it has become one of the most politically salient and sizable policies of the European Union, absorbing approximately one-third of the EU budget. Given its principles and “shared management” approach, it mobilizes many different actors at multiple territorial scales, and by promoting “territorial cooperation” it has encouraged public authorities to work together, thus overcoming national borders. Furthermore, cohesion policy is commonly considered the most significant expression of solidarity between member states and the most tangible way in which EU citizens “experience” the European Union. While retaining its overarching mission of supporting lagging regions and encouraging the harmonious development of the Union, cohesion policy has steadily evolved and adapted in response to new internal and external challenges, such as those generated by subsequent rounds of enlargement, globalization, and shifting political preferences regarding what the EU should be about. Just as the policy has evolved over time in terms of its shape and priorities, so have the theoretical understandings of economic development that underpin its logic, the nature of intergovernmental relations, and the geographical and administrative space(s) within which the EU polity operates. For example, whereas overcoming the physical barriers to economic development were the initial targets in the 1960s and 1970s, and redesigning manufacturing clusters were those of the 1980s and 1990s, fostering advanced knowledge and technological progress became the focus of cohesion policy in the new century. At the same time, cohesion policy also inspired or even became a testing ground for new theories, such as multilevel governance, Europeanization, or smart specialization. Given its redistributive nature, debates have proliferated around its impact, added value, and administrative cost, as well as the institutional characteristics that it requires to function. These deliberations have, in turn, informed the policy in its periodic transformations. Political factors have also played a key role in shaping the evolution of the policy. Each reform has been closely linked to the debates on the European budget, where the net positions of member states have tended to dominate the agenda. An outcome of this process has been the progressive alignment with wider strategic goals beyond cohesion and convergence and the strengthening of linkages with the European Semester. However, some argue that policymakers have failed to properly consider the perverse effects of austerity on regional disparities. These unresolved tensions are particularly significant in a context denoted by a rise of populist and nativist movements, increasing social discontent, and strengthening Euroskepticism. As highlighted by research on its communication, cohesion policy may well be the answer for winning back the hearts and minds of European citizens. Whether and how this may be achieved will likely be the focus of research in the years ahead.

Article

Democratic Backsliding in the European Union  

Nick Sitter and Elisabeth Bakke

Democratic backsliding in European Union (EU) member states is not only a policy challenge for the EU, but also a potential existential crisis. If the EU does too little to deal with member state regimes that go back on their commitments to democracy and the rule of law, this risks undermining the EU from within. On the other hand, if the EU takes drastic action, this might split the EU. This article explores the nature and dynamics of democratic backsliding in EU member states, and analyses the EU’s capacity, policy tools and political will to address the challenge. Empirically it draws on the cases that have promoted serious criticism from the Commission and the European Parliament: Hungary, Poland, and to a lesser extent, Romania. After reviewing the literature and defining backsliding as a gradual, deliberate, but open-ended process of de-democratization, the article analyzes the dynamics of backsliding and the EU’s difficulties in dealing with this challenge to liberal democracy and the rule of law. The Hungarian and Polish populist right’s “illiberal” projects involve centralization of power in the hands of the executive and the party, and limiting the independence of the judiciary, the media and civil society. This has brought both governments into direct confrontation with the European Commission. However, the EU’s track record in managing backsliding crises is at best mixed. This comes down to a combination of limited tools and lack of political will. Ordinary infringement procedures offer a limited toolbox, and the Commission has proven reluctant to use even these tools fully. At the same time, party groups in the European Parliament and many member state governments have been reluctant to criticize one of their own, let alone go down the path of suspending aspect of a states’ EU membership. Hence the EU’s dilemma: it is caught between undermining its own values and cohesion through inaction on one hand, and relegating one or more member states it to a second tier—or even pushing them out altogether—on the other.

Article

Information Processing and Digitalization in Bureaucracies  

Tero Erkkilä

Bureaucracies and their processing of information have evolved along with the formation of states, from absolutist to welfare state and beyond. Digitalization has both reflected and expedited these changes, but it is important to keep in mind that digital-era governance is also conditioned by existing information resources as well as institutional practices and administrative culture. To understand the digital transformations of states, one needs to engage in contextual analysis of the actual changes that might show even paradoxical and unintended effects. Initially, the studies on the effects of information systems on bureaucracies focused on single organizations. But the focus has since shifted toward digitally enhanced interaction with the society in terms of service provision, responsiveness, participatory governance, and deliberation, as well as economic exploitation of public data. Indeed, the history of digitalization in bureaucracies also reads as an account of its opening. But there are also contradictory developments concerning the use of big data, learning systems, and digital surveillance technologies that have created new confidential or secretive domains of information processing in bureaucracies. Another pressing topic is automation of decision making, which can range from rules-based decisions to learning systems. This has created new demands for control, both in terms of citizen information rights as well as accountability systems. While one should be cautious about claims of revolutionary changes, the increasing tempo and interconnectedness characterizing digitalization of bureaucratic activities pose major challenges for public accountability. The historical roots of state information are important in understanding changes of information processing in public administration through digitalization, highlighting the transformations of states and new stakeholders and forms of collaboration, as well as the emerging questions of accountability. But instead of readily assuming structural changes, one should engage in contextualized analysis of the actual effects of digitalization to fully understand them.

Article

Real Property Tax in Local Public Finance  

Yilin Hou

The real property tax (RPT) is a major, stable revenue source for local governments to provide basic public services. The quality, quantity and reliability of public services in a locality are key indicators of the living standards. The service responsibilities require local governments to maintain stable revenues. RPT is a tax on owning and holding land and structures on land, and RPT is a very old tax, dating back to ancient times when land and products thereof were the most important assets. RPT has been used by governments of all countries throughout history, although with huge variation in formats and ways of use. Despite numerous pitfalls in its design and administration, RPT has remained a pillar of local revenue, accounting for a high percentage of total local revenue. Thus, it is important to understand RPT and its roles in local public finance. RPT was mistakenly dubbed the worst tax, a misnomer that has caused misperception of the tax that should be corrected. RPT is one essential pillar of a modern tax system. The design and maintenance of an optimal RPT should follow six principles. The complexity of RPT is with key aspects in its administration, with the weakest link in property value assessment. Exemptions and limitations add to the complexity of RPT, causing unintended consequences. From a panoramic view, RPT has adapted to changes of the society and economy; it still holds prospects as an optimal tax and remains the cornerstone of accountable and sustainable local public finance.

Article

Regulatory Governance: History, Theories, Strategies, and Challenges  

David Levi-Faur, Yael Kariv-Teitelbaum, and Rotem Medzini

Regulation, that is, rulemaking, rule monitoring, and rule enforcement, is both a key policy and legal instrument and a pillar of the institutions that demarcate political, social, and economic lives. It is commonly defined as a sustained and focused control mechanism over valuable activities using direct and indirect rules. Most frequently, regulation is associated with the activity of public independent regulatory agencies, designed to promote economic, social, risk-management, integrity, or moral goals. Since the 1990s, more and more states worldwide are establishing such agencies and placing more emphasis on the use of authority, rules, and standard-setting, thus partially displacing earlier emphasis on public ownerships and directly provided services. Alongside this rise of the “regulatory state,” the expansion of regulation is also reflected in the rapidly growing variety of regulatory regimes that involves nonstate actors, such as private regulation, self-regulation, and civil regulation. Regulatory regimes can be explained and assessed from three theoretical perspectives: public-interest theories, private-interest theories, and institutional theories. Each perspective shines a different light on the motivations of the five regulatory actors: rule-makers, rule intermediaries, rule-takers, rule beneficiaries, and citizens. Over the years, diverse regulatory strategies evolved, including: prescriptive strategies that attempt to mandate adherence in precise terms what is required from the rule-takers; performance-based strategies that set in advance only the required outcomes; and process-based strategies that attempt to influence the internal incentives and norms of rule-takers. Although it appears that regulation is here to stay as a keystone of society, it still faces fundamental challenges of effectiveness, democratic control, and fairness.

Article

The Resource Curse in Latin America  

Elissaios Papyrakis and Lorenzo Pellegrini

The resource curse hypothesis suggests that countries that are rich in natural resources are more likely to experience poor economic growth and other developmental problems. Latin American countries show a mixed picture, confirming the idea that the resource curse is not a deterministic phenomenon and that dependence on, rather than abundance of, natural resources is associated with developmental failures. When looking beyond the nation state, local communities may benefit from royalties accruing to regional governments, often, though, at the expense of other socioeconomic liabilities (as in the case of negative environmental externalities). The case of Ecuador is in many ways exemplary of the resource curse in Latin America and the failure of policies to overcome the curse. While the country was always a commodity exporter, the intensification of extractive activities and the expansion of the extractive frontier (over the last five decades) intensified the severity of boom-and-bust cycles and compromised socio-environmental values in the vicinity of extractive activity.

Article

Transparency in Public Administration  

Tero Erkkilä

Transparency is one of the keywords of contemporary governance. It is often associated with democratic accountability, but it also carries connotations of market efficiency. Though transparency is a key concept for economics and politics, its ideational roots lie in access to government information. Transparency holds promises for increased democratization and economic performance, but these may also stand in contradiction. Coinciding with the rise of transparency as a token of responsible governance, we have witnessed rapid global diffusion of information access laws. In debates on public accountability, transparency appears as an element of both deliberation and performance, which is peculiar as these are often seen as complementary types of accountability. Moreover, increased transparency is often assumed to lead to increased citizen trust in government, but the relation of trust and transparency is more complex. Transparency also implies access to public information, which can consist of various types of documents and registries. Through digitalization, public information has become a pressing topic of interest, including as raw material for a knowledge-based economy. Public administration also manages significant amounts of personal data of citizens, raising additional concerns for privacy. While transparency and privacy are not antonyms, there is a trade-off between them. Nevertheless, transparency also appears as a means for holding government accountable for its use of registry data. Finally, transparency has become a measured element of governance indicators that are themselves an instance of transparency. As a key concept of public administration, transparency is relevant for both democracy and efficiency of governance, but it is ambiguous and even paradoxical by nature.