Opinion & Analysis

Is trying again and again to reform institutions worth it?

Efforts to make institutions more inclusive often end up in a repetitive cycle of failed reforms. But does this make inclusive institutional reforms pointless? Drawing on a new study, Licia Cianetti examines what this repetition means for those who want to implement meaningful change.

The work of making institutions more inclusive can be frustratingly repetitive. Whether you are an activist trying to change the way your local council provides services to its diverse residents, an academic pushing through another round of EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) reforms, or an equalities officer trying to implement better diversity policies in a private business, you will be familiar with this pattern: a new inclusive initiative is launched with great fanfare and expectations, then it slowly peters out through resistance or neglect, then something happens that brings equalities back on the agenda so a newer new initiative is launched and a new cycle begins.

Writing about EDI in higher education, Sara Ahmed described diversity work as repeatedly banging your head against a wall. Others have talked about repetitive cycles of attempted reform with regard to, for example, affirmative action and European Roma inclusion initiatives, and highlighted the exhaustion this entails for activists. Even beyond equity-driven reforms, reform agendas in, for example, public administrationeducationurban regeneration, or climate policies are also often stuck in seemingly endless cycles of repetition.

If repetition is such a ubiquitous feature of the politics of institutional reform, we must ask: why is this the case? And, most crucially, with what effects? If we are banging our head against a wall again and again, is it worth it?

The politics of reform

In a new study (available open access), I suggest an answer to these questions based on an in-depth analysis of forty years of attempts by Birmingham and Turin city governments to mainstream ethnic and racial inclusion and to embed stakeholder participation in their local policymaking. While the findings speak to the politics of reform well beyond city council’s equalities agendas, cities are a good observatory to better understand the repetitive nature of inclusive reform.

In a context of growing nativist and exclusive rhetoric and policies at the national level, there are great expectations that cities can drive policy action for a more inclusive (and also greener) future. So, if inclusive reform should work anywhere, it should be in cities.

Two post-industrial cities with large minority populations, Birmingham and Turin have both been pioneers of inclusive reform in their respective countries, instituting their first dedicated equalities offices in the early 1980s. Retracing the forty-year histories of these offices and their initiatives, and talking to several of the people that have been involved with them (both from the inside and from civil society), my study shows a similar pattern of repetition in these otherwise different contexts. It also identifies its key drivers and effects.

What drives repetition?

There are four contributing explanations for what one of my respondents called the “perpetual loop” of inclusive reform. The first has to do with the nature of the problem inclusive reform is meant to solve. Exclusions are deep-seated, complex, and stubborn issues that require long-term and multi-layered solutions. Their political salience, however, fluctuates over time and policymakers tend to address them more forcefully (typically by launching a new inclusive initiative) at moments of high salience, while at times of low salience, resources and attention are diverted elsewhere.

The second explanation has to do with the stubbornness of institutions: even when highly-motivated equalities officers push new reforms, they have to deal with wider institutions that are set in their ways and more or less deliberately stall, ignore or undermine change initiatives. This dilutes or outright frustrates reform attempts, pushing the need to try again next time. Moreover, leadership changes can undo much of the equalities officials’ painstaking internal advocacy work needed to build momentum for their initiatives.

The nature of the change agents (equality offices) provides a third explanation. There is an inherent “mainstreaming dilemma” between the existence of a dedicated equalities office and the need to make equality a core concern of the whole institution. This makes these offices – which are typically underfunded and not dealing with statutory obligations – vulnerable to periodic moving, redesigning, merging, shrinking and growing in response to equalities’ salience and leadership changes. The fact that they often have to rely on project-based external funding adds to the time-limited, repetitive nature of their work.

Finally, repetition has a self-reinforcing logic that provides a fourth explanation for its ubiquity. The fact that inclusion has been on and off the policy agenda many times breeds distrust and cynicism, pushing policymakers to come up with something new to signal that “this time it is for real”.

Taken together, these explanations make repetition near inescapable. So, is inclusive reform hopeless? Shall we just give up? Not quite. Not only because the alternative seems normatively and ethically untenable, but also because repetition generates both positive and negative effects that reform-minded actors can try to work with and around.

What does repetition do?

Repetition has two sets of effects on institutions: “sedimentation” and “erosion”. On the positive side, repeated attempts at inclusive reform make each successive attempt easier.

The first time an equalities office tries to organise a stakeholder inclusion scheme to bring relevant NGOs and community activists around the table with local government officials there are likely to be obstacles, resistances, and bureaucratic hurdles. With every successive attempt, bureaucratic resistance eases, people know who needs to sign what to make the next stakeholder inclusion scheme happen, and this kind of initiative becomes part of the institution’s routine.

As one of my respondents put it, this routinisation turns equalities work from controversial to “an element of normality for the city”. So even when initiatives do not deliver or only half-deliver on their promises, they can leave sediments behind that reformers can build on to push for further reform.

There is a reverse side to this, however. While it can sediment certain inclusive practices, aspirations, and ideas within an institution, repetition also erodes the transformative potential of subsequent reform initiatives. As many jaded activists and local government officials confessed, confronted with yet another inclusive initiative their response is fatigue, distrust, and apathy.

Moreover, the other side of the routinisation of inclusive practices like stakeholder consultations is that they come to be perceived as little more than “box ticking” by both those inside and outside the institution. Moreover, as part of the routine, they often involve the “usual suspects”: stakeholders that have already dealt with the local government, know how to navigate its bureaucracy, and as one of my Italian respondents put it, speak “progettese” (project-writing jargon). This erodes their potential as genuine avenues for empowerment.

What does this mean for the prospects of inclusive institutional reform?

Repetition shapes the opportunities and the limits of inclusive institutional reform. This is an important finding for public policy scholars, as it shows that we should pay more attention not only to individual reform initiatives but also to the type of sequence they are part of, which has its own independent drivers and effects.

It also has lessons for reform-minded activists and policymakers: a better understanding of how repetition works and what it does can help reformers take advantage of the potential for sedimentation while mitigating for its inherent erosive effects. While this is not a very optimistic view of the prospects for meaningful change, it is also not desperately pessimistic either.

For more information, see the author’s accompanying (open access) paper in the Journal of European Public Policy

Access the original publication here