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Steven Rathgeb Smith's (Executive Director of the American Political Science Association) visit at UCL SPP

6 February 2014

Steven Smith

Professor Steven Rathgeb Smith is the new Executive Director of the American Political Science Association (APSA), of which he has been a member for over 30 years. He holds a PhD in Political Science from MIT and has taught at a number of major American universities, including Duke and Georgetown. Steven is a leading scholar on non-profit organisations, public management and social policy.

He is currently co-researching a comparative project into the welfare-state regimes of Canada, the US, the UK and Australia. Looking at the relationship between the voluntary sector and the state, Smith’s research asks to what extent there is convergence or change amongst these countries, in their provision of public services. He argues that there is convergence with regard to a move towards a more market-orientated approach to public service provision. On the other hand, Smith argues that the UK is distinct from the US in the emphasis that David Cameron has placed on the ‘Big Society’ meaning the provision of services by the voluntary sector is more pronounced in the UK than in the US.

During Smith’s visit to UCL, we asked him about the implications of his research and also to share with us some insights into his professional development, and as Executive Director of the APSA his ambitions for political science.

Q: Are there any experiences or reasons that you can highlight for your interest in public management, non-profits and the voluntary sector?

A: That’s an interesting question. Certainly my formative experience was working in the voluntary sector after university- in child welfare- and then got a Masters in social work. I initially thought I might work in direct services, but then I changed focus while I was in graduate school to policy administration and that led me to a research career in policy administration.

Q: Was that based at all on a feeling that you could have more impact by going into research and the policy side of things?

A: Well, it’s a different kind of impact. I got very interested in doing research and I was attracted to learning about different voluntary organisations and how they are managed. By writing on the topic, I did feel that I could have a broader impact on how people manage these organisations and manage their relationship with the government. I like the teaching part of being a faculty member, too. Certainly if you’re working in a direct service role you can have a profound influence on people’s lives, but it’s different kind of influence.

Q: What do you think the voluntary sectors’ future role will be, especially in the context of the economic crisis?

A: I think there will continue to be a role for community-based organizations, and if anything their role will grow as the public services continue to be restructured. But in certain policy areas that lend themselves to routinisation and standardisation, such as home-care for the elderly or disabled, across the world you’re seeing a growing role for for-profit organisations and a declining role for the voluntary sector. The remaining kind of voluntary organisations in those kind of services tend to be large. One of the big issues in Sweden these days is the growing role of for-profit healthcare companies. Sweden is a little different in that they have an important role for the state sector and a small role for the voluntary sector in the area of social health services, where service delivery which has mostly been controlled by local government.

So I think that the voluntary sector will remain important, particularly at the community level, but I do think that in some of the other service categories for-profits will continue to play a prominent role.

Q: You spoke about decentralisation of the provision of ‘human services’ in the US- if provision is based more on market demand, will there be less continuity in the kind of services provided?

A: I was just writing an article about this. I do think that the environment for the voluntary sector is more turbulent than it used to be. Before, some of these large voluntary organisations in the US and the UK could depend on government funding- they had a kind of market niche that was quite stable. Now it’s quite a turbulent environment, which is prone to disruptions- whether it’s budgetary disruptions that might be influenced by the economy, or political change.

The similarity that you have between the US and the UK is that the national government has historically provided some way of ensuring that there’s more equitable delivery of services around the country. To the extent that you get more decentralization and national government cuts back on its role, you’re going to get more variation at the local level. And it seems to me that’s what’s occurring in the UK as well.

Q: So access to services is becoming more of a post-code lottery?

A: Yes, for the users it’s very insecure absolutely, and in the US it also means that the voluntary organisation itself is in a more uncertain environment. There’s been a big discussion in the voluntary sector about the role of business models and how that affects the way you manage these organisations. The argument would be that voluntary sector organisations faced with uncertainty are more risk-averse, and so are more likely to adopt various kinds of business models or financial measures and financial management tools from the business sector. The interest in social enterprises and social innovation also means that it’s attractive to adopt these more commercial business-oriented models in the sector as well.

Colleague and friend Dr. Sarabajaya Kumar: You also get very high-profile business people who say they don’t think certain organisations should be funded if they’re not efficient and run in a business-like way, which has an influence.

Q: Do you think governments who encourage voluntarism as a replacement for public service provision are shirking their responsibilities?

A: I do think what’s happened in the UK and to a certain extent in the US as well, is that the public sector just cuts back and leaves it essentially to the local community by saying do it on your own without any money and on a volunteer basis. I don’t think that’s fair, and in this way I do think that the public sector is shirking their responsibilities. If the public sector said we’re not going to provide it through the public sector anymore, we’re going to shift it to the voluntary sector organizations, and we’re going to give them some money to do it, then that’s something different. You see some of that transfer in the U.S. [from the public sector to the voluntary sector], particularly with things like public parks and recreation. And it has had the effect of engaging a lot of community members in a kind of co-production activity and mobilizing community members in volunteering and donating money. And I think that it can work sometimes.

I think that the drawback in volunteering is there are also differences in class and education. Also, different communities and different service categories are more likely to have volunteers than others. Over the years I’ve done quite a bit on substance abuse and treatment services, which historically in the United States get very little philanthropy. It’s very difficult to generate donations and they get very few volunteers. Some of the services for the chronically mentally ill also have difficulty generating philanthropic dollars. So in those cases for the public sector to say we’re not going to provide these services, we’re going to depend on volunteers, even with some public funding, seems like an abdication of responsibility because you know they are going to have great difficulty generating philanthropy.

Q: Do you think there are weaknesses in the field of political science that need strengthening? And how do you think APSA could help with this right now?

A: Well, political science is a very diverse field. You have people with very different approaches to the study of political science; they have very different substantive interests. Some are interested in theory, some are interested in comparative politics, some in international relations or in citizenship. Political science as an association has responded by saying, well, we’re an association that any political scientist can join but we have subfields that people with similar interests can join. I think in many ways it reflects the dynamics of any large membership association as it evolves and changes. But the challenge of course, and I think that this is something that the APSA faces today, is to say what the relationship between these sub-fields is to the larger association.

I think that academic associations are facing many of the same challenges that are affecting other institutions in society. There’s a dis-aggregating impulse going on. Academic associations used to have to join academic associations because you needed the journal and you had to go to the conference. But now you can get the journal online. So now people individually become more powerful in terms of the kind of information they have access to and have control over. It’s changed the role of academic associations.

I think political science is facing more questions about the value of political science, such as how do you become a better person by studying political science in a university, or do you become a better citizen if you study political science? And then it’s a question about the value of political science research, which I think we’re delving into in the United States. APSA is a part of that conversation. A lot of political scientists study elections, and you can kind of see where that might have some important impact in terms of promoting transparency and good elections, and less corruption and fairness and things like that. But I think for some things in political science it’s a little more complicated to see what the point is. I think that’s going to be a big challenge for us, to communicate the value of political science.

This interview was taken by Harriet Bradley and Francisca Stewart, SPP students and members of the International Public Policy Review.

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