A look inside the COST Action ‘LocRef’ with Project Coordinator Christian Schwab – Interview

Interview: Christian Schwab, Project Coordinator

Interviewer: Théo Fievet, IIAS Intern

Théo Fievet (TF): Mr. Schwab, you invested a lot of time and energy in this project. From your own perspective, why was it important to organize and invest in such a research program?

Christian Schwab (CS): First of all, research in the field of local public sector reforms was heavily under-researched from a comparative perspective and also compared to the central level. Databases on local public sector reforms have been fragmented, incomparable, incoherent, nationally scattered and confined in their methodological approach. There are many national experts and knowledge bases, but they are dispersed and partly inaccessible for individual scientists, also from a language point of view. Someone from France wo is interested in comparing Napoleonic countries for instance, might speak a bit Italian and can find English texts from Italian scholars, but this might not be necessarily the case for Portugal, Turkey and Greece. So, one of the first things we had to do was to create an overview of the existing knowledge within each Working Group and to draft “country reports” for each reform area to build common knowledge bases that would not have been accessible due to technical or language barriers for individual scholars.

From this starting point, we gained descriptive knowledge on local public sector reforms (modes, degrees, reform trajectories and country-clusters etc.) in each Working Group to analyse the extent to which reforms have been implemented, to answer the question why local governments embarked on reforms (driving forces, stakeholders etc.) and to answer in the end the question if reforms does make a difference (effects, outcome; efficiency, effectiveness, quality of services delivered etc.) ,i.e. to gain also evaluative knowledge – everything from a cross-country comparative perspective.

“Of course, the outcomes (publications) are scientifically the most important result, but also “soft outcomes” count a lot to create a solid long-term research network friendship and trust within the local public administration research community.” C. Schwab.

Of course, the outcomes (publications) are scientifically the most important result, but also “soft outcomes” count a lot, i.e. building a common understanding for other countries and their (administrative) culture, support early stage researchers and, last but not least: to create a solid long-term research network (LocRef is by far the largest European network on reforms at the sub-national level), friendship and trust within the local public administration research community. For me, bringing together people from 32 countries and to see how they network, cooperate and create outcomes was after each of the 29 different workshops, conferences and training schools I organized and especially after the concluding conference in Brussels very satisfying and really worth the effort!

TF: Mr. Schwab, a PhD platform was organized for junior researchers who participated in the COST Action, what do you think about the research that have been led by junior researchers? What were the main focus and outcomes?

CS: During LocRef’s four-year term, we conducted four PhD training schools (in Paris, Siena, Spetses and Potsdam) and gave 23 mostly early stage researchers the opportunity to conduct (co-funded) research stays in our partner institutions (so-called Short Term Scientific Missions). In total, 178 early stage researchers have been involved in our PhD platform where we informed them not only about our funding possibilities, but also provided job announcements, call for papers and other sources of relevant information in our newsletter to them. The overall aim of the PhD platform was to train the next generation of local public sector researchers and help them to foster their careers. The training schools have been certainly the most valuable instrument to reach this aim (especially the methods training we provided was highly appreciated according to our evaluations), but also the research stays have been a success. Personally, I conducted a three-weeks stay in France where we’ve done research and developed paper strategies which have become part of my paper based dissertation.

By speaking of outcomes, this is generally a very individual estimation since PhD students have different personal aims: some want to improve their knowledge on theory and methods or their research question for their dissertation, some wanted to conduct for example interviews during their research stays and others just wanted to improve their papers or create/improve their network. This means, a sound evaluation of the research output is impossible since this is dependent on individual aims. Nevertheless, many early stage researchers contributed a lot to LocRef outputs like articles, books and special issues (and some have been even led or initiated by them). Our senior researchers involved them whenever it was possible and it worked out quite well – also in terms of quality of their contributions.

TF: Can you tell us more about the projects that the COST Action permitted? What was the decision-making process to get them started? Is there any particularly successful project you want to emphasis on? Is there a continuation of “LocRef”?

“It is important that we are able to “translate” our research findings in order to make them accessible and useful for policymakers by providing lessons learned and recommendations” C. Schwab.

CS: Currently, there are 13 books, 7 special issues and over 200 individual or co-authored articles that have been published or that are in preparation within the LocRef framework which is a very high amount of substantial output that we managed to achieve!  Most of them have been organized in a “decentralized” way in projects within our Working Groups, led by their leaders or other members. Others have been initiated rather top-down, by the chairs of our Action, Sabine Kuhlmann and Geert Bouckaert and by myself. It is really very hard just to focus on one special project, since all are worth mentioning. A good overview with short descriptions of the largest projects (like the POLLEADER-COST project, the Local Autonomy Index project or the book projects) can be found at our website (http://www.uni-potsdam.de/cost-locref ). Personally, I enjoyed the work very much in the “Cutback Management in European Local Governments” project conducted within Working Group II (lead by Emil Turc) and the work on two recent books “Local Public Sector Reforms in Times of Crisis” (Kuhlmann/Bouckaert 2016) and “The Future of Local Government in Europe” (Schwab/Bouckaert/Kuhlmann 2017). Especially the last one was important for me, not only because I’m co-editor, but also from a practical point of view. In my mind, it is not only important to conduct research as a view on its own, it is furthermore important that we are able to “translate” our research findings in order to make them accessible and useful for policymakers by providing lessons learned and recommendations. That’s what we did in this final volume.

In terms of funding decisions, the Management Committee of LocRef decided by vote about the distribution of the budget to the different instruments, also with regard to the funding of publications. Content-wise, to sum up, the mix of central steering and decentralization (to use administrative science terminology) was important and a key factor for success for us. You do need clear research agendas, developed from top-down which are “filled with live” at the operational level by our Working Groups. I also want to mention especially the good cooperation with the Working Group Leaders and the Management Committee of LocRef, especially with the Chairs who had brilliant ideas and who have been very enthusiastic and supportive.

Unfortunately, the COST Action LocRef has ended formally in March 2017 and we have no further funding to provide networking instruments on a regular basis (workshops, conferences, training schools, research stays). Nevertheless, our network will persist in several ways. Some pending projects will be finalized and others are planned. The network we created will come together, at least parts of our Working Groups, in the most important conferences like the IIAS/EGPA annual conferences where they work together and develop new ideas and projects. We will also continue for instance the PhD training schools with our partners from EURA/Euroloc and use our network to spread news, recruit and enthral new PhD students for our topics. This year’s training school will be held in Florence and for next year we try to go to Warsaw. Personally, I’m already looking for new possibilities to sustain research done within our “Cutback Management” group by preparing a new funding application – and I know that there are many other “sub-groups” who are doing currently the same. It should become clear that many future projects are more or less a result of our successful network activities and we can be proud of it!

“The network we created will come together, at least parts of our Working Groups, in the most important conferences like the IIAS/EGPA annual conferences where they work together and develop new ideas and projects.” C. Schwab.

Chirstian Schwab

Research Assistant – Academic and Administrative Project Coordinator

 Christian Schwab studied Business Management and Political Science at the University of Mannheim and Public Administration at the German University of Public Administration Speyer, Germany. He is currently working as a research assistant at the Chair of Political Science, Administration and Organization at the University of Potsdam where he is finalizing his Phd titled “Local Public Sector Reform: Resources and Personnel Management”. He has been for 4 years the academic and administrative Project Coordinator of the COST Action “Local Public Sector Reforms: An International Comparison (LocRef)”. His academic interests are evaluation and performance; public sector reforms; new public management and /post-NPM reforms; cutback and austerity management; human resource management reform; change management; personnel reforms in Germany; E-Government; urban research; comparative research.