How can Historical Institutionalism and the analysis of Ideational and Material structures be used to inform an analysis of Theresa May’s decision to split the UKBA in two departments?
This brief seeks to illustrate how, and the extent to which, the decision taken by the current Home Secretary to derecognise the UK Border Agency and replace it with two new departments (Travis 2013c) can lead to substantive change for the immigration system. The essay starts by illustrating the potential of Historical Institutionalism (henceforth ‘HI’) to explain the complexity of practices of the UKBA over the past year. It will be noted that HI has much explanatory potential vis-a-vis the contingencies which frame the nature of the Agency and (subsequently) the possibility of path-dependence of the two new departments. However, it cannot provide insightful enough explanations over how the dynamics of ideas within and external to the Agency, can -or cannot- produce institutional change. For this reason, placed in temporal and spatial contexts, the ideational – material relationship will be of significant use to understand the possible future outcomes of the critical juncture which has emerged within this political context.
Theoretical framework
First, it is important to consider the theoretical and methodological frameworks of Historical Institutionalism. As a caveat, it should be noted that there is a need to concentrate also on the dynamic aspect of ideas and the distinction between material and ideational factors which have played a crucial role in the Agency’s performance. By doing this, I attempt to challenge the relative reductionism of HI (Lieberman 2002:698) by agreeing with Hay that ‘ideas provide the point of mediation between actors and their environment’ (2002:209-210; emphasis in original). With the use of HI, two important institutional processes can be addressed: change during a critical juncture and the path-dependence of the two newly established departments.
According to Hall and Taylor, an institution represents ‘the formal or informal procedures, routines, norms and conventions embedded in the organizational structure of the polity or political economy’ (1996:938). It is to be argued that ideas are real and have a causal effect on these phenomena. However, it is not to say that ideas alone determine material factors. In this case, May’s ideas can have a causal effect on the UKBA’s norms and conventions, but they are contingent upon the material needs of both the organisation and the political structure, which she seems to fail to acknowledge. Thus, the way in which the intertwining of the ideational and the material is placed within this critical juncture is of primary concern in analysing the effect of her decision.
It is widely agreed that a critical juncture is ‘a period of significant change, which typically occurs in distinct ways’ in institutions, and ‘which is hypothesized to produce distinct legacies’ (Coller, cited by Capoccia and Kelemen 2007:347). As such, by announcing (on the 26th of March 2013) the UKBA’s split into two new Home Office departments, Theresa May implied that her decision came solely as a result of the UKBA’s loss of popularity; she portrayed the organisation as ‘closed and secretive’, simply ‘not good enough’ (Casciani 2013). To put it differently, she claimed that she had discovered the critical juncture of the institution which legitimised her act to produce a divergence in the institutional trajectories of the immigration forces. On the other hand, ‘as counterintuitive as it may seem, change is not a necessary element of a critical juncture’ (ibid 2007:348). Having made this distinction, it is necessary to acknowledge that change is different in scale and nature.
The space – time dimension of change 
Although according to Hay, change is ‘invariably the result of a multiplicity of factors’ (2002:136), his analysis of it is concerned only with the notion of time (Bates and Smith 2008); however, this limited approach to change is not unusual within institutionalist theory. Seeking to avoid ‘pre-empting empirical answers through theoretical models’ (Bates and Smith 2008:194), for the purpose of this essay, it is not necessary engage with Hay’s more complex ‘punctuated equilibrium/evolution’ paradigm. Instead, the widely-accepted dualism ‘incremental-punctuated change’ will be used, noting that its pace and intensity can vary, depending on space.
Therefore, the uni-dimensional approach to the notion of change will be synthesised here with Bates and Smith’s proposition of time-space dimensions of change. Articulated this way, change takes different trajectories that can lead to the creation or transformation of spatiality (policy space, ideological space, cultural space [see Bates and Smith 2008; Middell and Naumann 2010:169]). These spatialities can themselves be characterised by their own temporalities. Thus, the immanence space-time within the realm of change should be recognised, as well as the nature of critical juncture within the context presented below; in short, ‘space is not static, nor time spaceless’ (Massey 1992).
Historical accounts and controversies – the case of the UKBA
All the controversial trajectories that the UKBA has been through in the past year, have led to an ebb and flow of incremental change. It is now time to focus on the UKBA’s practices by making use of diachronic analysis (‘the equivalent of a video “panning” shot which follows the motion of the object in question’ [Hay 2002:149]). In 2012 and 2013, the Agency has been accused of intense, rapid, negative changes: expanding their power over how other public institutions function (Matthews 2013; NCAFC 2013); discouraging immigrants to enter the UK (Travis 2013a, 2013b); detaining and abusing child asylum seekers (UK Visa Bureau 2012; Taylor 2013b); showing hostility and mistrust towards tortured asylum seekers (Siegfried 2013); mistreating LGBT asylum seekers (Roberts 2012); using violence against pregnant asylum seekers (Taylor 2013a; Travis 2013d), and providing ‘shockingly poor’ customer service (BBC 2012a).
These repetitive mistakes had been used by the UKBA leadership to further their own political agendas. Hence, in 2012 they increased the UKBA’s adherence to the ‘new managerial orthodoxy’ of public institutions. By adopting the principles of efficiency, quality, flexibility, competition and management-by-contract (see Lowndes 1997) they ‘restructured’ the Agency. At the expense of making redundant 5,000 employees (BBC 2012b; Bryant 2012), new sub-structures have been created, organisational responsibilities – devolved, and services – outsourced to private, self-interested and unaccountable organisations such as: Capita (Quinn 2012), G4S (which owns immigration detention centres) and Bernardo’s (which is part of the Workfare scheme) (Boycott Workfare n.d.; Corporate Watch 2011).
The lowering of standards of the UKBA’s performance emerged from the complex (dialectical) relationship between ideational and material factors. In other words, the material limitations of the Agency led to a lack of significant success in maximising its efficiency – or, to use May’s term: its ‘culture’. Within this period of continuous failures, the Agency faced an increased level of bureaucracy and decreasing transparency; May identified this critical juncture as an opportunity for her to further the government’s policies.
The role of ideas
The political context of her decision has been based on several factors. Taylor speculates that the time chosen for this announcement was due to the coming elections (2013d) and UKIP’s first victory of winning their first seat in Parliament (Watt 2013). Others would attribute it to the concrete failings of the Agency, or to the government’s strategic policies on immigration. Indeed, her announcement echoes Cameron’s speech on immigration (made only a day before hers) in which he declares that the government will take ‘tough action’ against undocumented immigrants (Sparrow 2013).
Theresa May, an appointed Secretary of State with a clear political agenda and ideological beliefs, is a strategic actor placed within a strategically-structured context. Due to her position within the ‘power geometry’ of the Repressive State Apparatus (which includes the UKBA), her decision has the potential of affecting this entity. As we shall see, her decision came as an attempt to rectify the Agency’s unintended consequences of failure, while attempting to increase its level of efficiency.
The use of language-games as a method of manufacturing punctuated change
In her statement, May uses sociologically relevant notions regarding the ‘culture’ of the UKBA. She says that ‘by creating two entities instead of one, we will be able to create distinct cultures’, which will take ‘high-quality decisions’ and provide ‘high-volume services’ (Travis 2013c). According to the government’s website, the two entities will consist of: ‘an immigration and visa service and an immigration law enforcement organisation’ (UK Government 2013). By paying close attention to the discourse of the two statements, we can see that May’s change is primarily instrumental. She treats ‘culture’ as an essential entity which can be acted upon by merely replacing it with new, superior and ‘essentialised’ ideas, rendering material interests (of the UKBA) actionable.
The controversy over the role of ideas in political analysis ‘tends to resolve itself into the question of whether ideas should be accorded a causal role independent of material factors or not’ (Hay 2002:205). Accordingly, her decision cannot overcome the organisational and material contingencies of the UKBA. Instead, bureaucracy will remain ‘the prime example of hierarchy or coordination by administrative order’ (Bevir and Rhodes 2003:42). Thus, by prioritising ideational over material factors, May is guilty of nugatory solipsism (Bhaskar 2008:142) – in other words, she disregards the current practices of the Agency and pretends that her own views are better and legitimate. In Hay’s terms, her promise for revolutionary change which would lead to ‘profound transformation’ of organisational culture cannot be materialised, as her means for doing so are purely ideational.
Blaming ‘culture’
Her strategy to avoid active, public blame for her decision, and to convince people of the urgency of her change consists of aestheticising her speech; by using what Wittgenstein would call ‘language-games’ which have no real meaning, she succeeds in hiding her responsibility for the UKBA’s past failings. Instead, she attributes the limitations of the UKBA’s imperfections to something as vague as ‘culture’, allegedly created purely because of the UKBA agents. Following the economic logic employed by her, it is likely that more intense pressure will be put on the departments’ lower-ranked employees to commit to new work regulations. Fear would be instilled in the new departments by requiring them to increase the ‘added value’ of their work (to be more ‘efficient’). Therefore, instead of increasing the number of staff members, May wants to gradually replace them with efficient and less-expensive technology. The IT facilities will be purchased in a context of state austerity and privatisation of public institutions, the discourse about which have come to ‘justify’ measures against the interests and needs of workers. Marx is once again right: the public should not simply believe her truth-claims, were they to avoid running into ‘blind alleys’ (Amin 1998:8-11).
The dispersion of change within different spatialities
As we shall see, the incremental change produced by her decision will be spatially disaggregated, affecting different groups and policies in a disproportionate way, and at different paces (asylum seekers; international students; business people; tourists; British citizens). What is striking, moreover, is the economic-political dichotomy formulated by May, between the undocumented immigrant and the tourist. Thus, one of the departments will adopt a ‘culture of satisfaction for businessmen and visitors who want to come here legally’, through service ‘that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here’. At the other end of the spectrum we find the dehumanised, mistrusted, economically-worthless immigrants who will have to deal with a hostile ‘organisation that has law enforcement at its heart and gets tough on those who break our immigration laws’. It is imperative to acknowledge that by omitting to make any references to asylum seekers, she considers this category as nugatory, although her decision will affect them profoundly, as their needs are more urgent than those of any other group of immigrants. Assuming the role as a political entrepreneur, she seeks to move the immigration structures towards a private organisation model, the two departments being target-focused, working together in a medium similar to the economic market.
Therefore, the event on the 26th of March 2013 is, without doubt, important for the immigration system in the UK. Different spatialities, according to their interest, time dimension and relationship with the UKBA, will be affected in different ways by this split. More research needs to be done in this area, to show exactly how much they will suffer or benefit from this change, and what possibilities they have to challenge the status quo of the immigration administration.
With the use of a historically-grounded institutional analysis, this brief has shown that the change brought by Theresa May’s decision to improve the administrative aspect of the immigration system does not represent a break with the past practices of the UKBA. The two new Home Office departments will be characterised by path-dependence, as the UKBA had already started incorporating more of the neoliberal ideology of government, before its split. Additionally, the analytical recognition of multiple directions of change in this brief has enabled an epistemic gain in our understanding of how institutions, ideas and social phenomena function. It is now clear that May’s decision will indeed, have long-term consequences, leading to other changes within the debate on immigration. In sum, HI’s theoretical framework adds significant value to the explanation of institutional change, offering the potential of expanding its paradigm, to include adding new emancipatory perspectives and concepts for the analysis of political phenomena.
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