Planning and Politics: Opposite Political parties, same local economic development agenda?

Milagros Gimenez

If you read Argentine newspapers or watch national TV news you might think that the political polarisation (left-right) in Argentina is extreme. Consequently, it is expected that this political polarisation translates to action, and that different types of public policy are designed that are strongly influenced by the ideology of the political party in charge. However, my experience working as a consultant in strategic planning in local governments in the North of Argentina suggests there are more similarities in the type of public policies than the literature suggests. To understand this seeming contradiction, I addressed this relationship in my master dissertation, submitted as part of the MSc Public Management at INLOGOV.

Argentina is a federal country divided into 24 provinces and more than 1300 local governments, and is one of the most decentralised countries in Latin America. After the last constitutional amendment in 1994, local governments have, by law, (defined in each of the provincial constitutions) a wide range of competences regarding not only the usual issues tasked at the local level (such as public street lighting and waste treatment), but also the promotion of the local economic development. Unfortunately, there is an incredible gap in the literature about the role of local governments in Argentina and an even bigger gap in our understanding of the role of local government in promoting local economic development.

My research explores what types of initiatives influence the extent to which local governments in Argentina promote local economic development and if, when an opposing political party is in charge at the local level, similar strategies will be carried out (shaped by the party ideology).

Interestingly, even though local governments have the competence to decide which initiatives they design, local governments are leading the local economic development (LED) area with similar strategic plans and almost identical initiatives. Local governments under comparison in this research have introduced initiatives to improve the employability of the population (labour supply) and for increasing labour demand using the municipal competencies, such as the use of land and creating new local sales channels. Moreover, the LED initiatives are, noticeably, identical; the Mayors‘ speeches communicate using a vocabulary similar to that of the political party to which they belong. These findings challenge the conventional idea that opposing political parties prioritise different public policies, an idea that is particularly prevalent in a country with strong party polarisation like Argentina.

Nevertheless, the next question is why how we can interpret these outcomes.

My research suggests four possible explanations, which can be the basis for future research. First, it could be that there is no political polarisation. Second, the cases may be outliers. Third, this may be a technical agenda rather than a political one. Fourth, and the most likely based on the evidence that I already have, is that local governments do not have `real` autonomy to decide LED strategy. That means LGs in Argentina in LED are not autonomous when it comes to the ‘real‘ distribution of power/competences/budget. With this in mind, LGs have two alternatives. First, they accept the LED initiatives promoted by other levels of governments or other actors. For example, public employment service was promoted at the national level and covers funding for the PES programme. The benefit of this is that these options are comparatively cheaper, as they involve investing only in human management resources. The downside is that local government does not have much influence on the initiative´s design and fewer opportunities to contextualise the programme to local needs (as the local economic development approach suggests). The second alternative is to develop and fund their initiatives. These initiatives are in general based on local strengths, for example close relationships with the local entrepreneurs.

In summary, this research provides evidence and valuable clues for further research about local governments’ room for manoeuvre in designing LED policies in a decentralised country such as Argentina and the relationships between politics and planning in a seeming polarised world.

Milagros Gimenez  is  an Argentinian economist, Chevening scholar and studying on INLOGOV’s MSc in Public Management.