'Peeling away the layers:' A study of a local authority budgetary process

Frost, Sandra (1990) 'Peeling away the layers:' A study of a local authority budgetary process. Doctoral thesis, Lancashire Polytechnic.

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This thesis provides topically a study of budgeting in an English local authority, Northtcwn district council. Unusually, it is based upon 'behind the scenes' participant observation, primarily of politicians in key financial roles. Influenced by "grounded theory" (Glaser and Strauss: 1967), Part I provides context and a study of accounting in action which successfully generates "thick description" (Der2in: 1983) of the budget planning process. Although the methods employed initially focused attention on action, the importance of structural dimensions of explanation is developed progressively.
Budgeting is presented as a multi-layered process of decision making, cower and ritual and symbolisi which Parts II and III seek to 'peel away'. Decision making provides the apparent focus for financial participants who appear keen to develop formally rational procedures.
However, the culture of conflict and contestation draws attention to a second layer of power. Attributions of power potential and use in budgeting are ccrnmonplace, but significantly the thesis also reveals "non-decision maldng" (Bachrath and Baratz: 1970). Strategic control of information and interpretation of the financial 'rules of the game' is used to cover up an embarassing and potentially damaging administrative error. It will be shown that although the decision process was non rational it was not irrational. The employment by politicians of different discursive symbols or metaphors reveals the third layer. Images of the authority as 'manager', 'guardian' and 'prisoner' daninated in the private, hybrid and public forums
respectively. The premium placed upon formal rationality meant that cover up of non rationality to maintain internal and external legitimacy was a logical response. The metaphors will be shown to derive from the central/local relationship and the role of the state.
The outward appearance of order and control, which convincingly disguised a more muddled reality, raises questions about its likely replication elsewhere. Some indicative suggestions for future research are suggested.

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