Cuts without conflict: The use of political strategy in local health system retrenchment in Sweden

from Social Science & Medicine at on July 31, 2019 at 01:48PM

Publication date: Available online 30 July 2019

Source: Social Science & Medicine

Author(s): Mio Fredriksson, Inga-Britt Gustafsson, Ulrika Winblad


Disinvestment in health services is seen as challenging by decision-makers as the public usually reacts strongly to rationing and retrenchments. Drawing on the literature on welfare state retrenchment – the reduction of public expenditure by cutting costs or spending – this article explores the development and implementation of a comprehensive retrenchment programme in one local health system in Sweden (so-called region). According to theory, retrenchments are both electorally risky and institutionally difficult. Nonetheless, they take place and in the local health system we investigate, without too extensive public protest and without decision-makers having to resign. The main question in this qualitative study is: why and how was it possible to make such comprehensive retrenchments despite being unpopular and facing many political and institutional barriers? Interviews with 18 politicians and public servants were carried out between January 18 and April 3, 2017, and analysed from the perspective of political strategy. They showed that the serious budget deficit, and a shared understanding of what the region’s problems were, are important explanations for why the retrenchment programme was possible to develop and implement. Based on a thorough internal review of the health system, a crisis discourse developed which partly depoliticized the retrenchment programme. Justification and framing are keys to how it was possible. The retrenchment programme was justified by arguing that current service provision exceeded that in comparable regions, and framed as necessary saving the local health system and enhancing quality. Important strategies were thus to redefine the retrenchments and to blame-share, the latter through politicians and public servants claiming responsibility together after involving the clinic managers. In sum, our study shows that the retrenchment literature and theories on political strategy may be fruitfully applied to the health-care sector as well. By studying the local level, our findings contribute to the retrenchment literature, indicating that political strategy at the local level is more about justification and blame sharing, than blame avoidance.