The Covid pandemic has shown the inestimable value of the vital public services local and regional government (LRG) workers deliver to cities, towns and rural communities every day. The continued provision of health, care, water, sanitation, electricity, transport, waste, funeral, housing and education services has made it possible for people to keep safe; for hospitals to treat patients; and for businesses and institutions to function through the public health crisis.
Local public services underfunding: the other global pandemic
Covid has also exposed another deadly global pandemic: the global investment deficit in local public services, epitomized by the ‘service desertification’ affecting many territories and communities, especially rural ones.
Decades of systematic de-funding, austerity, tax dodging, privatisation, LRG service ‘reform’ and ‘digital-only’ delivery have caused scarring damage and deepened inequalities in our communities. Such policies have often hidden the transfer of precious public resources needed to offer equitable quality public service access to everyone, everywhere into shareholders’ pockets. Meanwhile, public infrastructure and services in the global South remain insufficient or inaccessible, and many developing countries pay more to service their debt than they can invest in public services. For example, International Moneraty Fund (IMF) austerity cuts in just 15 countries have blocked the recruitment of over 3 million nurses, teachers and other essential public sector workers.
For LRG workers, this translates into insufficient staffing numbers leading to work overload and exhaustion. It means lack of adequate equipment to do their jobs properly, occupational safety and health (OSH) risks, and poor working conditions. This situation is increasingly driving workers away from life-saving public service jobs including nursing and care at this very critical time. Many LRG unions worldwide have had to fight for even the most basic OSH measures, personal protective equipment (PPE) and priority Covid vaccine access, such as the municipal education, waste and funeral service workers of São Paulo who went on ‘strikes for life’.
Public investment in local public services and their workers now!
Although the human and economic cost of public services underfunding is under everyone’s eyes, post-Covid austerity measures and LRG funding gaps may worsen, while corporate actors eye vital public services for new lucrative grabs. In 2021, LRGs worldwide are expected to have lost on average between 15-25% in revenues. In Africa, their revenue losses could be as high as 60%. In Canada, where LRGs can only collect funds through property tax and receive a very limited share of federal taxes from federal government the impact of the Covid revenue crisis on Canadian LRG service has been harsh: for example, layoff rates in municipal public libraries have been close to 90 %.
Public transport is also facing a global funding crisis. Falling ridership due to Covid has exacerbated already huge financing gaps: urgent public investment in public transport and its workers is a necessity to enable residents in cities and rural communities to go to work and reach public services, while fast-forwarding the de-carbonisation we urgently need.
Even where substantial national recovery plans are adopted, the staffing and human factor in public service investment is often overlooked. In Italy, the Covid national recovery plan allocates 4.60 billion EUR to infrastructure investment for kindergartens and primary schools – a municipal service where there is a serious lack of equitable access for many Italian families and territories – but the hiring of the over 20,000 educators needed to properly staff them is not budgeted into the national plan and left to cash-strapped municipalities to deal with.
Adequate public funding and long-term investment in local public services infrastructure and staff, equipment and training are long overdue and must be prioritised now. On UN World Cities Day 2021, PSI calls on the United Nations, national governments, international financial institutions, and local public service employers to stop rhetorical ‘hero’ hailing and to take concrete measures investing in local public services, providing protection, decent working conditions and fair pay to all LRG workers now, so they can be safe and confident as they continue to bring vital public services to all of us.