‘Sweden is ruled by unelected policy plotters’
Sweden has long been seen as the epitome of a healthy democracy. But in this week’s debate article, three researchers argue that an increase in unelected behind-the-scenes operators is threatening accountability in the Swedish political sphere.
Who has the power over Swedish politics and who decides how to shape tomorrow’s politics? The answer to these questions has long been a given, both in the public debate and in the text books used in schools and universities. Namely, our elected politicians, representatives of various social movements as well as big names in industry and large trade unions. Sweden has been considered an open and well-functioning democracy and we have known who these people are and have been able to hold them accountable for their actions and decisions. Citizens interested in influencing political decisions have had good opportunities to get involved in, for example, political parties, various movements or in the extensive spread of other voluntary associations. The political parties in particular have presented themselves as grassroots’ and members’ organizations.
This rosy picture of Swedish democracy has, however, been increasingly questioned. In particular, political parties and the traditional social movements’ have faced criticism for how they operate. The difficulty to engage new members has been highlighted and many opinion polls have indicated weak confidence in the political parties.
In the latest survey of confidence in the central Swedish civic institutions conducted by the SOM Institute at Gothenburg University the political parties and local authority boards ended up at the bottom of the table, far behind institutions that cannot be elected through a vote (and thus not ‘voted out’ either) such as universities and seats of higher education, courts, police and health care. Trade unions also trailed far behind in this barometer of trust. Naturally, it is fatal for a democracy when confidence in the institutions for which citizens can vote is significantly lower than those for which they cannot vote.
There are many ideas about the causes of this crisis of confidence for Swedish democracy’s central institutions. In a recently completed research project at the Institute for Future Studies (Institutet för framtidsstudier) we have chosen to investigate a largely unknown category of political powerbrokers whom we have chosen to label ‘the policy professionals’. These are people who are neither elected nor selected by the members of, for example, a large trade union, but are hired to conduct politics. They can be found virtually everywhere in the political system, for example in government and parliament offices, within the political parties, in local authorities, in trade unions and other lobby organizations as well as, not least, at PR firms and so called think tanks. They have a plethora of different titles: common ones are policial expert, press officer, political secretary, head of social policy, speech writer, communications director and so on.
It is true that people of this kind have long existed in our political system, ever since former Prime Minister Olof Palme was hired as secretary to the sitting Prime Minister at the time, Tage Erlander, in 1953. What has happened over the past two decades is that this group has grown to such an extent that one can speak of this as a qualitatively new means of political influence. To quantify the group is not easy, but according to our estimate it today includes at least 2,500 people. For the past ten years, a Swedish Prime Minister has had more political appointees in his government offices than the number of parliament MPs needed to run the country. Our investigation shows that this is a group that exerts a significant but largely invisible influence on Swedish politics. This is by no means a group that only serves its elected officials but they participate directly, and often on their own initiative, in the formulation of policies, proposals and strategies.
The ‘policy professionals’ laregly consist of young, Stockholm-based and highly educated people and they are generally characterized by a very strong desire for political power. However, they themselves usually don’t have any inclination towards standing for elected office – the traditional kind of political influence is seen by them as slow, unglamorous and, interestingly, less effective when it comes to conducting politics than to act as a policy professional. In our material, it is also evident that many policy professionals have a surprisingly negative image of representative democracy and elected politicians. In many cases the policy professionals perceive themselves to have far more power than their elected employers.
The policy professionals nowadays form such a major political category that they have created their own venue (Almedalen in Gotland), a partially internal vocabulary with terms such as ‘policy development’ and not least extensive dedicated networks which are an important resource in their efforts to exert influence. With a concept drawn from anthropology, one can today view the policy professionals as a new political ‘tribe’ in the Swedish political landscape with its specific social codes, rituals and characteristics.
What does this development mean for the health of Swedish democracy? One result from our study is the increasing importance of money in Swedish politics. To be able to afford plenty of PR consultants and think tanks is becoming all the more important in this new political landscape. Another problem is that someone as a policy professional could be employed by the government one day, with strong influence over major arms deal, and then the next day be employed by the defence industries directly dependent on these weapons contracts.
Unlike other countries, Sweden lacks a so called grace period that restricts this traffic between political power and economic profit interests. This development also means strong professionalization and centralization of political power within parties and organizations. Members who want to make an impact often encounter a battery of employees with significantly more information and knowledge than they themselves have. In big cities we can observe a very strong increase in the number of employed information officers, while the number of journalists scrutinizing local authorities’ power has decreased sharply.
Another effect is that this increases the ambiguity of who actually makes the decisions in important issues. The Swedish constitution, for example, mentions nothing about how to demand accountability from this new and extensive category of political decisionmakers.
Finally, we assert that the use of PR firms and think tanks for what is termed ‘policy development’ can lead to the politcal parties’ own ability to themselves generate political innovation gradually growing numb. To replace active members and elected officials with these hired ‘political experts’ or PR consultants could in the long term do a grave disservice to Swedish democracy.
This is a translated version of a debate article written by Christina Garsten (social anthropology professor at Stockholm University), Bo Rothstein (political science professor at Gothenburg University) and Stefan Svallfors (sociology professor at Umeå University), and originally published in Dagens Nyheter.