The Mismanaged State

I try to imagine what Hjalmar Hammarskjold was thinking when he returned from St. Petersburg on February 6, 1914. He had been on a royal mission to the Tsarist court. He was called by the king to immediately return to Stockholm. He would, a few hours later, follow the Swedish peasants’ march into the courtyard within the castle. Gustaf V had time to consult with him about his reply speech, which for posterity became known as the Courtyard Speech. Ultimately, the events of this day caused the established minister Staaff to tender his resignation to parliament and Royal Minister Hammarskjold took over the government.

It really was a totally different time! Or…

Hjalmar Hammarskjold was 52 years old when he became prime minister. He had already managed to be both the minister of education and minister of justice. He had even earlier, as a senior civil servant, worked for the Department of Justice. The youngest son, Dag has said that his father came from a lineage of military and government officials. Two of Hjalmar Hammarskjold’s cousins ??became cabinet ministers, as well as his brother, Carl-Gustav.

It is possible that Hjalmar Hammarskjold was thinking of power and prestige when he, some days after the Courtyard Speech, was asked by the king to stand as head minister. But it is probably rather unlikely that it was ambition that drove Governor Hammarskjold to say yes to the king. A more reasonable assumption is that it was a true, natural sense of responsibility. Hjalmar Hammarskjold was an academic and a government official, a prominent man in the state. He was one of a handful of possible new government-builders.

Governmental power in Sweden in the early 1900s was backed by a thin layer of officials.

After the bourgeois electoral victory in 1976, I moved to the Treasury, as one of Economy Minister Gösta Bohman’s ‘coordinators’. Carl Bildt was the head of the Moderates’ coordination office but, according to Prime Minister Fälldin, he was too young (27 years old) to be appointed as state secretary. Bildt countered by refusing to participate in the state secretary lunches on Mondays. He sent me as a stand-in. Even less than Bildt was I then a state secretary (I was, two years later, in the next Fälldin Government) but I came to work with and get to know the first Fälldin government’s state secretary well. Not much separated them from the circuit to which Hjalmar Hammarskjold had belonged a little more than half a century earlier. Henry Montgomery, Johan Nordenfalk, Lars Wohlin, Sten Westerberg, Gunnar Nordbeck and Hans Blix found it completely natural to assume responsibility for national governance. Sure, they were aware that the parliament and ministers were, in some sense, their masters. But one’s own responsibility for the good of the country was much more significant than accountability to elected politicians. A little over 50 years had passed when the Fälldin government entered the Cabinet Office in October 1976. But the dualism between government power and parliamentary power was seen in parts of the Chancellery as significant as it was in 1914, when the last really big formal battle occurred between the power of government officials and parliamentary democracy.

According to the accepted history, the events of the years following the turn of the last century, until 1920, meant democracy’s and parliamentarism’s full breakthrough. The majority of the people took power from a power-owning layer of nobility and the economically privileged.

But an equally reasonable description – a kind of counterpart picture – is that there is a separation of powers, or power contestation, between the elected representatives and the public administration. If one violates all established concept usage, one can say that the state is one thing, democracy is something else. Democracy lives its life. Elections are held. Governments are formed. Motions are put before parliament – and rejected. While, in agencies and government offices, administrative and reform processes continue unaffected. It has been this way since the 1600s.

This counterpart picture is of course incorrect, but no more inaccurate than the accepted image of a ruling government power that is entirely subordinate to the elected parliament. We idealise and ideologise the description of the democratically governed state. The state existed long before democracy. The continuity of state power is much stronger than this ideologised picture tells. Without resorting to metaphysical speculation: the state is something in itself. It should be analysed and understood precisely as ”the state”, not primarily as ”the democratic state” or ”the modern state” or ”the state of the information society”.

From 2009, I was CEO of Sveriges Radio (Sweden’s Radio). When I, in the autumn of 2013, left Radiohuset(the Radio House), the Alliance government found time to make two large public-service propositions: one for the period 2010-2013 and one for the period 2014-2019. My impression is that Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn-Liljenroth had a pretty strong desire to reform public service, to change fundamental aspects of the regulation of public service. She was not against the idea of ??public service, but she wanted public service radio and especially TV to have a narrower mission and with a considerably smaller ‘suit’.

The then culture minister twice had the chance. Both times she presented bills that defended the existing order. One could formulate it so that the minister of culture, with strong support both from her own parliamentary group and from other Alliance parties, tried to challenge the policy for public-service broadcasting that the state has developed over a period of nearly 100 years. But she failed. It is doubtful that any government has ever presented more public-service-friendly propositions than the two that have been signed by Lena Adelsohn-Liljenroth.

Utilising my strange little counterpart formulation above: the state was challenged in this area by a democratically elected minister. Instead of a limitation on public service and a change in financing, the result was a consolidation of the regime as it is. Do not misunderstand me; I think that it is good that the result was just that. I also participated to the best of my ability that it should be so. And the reason I cite this example is not that I want to criticise a culture minister with whom I did not interact with particularly well. It is simply that these public-service decisions are my latest and most direct experience of the meeting between politicians and the permanent state’s exercise of power. In this area, it went as it so often goes: the elected politicians lose out.

Why did the Alliance government fail in its attempts to limit public service?

The most important – and generally interesting – explanation is that the political will collided with legal principles. The Constitution and the Freedom of Speech Act regulate to what extent and in what form the parliament may limit freedom of expression in broadcasting. The rules are extremely complicated. The entire decision-making machinery in the Cabinet is designed to ensure that legal rules, principles and traditions are respected. And this role – to safeguard the principles of how the state operates – is so strong that elected politicians can rarely expect any help when it comes to innovating in conflict with these principles. And it’s not about unwillingness but usually about unspoken values, ? about culture and about the mentality that lives strong in the lawyer-dominated government offices. When in the role of reform maker, one is met with resistance conditioned by this ‘reform conservatism’, it is difficult to realise its value. But the value is really big. It could be compared with medicine’s work ethic and quality requirements. It doesn’t matter what decisions county politicians make. Some values ??that medical professionals stand for are beyond the control of policy. The same applies to the relationship between national politicians and lawyers in the Chancellery. Some legal principles and traditions create absolute blocks to reform.

To some extent, the same thing can be said about the funding of public service as about legal regulation. The Alliance government did not just transform the public service remit, but also the funding. At first, it may seem fairly straightforward to replace a compulsory television license with another form of tax or mandatory fee. But the government levy of taxes and charges provides an almost equally complex regulatory terrain as legislation. The Alliance government wanted to scrap today’s radio and television fee, but beat its own forehead bloody.

But is public service a good example of the complications that politicians in the government and parliament meet when they try to realise their policies? Surely this is a very special case. No, this case is not special. Public service is a non-state activity, where the conditions are regulated by law, and the regulation and policy are related to resource allocation.

But let us nevertheless illustrate with an example that really comes from a core area in Swedish law. Once again in the public debate is the requirement for consent to sexual intercourse, to avoid the risk of being held liable for rape. The question was recently investigated. Three years ago, the 2008 sex crime investigation issued its report. The investigation was delayed – of course – especially due to the questions of evidence. For a conviction, there must be no reasonable doubt that a particular offense has been committed and that there must have also existed intent. It is easy to imagine that a requirement for consent would constitute a major change. But evidence difficulties remain. A consent regulation risks leading not at all to the great change that proponents expect. Could a change to the standard of proof be actually realised? It is doubtful if it could actually be done. The standard of proof requirement in the criminal process is such a fundamental part of our rule of law that the resistance within the legal system would be very difficult to overcome. It may even be questioned whether a change in the standard of proof required in suspected rape, even if it was decided, would have an impact. Another factor is that the European Convention contains rules that at least touch the standard of proof and which now directly bind Swedish law.

As a reformer, one does not really always appreciate the Chancellery lawyers who shake their heads and who quietly and unequivocally say that the way you had planned to do something cannot be done. But the recalcitrant lawyer in the Chancellery truly personifies the good of the Swedish administrative tradition. The state’s core function is, through legislation, to give rules for human interaction in society. In the preparation of the bill, the Swedish state shows its strength. Both the general demands of quality and legal requirements are argued for forcefully in the legislative process. There is a tradition and culture that has developed over a very long time, and that is valuable. There is a process that likewise evolved over many years and which guarantees quality. And through the lawyers’ career path there is an experience feedback between legislation and implementation that very much contributes both to preserving the culture and values as well as contributing to maintaining the quality of the legislation.

So is this good lawyer power – that which actually has not changed much since Hjalmar Hammarskjold arrived from St. Petersburg in 1914 – only about a delay mechanism? No, this argument can be dismissed. Many of the bills that are brought emanate from the interplay between judicial and legislative activity. And even when the initiative for a new or changed law is taken in politics, it often undergoes such a massive overhaul in the preparation process that, once enacted, it is doubtful whether the politician’s or the administration’s proposal is ever carried out.

I began this article with a reference to Hjalmar Hammarskjold and the day of the Farmers’ March of 1914. Interestingly, the legislative process has not changed much in the 100 years that have passed since Hammarskjöld was called to the king on the day of the Farmers’ March. Today, officials of the Department of Justice or the legal secretariats of the various ministries have much in common with Hjalmar Hammarskjold 100 years ago. They’re probably thinking about the same as he did when he took on the task of leading the Swedish government in February 1914. I have a responsibility to manage, not for my own sake, or in my own interest, but just because this is my mission.

One could call this enduring, but also pre-democratic, state ‘the bourgeois state’: bourgeois because it was supported, and to a large extent is supported by, in the social sense, a leading bourgeois layer; but, above all, it is bourgeois because it does not have anything in common with the socialist state. This bourgeois state does not win its legitimacy because it represents the accomplishment of people power, but because it creates the conditions for a liberal social order to function.

This bourgeois state, the legislative state, basically works remarkably well. It has evolved gradually over several hundred years. It is based on a professional group of well-educated and highly competent lawyers that alternates between service in the courts and ministries. The legislative process itself is carefully crafted. Key elements in it are diligent public inquiries, referral processing, legislative review and then a new, often lawyer-led, scrutiny when a bill reaches parliament.


Hederskulturens medlöpare

Första skottet gick in i pannan, det andra i käken. Hon slapp höra hur fadern upprepade ordet ”hora” när han sköt. Obduktionen visade att den första kulan avslutade Fadime Sahindals 26-åriga liv.

Interesting, and important, is that the corresponding knowledge- and process development has not taken place with regard to the state’s other, and more modern, features. As thought-through as the legislative process is, just as undeveloped are the forms of government control over public authorities and state activities in general. This applies to new and non-traditional areas of operation. But it also applies to the state’s traditional core areas: police and defence. Regulatory control is the lowest priority in these departments; it is always prioritised down and is often referred to young and inexperienced civil servants. The development of knowledge about how the public sector is managed is weak. There is no qualified management training. Management research is an almost completely neglected area. Interest for qualified management policy is non-existent, especially in bourgeois governments. In practice, the management of state operations of almost any kind becomes a kind of side effect of grant allocation, over which the Treasury prevails.

Of course, a doctrinaire liberal could argue that it’s just all about making the state that operates the business of government as small as possible. But that conclusion is a bit too simplistic. The state will directly, or indirectly through local governments, be responsible for large operations, about a third of the value of production in the Swedish economy. Personally, I believe that this responsibility is more likely to widen than narrow. Health care, infrastructure, education and research will not require fewer resources in the future.

What is said about the state as responsible for driving business applies also to a significant extent to the state as interventionist. Housing policy was long one of the Swedish politics’ most central areas. The state did not plan, build or manage housing. But housing supply was regulated in detail by the state. Much good really can be said about social democracy’s major social reform work. But precisely this housing policy, which was the major area of ??intervention, has left a terrible legacy. With a massive input of capital, substandard housing was built in poorly planned areas for people who did not have the resources to opt out of what the politicians had created for them (but not for themselves!).

It went wrong when the state had a housing policy. It is possibly even more wrong now that the state has no housing policy at all. A number of agencies have the power to put obstacles in the way of house building. But there is no policy that counterbalances all these state-sanctioned special interests, and which can open the way for the house building that is necessary for Stockholm’s growth potential to be developed.

What does the policy for a qualified state operation and for rational governance look like? A well-run state operation should also be included in ‘the bourgeois state’. I have spent several years of my life investigating just that, in the large parliamentary Responsibility Committee, but also in other investigations. The interesting thing is not that our proposals in the Responsibility Committee were put aside by the Reinfeldt government; there may have been good political reasons for it. The striking thing was the lack of interest, not to mention the fear of engagement, which especially the Moderates showed and have continued to show in the face of management policy. And almost every day we read and hear about the impact of this perplexity when facing questions about how the state should handle its own business. How is it possible that there is no orderly process for managing infrastructure planning? How is it possible that the government does not have a management regime for state-owned companies’ investment in the multi-billions? (Possibly the management regime will be that the circle of ministers does not get involved with these types of ownership issue; but this, too, is a management regime.) How is it possible that the government does not have a long-term strategy for various state activities’ resourcing, but instead has a simple general formula that completely ignores all the different activities’ features?

Every business leader engages in the organisation, structure, governance, recruitment and staffing of his or her company. It determines his or her success as a leader. It is precisely these things that our leading politicians do not do in the big companies they are supposed to manage.

The Alliance parties won the 2006 election on unemployment and exclusion; this was fair. They remained in office in 2010 as a result of confidence in their way of handling the Swedish economy; this was also fair. They are about to lose the 2014 election because people see that they cannot manage the state; unfortunately, this is also fair.

Mats Svegfors


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