Volume 48, No. 4 | Political bureaucrats

Bo Smith and Jørgen Grønnegård Christensen | Civil servants as guardians of virtue or servants of democracy

West European civil servants see themselves as political bureaucrats, working closely with ministers to prepare and implement governmental policies. These political bureaucrats operate within ministerial cultures emphasizing their ability to accommodate without strict hierarchical commands and controls. Even if these countries basically have upheld a merit civil service, some countries to some extent rely on political appointees. However, there is no indication that this limited politicization influences the quality of governance. 

Niels Fenger and Mette Kryger Gram | Myth and reality about civil servants’ duty of obedience and the distinction between illegal and clearly illegal decisions

In recent years’ debate on the interaction between ministers and civil servants, it has been argued that the obligation of civil servants to keep within the law is in fact hollow, since the current rules allow the government to get away with just about anything, as long as the actions are not clearly illegal. This article seeks to explain why Danish law distinguishes between illegal and clearly illegal orders, and when this distinction is relevant. It is the authors’ opinion that the criterion of clarity does not undermine the principle of a legally bound public administration that has a duty to speak the truth and act in accordance with the law.

Marius Ibsen and Niels Opstrup | Administration and politics in the shadows: Councilors and officers in Danish local government

The interaction between politicians and officials has been widely discussed, not least because of a number of scandals, which have been seen as proof of a politicization of the role and behavior of officials. This discussion has only been concerned with central government. But local authorities are responsible for much of the welfare state and they have therefore been almost as bureaucratized as the ministries. In fact they have had their share of scandals. Councils do, however, lead a more quiet life – partly because the press shows less interest; partly because of institutional factors. Local authorities are governed by committees and there is a strong culture of consensus. The mayor is elected for four years and cannot be forced from office. Formally the mayor is just a chairman with limited executive responsibilities. In fact, he/she is often the central decision-maker. Officers see themselves primarily as advisers to politicians, less as classic administrators. Although without formal legal status they are in fact perceived as very strong. Backbench councilors, on the other hand, complain of having lost influence. 

Jørgen Grønnegård Christensen, Julie Grunnet Wang and Niels Opstrup | Bureaucratic virtue and the ministerial hierarchy

Several cases have drawn attention to the interaction between ministers and civil servants. This is basically a principal-agent-problem. However, this problem has two sides: Agents’ usurpation of power vested in the principal and the principal’s use of the agent for political purposes that are illegitimate. Based on data collected under the auspices of the Bo Smith Commission a set of norms for correct bureaucratic behavior are identified. But how do civil servants handle these norms? A vignette analysis shows that civil servants have a differentiated approach to the norms and distinguish sharply between their legal obligations and the obligation to respect the truth and professional insight. Moreover, higher civil servants and civil servants in ministerial departments play a key role as guardians of the law. 

Göran Sundström och Marja Lemne | The Bo Smith Commission viewed from the other side of the bridge

This article analyzes the Bo Smith Commission’s problem descriptions and solutions regarding state officials’ advice to politicians from a Swedish perspective. It is claimed that the kind of problems that the Commission discusses have not been prominent in Swedish debate or research. The article points at dissimilarities in the two countries’ administrative traditions that might explain this difference. First, there are more politically appointed officials at the top in Sweden than in Denmark. Second, in Sweden there are requirements for collective decision-making in government, while in Denmark there is ministerial rule. And third, the independent agencies and committees in Sweden have a clearly articulated role to provide the government with advice for its decision-making, while the agencies in Denmark do not participate very actively in the advisory work for the ministers.

Kristoffer Kolltveit | Tensions in the political-administrative system: Experiences from Norway

The Bo Smith report suggests various changes to make the Danish political-administrative system better adapted to new demands in society. In this article, several of these changes are considered in light of experience from Norway. Denmark and Norway share a common heritage, but their systems have developed somewhat differently, not least when it comes to the number and function of political appointees in ministries. The article first describes the political-administrative system in Norway before considering the various proposals. The Bo Smith report does not suggest introducing more political appointees in Danish ministries. The article argues, however, that a strengthening of the political layer together with written guidelines might make it easier for civil servants to act party politically neutral.

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