It should be made clearer who actually governs municipalities, according to the SNS Democracy Council 2022, which in its report “Local Democracy at a Crossroads” proposes a series of reforms to promote accountability and the rule of law in Swedish municipalities. The council also calls for a clearer division of labor between politicians and public officials.
Swedish municipalities are facing major challenges. The population is getting older and fewer people need to support an increasing number of individuals. Furthermore, population trends go in different directions: municipalities in urban areas, in particular, are growing, whereas small municipalities in rural areas are shrinking. This places heavy demands on municipal politics in terms of making necessary and difficult decisions also seen as legitimate by the residents.
At the same time, it might be hard for residents to understand and gain a clear view of municipal politics. Over time, new reforms have rarely entirely replaced previous structures, meaning that many older regulatory frameworks remain in place alongside new ones, even though they may be in conflict with one another. This not only affects municipal politics and how the administration is organized but also the ways in which residents demand accountability.
The rules of the game need to be refined and clarified, according to the researchers of the SNS Democracy Council 2022 report. Above all, it must be made clearer who governs municipalities and what the boundary between politics and administration looks like.
“Basically, our proposals aim to increase predictability and the rule of law while also strengthening the ability of voters to demand accountability,” says Gissur Ó Erlingsson, professor of political science at Linköping University and chair of the SNS Democracy Council 2022.
In order to clarify which parties actually govern the municipality, the researchers propose moving toward so-called municipal parliamentarianism where the local council makes a decision at the beginning of the term of office clarifying the distribution of power.
“This is preferably done in conjunction with voting for the chairperson of the executive board, according to a similar model used when voting for prime minister in the national parliament,” says David Karlsson, professor of public administration at the University of Gothenburg. “We also propose that the parties in the ruling coalition should be guaranteed a majority of seats in boards and committees.”
At the same time, according to the authors, the position of the opposition parties should also be strengthened, such as by giving them increased administrative support and being guaranteed the chairmanship of the municipal audit board.
“Municipalities should at least be given the opportunity to introduce parliamentarianism on a voluntary basis,” says Jessika Wide, assistant professor of political science at Umeå University, “and why not within the framework of the organizational experiments currently being studied by the Swedish government?”
According to the researchers, it would be unfortunate to further increase governance from the central government and limit the freedom of action of municipalities. Instead, they call for stronger constitutional protection of municipal self-government and, subsequently, local democracy.
“In fact, municipalities need to be better able at addressing the challenges of the future based on local adaptation, based on existing needs and based on the knowledge found among local politicians,” says Richard Öhrvall, assistant professor of political science at Linköping University.
The Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions has contributed to the funding of the project.
SNS Democracy Council 2022
Gissur Ó Erlingsson (chair), Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Local Government Studies, Linköping University
David Karlsson, Professor of Public Administration at the School of Public Administration, University of Gothenburg
Jessika Wide, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Umeå University
Richard Öhrvall, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Local Government Studies, Linköping University, and an affiliated researcher at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN)