|The Journal of Behavioral and Social Sciences, 2, 1997,
The Democratic Audit of Local
Government: The Swedish Case
Today it can be claimed that local self-government is no longer a controversial idea. This is clearly shown in the ratification of the IULA World Wide Declaration of Local Self-Government as well as the European Charter of Local Self-Government. The European Charter has been in force since 1988. The IULA World Wide Declaration was adopted five years later. Although both conventions are formulated in very general terms, they express the general principles that democratic nations in the world can now agree upon. Both lay out the most important prerequisites for local self-government. Local self-government is, as formulated in the IULA declaration, an integral part of the national structure. This is the case since it is the level of government closest to citizens and in the best territorial position to involve them in the making of decisions concerning their living conditions and to make use of their knowledge and capabilities in the promotion of development. Local self-government is, in other words, an essential part of democracy and an important contribution both to effective public administration and government decentralization. Strengthening local government is seen as crucial for strengthening the entire nation as it ensures more effective and democratic public policies. Furthermore, local governments are seen as a crucial actor in the reconstruction of Europe. The implication is that municipalities must be created in a democratic way and given a considerable degree of self-determination.
This paper takes its point of departure in these two ratified documents. The principles expounded in the documents are discussed in the next section. The third section considers a few of the general problems that currently confront local governments. In section four we present the SNS Democratic Audit of Sweden and discuss the theoretical framework used in the audit. A report on the use of the framework for an audit of local government in Sweden is offered in section five. Finally, we offer a few reflections on democratic auditing in the final paper section.
Safeguarding Local-Self Government in International Conventions
The European Charter on Local Self-Government as well as the IULA World Wide Declaration of Local Self-Government contain similar principles for the safeguarding of local self-government. This section discusses some of them. To begin with, both documents stipulate that local self-government should be recognized in the constitution or in the basic legislation concerning the governmental structures of the country. This statement may seem to be trivial. Yet if consideration is given to the constitutional make-up of a few European countries, even such a simple statement leads to problems in the recognition of the right to local self-government. A stronger, more categorical stipulation in the Charter would require that a few European states revise their constitutions. Good examples here are Great Britain, which does not have a written constitution, and the federal states of Europe, which are not organized in such a way that the national government can regulate how regional governments formulate their relationship to local governments.
Both documents also define the meaning of the concept of self-government, which is seen as denoting the right and duty of local authorities to regulate and manage public affairs under their own responsibility and in the interests of the local population. The term "right and duty" stress that local self-government should not be limited to functioning as a representative for a higher government body. This even means that local self-government needs a proper scope to exercise democratic control and assume public responsibility. A basic aspect here concerns the minimal definition of democracy, i.e., the use of elections. The documents require that the right of local self-government should be set in practice by government bodies which are freely elected on a periodical basis by equal, universal suffrage.
What then is the proper scope of local government? No attempt is made in the conventions to give a detailed list of the sphere of authority of local self-government. General principles have, however, been formulated. The idea is that local self-governments should have considerable prerogative for independent choice and action. Local authorities should have a general right to act on their own initiative with regard to any matter which is not exclusively assigned to any other authority nor specifically excluded from the competence of local government. This principle is quite similar to the "states' rights" clause in the American constitution. Moreover, powers given to local authorities should normally be full and exclusive. In this regard, the documents issue a warning to central government. The central or national state should exercise caution when giving local governments extra tasks. In so far as central or regional authority is empowered by the constitution or by statue to intervene in matters for which responsibility is shared with local authorities, the latter should retain the right to take initiatives and make decisions. Local self-governments retain the initiative in deciding how to adapt central or regional decisions so that their implementation coincides with local conditions.
A stipulation in both documents worth noting is their emphasis on decentralization of public responsibility. The general principle is that public responsibility should be exercised by those basic units of local government which are closest to the citizen. Government tasks should be the responsibility of local government unless there are good reasons for another government level to assume authority for the task. Good reasons for deviation from the principle of local public responsibility deal with the scope and nature of the particular task or convincing considerations on the basis of efficiency and economic costs. If these reasons are met then it is acceptable that the particular task be dealt with by another government level.
In order to assume real public responsibility, local governments must be able to made decisions about their own internal administrative structures. This is necessary to ensure that sufficient consideration is given both to local needs and to effective management. Once again, the documents warn the central state again intervening in local government affairs. Central governments are prohibited from forcing a rigid organization of public administrative tasks on local governments. Another important consideration in this regard concerns the rights of local civil servants. Conditions of employment and training opportunities for local government employees shall be such as to permit attractive career prospects. Central and/or other high levels of government should encourage and facilitate the introduction of career and merit systems in local government. A similar stipulation is made for local elected representatives, who must be given guarantees that they can freely exercise their functions. Local politicians must be provided appropriate compensation and social welfare protection.
Another key aspect of local self-government is, of course, the local citizenry. Unlike the World Wide Declaration, the European Charter stresses that citizens should have the right to appeal decisions made by local public authorities. This can, for example, mean that central government has, in certain well-defined instances that are constitutionally stimulated, the right to exercise control over local government. An administrative court is an example of such a well-defined instance. Central government is, however, prohibited from intervening as a guardian or patronizing authority. Moreover, administrative oversight should normally be limited to issues concerning the legality of local government measures, not their suitability. Central and regional government is allowed to supervise local self-government, but the requirement is that this supervision be done in such a way that limits any encroachment in local self-determination.
Constitutional guarantees on local self-autonomy would be meaningless without a proper resource base for local self-government. Both the European Charter and the World Wide Declaration stress that local authorities should be entitled to adequate financial resources of their own which are distinct from those of other levels of government. Also, they should be allowed to dispose freely of the revenue within the framework of their powers. Local self-government must have the power to decide for itself which tasks it wants to be given priority. The provision of national block grants and even national grants which target a particular sector are seen as promoting more local self-government than earmarked grants for the financing of specific projects or services. The idea is that the provision of grants should not justify any undue intervention in the policies pursued by local authorities within their own jurisdiction.
Local self-government is not necessarily an isolated activity. To exercise their powers, local authorities should, according to both documents, be entitled in the exercising of their powers to form associations for the defense and promotion of their common interests and to provide certain services to their members. They should have the right to organize themselves into regional, national and international associations of local self-government. This includes even links with their counterparts in other countries for the purpose of interchange and cooperation and promotion of international understanding.
Local authorities should also be given the right of recourse to a judicial remedy in order to safeguard their autonomy and to ensure compliance with the laws which determine their functions and protect their interests. This principle does not, however, apply to boundary disputes. The two conventions do not give local governments power to veto proposed changes in local authority boundaries. What they state is that local governments must be consulted in such instances. This may require that referenda are held, but they are not mandatory. Rather they are suggested as an alternative where they are permitted by statute.
The Council of Europe, whose responsibility it is to defend and develop democracy, considers the European Charter as the first multilateral constitutional instrument that defines and guarantees the principles of local self-government. It sees the Charter as a foundation for democracy. It is hoped that the Charter will protect and further common European values. The Charter has been ratified by several European states and forms, thereby, a natural point of departure for the following discussion on the significance of local self-government.
Problems of Local Self-Government
Social scientists who systematically study the trends in development in Europe often warn us about drawing conclusions that are too pessimistic. Even though it may be said that the welfare state is undergoing a crisis and that there are serious problems with economic steering, incomplete democracy and weak political legitimacy, these researchers argue that local self-government shows several signs of vitality. In fact, local self-government has improved when comparisons are made with the situation a few decades ago.
It is, however, necessary to consider the real reasons for why local self-government has been strengthened in various countries. Improving democracy has not always been the primary reason. There has been some concern for democracy, but the most important reason for the expansion of local self-government has been political and practical necessity. In the matter of a few decades, the public administration expanded very rapidly in many countries. Educational reforms, health care provision, urbanization and in general the expansion of the modern welfare state led to trying times for the traditional organization of public service. The old public administrative structure could not simply meet the demands and expectations. A government overload developed. Many nations decided that the way to solve the overload problem was to relieve central government of many of its public tasks. Decentralization was a standard solution to the problem of the public burden of central government.
It is perhaps the case that decentralization solved a few of the problems experienced by central government. However, the problem was that it created others for local government. Municipalities were not generally prepared to take over these public services. Different solutions were proposed to help municipal governments with their overload problems. In order to create the conditions necessary for this transfer of responsibility, local governments were transformed into new and efficient administrative centers. An important measure used in several European countries was municipal amalgamation. Traditional small local government entities were joined to form larger entities. A second important solution involved the internal organization of local governments. Local governments were transformed into bureaucratic and professional bodies.
Amalgamation of local governments was not tried in all countries. Where local patriotic resistance was strong, it was impossible to create larger political bodies in this fashion. In these countries, it was common that central government turned over public responsibility to regional and provincial government rather than local government. This happened in France, for instance, where the French decentralization reform gave regional and district government more public responsibility. Regions were strengthened particularly in southern Europe.
Local government and in some cases regional government became important entities in the very comprehensive government system generally called the public administration. It can be concluded then that the problem of weak local self-government coincided with what came to be perceived as the problem of the public administration. Problems of effective government were the focus of attention once the welfare state stopped expanding. And a new perspective on social citizenship, called public management, grew in international prominence.
Among other things, this new thinking meant that traditional means of steering-- orders, hierarchical control, and management by details - was replaced by a more pragmatic relationship between central and local government. Local governments were given the seemingly impossible task of both improving the quality of welfare service in some of the most essential areas of the welfare state while cutting their costs. It is not, therefore, surprising that local governments began to experiment with privatization, contracting out, and other organizational reforms, as a way of realizing these two goals simultaneously.
There are other changes that occurred in Europe which are relevant for a discussion on the role of local self- government. First, the European political map changed dramatically at the same time that this decentralization wave was underway. The new democracies in Eastern Europe were struggling to create democratic bodies for self-government. Local self-government was, therefore, an important aspect of the democratization process. At the same time, West European countries were undergoing the process of integration. The European Union gained a number of new members. Supranational bodies have, therefore, become much more important. The result in some cases was that the political institutions traditionally associated with the nation-state lost influence. All the changes mentioned in this section point to a renewed academic interest for the old issue of the role of local self-government in democratic systems.
Criteria for Auditing Local Self-Government
The quality of local self-government can been interpreted in several different and often contradictory ways. A positive evaluation underscores the renaissance of local self-government. The Worldwide Declaration and European Charter are implicitly based on this positive evaluation. The concepts that summarize this renaissance are decentralization, subsidiarity, and civil society. These concepts are important elements in the public debate in many countries. They also play a central role in the analyses the academic profession offers to explain the democratization process and importance of social capital in Europe today. The negative evaluation focuses on how local self-government is threatened. Economic restrictions, central governmental regulations, and supranational decisions delimit the scope of activity of local self-government. Moreover, the general crisis of political legitimacy that we find at the national level in many western nations has a counterpart at the level of local self-government. It is clear that political science has an important contribution to make in the debate on local government. Both our conceptual tools and empirical results are needed to shed light on the current challenges to local democracy.
The work done by SNS Democratic Audit of Sweden is an example of how political science can be put to work to improve the both the academic and public debate on democracy. The SNS Democratic Audit of Sweden was established in 1994. It is sponsored by what may be described as a non-governmental adult study association or independent think tank, the Center for Business and Policy Studies (Studieförbundet Näringsliv och Samhälle, SNS). The center is funded primarily by grants from private business and has at one of its goals the betterment of the public debate in Sweden. The Democratic Audit is composed of independent political scientists. The group has produced two reports which dealt primarily with the national level in Swedish politics. The first report is entitled Demokrati som dialog, Democracy and Dialogue. The second, Democracy and Leadership, is also published in English. The 1997 report deals with the issue of multi-layered governance. An important area for the audit is, therefore, the quality of democracy at the local government level. This report will also be available in English.
A crucial question for the Audit is whether it is possible to use the same framework to assess democracy at different levels of government. The answer is by no means an obvious one. For instance, many scholars have argued that local democracy is essentially different than national democracy and must, therefore, be analyzed on the basis of special normative demands. The research underway by the Democratic Audit is an attempt to prove the opposite, i.e., that the same democratic framework applies to all territorial levels.
The common experience from the countries that have undergone the democratization process show that a number of relationships compose necessary conditions for democratic government. We can speak of a minimal definition of democracy. Many of the elements of this definition are reflected in the documents on local self-government discussed in the previous section. It is important that the legislative branch be chosen in free and general elections. Elections must be conducted on a regular and fair basis. This means that elections cannot be tampered with through manipulation and force. Another key principle is that no adult can be deprived of the right to vote and candidate for office. Moreover, everyone must be allowed to express their opinions and criticize holders of power in society. The liberal freedoms of speech, press, and association form an important cornerstone of the minimal definition of democracy. Citizens must, therefore, also have the opportunity to obtain information from different sources. The right of association - particularly the right to create political parties - needs to be guaranteed in a democratic state.
These criteria are the basis for democracy. They must be fulfilled in order for a country to be considered a democracy. The problem is that these values are too basis for an audit of mature democratic states. All established democracies, including Sweden, fulfill these criteria well. An audit of mature democracies requires a more sophisticated definition of democracy than the one given by these minimal requirements.
A more appropriate definition of democracy targets the quality of democracy. How well are the basic values fulfilled? This is the implication of the work of the Democratic Audit, which focuses its attention on the quality of Swedish democracy. The quality of a country's democracy can be measured with the help of a number of criteria for good democratic governance. These criteria have been formulated from the international debate on the meaning of democracy. The criteria form a kind of ideal type that is both an theoretical abstraction and a norm for comparison. The ideal can, therefore, be used as a scale and a measuring stick to judge the democratic quality of political systems as they appear on paper and in action. Our basic ideal can be formulated as popular, constitutional, and effective government. This ideal signifies, first, that citizens must be able to govern themselves in a free and equal way. Second, the legal system must satisfy certain fundamental requires which are respected by administrative authorities and enjoy public legitimacy. Third, democratic government must be able to perform its tasks and implement its decisions.
Our ideal of democracy contains three basic elements. This means that we do not believe that democracy can be reduced to one single value. Democracy is not just popular government, as democratic political systems must also fulfill the criteria of constitutional and effective government. Democracy is not only proper legal treatment and due process - i.e., constitutional government - because citizens in a democratic political system must have the final say and government must be able to perform its tasks effectively. Finally, democracy cannot be delimited to effective government. The need for strong leadership must be balanced with the need for popular consent and legal impartiality.
This formulation of the democratic ideal shows that democratic government is based on several fundamental values. An astute reader will easily note that the three cornerstones of democracy - popular, constitutional, and effective government - constitute an inescapable predicament. The different fundamental values may and frequently do come into conflict with each other. It has even been shown theoretically that it is impossible to construct an entirely perfect democratic form of government. Dilemmas and the balancing of the fundamental values are an inherent part of democracy. The problems of balancing conflicting values cannot be left to experts or outsiders. Ultimately it is only the people and their elected representatives who through public debate and dialogue can find practical solutions that satisfy the fundamental requirements of democracy.
The debate on how these fundamental values should be balanced can be made more manageable if the values are given concrete form. This is what the Democratic Audit has done in its evaluations of Swedish democracy. Operational definitions have been given to the three cornerstones of democracy. In all we use thirteen different indicators in our audit. The remaining part of this section is devoted to a discussion of the three basic criteria and their indicators. Readers interested in a discussion of how the indicators have been given operational definitions for an audit of Swedish national democracy and how well Sweden measures up to the indicators should consult the book Democracy and Leadership.
The principle of popular government is the first cornerstone of democratic government. A number of special demands are put on popular democratic government. The people must be able to control the political agenda. They must ultimately be the group who decides which issues should be the focus of legislative action. The people must be able to form their own opinions on these issues. There is, in other words, a demand that citizens can inform themselves. Effective participation is crucial for the political process in democracy. Our third, fourth, and fifth indicators measure the quality of electoral campaigns, voluntary associations/civil society, and local self-government. Democracy also requires decision-making equality. Every citizen must have the same right to participate in the making of decision without regard to gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, etc. Every member of the public must tolerate and respect the right of other citizens to hold different points of views. In our audit we have formulated seven indicators to measure this value. They are presented below as statements formulating ideal types or ideal situations.
1. Control of the agenda
A requirement of good democratic governance is that all citizens decide on the future of their own society. An important first condition is, of course, that there is something to decide on. It is, therefore, crucial in democracy that citizens have ultimate control over how the political agenda is set. A minimal requirement in any representative democracy is that the legislative branch should have the deciding say over its own agenda.
2. Enlightened understanding: the public sphere (Öffentlichkeit)
Government by the people is realized through the free formation of opinion. Democracy is a method for solving conflicts through dialogue. Our democratic ideal requires that the political views of the people are based on informed understanding. Dialogue is the life-blood of democracy. A necessary requirement is, therefore, a functioning public sphere. It is crucial that the mass media provide the public with alternative sources of news as well as different interpretations of events. In other words, there must be pluralism in the mass media. All citizens must have the opportunity to reflect upon the political process and formulate their own opinion.
3. Effective participation: election campaigns
Elections are the primary means in representative democracy for citizens to demand accountability of their politicians. Generally, elections and electoral campaigns should realize the ideal of independent, reflective citizens who under the same conditions first discuss and then decide on issues which they have themselves decided as common concerns. Election campaigns must give the citizenry these opportunities.
4. Effective participation: voluntary associations
Arenas where people can met and discuss issues of common importance are necessary in order that the inhabitants of a country become true citizens and do not remain anonymous, autonomized, and powerless in society. This means that a well-functioning civil society is crucial for democracy. Ideally-speaking, voluntary associations tend to promote democratic dialogue. Social movements, study circles, and political parties create social capital. Active participation in civil society contributes to the creation of trust and solidarity among citizens. Voluntary associations function as a school in democracy.
5. Effective participation: local self-government
Involvement in local affairs has been seen as a school in democracy. Civic virtue stems from engagement in local political life. Local government has even been seen as an experiment laboratory for national politics and recruitment ground for national politics. The idea behind decentralization is that political decisions as much as possible should be made by the people who are affected by them. When seen in relation to the nation-state, local self-government is an expression of the decentralization of political power. Local and regional government can, therefore, be seen as furthering popular government if they practice good democratic traditions. Here we are, for instance, interested in the role of political parties, civil society, and the mass media at the local level.
6. Decision-making equality
Democracy means that all citizens and social groups have the same right to participate in political bodies. Systematic underrepresentation of different social groups is an important sign of weakness in the government structure of any country. Systematic and permanent underrepresentation of certain groups undermines the credibility and legitimacy of the political process.
The concept of citizenship is central in democratic theory. In comparison to traditional society, where a person's social status depended on his or her family background, gender and social class, democratic society is based on equality. All citizens have the same right to take part in the political community. Citizenship is a combination of rights and duties. An important duty is toleration. Anti-discrimination is an important basis for democracy. Everyone has the same right to formulate and express her or his opinions. Toleration is the duty to respect the rights of others. Intolerance seriously threatens the requirement in democracies for free exchange of thoughts, opinions, and ideas.
The power of the state in democracy must be subject to limitations. Such limitations are justified by reference to the rights of minorities and liberal freedoms. Political power must be exercised in a legal fashion. It can be discussed how strong these limitations should be. Laws and rights which regulate the democratic process itself are naturally compatible with the ideals of democracy. Yet there are many important rights which do not, strictly-speaking, relate to the political process. The rights of minorities and the protection of the integrity of the individual set limits on the decision-making powers of the majority. There is, in other words, a potential conflict between popular government and the principles of constitutionalism. Constitutional democracy presupposes, however, that it is possible to find practical solutions which meet the requirements both of rule of law and government by the people.
In order for a state to qualify as a polity governed constitutionally there are several requirements that must be fulfilled. Individual citizens must enjoy a number of fundamental rights and freedoms. The exercise of political power must respect the principle of due process. The power of the state must be organized according to the principle of separation of powers. These requirements have been formulated as three separate indicators.
1. Rights and freedoms
There are two important ways of measuring whether a political system fulfills the demand for citizen rights and freedoms. The first measurement concerns whether rights and freedoms have formally been incorporated into the constitutional documents of a country. The other measurement focuses on how the rights are exercised in practice. It is not uncommon that there is quite a difference between the formal and real rights of citizenship. For instance, research conducted for the Swedish Study of Power and Democracy (Maktutredningen) showed clearly that certain groups in society are more capable of using their rights and freedoms than others.
2. Rule of law
The principle of rule of law means that individual citizens must not be discriminated against or be treated arbitrarily by government. Every person must have access to effective means for the assertion of their rights against government.
3. Separation of powers
Montesquieu's idea that only power can check power is as relevant today as when he formulated it in 1748. Constitutionalism implies that political power must be divided and regulated. A polity built upon legal principles must consist of several different centers of power. Particularly important is the existence of independent institutions for supervision and oversight of the political system. A well-functioning court system is an example of such an institution.
Many social scientists would argue that effective government is not a crucial aspect of democracy. In a historical perspective, it has mainly been anti-democratic political theorists who promoted ideas regarding effective government and the need of strong leaders. The experience of Europe in the interwar years clearly shows, however, that democracy must take government effectiveness. Weak governments that are not capable of solving social problems have on several occasions led to the fall of democratic political systems.
When we include effective government as a crucial element in our theoretical ideal of democratic government, we do so under the assumption that the need for government effectiveness cannot by any means be achieved at the expense of our other crucial elements, popular and constitutional government. The effectiveness of democracy is identical with the capacity of the people to realize common goals through collective action under democratic forms of regulation. Three indicators of good effective government are used by the Democratic Audit.
1. Resource control
An important part of independent decisionmaking capacity is control over an adequate supply of available resources. Resources some in many forms. Examples are financial and environmental resources. For an audit of contemporary Swedish politics, it is beyond doubt that economic resources are of particular importance. This is the case because Sweden has, for some time now, experienced problems with government financing and has, over the years, accumulated a considerable public sector debt.
2. Decision-making capability
The ability of politicians to make lasting decisions is an important requirement for effective government and, thereby, democracy. Political institutions must be constructed in such a way that they make collective decisionmaking possible even when differences of opinion are large and the issues complicated. Political actors also have a responsibility to promote decision-making capability.
3. Outcome control
Political systems can choose among different strategies to implement their decisions and monitor the effects of legislation. An central issue concerns the way administrative bodies handle legislative decisions. It is important that street-level civil servants do not transform the will of the people as reflected in legislative decisions in their daily contacts with citizens. Legislative decisions must be implemented correctly for government to be considered effective and democratic.
A Democratic Audit of Swedish Municipalities
This section offers a preliminary discussion of the use of the three criteria and thirteen indicators in an audit of the quality of democracy in Swedish local self-government. The audit was completed in mid-1997. A report in English of our findings will be published by late 1997.
It was important from the start to decide how to conduct the audit of local government. One of our first decisions concerned the scope of the audit. We had to decide whether to concentrate on a few cases or attempt to collect materials from all 288 Swedish municipalities. Most studies of Swedish local government are either case studies or based on a representative sample. Obviously, there are several advantages with this research strategy. A more limited number of cases allows for a more in-depth study of local democracy. It is possible with fewer cases to conduct interviews with a representative sample of citizens as well as local politicians and civil servants. However, there are disadvantages with this approach as well. Any democratic audit would be highly reliant on a small sample of municipalities, and it can be questioned whether generalizations can be made from the study.
We chose the other route. Our ambition is to audit democracy in all Swedish local governments. In order to conduct this audit, we are forced to rely on information that is more-or-less readily available. Fortunately, the Public Records Act makes considerable information available to the Swedish public. An important information source is statistics collected on the municipalities by Statistics Sweden, the national bureau of statistics (SCB), as well as "Kommunaktuellt," the newspaper for the Swedish Association of Local Authorities (Kommunförbundet). A few examples of the operational definitions to the indicators are given below.
1. Control of the agenda: The question is to what degree citizens and their elected officials have the possibility of influencing the issues that are taken up for political debate and decision. Ideally, we would have liked to study the agenda-setting mechanisms in each municipality. Practical constraints require, however, that we find a less ambitious indicator of control of the political agenda. Our choice is the use of local referenda. The Swedish Local Government Act grants citizens the right to raise issued by holding a local referendum in a municipality. After the necessary number of names are collected, a petition for a referendum is presented to the local government council. The local government council then decides on whether the referendum will be held and how the issue will be formulated on the ballot. The local government council thus has, in this respect, the power to decide over the local political agenda. Our indictor is formulated as a three-part question: in how many municipalities have citizens used their right to petition for a local referendum; how have local politicians responded to voter demands for a referendum, and how many local referendums have been conducted in the municipalities.
2. Enlightened understanding/ the public sphere. Regarding this indicator we are interested in the structure of the mass media in the local community. Are there competing sources of news reporting? Do individual citizens have the ability to choose among different local newspapers as well as radio and television stations? Does local government itself contribute to improving citizen access and opportunity to better public information on local political issues? How many books and what categories of books are borrowed from the local public libraries? Some Swedish municipalities have already begun to use new information technology, in particular by creating homepages on Internet, to create better public access to information on local self-government. Other municipalities have not yet begun to use technology in this fashion. How many municipalities use information technology to give citizens access to local government?
3. Effective participation: election campaigns. Even if voter turnout is by far not the only measure of vital democracy, low turnout does indicate that many citizens do not consider that it is worth their while to go vote. Local elections are held on the same day as regional and national elections. Voter turnout in local elections in Sweden is relatively high, on the average about 85 percent. Some difference among the municipalities can, however, be discerned. The lowest level is around 70 percent and the highest 90 percent. We believe that it is possible to audit the quality of local election campaigns. Even though elections on all levels are held on the same day, it seems to be the case that local election campaigns have become increasingly separated from the national campaigns. Our audit attempts to measure the development of a separate local political culture in Sweden. It focuses on the presence of locally-based political parties in the municipalities and the tendency for citizens to split their votes, i.e., that they vote for one party in the national election and another one in the local election.
4. Effective participation: voluntary associations. An important part of a democratic audit of local government involves characterizing the vitality of local civil society. The kind of associations that interest us are voluntary associations, interest organizations, non-profit sector groups, and smaller locally-based ad hoc and NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) networks. The presence of civil society associations and their legitimacy among citizens is a fundament of good democracy. Our audit is investigating the presence of various organizational types at the local government level. We are particularly anxious to know whether new social movements and networks have been created, as this type tends to engage young people and can signify that local democracy is a dynamic process.
5. Effective participation: presence of independent territorial levels of local government. An important aspect of a democratic audit of national democracy is the presence of local self-government. A local counterpart for this indicator must be developed for a democratic audit of local democracy. Our focus is on vital sub-local levels, for instance sub- municipal governmental or neighborhood councils (kommundelsnämnder) and public boards, which directly involve the local citizenry. This indicator has particular importance for Sweden, as the number of municipalities fell from over 2,000 to less than 300 after a series of rather drastic amalgamation reform. The large municipalities were given a form of government characterized by centralization, professionalization, and party politics. Over the years, several attempts have been made to decentralize power within these large municipalities. Even if Sweden has not proceeded as rapidly as its other Nordic neighbors, it has begun to experiment with turning over public responsibility to citizen boards. An example is boards of parents which exercise influence over the local public schools.
6. Equality in decision-making. Social representation is an important issue for democracy. It is a simple task to investigate how representative members of the municipal councils are of their voters. Statistics on the gender, age, and home address of councilors are public information. This aspect is part of our audit for this indicator. Moreover, we will audit the social representativeness of top administrative posts in the municipalities. A third aspect for this indicator concerns voting behavior of immigrants. Since 1975 immigrants who have lived in Sweden for three years have the right to vote and right to candidate for office in local elections. Immigrants do not use their right to vote to the same degree as ethnic Swedes. Moreover, voter turn out has decreased over the years. Now it is at the 40 percent level. This development runs counter to the general trend, where voter turnout tends over the years to increase for newly suffraged groups. Obviously, immigrants have found it difficult to get their issues on the political agenda and get find a place for themselves in the local political establishment. Immigrants are not evenly spread over the country. Some municipalities have a higher level of immigrant residents than others. Our audit focuses on investigating whether there are significant differences among local governments regarding immigrant voter turnout and representation in the municipal council.
7. Toleration. It is not really possible to measure the degree of citizen toleration or intolerance in local government settings with interview methods. Such methods can investigate national citizen toleration, and we conducted such a survey in our 1995 democratic audit. More indirect methods are necessary to study toleration at the local level. The indicator we have chosen to measure is the frequency of xenophobia and racist violence at the local level. Statistics for this indicator are available from the newspaper, "Expo," which monitors the presence of racism in Sweden.
1. Rights and freedoms. The basic issue for a democratic audit is whether local self-government safeguards the constitutional rights of citizens. One kind of intrusion of citizen rights in this area is local government prohibition of demonstrations or other means for the free expression of opinion. It is not expected that mature democracies attempt in any obtrusive way to prohibit citizens from using their right to free expression, association, and press. In western welfare states the issue regards more the social rights of citizenship, i.e., the right to public education, health care and other welfare policy measures. A very large public sector forms the basis of the Swedish welfare state. The central state formulates the social rights of citizenship but delegates the responsibility to provide most of them to local government. Central state public agencies supervise how well local governments fulfill their public responsibilities, for instance in the areas of education and health care. Our indicator measures whether the municipalities have been reprimanded by the National Agency for Education (Skolverket), how well they fulfill the principles included in the Convention of Children's Rights, and, finally, whether an ombudsman for children's rights (barnombudsman) exists in the municipalities.
2. Rule of law. Contact between citizens and local public bodies usually involves municipal agencies. It is therefore important for a democratic audit to investigate how well local administrative standard operating procedures ensure that citizens are treated in an impartial and objective way. Swedish local citizens have several channels to choose among if they want to lodge a complaint against municipal government. One indicator of the quality of rule of law at the municipal level involves the administrative courts. Here we are interested in knowing to what degree these courts have overruled and/or changed decisions made by the local governmental administration. The Parliamentary Ombudsman (Justitieombudsmannen, JO), an important body under the Swedish parliament, has the right to investigate both state and municipal public agencies. A study of the municipal decisions that have been overruled as well as those which have led to criticism of the way local governments interpret the law is our indicator of the ability of the municipalities to fulfill this indicator. Are there variations among the municipalities?
3. Separation of power. The demand for separation of power means, among other things, that there must exist independent public bodies at the municipal level that have the task of supervising the local governmental process. Every local government, according to the Local Government Act, must appoint professional as well as elected auditors. Studies have shown that municipal auditors do not perform their tasks satisfactorily. Their effectiveness is in many cases low. It is not necessarily the case that the auditors are to blame. It happens quite often that the auditors lack a sufficient degree of independence to perform their work properly. Another indicator of separation of power concerns unclear divisions of roles and responsibilities in municipal politics. Many elected municipal officials are professional politicians who are employed full-time as politicians. It can be said that these individuals have captured political power in local government. The problem is that they often serve on several public bodies simultaneously. We can say that they have monopolized political power. The accumulation of political power by certain individuals goes against the ideal of separation of power. Finally, separation of power at the municipal level can be studied dynamically. Who rules in local government? Has one party ruled over a long period of time or does an exchange of political power take place?
1. Resource control. Given the economic problems facing Sweden, a democratic audit of local government must focus on economic resources. The economies of local governments must be balanced for the political system in general to perform its governmental tasks properly. This is the case because most tax money is spent at the local level. Today in Sweden it is quite obvious that local governments have used their freedom to define the scope of public action in an irresponsible way. Local politicians have expanded the level of welfare service provision more than their local economies can afford. A large and largely unknown budget deficit is now inhibiting government performance. It delimits the freedom of scope of political activity for the present and future generations of citizens. Our indicator measures the health of local municipal economies. Are they in the red or black?
2. Decision-making capacity. Democratic auditors would like to be able to study how well elected officials actually are capable of reaching workable and stable agreements across party lines. Such an investigation is methodologically difficult, if not impossible on any territorial level. For practical reasons, it becomes, therefore, necessary to evaluate whether conditions are present that facilitate stable, long-term, and workable political decisions. We call this indicator, decision-making capacity. An important issue here is whether local government has a budget and accounting system that gives citizens and politicians access to and control over municipal responsibilities. Another issue of importance is the degree of fragmentation in the local councils. It is much easier for smaller parties to gain representation in the municipal councils than in Parliament. Fragmentation measures the relative strength of parties in the local councils. A local council is very fragmented if strength is evenly distributed among the political parties. Similarly it is possible to measure the degree of party polarization in the local councils.
3. Outcome control. Information on the effectivity of administrative personnel would, of course, be the perfect measure of this final indicator. Unfortunately, such information is rarely available. The degree of outcome control must, therefore, be measured by using available measures of administrative productivity. Several indicators for the production of welfare services have been developed within public management. There are, for instance, measures of unit costs for the public school system and child daycare.
On a Reflective Note
As readily apparent in the brief presentation of the operational definitions of our thirteen indicators, there are several research problems associated with a democratic audit of local government. There are problems with the collection of data which allows for comparisons among all 288 local governments on all thirteen separate indicators. Pragmatism has been used in the selection of the operational definitions. Another practical consideration is the time constraints put on the Democratic Audit of Sweden. Moreover, we can also discuss how the available data should be analyzed and interpreted.
For certain indicators, the available information allows us to develop quantitative measures. For these we can construct a scale with various intervals. Examples are media pluralism, voter turnout, an index for social representation, and economic ratios. Other indicators can only be expressed in qualitative terms. Our democratic audit of the national political system proves that it is possible to express these qualitative evaluations on a graded scale. In our measure, the grade of two pluses signifies that the current situation is as close to the democratic ideal as can reasonably be demanded of mature democracies. The grade of one plus means that political reality on the indicator is close to the ideal situation. A zero stands for an acceptable level. One minus indicates that there are some problems with democracy on the indicator. Two minuses signal serious problems, i.e. that political reality differs greatly from the democratic norm. We were able to use this simple scale for all our indicators and then offer a general assessment of Swedish democracy at the national level.
The task of assessment is somewhat different for the audit of local democracy. It may perhaps be feasible to characterize a particular local government on the thirteen indicators. But to then weight all 288 municipalities together in a total index is highly problematic. However, this problem can be solved by numbering the five grades in the scale from one to five. This will allow us to create an additive index for our summary measure of the quality of democracy in each and every municipality. Yet solving the methods problem by addition involves important and implicit theoretical assumptions. It means that a democratic weakness on one indicator can be weighed up by a democratic strength on another indicator. This approach can be criticized on the basis of democratic theory. Democracy can, on the other hand, be seen as a linked chain that is no stronger than its weakest link. A multiplicative model would, thus, be more appropriate. It is also possible to combine both the additive and multiplicative models. For instance, the indicators within the three main cornerstones of our definition of democracy can be added together to form three single main assessments. It could be argued that the final assessment must be done through multiplication. Selection of the method for presentation of our democratic audit is much more than a technical matter. It concerns democratic theory.
The point of departure for democratic audits is comparison. Democratic reality is compared with democratic ideals. It would also be possible to develop democratic indicators that tap the uniqueness found within a particular political culture. In this case, indicators would be formulated on the basis of political cultural experience and expectations. If we, for instance, had chosen this approach, it is highly unlikely that constitutional government would be included as a main cornerstone of our democratic ideal. The choice made by the SNS Democratic Audit of Sweden is that Swedish democracy should be compared to ideals formulated from the international academic literature on democracy.
Our audit allows us to compare the 288 local governments with each other. In our report, we will discuss the empirical correlations between the different democratic indicators. How is the dilemma of democracy worked out at the local level in Sweden? Are there interesting variations among the municipalities? This design allows for the test of certain causal hypotheses.
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