From Continental Law to Anglo-Saxon Behaviorism: Scandinavian Public Administration

By Jorgensen, Torben Beck | Public Administration Review, January-February 1996 | Go to article overview

From Continental Law to Anglo-Saxon Behaviorism: Scandinavian Public Administration


Jorgensen, Torben Beck, Public Administration Review


Norway, Sweden, and Denmark(1) are, in many ways, like three siblings: closely linked, with a common heritage but nonetheless very different and often in conflict with each other although nowadays in a peaceful way.(2)

The similarities are manifold. First, the three countries share many culturally determined features. The linguistic differences are minor. Since the middle of the 16th century, these countries have embraced the same religion: Protestantism. Hence the common cultural heritage is significant and reinforced by the fact that none of the countries contains major ethnic or religious minorities.

Second, the three countries have uniform political systems and traditions: consensus-oriented democracies of many parties, a fairly strong Social Democratic dominance, well-established traditions of corporate pluralism, and low levels of labor market conflict. Especially since the Second World War, the three countries have developed extensive public sectors with an emphasis on the institutional welfare state.

Third, contemporary Scandinavia has historical development of great continuity. The monarchical form of government will soon celebrate its millennium, a centralized and--in Weberian terms--bureaucratic state apparatus has developed gradually since the 17th century, and there is a long tradition of local self-government and parliamentarian democracy well rooted in the 19th century. Breaks in this continuity have naturally occurred, but they typically have been nonviolent.

However, these common features tend to conceal a number of significant differences in state-building and political culture. First, certain minor but nonetheless important differences exist in the formal political system. Sweden has, as part of its constitution, highly independent public agencies. Government ministers have no direct responsibility for the agency's concrete decisions and cannot reverse these decisions. External control is exercised by administrative courts and the ombudsman. In contrast, public agencies in Denmark and Norway are subject to direct ministerial responsibility.

Norway and Sweden, unlike Denmark, have politically appointed state secretaries and parliamentary elections every four years, whereas the Danish prime minister can call a general election at any time. One result of these differences is that relations between politicians and civil servants develop in different ways.

The differences are more marked--and more difficult to describe and document--when it comes to the national political culture of policy style. In Sweden, the sense of collectivity seems stronger than in Denmark. There is a greater respect for public authorities in Sweden. The Swedish term Folkehemmet (the people's homeland), which expresses the state's care for its citizens, cannot be used in Denmark in a neutral sense, let alone in a positive sense. Its use in Denmark provokes, rightly or wrongly, an indulgent smile. Compared to Sweden, Denmark has a more pragmatic and liberal policy style.

These characteristic differences can be observed within many diverse policy areas, such as industrial policy and alcohol policies. This applies to administrative reform policies as well. Compared to Denmark, Sweden has a long tradition of systematic "official" analyses and diagnoses of administrative problems and well-established ties between the academic world and practitioners Laegreid and Pedersen, 1994). And Sweden spends three times as much as Denmark on social science.

What does all this imply for an article on Scandinavian research on administration? Primarily that readers should not expect administration research in the three countries to be the same, despite the many obvious similarities. Nor should they expect to find close Nordic cooperation or a great number of comparative studies on the Nordic states. In fact, Anckar (1991), in a review of Nordic political science, claims that Nordic political science is marked by a high national ethnocentricity. …

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