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The Swedish public administration model in the corona pandemic

As part of the Swedish Agency for Public Management's remit to contribute knowledge bases for the development of public administration policy, we have initiated a study that highlights and discusses the Swedish public administration model in the first months of the corona pandemic. Our ambition is to contribute knowledge about, and increased understanding of, the Swedish public administration model and how it is manifested during a crisis.

In this study we have chosen to analyse three characteristics of the Swedish public administration model: the organisationally independent position of government agencies, the sectorisation of the administration and the far-reaching decentralisation.

Government agencies are answerable to the Government

Government agencies are important tools in managing a crisis. They have a delegated responsibility to deal with matters within their areas. But it is the Government that governs the country. The Government may not determine the agencies' decisions in cases concerning the exercise of public authority in relation to an individual or in cases relating to how a municipality applies law. Nor may a minister individually make decisions concerning the agencies. Beyond these provisions, there are no formal restrictions on how the Government can govern the agencies.

Our study shows that even if the Government does not have an operational responsibility for managing the necessary work in a crisis, it is highly active. During the period February-September 2020, the Government made over 400 decisions in response to the corona pandemic.

The Government depends on documentation and information from the agencies when it makes a decision. But the dependence is mutual. The agencies need a clear picture of the Government's expectations and the purpose of the measures adopted to be able to fulfil their mandate satisfactorily. This requires effective communication between the Government and the agencies. In our study, we have seen examples of the agencies and the Government having had frequent contacts, and also of the Government deviating from normal procedures in some cases to seek comments from agencies prior to a decision.

During the period we analysed, in many cases the Government based its action on advice and recommendations from the agencies. But there is no requirement for the Government to do this and we have also seen examples of the Government having made decisions that go against the agencies’ recommendations.

Sectorised administration requires collaboration and coherent governance

The corona pandemic involves all sectors of society, directly or indirectly. This is evident not least in the Government’s decisions in response to the pandemic, which have affected all the ministries.

The sectorisation of the administration challenges the Government’s ability to govern coherently. It can also create questions about divisions of responsibility, which we have seen examples of in our analysis. But in parallel with increasing sectorisation, the agencies have also experienced an upswing in collaboration. The management of the corona pandemic demonstrates the agencies’ ability to collaborate. The agencies have made efforts to close gaps and sort out unclear boundaries between them.

Although there are general requirements for cooperation and collabo-ration, the Government has set specific requirements for collaboration between agencies, sectors and administrative levels. This may be a way for the Government to ensure that the agencies are conducting a dialogue on the concrete division of responsibility. The Government has also created horizontal links in the administration through decisions to give coordinating assignments to certain agencies and to appoint national coordinators.

Local self-government is a challenge to the Government’s ability to govern

The Corona pandemic has required measures in activities that largely fall under the responsibility of regions and municipalities. But when a crisis is extensive and affects the whole of society, we can see that there is a need for national coordination, which municipalities and regions have also requested. For example, the regions requested that the Government urgently commission the National Board of Health and Welfare and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) to ensure access to and distribution of protective equipment at national level.

The Government has also given government agencies operational tasks, in particular in the field of health and medical care. Some decisions made by the Government are formulated as transferring tasks and responsi-bilities from regions and municipalities to central government agencies. But in practice, in most cases, the agencies have come to complement the work already carried out in municipalities and regions.

Governance through the agencies is an important tool for the Government to reach municipalities and regions. The Government has given several government agencies the task of supporting and coordinating the work of municipalities and regions. County administrative boards form a special link between central and local government levels. They have been given several assignments to coordinate the municipalities’ work and produce regional status reports as reference material for government agencies and the Government.

The Government also uses the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR) to reach municipalities and regions. For example, they are listed as collaborators on several government assignments and have also participated in several liaison groups. This gives them a special role in the Swedish public administration model.

Our study shows both opportunities and challenges with the public administration model

The Swedish public administration model gives the Government far-reaching opportunities to direct the agencies and to influence the work of regions and municipalities. But it is important for the Government to weigh up which governance tools are most appropriate to use at different times and to what extent. For governance to be effective, it is necessary that the Government applies the model as it is intended. For example, we can note that even if the Government formally has substantial scope to change the division of responsibilities within the administration, in practice it may entail difficulties.

The public administration model makes the same governance tools available to the Government in a crisis as in normal circumstances, but under different conditions. Decisions often need to be made quickly and with incomplete information. During a crisis, there is also pressure on both the Government and the agencies to act. The public administration model also requires collaboration and communication between the Government and agencies, between different sectors and between administrative levels. It is then important that the Government can clarify its governance through informal contacts. At the same time, it is important that there are procedures for how the informal contacts should take place and that they do not go further than the ex-change of information and clarification of formal governance.

However, agencies also need to be able to sort out ambiguities in divisions of responsibility among themselves when new issues need to be dealt with. In collaboration and communication between the central and local government levels, the county administrative boards and SALAR constitute special links.

Our study also shows that the public administration model may be difficult to understand for the general public. According to the SOM survey conducted in the spring of 2020, the percentage of people who considered that the agencies bear a responsibility for the handling of the pandemic was slightly higher than the percentage who considered the Government does so. In addition, a larger percentage considered that the agencies and the Government are largely responsible for the handling of the pandemic than the percentage that considered that municipalities and regions bear responsibility, despite the fact that medical and health care are primarily the responsibility of the regions and municipalities. This may be partly due to the fact that the agencies have been more visible during the first months of the pandemic, but it may also be because it is difficult to understand how the responsibility between the three administrative levels is divided. Nor is it always clear how far the State’s responsibility for creating the conditions for municipalities and regions extends. This may, in turn, be an obstacle to voters holding those at local and regional level to account.