Report of the Commission on Local Democracy in Norway - Summary

Official Norwegian Report 2006: 7 Is local government changing? On participation and involvement in local politics

The Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development is to submit a Report to the Storting in 2008 in which the Commission’s report will be evaluated.

The Commission on Local Democracy was appointed in 2004, among other things due to the record low participation in the 2003 local elections and the view expressed in the Report of the Committee on Power and Democracy that local democracy has become weaker. Fears of weakened local democracy and weakened legitimacy for local government were important reasons for the appointment of the Committee.

The Commission comprised representatives of the political parties represented in the Storting, representatives of the municipal sector and two independent experts (cf. the enclosed list of members). After two years of work, the Commission has submitted two reports (cf. the Committee’s mandate). The first report, Official Norwegian Report 2005:6 Cooperation and Trust. On the state and local government, was submitted in April 2005 and concerns the relationship between central and local government. The second report, Official Norwegian Report 2006:7 Is local government changing? On participation and involvement in local politics, was submitted in April 2006 and concerns the development of participation and forms of participation in local democracy.

Taking the two reports as a whole, the Commission’s main message is that central government and the municipal authorities have a joint responsibility for promoting dynamic, participatory local democracy. The second report is divided into three main sections: 1) The situation of representative local democracy, 2) The role alternative channels of participation can and should play in local democracy and 3) Issues relating to municipalities as political institutions.

An important aspect of the Commission’s work has been to tone down the rather gloomy picture that has gradually emerged of the situation of local democracy.

This may be seen from the first report, which states that municipalities have greater freedom of action than is reflected in public debate. They have freedom of action to promote local community development and they make important decisions in connection with welfare policy.

In the second report, this is explained in further detail by:

  • referring to a more nuanced picture of electoral participation. Among other things, if we consider the 1995 and 1999 elections as a whole, almost 90 per cent have exercised their right to vote. There are also municipalities where participation in local elections increased.
  • noting that citizens are satisfied both with local democracy and with the services delivered by the municipalities. Surveys show that local democracy has massive and stable support among citizens.
  • referring to the fact that citizens’ involvement in social affairs has increased if we consider the activities they take part in through channels other than elections.

Nevertheless, the Commission points out that the fact that popular involvement appears to be finding channels other than elections gives cause for concern. The Commission takes the view that it is a disadvantage for local democracy that electoral participation is falling and that the difference between the level of participation in local and national elections has increased. The Commission is especially concerned that this may lead to greater social differences in political participation. The commission regards it as important to make efforts to turn this negative trend in electoral participation around and takes a positive view of the fact that the politics themselves rather than the framework around them appear to have the greatest impact on electoral participation. If local politics are important enough, citizens will turn out to vote. In this respect, both the central government and the municipalities themselves can make active efforts to ensure that local elections are regarded as important enough by the electorate. Reference is made to the following: “Through widespread decentralisation of power and responsibility and a clear division of tasks and responsibilities between the administrative levels, the State can make it clear that municipal and local elections play a central role in the Norwegian political system. In its first report, the Commission pointed out that giving municipal self-government Constitutional status and allowing greater freedom for municipalities in the field of tax policy would be important measures.”

With respect to the organisation of elections, the Commission points out that:

  • access to polling stations must be ensured for everyone who has the right to vote
  • efforts must be made to find satisfactory electronic voting systems 
  • municipalities must ensure that it is easy to vote, for example by holding elections on Sundays.

The Commission discussed holding parliamentary, municipal and county elections on the same day. The majority wished to retain the current system, with a joint polling day for municipal and county elections. The majority also took the view that municipalities should have greater freedom to determine their own polling day in the election year. The minority proposed a joint polling day for all three elections (parliamentary, county and municipal). Another minority proposed a joint polling day for county and parliamentary elections.

The majority of the Commission did not support the idea of reducing the voting age to 16 for local elections. The minority was in favour of a voting age of 16 for local elections.

Political parties, recruitment and representativeness

The Commission points out that the political parties are facing serious challenges. Party membership has declined sharply, although the decline now appears to have stagnated. In the Commission’s view, the political parties are the fundamental pillars of representative democracy. They are, among other things, responsible for recruitment to local politics and policy formulation, and they provide a link between the electorate and the elected, and between politicians at various administrative levels. The Commission is concerned about falling membership and declining involvement in the political parties. The political parties have a clear vested interest in taking these trends seriously. It must be up to each party to decide which specific measures should be implemented. Even though the political parties constitute the foundation of our political system, they must be free to choose their own working methods and organisational structure. Such freedom is fundamental for the political parties, consequently legislation is not a suitable instrument. Nevertheless, the Commission urges the political parties to take even greater responsibility for involving citizens in their work in order to ensure the future of representative democracy. One necessary tool is to provide more financial resources to promote political activity at the local level, for instance by increasing the allocation per vote for local party lists and political parties.

The Commission points out that local party lists are a supplement to the main political parties, and wish to make it easier for local parties that are already represented on municipal councils to stand for re-election by not requiring them to collect signatures each time.

The Commission points out that the parties are responsible for ensuring the representativeness of the municipal council. It is therefore highly desirable to ensure broad, comprehensive participation in recruitment and nomination processes.

The Commission is concerned about the decline in the number of local elected representatives and the tendency towards professionalization, whereby a few elected representatives hold several positions at different levels. They point out that it is a strength for local democracy to have many representatives, elected both directly and indirectly.

Alternative channels of participation and local democracy

In Chapter 4, Influence between elections, the Commission points out that the Norwegian pattern of political participation is changing. Participation in elections and political parties is being supplemented or replaced by other, more individually-based forms of participation. Citizens are no longer passive support troops for a variety of collectives but regard themselves as independent political players.

The Commission takes the view that there is not necessarily a conflict between individual, issue-oriented political involvement and political activity within the framework of representative local democracy. Nevertheless, the trend presents a challenge for municipalities as regards channelling the involvement of citizens into representative decision-making processes.

The issues discussed are:

  • Local referendums. A majority of the Commission is opposed to a system of binding referendums and takes the view that the current system, whereby municipalities arrange advisory referendums, is sufficient. A minority  is in favour of legislation that would permit municipalities to arrange binding referendums. The minority is also in favour of combining this with a right for citizens to take initiatives, whereby an initiative supported by at least ten per cent of the electorate would automatically trigger a referendum.
  • New technology and local democracy. The Commission takes the view that municipal websites are an important tool for municipalities, with respect to both delivering good services and entering into dialogue with citizens. New technology is also an important tool for local politicians and an important means of ensuring open processes in local government.
  • Other measures to promote local democracy. Efforts to promote democracy differ significantly from one municipality to another. Some municipalities do a great deal, others are more passive. The Commission takes the view that it is a positive attribute of local democracy that citizens are highly involved. Local democracy has a great deal to gain from utilising this involvement. Chapter 4 refers to several democracy-building measures that may inspire municipalities/county authorities. The Commission takes the view that no measures should be introduced that undermines the political authority of the municipal council. There must be no doubt that it is the task of the elected representatives to set political priorities. It is also important to focus on measures that encourage dialogue with people who have difficulty in being heard in democratic processes. Furthermore, municipalities and county authorities have realised that listening to the opinions of citizens also entails giving them feedback. The report points to various methods municipalities can use to raise their own awareness in the field of democratisation. It is important for municipalities to learn from their own experience of how well (or badly) local democracy functions and to learn from the experience of other municipalities. In order to investigate trust in and the legitimacy of local democracy, the Commission requests a study of whether a database can be established for the whole country on citizens’ views of local democracy in their own municipality.
  • The Commission regards the participation of young people as a special challenge. The Commission points out that if municipalities adopt the system of Youth Councils, they should formalise this system to a greater extent than they do today. Participation should be limited to young people under the age of 18 and resources should be provided. The Commission points out that there is no legislation that prevents young people under the age of 18 from being elected as members of municipal boards and committees. The Commission also takes the view that schools should take greater responsibility for the democratic education of young people. Municipalities can prepare a teaching package to enable young people to learn how the municipality (democracy) and local politics function. The Commission emphasises the responsibility of the political parties to teach young people about democratic values and systems.
  • User democracy. The Commission reviews various systems for user democracy and discusses the advantages and disadvantages for local democracy of using such systems. The Commission emphasises the ombudsman role of elected representatives. It should be a central task of elected representatives to give priority to dialogue with citizens as the users of public services. A majority of the Commission is opposed to making councils for the elderly and representative bodies for disabled persons compulsory by law.

Municipal organisation, the establishment of companies and non-governmental organisations

The Commission emphasises that diversity is important in municipal organisational models. They must be adapted to the abilities and challenges of each municipality. The Commission also points out that reorganisation processes in the municipalities should to a greater extent aim at increasing political involvement and not just rationalising the internal municipal administration. The majority of the Commission is in favour of a system of direct elections for the post of Chief Municipal Executive Officer as a possible alternative to the current system, but the prerequisite for this is that the Chief Municipal Executive Officer must have more authority. The minority are opposed to the direct election of Chief Municipal Executive Officer in principle.

The Commission believes that the considerable growth of municipal companies raises interesting questions about democratic control and insight, and about the authority that is delegated by a publicly-elected body. There is a need for more knowledge in this area. The Commission also points out that municipalities are aware of their responsibility as owners of such companies and are developing ownership strategies.

The Commission emphasises the value of non-governmental organisations for local democracy and the local community. Municipalities are responsible for facilitating the work of the voluntary sector. However, it will be up to the municipalities themselves to consider how to utilise the voluntary sector and if or how they will engage non-governmental organisations in local democracy. In this area it is important to have a conscious policy for how this relationship should be organised and formalised and how the funds provided by the municipality should be spent. The Commission would like municipalities to be responsible for the distribution of central government funding to the voluntary sector to a greater extent than they are today. This is because important parts of the non-governmental sector operate only at the local level and have few or no national ties.