More about local democracy

The local and county authorities have a long tradition as local democratic bodies. But their role is also subject to conflict and dispute. Expectations are made of them as democratic bodies, service bodies and as executors of nationally decided policies. They shall also have an independent role with room for local political participation. Local democracy is closely connected with local self government. Only through freedom from the state can local residents – through the local and county authorities – exercise influence over important decisions that apply to their own local community.
Local and county authorities in Norway are strongly linked to democratic values and a democratic tradition. For more than 170 years, residents have been able to elect their own representative bodies in the municipalities, the local councils. The activities of the counties have been subject to directly elected control since 1976. The democratic role of the local and county authorities has become more important as the welfare state has been increasingly built up around the local and county authorities as responsible for important parts of public services. The local and county authorities secure residents more influence over their own daily lives. That residents are able to elect their local political leaders and make them responsible for their actions is at the heart of our democratic system. It means that the local administration must take into account what residents think about how the municipality is functioning as a democratic body, about the services the municipality provides and how the money is used. This is also a road to efficiency in every municipality.

The role of the local and county authorities

The very concept of the municipality is linked to an idea of community – the local community and its residents shall perform joint tasks together, in terms of both what shall be worked on and what the content of the tasks shall be. This presupposes the participation of the residents and that the residents must themselves accept responsibility for what the municipality does, how it organises the work and how much income it acquires. This is done through representative elected bodies and primarily the local council. The most important job of the local council is to take decisions on matters on which there is agreement and matters where various possible decisions have been put forward.

A vital prerequisite for the institution of the municipality being able to function as a body for political prioritising and performing joint tasks on behalf of the residents is that there must be autonomy in relation to the central power. If the community cannot decide the content and formulation of joint solutions locally, then the basis for talking about a municipality also disappears. Self determination is therefore a prerequisite for the municipality as an institution.

But local and county authorities, together with the state, are also an integral part of the welfare system. This creates obligations for both the state and the municipalities. For the municipalities, it means they have assumed a responsibility to give their residents basic services in a number of welfare areas. The requirement for equal services regardless of place of residence has been absolutely central throughout the post-war period. The relationship between local self government and the ideal of equality can be a difficult one, but there has been widespread agreement in our society that the municipalities shall have a central role in welfare production, not least because this gives residents a greater chance to influence the formulation of the services the public sector offers.

The municipality is both a democratic body and a producer of welfare benefits. This leads to residents having different roles in relation to the municipality. In this context, we can distinguish between three resident roles:

  • The role of citizen is linked to participation in political life as a voter, party member or local councillor, where control of the whole is central and self interests are in the background. The most important thing is to find solutions that work best for the community.
  • In the role of user, the resident is a consumer of municipal services. The most important thing for the individual is to get the local or county authority to provide good service where he or she needs services.
  • The third aspect arises when the municipality takes in money through tax, charges or payment for services. Then the resident is in the role of payer.

That local and county authorities are both democratic bodies and providers of welfare benefits and that residents have different roles in relation to these bodies creates challenges to the relationship of trust between residents and the local and county authorities.

Democracy and influence

At elections, the residents have the opportunity to say whether they think the local and county authorities are doing a good job. Are they providing the services that residents want? Are the services of satisfactory quality? Are the local and county authorities directing social development as the residents wish them to? Is the municipality utilising resources as it should? Is the level of municipal charges appropriate? If the resident is satisfied and answers yes to these questions, then he or she has grounds for voting for the parties and candidates that have had the main responsibility for municipal policy for the last four years. If not, then voting for the opposition is an option. Elections hold political leaders accountable for their actions over the last four years.

Questions have been asked in recent years about whether this system works well enough. St. meld No. 33 (2007-2008) raised the question of whether residents can effectively exercise influence over local and county authorities.

There may be an issue of whether the selection of elected representatives is not working well enough to create more representative local and county councils that better reflect the composition of the municipality and the county. Are women                      underrepresented on Norwegian local councils, for example. For this reason, the government also has a current project “Showcase for women in local politics”, the purpose of which is to increase the proportion of women on local councils. It has been well documented that only a small proportion of local residents choose the candidates that will stand for election. Neither do these represent a cross section of the local community. The extent to which the local council is representative may, for example, have consequences for the distribution of resources in the municipality.

There may also be an issue of whether the conditions are in place to allow the people’s elected representatives, the local and county councillors, to exercise the influence intended. It is true enough that municipal politicians have limited room for manoeuvre. Both the state and international society set a regulatory framework for municipal self government, through both regulations and an economic framework. There are also local limitations to how local elected representatives can affect important decisions. One dimension in this picture is the relationship between politics and administration. Over the course of time, local politicians have delegated more of their authority to the municipal administration. The establishment of many different independent entities in the municipality, through the creation of companies for example, has caused a fragmentation of the municipal decision making structure. The establishment of more intermunicipality collaboration organisations has also contributed to a looser decision making structure. This could be perceived as the elected representatives not having total responsibility for municipal activities, or that it is more difficult to maintain this total responsibility even if formally it has been established.

The role of representative

As well as having a controlling, coordinating and decision making function, the elected councillors also have the role of representatives. This means that councillors shall work in the residents’ interests and be concerned with the residents’ needs and wishes when political decisions are to be taken. The role of representative also means taking up cases on behalf of individuals.

Democracy between elections

Democracy is also about creating arenas for participation and expression of opinion outside elections and through channels other than those the elected bodies represent. How can residents make corrections and ask questions about the efforts of the political leaders between elections? How can the working conditions of local politicians be organised so that they have the opportunity to meet people?

Dialogue between public institutions and residents is necessary so that public administration shall achieve the goals for effective administration of resources and services suited to the residents’ requirements and expectations. User surveys and measurement of user satisfaction are instruments that many municipalities have already started to use. The Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development is also concerned about assessing new forms of participation. In 2003, an arrangement was introduced, pursuant to the Local Government Act, which gave local residents the right to take the initiative to present to the municipality matters that they wanted debated in the political bodies (residents’ initiative). It is also important that contact between the ordinary citizen and the elected representatives should be improved. The working conditions of elected councillors should be such that they can maintain the role of representative by taking time to encourage contact from residents, for example.

The same report to the Storting discusses various forms of participation in local democracy that the municipality facilitates. There is also participation organised by residents as a reaction to the proposals or decisions of the municipality, in the form of petitions and demonstrations for example. It must be perceived as an independent value and as a basic part of democracy that residents participate in the handling of local and regional political questions outside the election channel. Participation means being concerned about what the community decides and how it can work in the interests of both the community and the individual. It appears that more and more Norwegian local and county authorities are trying out more direct forms of participation. This can help to create a more user-oriented public administration. Direct forms of participation can also help residents to receive valuable training in participation in political processes, which may also arouse interest in participating on the local council or other elected bodies.

At the same time, it is the responsibility of the local and regional elected bodies to find a balance between thinking of the whole and self interest. A user controlled administration cannot take over the local and county councils’ overall responsibility for maintaining the total view, prioritising the use of resources between different service areas and safeguarding the weaker groups and the interests of the community in general.

A strong local democracy

In June 2008, the government presented St.meld. No. 33 (2007-2008) A strong local democracy. The report to the Storting was a follow up to comprehensive work performed by the Local Democracy Commission, which presented two reports. The first was about the relationship between the state and the municipalities, the official Norwegian report NOU 2005: 6 Interaction and trust – about the state and local democracy. The other was about local democracy locally, NOU 2006: 7 Is the local democracy changing? About participation and engagement in local politics.

The report to the Storting agreed with the commission’s assessment of the municipalities’ room for manoeuvre as greater than the debate of the last decade had assumed.  The basis is that municipal room for manoeuvre has a negative limitation. This in itself and formally speaking gives greater room for manoeuvre. But the municipalities’ opportunity for action is actually limited by financial and legal considerations. Even so, the municipalities are working in areas where it is largely local considerations that must form the basis for decisions. This applies for example in local community and land use planning and community development. In areas that are regulated by the law, there is also a need for local knowledge and a local adaptation of services. With effective use of resources, many municipalities could have good financial room for manoeuvre with the extent that municipal incomes have today.
It is also very important to direct attention at the situation for local democracy. In the report, the government makes clear that the state must have a conscious attitude that the municipalities must have opportunities for action and must ensure through internal coordination in the state that the room for manoeuvre is kept at the desired level. The municipality, for its part, must ensure that it uses this room to manoeuvre in the best possible way.

Good local democracy can best be maintained and developed in interaction between the residents, the municipalities and the state.

The state shall facilitate the regulatory framework that ensures the room for manoeuvre.

The municipalities shall facilitate widespread participation. Firstly, so that residents go to the ballot boxes to elect their local leaders. Secondly, the municipalities should ensure that residents have an opportunity to express their views on the municipality’s politics and different activities. This can be done, for example, by using the Internet for communication between representatives of the municipality and the residents or by creating arenas where the people can meet those they have elected. The elected representatives also have a responsibility to facilitate a political organisation that ensures elected government of the municipal activities.

Residents must show engagement by using various opportunities for expressing their views on how the municipality is governed, based for example on perceptions of the day to day municipal services. As the voters who have elected the political leaders, residents also have a responsibility for what the municipality manages to do by way of development of a good local community.

Over the course of the last 40 years, municipalities have held altogether 679 public referenda. It is now laid down in the Local Government Act that the local council can decide to hold advisory referenda.