In the Danish system of government, permanent secretaries prefer to stay out of the headlines. Like any butler worth his money, a good permanent secretary knows that discretion is the first and most important virtue, even more important than being able to guess the minister’s needs. If the permanent secretary is exposed, one of the foundations of modern democratic government – that politicians decide the direction of policies – is put into question.
On the other hand, the role of the permanent secretary is ambiguous. The permanent secretary is, as the title says, permanent – ie. he or she is not elected for a fixed period of time and is not (at least not in theory) hired and fired at the whims of the minister. So, to use the language of political science theory, if the permanent secretary is the agent, who is the principal? Susanne Hegelund and Peter Mose doesn’t use much PolSci lingo in their new and fascinating book about the top echelons of the Danish civil service, “Javel, hr. minister”, but effectively this is the question behind the stories and analyses.
First, some notes about the book: Like its predecessor “Håndbog for statsministre” it is a journalistic study of a part of the political arena which has rarely or never been the object of a systematic academic inquiry. It has all of the virtues of journalistic writing (be vivid, be specific), it attempts to track changes in the role and norms of the civil service and permanent secretaries (from a civil service dominated by legal norms to one dominated by economic and management thinking) and it is surprisingly comprehensive in its coverage (public administration researchers will appreciate that a general coordination ministry is covered as well as a professional (Education, Foreign Office) and a clitentelistic (Transport)) but it also has some draw-backs. In particular, I suspect that the authors may have been seduced a bit by their objects and the principled discussion about the role of the leading civil service merit some more attention. But if you have a personal or professional interest in Danish politics, it should be on your reading list.
As I read the book, it tends to implicitly convey the picture which the top level in the Danish civil service itself wants to paint of the minister-civil servant relationship. Basically, the civil service is seen as the backbone of the Danish political system with politicians in general and ministers in particular as interfering guests whose whims the permanent secretaries attend to while getting the real business done. I am exaggerating here, but in my eyes the larger question about the role of the colour of the government tends to disappear in the discussion, and I suspect that the impact of government change on policy and the civil service is larger than one might assume after reading the book.
There is one obvious reason for this: The book was written almost nine years into the present Liberal-Conservative government’s term in office and even if the authors also cover the governments of the 1990s (and in some cases even further back in time) are covered and Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s famous check-list is duly noted, the immediate effects of the changes of government in 1993 and 2001 tend to be obscured over time. In the real world, no government has 100% control over policy and policy outcomes and there are considerable variations between ministers (the high turn-over in some portfolios obviously puts some serious limits on the minister’s power) and departments, but just as the civil service of the 1990s wasn’t “social democratic” and that of the 2000s wasn’t “liberal”, there have been important changes in policy in a number of policy areas.
But to return to my question about the principal-agent relationship: As I said earlier, the role of the permanent secretary is inherently ambiguous because the permanent secretary on the one hand has to be loyal to the minister’s political priorities (in the Danish political system this means that the parliamentary majority is the principal), but on the other hand also has to take the possibility of a change in government into account. Here, the “people” is the principal – but unlike the parliamentary majority, the “people” never exists as an operative entity. Finally, we could ask if the permanent secretaries see themselves as agents of the civil service – whose interests and values change over time. I suspect that the text could have elaborated this in greater detail (obviously using a different vocabulary)
In the Danish media much attention has been directed at the possible existence of a death list (leading bureaucrats whom a coming Social Democratic-led government want to relegate to less influential positions) and the possibility of introducing deputy ministers in the Danish system of government – both Danish and non-Danish readers should note that Denmark does not have a system of deputy ministers or state secretaries. The later question is indeed important but the brouhaha about the death list unfortunately meant that some of the more fundamental issues about the roles of ministers and top civil servants did not attention they merited. But there are still plenty of opportunities for such discussions.
Susanne Hegelund and Peter Mose 2011: Javel, hr. minister. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.