A guide for lazy journalists, provided by Kosmopolito.
Any similarity with real existing journalism is … oh, well…
A guide for lazy journalists, provided by Kosmopolito.
Any similarity with real existing journalism is … oh, well…
Many would probably see the main characters Saga Norén and Martin Rohde as national stereotypes with Norén as the formalistic, rule-oriented Swede and Rohde as the laid-back Dane, but if you have worked in both countries things are a bit more complicated. In fact, Norén (minus the sex bit) looks very much as the embodiment of the traditional Danish public bureaucracy which was excessively rule-oriented while Swedish public administration (just like Rohde) has a tradition of being oriented towards negotiations, consensus and the logic of appropriateness.
Of course, one shouldn’t make too much of a dramaturgical tool but the contrast between stereotypes and reality is fascinating.
I spent Thursday and Friday at the annual conference of the Danish Political Science Association where a roundtable discussion about about the public role of academics was one of the main events. Even if the roundtable had been planned before the very public conflict earlier this year between Marlene Wind, who is a professor at the University of Copenhagen specialising in EU policy, on the one hand and the Danish People’s Party and the Liberal Party on the other hand, it obviously adressed the issue that public appearances can be controversial.
I did feel, however, that the discussion suffered from a lack of focus as it tried to cover two very different phenomena: Academics as policy advisors, e.g. as members of commissions, working groups or consultants, and academics as “public intellectuals” commenting and analysing contemporary events like the recent election campaign or EU politics regarding the economic crisis. As somebody noticed, economists and – in particular – lawyers have been happy to appear as policy advisors since time immemorial and conversely politicians and bureaucrats have never had any reservations in using them in that capacity. That political scientists have found it harder to reach a similar position may be due to reservations from within the discipline but the lack of a body of policy recommendations may be equally important.
With regard to the other part of the discussion I was struck by the fact that it only adressed the relationship between academia and the traditional media. As an aside I should perhaps note that political scientists in the eyes of journalists make bad commentators because we are often reluctant to predict the future outcome of a process. There are good reasons for this: Back when I used to teach introductory courses in political science, I always made students aware of the fact that one of the simplest and best predictive theories within the discipline – the minimal winning coalition theory of government formation – could only predict about one third of all government formations.
But to return to my main question: This spring I, along along with all other academic employees at the Department of Political Science at the University of Southern Denmark, received a call for contributions to a special election edition of Politiken which was to be distributed to schools. I decided not to participate because I felt that there were people at the department who could write more topical articles about labour market policy, but I also wondered why the department and Politiken had decided to concentrate the initiative solely on print media. Sure, the edition would be made available as a printable pdf, but as far as I could tell there were no plans for interactive features or updating or supplementing or updating the articles during the election campaign. It looked as though the internet did not exist in the minds of my colleagues.
The same could be said about the debate at the conference. I didn’t take notes but I can’t recall the internet ever being mentioned, let alone blogs or (even if I truly hate the term) social media. As somebody who have lived and worked in Sweden, I find it puzzling that I have Swedish colleagues who tweet and/or blog so I can have continuous exchanges with them but Danish political scientists with a personal appearance on the internet are very much the exception. (Take a look at my Links page for some Swedish and international examples) Even polsci departments stick to the basic templates offered by the universities – and they do not include space for any kind of web-based publications. (For a Norwegian example, see the Ta Politika blog from the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo).
I am not sure why the internet is such a non-issue. Maybe my colleagues feel that established media give them sufficient outlet for public appearances or that digital media by definition are not an arena to take seriously. Maybe it is lack of knowledge (a senior professor called my mobile phone “a social medium” when I was checking the Guardian website for news about Greece…). Some would perhaps argue that the pressure to seek grants and publish in peer-reviewed English language journals means that academics should not spend time on interactive media – but then: Why do the Swedes, the Norwegians and the US Americans make more active use of the internet? Surely they must feel the pressure as much as my colleagues. As you can see, I have no good answers.
PS: It appeared that nobody at the conference had read Inside Higher Ed’s recommendations about how to handle established media.
AS we all know, electronic and print media are full of pundits and other types of political commentators. Research has indeed shown that pundits are terrible forecasters – but then again the quality of forecasts may never have played too big a role in the assessment of talking heads.
Still, the lack of accountability could be part of the problem. A TV or newspaper pundit can say anything and still be invited back.
But the 2011 election brought an interesting change to this pattern. TV2’s political editor in 2009 declared that “he would eat his old hat” (a common Danish phrase when you are stating your disbelief about something) if Liberal Alliance passed the 2% threshold while the gruesome twosome (aka Peter Mogensen and Michael Kristiansen) promised to wear large ears (I suspect this plays on another phrase: “Hearing so much that your ears fall off).
PS: As a political scientist I loved this conclusion from a paper about US pundits: “The final significant factor in a prediction’s outcome was having a law degree; lawyers predicted incorrectly more often.”
[Shameless self-promotion] Actually, the interview was in English (there are some French people who speak very good English, believe it or not) and that got me quoted in Le Monde. [/Shameless self-promotion]
Sonce Leoparddrengen reminded us about election night 1998, I thought I would write some words about what happened back then and why I still do not trust Danish TV when it comes to election coverage in general and opinion polls and forecasts in particular.
Now, 1998 was a very special election because it was one of the tightest elections in many years. In the end a couple of hundred votes decided that the government of Social Democrats and Social Liberals could continue for another term. But the margin of error was an issue right to the end when pollsters were making forecasts.
Not that this bothered any of the Danish TV stations covering the election. If you watched DR, the left wing had won and if you watched TV2 the right wing had won. No mentioning that there were problems in making forecasts and definitively no mentioning that the two broadcasters were making different predictions.
This went so far that the TV stations instructed politicians not to refer to competing forecasts – any glimpse of doubt would obviously ruin the framing performed by the respective stations. That the left wing eventually won is of less importance here – DR was just as guilty in misrepresenting the proceedings as TV2. The entire thing left me with the feeling that whatever the broadcasters were doing, it had nothing to do with reporting the counting of votes, and since then I have basically distrusted Danish TV when it came to covering election results.
The TV stations have done their best to live up to my lack of trust. Since 1998, the early prognoses have been supplemented with “exit polls” which are published increasingly early on election day. Today we had forecasts coming out during the afternoon. Not that either DR or TV2 had learnt anything from the 2009 fiasco when one of the stations during the afternoon confidently predicted that revision of the Succession Act was close to being rejected.
So, to make things clear: Anything published before 2100 CEST is pure and utter guesswork. We should have a picture of where the election is going at around 2200 CEST and a result between 2230 and 0000 CEST.
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.
For reasons that are a bit beyond me, my colleague Jenny Madestam from Stockholm University has been met with criticism for her appearances and comments about the selection of the new chairman of the Swedish Social Democrats. (The next links are in Swedish)
Update: Forgot Jenny’s original comments. And for the record: We sort of know each other peripherally and are Facebook contacts. And her blog is on my list of links
My own thoughts: Jenny Madestam is one of the few Swedish political scientists who have made systematic studies of political leaders and leadership so it would be obvious that journalists worth their money have her on their speed-dial when the Social Democrats select a new leader. Equally, there are limits to what you can say in a 1,5 minute clip on TV compared to the content of a doctoral thesis.
Obviously, there is a risk of over-stretching your brand – Lars Bille, my old teacher and colleague who was much in demand during the 1990s and early 2000s, reasoned that even during election campaigns he should only appear on one TV channel per day (no, really: He was that much in demand).
Jenny Madestam’s blog (in Swedish) is here.