Symposium “Municipalities and Regions as the Foundation of Modern Civil Society”
Salzburg, 7 February 2014
Speech by Anders Knape (Sweden, EPP/CCE), Congress vice-president
Is the Political Discourse Comprehensible Enough to Allow for a Civil Society?
The role of transparency and media when communicating politics and communal values.
Mr. Secretary General, ladies and gentlemen,
Vielen Dank für Ihre Einladung zur diesem intressanten Symposion in der wunderschönen Stadt Salzburg.
A democratic society is based on the preconditions that the human rights are met and the citizens have trust in the country’s democratic system.
The foundation of that trust is to feel part of the democratic system, that I’m involved and that I can influence my everyday life.
In Sweden and many other countries in the EU, the municipalities and the local governments are in charge of the matters that mostly affect the citizens’ daily life: school, health care, roads, environment, waste management and urban planning. For this reason the interaction between the resident and the local authority is so basic and important.
However, the trend over time shows that the interest to join a political party has decreased. In Sweden today, 4 percent of the population is member of a political party and only one percent of the citizens are active party members. The age distribution is distorted and we need more young people to become members in our parties. We also need a better representation of people to take part in our parties so the parties better reflect our population and its different parts.
At the same time, studies show that people want to get involved. SALAR conducted in December 2013 a survey with a representative sample of Swedes and asked if they would take part in a dialogue with elected representatives. It turned out that 66 per cent wanted to be involved in the development of the local community, but only 6 per cent had the opportunity to do so. Health, education, elderly care and urban planning issues are the topics that the citizens want to discuss with the elected representatives.
The citizens feel it is important to become involved in the early stage of the decision-making process and to avoid having to resort to protest activities.
So, what are the challenges for us elected to meet this citizen's desire of getting involved while the political parties are losing members at the same time?
I would like to highlight three areas that I believe are central to create development.
Meet the citizens where they are!
At first, as elected representatives in municipalities and county councils, we must meet the residents where they are. It is in some ways easy to invite people to the arenas, where politicians and civil servants feel safe. But the risk is that there are only those like us who will come, those who feel safe in the same environment.
Therefore, we need a completely different way to reach out to the citizens where they are. In the meetings we create with the residents, we need to emanate from the local context and the issues that affect people's everyday lives.
People are nowadays more interested in specific issues than ideologies and in order to create interest in the political processes, we must start where the people are.
We cannot demand that the individual inhabitant should have knowledge or interest in taking the overall responsibility; it is our responsibility as elected representatives.
But we need to initiate a dialogue on how the residents can, in singular questions, become co-creators and take joint responsibility for the local community’s development.
We need to raise the dialogue, not only engage in a dialogue about issues, but also get involved in a dialogue. A dialogue about the elements that create value for the society we live together and how we can strengthen the relationships between people.
Erik Amnå, professor of political science at the University of Örebro, has through studies developed six incentives that make people want to participate and engage in the political discourse.
It's about a sense of duty to participate – is the issue important to me, do I have the ability to participate, is my knowledge inquired, does my participation make any impact and how meaningful is it.
If we look in the rear mirror maybe we have not been so good at asking for the residents' knowledge and to implement dialogue which leads to results, and thus becomes meaningful for the individual to participate in.
If we can reassess and change our attitude towards the citizens and really have people's focus in our dialogues as we meet them where they are, we can create a greater interest to become co-creators in the local community’s development that may ultimately lead into an increased political engagement.
In the municipality of Kungsbacka, located on the west coast of Sweden, the councilors invited the citizens to a dialogue about how public transport should be developed. They used several different methods; first, they put up posters at various locations around the town where they submitted questions to the citizens who could answer via text messages on their cellphone.
Secondly, the municipal councilors went out in the town and asked questions in public squares, on buses, at the station etc. The municipality had also a special website where citizens could enter, submit their ideas and feedbacks, and read what others had thought about the topic.
The whole process ended with an open meeting where citizens had the opportunity to discuss the issues raised by the text messages, from dialogues in the town, on the busses and through the website.
Uddevalla, Haninge, Upplands Väsby and Örebro have invited young people to a participatory budgeting. They have given young people the opportunity to prioritize parts of the budget to develop the local community.
Openness and transparency in the democratic processes.
The second area I want to highlight is that we need to open up and become more transparent in the democratic process. Today, the general public has very little or limited knowledge about what the democratic decision-making process looks like.
Lobby groups often want to influence and want to obtain quick decisions. They do not have patience with the slower democratic processes for reaching decisions. But democracy is not a “quick fix”; it is rather about taking full responsibility and discussing trade-offs, allowing many to be involved in a decision.
We, on the municipalities and county councils’ level, have spent a lot of time on becoming good service providers, be it a municipality or a private company that provides such services. We have focused on improving the quality of operations and follow-up that we achieve the goals of service and quality that we have set.
What we might have overlooked, is to be clear about how the democratic process works; the considerations the elected representatives must take into account when taking a decision, how the democratic institutions function, who are the elected officials who govern and from whom the residents can claim responsibility and accountability. By taking all those elements into considerations, the policy process becomes very diffuse for the citizens.
I therefore believe that it is necessary to become more open and transparent about the democratic decision-making processes. We need to use multi-media to clarify this.
In Sweden, the paper newspaper reading has declined over the past 20 years and a decrease from 76 percent of the population reading the morning newspaper in 2000 to 55 percent in 2012. An international study proclaimed the newspapers' death to occur 2019 in Finland, 2020 in Norway, 2021 in Finland, 2023 in Denmark and 2025 in Sweden. This does not mean that the news will disappear but it will take new paths and forms, and not least is the internet becoming increasingly important for broadcasting of information and news.
The principle of transparency is central in this sense; basically the resident must be able to access everything. We have to bring out the information from our register. We must present the information more accessible through the new media. We must also inform about the political process, make it more accessible to the public both in terms of accessibility through written materials, but also through images and sound.
We simply must make the elected representatives and their work visible in a completely different way than before. The exciting work of being an elected representative must reach residents through various media.
This also includes strengthening cooperation with the media. We need a qualitative journalism that both monitors and reports about what is happening.
If the traditional press of quality matters less and less for how residents embrace news now and onwards, the state and the county councils must support a qualitative journalism within the new media.
This must be achieved through cooperation and the development on how municipalities and county councils present the policy processes. We need to act instead of react.
The municipality of Stockholm has invited the citizens to videotape their questions and to post them on the website of the city. The mayor and vice mayors answered the questions by videos that are also being posted on the website. You can also find on the website a description given by the mayor of Stockholm of how the budget of the city is allocated.
The municipality of Norrköping describes in a film on the website and in social media how a 100-SEK note in taxes is used by and within the municipality.
Dialogue about complex issues
The third area I want to bring up to this discussion is that we need to have a dialogue, even if there are difficult and complex issues that concern and worry the citizens, especially in a world that is exposed to economic hardship.
When a society is put under pressure and social gaps increase, there is a risk that people who feel they are outside become more enthralled by radical and extreme parties and become more focused on protecting their own safety. We can observe this all around Europe, not least in Greece where the Golden Dawn party received 7 percent of the votes, the French Front National party and the Italian Five Stars Movement party.
Sweden is not free from the undemocratic tendencies. At the last election a nationalist party succeeded for the first time to enter the Swedish Parliament. The Sweden Democrats have also received mandates in many Swedish municipalities and county councils. In particular young less-educated young men are drawn to this type of political parties.
We have in Sweden, but also in the rest of Europe, the need to open up and talk about the difficult issues that concern people and that the citizens perceive as a threat to their lives and security. We must work against ignorance, segregation and marginalization.
We must dare to talk about difficult issues involving conflict of interest for the individual; the local community, the nation and the European community. We must engage in a dialogue about the importance of not setting up boundaries to people, not just from a market economical perspective, but also from a human perspective.
We must dare to bring up important subject of how we can take joint responsibility to solve the complex issues facing society whether it be unemployment, environmental, economic or social conditions. We must take joint responsibility for creating a sustainable society. For all those purpose the political dialogue is necessary.
The elected representatives have an important role of working with the various stakeholders in the local community, to create a climate that allows for positive growth and to combat the dark forces.
No one can solve society's challenges by him or herself, we must do it together and elected representatives at the local level have a great responsibility to invite people to the dialogue leading to the development and co-creation in the political process.
The city of Göteborg conducts a dialogue in certain socially vulnerable neighborhoods on how to work with social unrest. The dialogue focuses on how to jointly take responsibility for positive development and try to prevent the recruitment to criminal gangs. Stockholm has a similar project involving a broader cooperation between people and groups in different areas with the police, social services and other agencies and organizations.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention and your interest in those important questions.