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National coordinators. Non-traditional forms of central government steering? (About the public sector)

Statskontoret (The Swedish Agency for Public Management) has conducted a study of national coordinators as an example of non-traditional forms of central government steering. The aim is to provide a basis for in-depth reflection on a form of governance that we see is becoming more and more common. This study takes 'national coordinator' to mean a person who is appointed by the Government and who operates outside agency structures to coordinate and implement government policy.

Non-traditional forms of central government steering

Central government steering is traditionally viewed as a vertical chain of hierarchy. Here, we find familiar forms of governance such as legislation, economic policy instruments, supervision and management by objectives and results. However, the research shows that central government steering can also take other routes and be of a more horizontal and loose nature. Here we find forms of governance such as coordinators, agreements and other initiatives of a negotiative nature. The research indicates that these forms of non-traditional governance are becoming increasingly common.

Research often highlights two explanations for why central government chooses a non-traditional, horizontal form of governance. The first is that central government is dependent on several other actors for implementing policy. The second is that central government tends to resort to horizontal governance in the event of 'wicked problems', that is, complex problems that lack simple solutions or clear end results.

Three types of coordinator

Our mapping shows that since 2006 the Government has appointed 32 national coordinators. The various ministries of the Government Offices use national coordinators to varying extents.

National coordinators have, for example, been more common in the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Enterprise, Energy and Communications and in the Ministry of Culture.

In our study, we have seen that national coordinators can have very different assignments and modes of working. We have identified three different types of coordinator or elements of the coordinator's assignment: the negotiator, the analyst and the instigator. The negotiator and the analyst have long been familiar elements of the Swedish civil service. However, we see the third type, the instigator, as a newer phenomenon that does not have many clear counterparts in the past.

The coordinator provides other governance options

We have investigated why the Government has chosen to appoint a coordinator rather than make use of other more traditional policy instruments such as regulation, supervision and assignments for agencies. Like the research, we find that the Government's dependence on several actors for implementing policy is an important motive in its appointment of a national coordinator. It is also a case of the Government assessing coordination on a voluntary basis to be a more effective or politically desirable way of realising goals than coercive governance, such as regulation and supervision.

We also see that coordinators can be viewed as a renewal or concentrated effort in a given area. The coordinator is a new element that attracts attention. The coordinator is also used to spotlight an issue and thus create pressure for change.

Another motive for appointing a coordinator is that the assignment is not considered an appropriate part of the agency organisation. The agencies may be too specialised, and a coordinating assignment is sometimes not considered to be within the agency's instruction. A national coordinator is also believed to have certain opportunities for reaching out to and influencing actors that agencies or the Government Offices do not. The coordinator may find it easier to gain legitimacy among the actors, and it can be an advantage to be viewed as more independent than an agency.

Coordinators organised in different ways

Coordinators have two main forms of organisation: as an autonomous committee or as a function within the Government Offices. Our study has revealed pros and cons with both these forms of organisation.

The assignments of coordinators can also differ in their structure. We see, for example, that not all coordinators are assigned to deal with 'wicked problems'. The issues managed by national coordinators can be very complex, but there are also coordinators who deal with more delimited questions. The assignments of coordinators usually include a large number of actors to be coordinated. Local governments are the actors that coordinators have to work with most frequently. Like the research, we see that the coordination formally takes place on a voluntary basis.

The coordinator's most important tool is his or her own person. The recognition of personal trust and legitimacy by those being coordinated is often the basis of a successful assignment for coordinators. There are instances of coordinators possessing tools in the form of government grants, but this is less common.

Opportunities and challenges

Since the national coordinator provides the Government with an additional tool in its toolbox, governance becomes more versatile. However, this form of governance poses several challenges.

National coordinators constitute time-limited efforts, and so there is a need for a form to move the work forwards after the conclusion of the coordinator's assignment. A coordinator also poses challenges in relation to the Government and agencies. When the coordinator is organised as a function within the Government Offices, this may also exert a strain on the civil servant organisation of the Government Offices.

Given that the issues are often complex and that results cannot always be discerned in a simple manner, the evaluation of the coordinators' work might become a challenge. The research also indicates that the national coordinator's horizontal form of governance may obstruct opportunities for accountability. We see no signs that the political division of responsibilities has been affected by the work of the national coordinator. But there may be a risk that accountability is obstructed, especially with coordinators placed within the Government Offices on unclear mandates.

Questions of interest for further study

Statskontoret's study of national coordinators is intended to provide a basis for in-depth reflection. We therefore close by raising some potential questions for further study.

  • How is the Government's steering otherwise affected through the appointment of an instigating national coordinator?
  • How is the relationship between central government and local government affected by a national coordinator?
  • What results do national coordinators produce and under which conditions is this is an effective form of governance?