Local citizen dialogue in Sweden
The Swedish Association for Local Government and Regions’ (SALAR) Citizen Participation Programme includes two mutually supportive activity areas: knowledge sharing and practice development. Through the Citizen Participation Programme SALAR has found that almost all Municipalities and Regions carry out citizen dialogue activities.
As early as 2003 SALAR’s congress (made up of elected politicians from Swedish municipalities and regions) identified citizen dialogue and participation as a priority area for the organisation:
Through the Citizen Participation Programme SALAR has found that almost all Municipalities and Regions carry out citizen dialogue activities, but the work needs to be systematized and structured in order to achieve the expected benefits.
Institutionalize citizen engagement
Engaging citizens in governance to strengthen local democracy
SALAR has found that citizen engagement needs to be institutionalised and systematised in Local Authorities and Regions as part of the overall governance system. Mainstreaming citizen dialogue and engagement requires, among other things, capable internal structures with agreed policies, clearly defined responsibilities, and changes in municipal culture. A shift is needed to a culture where the skills and knowledge of citizens are seen as an asset by Municipalities and where citizen dialogue has clear impacts on decisions and services.
For this reason, Swedish Municipalities and Regions need to make a conscious choice to institutionalize citizen engagement in governance structures. SALAR has, in close collaboration with municipalities and regions, developed a governance model which describes what is required for mainstreamed and systematic citizen dialogue at two levels - one more systematic level for the overall organisation and one level which details the steps that need to be undertaken to shape each individual citizen dialogue process.
SALAR’s model of ‘participation steps’
The 2019 governance model has the following components:
In order to systematize citizen dialogue Swedish Municipalities and Regions need to further develop their competencies in order to make clear choices. It needs to be clear how decisions about whether to undertake citizen dialogue are made, and by whom. T
oday most local government decisions in Sweden are made without any citizen dialogue. When a Municipality or Region decides to have a citizen dialogue there are certain key decisions (or steps) that need to be made.
- These key steps include: determining who is the target participant group, and
- determining what level of influence is suitable based on the situation.
SALAR’s model of ‘participation steps’ can be used in the process of determining what kind of dialogue to undertake in each caseParticipation steps.
Over the past decade dialogue with citizens between elections has become increasingly important for Local Authorities and Regions in Sweden. This is in part driven by the challenges facing our democratic society – for example declining membership in political parties, large disparities in voter turnouts between constituencies, an increasing lack of faith in politicians and various forms of social exclusion.
At the same time, education levels in the Swedish population are on the rise and research shows that a growing number of Swedes believe they should be able to shape their own lives. People also increasingly expect public services to be shaped by their individual needs.
Research shows that a large percentage of citizens are interested in discussing society and political issues with others. These developments create new challenges and opportunities for politicians and civil servants in Local Authorities and Regions – especially in light of limited budgets and rising expectations.