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Who actually holds the power in Denmark?

Think tanks and special advisors have been increasingly influential in shaping Danish public opinion and politics, and this may be a democratic problem, according to an Associate Professor in management and organisation.
Photo: Colourbox


Who actually holds the power in Denmark? Is it the politicians or the people?

Perhaps it is neither. In any case, a new power elite - consisting of, among others, think tanks and special advisors - have occupied both the Danish and international political arena. We do not always hear much about them, and the public also does not always know who they are. But they are present, and they are very influential in determining what the political debate should be about.

The vast majority of large political issues, from tax reforms to public school reforms, have thus been in the hands of these new political actors who have helped create the results that we now see. These are not elected officials, but they still have the power to draw the contours of the Danish political landscape and this may potentially be a democratic problem.

“In a democracy, it’s always important to know who holds the power. If it turns out that an elite professional class dictates what the rest of us should think about something concerning politics, then we are headed for a top-down managed society, and then democracy as we know it is under pressure,” says Associate Professor Peter Aagaard from the Department of Social Sciences and Business.

Peter Aagaard, together with his colleague Professor with special responsibilities Mark Blach-Ørsten, has published a book about research into political communication’s so-called policy professionals, and the book is a collection of research on the area. In particular, it draws upon the results from Swedish studies as we here in Denmark have not studied the phenomenon to the same extent.

A possible distortion of democracy

Peter Aagaard’s own research, which is still ongoing and not completed, is, among other things, aimed at filling this gap in Danish research.

If you were to make an introductory sketch of the policy professionals as a group, then they are working both in the civil service of the Danish Parliament, at NGOs, in lobbyist organisations and in think tanks. In the ministries, they are referred to as ‘special advisors’, while other organisations call them consultants or public affairs workers. They are often academics with experience from working in government and the media and they understand both the media and the mass media - and then they all have a deep understanding of politics, all the way into the political engine room and across the political parties. In other words, they know what is going on and how they can influence what is going on. The combination of media competences and lobbyist competences is quite new in Danish politics, and even if a few names come to mind, such as Peter Mogensen from the think tank Kraka, most people do not know the policy professionals, because most often, they operate from behind the scenes.

We are only publicly discussing what we have the access to discuss, and it is far from being as open as it could be

“We’re not talking about the Chairman of FH or a political spokesman, but about the ones who operate just behind them, and in a capacity of an advisor or counsellor,” explains Peter Aagaard.

Hidden in the halls of the Danish Parliament or in the offices of lobbyist organisations, the policy professionals outline the direction for how a minister or an organisation should position themselves in response to various issues. It is always about assuming the correct standpoint at the right time in order to attract voters or sympathy or to impact media coverage of an issue. It can also be about fine-tuning the right media levers so that they themselves are the ones dictating what our next political discussion will be about. CEPOS has an opinion on taxation. So does the Confederation of Danish Industry, and they also have an opinion on schools and education. So does DEA, while Concito, a ‘green’ think tank, has opinions on the environment. When CEPOS, the Confederation of Danish Industry or Concito have an opinion on something, it will often quickly spread to the media and become a political agenda. However, then it is no longer elected politicians or grassroots movements that have put forth this agenda. Instead, it has been put forth by a group of highly educated policy professionals who often change their jobs every two years, make frequent Twitter posts and typically live somewhere in Copenhagen.

“I’m not one of those who have post-democratic visions of the future, but it’s important to make it clear that the policy professionals do hold some kind of power to define. They can define what we are going to discuss. In a democracy, it’s always important to know who holds the power and who decides what we should be discussing, and therefore it’s important to gain a greater understanding of who this group of people are,” says Peter Aagaard.

Policy professionals may be an insular group

In his research into the phenomenon, Peter Aagaard, among other things, investigates the extent to which the policy professionals constitute a group that is so insular that one might call them an elite or an outright class. According to the researcher, one gets the impression that quite a few of them know each other and that there might be some kind of ‘recognition requirement’ to joining the group. If that is the case, then it is not everyone who can become a policy professional and wield the power that comes with it.

In Sweden, similar studies have classified them as a ‘tribe’ that has power and influence but no formal mandate. Thus, according to Peter Aagaard, it is unclear what legitimacy they have. Some of them can be designated as an elite who have not been elected politically.

“There’s some kind of loose familial aspect to it. They often know each other from across the civil service and organisations and they switch jobs within the same industry. If we are saying they are an elite, then this also results in the group having some kind of power that the public at large does not. The problem is that if the power to put forth the political agenda is in the hands of a very small insular group of individuals, then large parts of the population are cut off from real democratic influence,” Peter Aagaard explains. He does emphasise, however, that it is too early to conclude that the policy professionals in Denmark are a small insular elite or that the population has been cut off from wielding democratic influence. First, his research needs to contribute towards mapping that.

The other possibility is that it only requires a few specific competences to become one of the powerful policy professionals. If everyone can educate themselves to be able to hold the positions they do, and if it is only a matter of being good enough at what you do, then the democratic problem is not so serious. Then, regardless of gender, postal code or anything else, you can help put forth the political agenda.

“It’s pretty critical whether it is the one or the other. If it is competence-based, then the solution might be that a greater proportion of the population should acquire these competences. Then those who want to draw the political landscape will be representing as diverse a part of the population as possible. However, if it turns out that we are seeing a new elite, then they have to relinquish some of the power or at least wield it legitimately by, for example, telling more about what is going on behind the scenes in places such as, for example, the annual People’s Meeting on Bornholm,” says Peter Aagaard.


Sweden vs. Denmark

When it comes to researching policy professionals, Denmark lags far behind our Scandinavian brothers. Both Norway and Sweden have previously made studies on the distribution of power (unravelling who holds the power). One explanation for Denmark lagging behind on this front may be that the Swedes are more used to thinking in terms of politicised civil services than we are, as around 200 politically appointed civil servants come and go with each Swedish government. In Denmark there is a separation between the two.

Peter Aagaard’s research is, however, attempting to close the gap between us and our neighbouring countries and to gain greater insight into the distribution of power in Danish politics. The United States is the furthest along, as researchers were already talking about policy professionals in 1978 in lobbyist networks and in 1989 they were talking about ‘political specialists’. The phenomenon also appeared earlier there, however, than it did on our side of the Atlantic.