The Nordic welfare state has disappeared from the Finnish government programme

A new study from the University of Helsinki shows how the idea of the Nordic welfare state was introduced in Finland’s government platforms in the 1950s, and how this notion has over time been shaped, enhanced, and, ultimately, removed. The results suggest that a paradigm shift took place as recently as in 2015.

The study examines governmental programmes from the 1950s to the present day. It is a unique and significant description of how Finland’s political system works, and how the highest political lead has defined the Nordic welfare model.

 “We are focusing particularly on the social and health care sector, and establishing which ideological developments can be seen as a backdrop to the current social and health care system,” says Docent Matilda Hellman from the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Previously, the abandonment of the welfare state has typically been ascribed to PM Esko Aho’s government and the recession of the early 1990s. For example, studies have shown how public sector austerity was implemented at that time, with savings in public welfare continuing even after the economy had recovered. However, according to the new study, the watering-down and dismissal of the central concepts of the Nordic welfare state in government programmes took place as late as under Prime Ministers Alexander Stubb (2014) and Juha Sipilä (2015).

Coalition governments ensure welfare

The government platforms can be divided into three eras, each of which defined and formed the welfare state in its own way. The welfare state was being built up and constructed as a notion in the programmes between 1950 and 1970. During the 1980s and 1990s, the model was developed and internally synchronized, but in the 2000s and 2010s, the government programmes started placing less emphasis on the classic ideals of the Nordic welfare state, such as universalism and equality.  

Three governmental programmes are exceptional. These are Paavo Lipponen’s second programme (1999), which contained a strong welfare state ethos. In Jyrki Katainen’s programme (2011), welfare institutions were mentioned as a part of a detailed plan and inscribed in the institutions who were to execute the plans. The current governmental programme of Juha Sipilä (2015) is significantly different from the others, both in format and how it addresses the audience, and welfare politics in the Nordic sense of the term.

 “Our research shows how our political system partially ensures the continuation of the welfare state ideals in coalition governments” says Hellman. When decision-making is by necessity the result of negotiation and compromise, political goals must be documented in detail, which renders the structures of the welfare state visible. Jyrki Katainen’s “six-pack” coalition government (2011) is a good example of this, even though it was not considered particularly pro-welfare at the time.

Business models

Sipilä’s government is more unified in its reform enthusiasm. The government program is not the result of lengthy negotiations during its formation talks. The format has also been changed – it is partially a conscious shift, made in keeping with the OHRA project to reform the Government’s steering framework. The current government programme is reminiscent of a business plan, enabling more “managerialism” and hierarchical and flexible leadership. This, in turn, gives the government the liberty to leave questions open and make ad hoc decisions, which may be the factor that enabled the social and health care reform.

 “There has been a powerful political will to simplify the governmental programmes and leave more room for decision-making during the time in office,” says Hellman. When previously the goals were worded carefully, the programmes discursively maintained the structures and institutions of the welfare state. The format and content of the current governmental programme reflects the attitude that the country can be led like a corporation, ideally from above.

According to Hellman, the Finnish welfare state is changing with this ideological paradigm shift, as it emphasises the ability of the individual to make choices. The social and health care reform is a clear step in this direction.

 “Even though researchers have exposed this change and have been studying it for some time, we now have clear evidence of the change of direction that has occurred in the governance ideals of our political leadership. Finland has taken a step in a completely new direction.”

Matilda Hellman’s, Marjukka Monni’s and Anna Alanko’s article Declaring, shepherding, managing: The Finnish welfare state ethos in Finnish government programmes 1950–2015 has been published in the journal Research on Finnish Society.

The research was conducted at the Department of Social Research, in the Centre for Research on Addiction, Control and Governance research group, led by Hellman. The analysis explores the role of the social and health care sector in government programmes from a historical perspective, including how the political system has at different stages ensured universalism, and how the current government programme differs from its predecessors.

Further information:

Docent Matilda Hellman,, tel. +35840 760 0713