Who is steering whom in today's democracy?
The covid-19 pandemic has revealed a weakness in our modern political system, namely the difficulty of government steering - who is steering whom when a crisis strikes? DemGo is a project trying to understand how society can be steered effectively, without losing its democratic legitimacy.

In the early days of the pandemic it became evident that there are considerable problems in the cooperation between public and private actors, as well as between and within the authorities themselves. The adaptation to the different stages of the pandemic has from time to time happened at such a slow pace that some debaters have asked themselves whether or not this country can be governed at all. Another question is what kind of review and revision should be practiced in today’s hybrid-like processes? Who controls and who is being controlled? This question has unfortunately been neglected in the turbulence regarding the National Audit Office. Another example are the new regional wellbeing services counties, which are going to face many challenges regarding collaboration and steering. 

In its recent report, the OECD is urging Finland to adopt so-called anticipative governance through an integrated approach. The aim is to ensure compliance between actors, goals and measures across sectoral boundaries. The ambition is perhaps good but it faces great challenges.

These are practical examples from everyday politics. How can we shape governance to support effective decision-making without any negative impact on trust in our democratic institutions? The answer requires deeper knowledge about politics and its internal tensions, conflicts and interactive effects.

These are the questions that the DemGo research group is going to dive into during the next four years. In this way we hope to be able to give a constructive contribution to the future of societal governance, but also a greater understanding of the developments from the 2000s leading up to today. 

Democracy is overloaded

In the mid-1970s, two articles were published introducing a new concept to the societal debate, the overloaded democracy. Drawing on analyses in Europe and in the United States, Michael Crozier and Anthony King each drew approximately the same conclusion: western democracies are developing in a direction which will make them more difficult to steer. Crozier’s study was later published in the report by the Trilateral Commission, The Crisis of Democracy, which received great attention at the time.

When demands increase and resources are strained there is also a greater risk of selective implementation and systematic implementation problems.

Even though the gloomiest doomsday prophecies didn’t realize, complexity and the lack of governability have ever since been among the most common of descriptions on the state of democracy. In the 1970s the concerns had to do with the input side of politics. If politics can’t meet the ever differentiating demands of society, the trust in democratic institutions will decline. Ever since, researchers have been focusing more and more on the output side of politics, ie. its results and consequences.

Three pitfalls for democracy

To be short, the complexity of today’s society is expressed in three ways. The first one can be called the knowledge trap, and it is caused by the genuine complexity of political substance. It can be attributed to all politics that concerns the big societal challenges of today, such as employment, climate, energy, environment, communication, immigration or pandemics. Even if experts might be able to cope with the knowledge demands, it is not certain that the pace of politics and media will. Since it is becoming increasingly harder to separate between fact and desinformation in forming the public opinion, there is a risk that the substance of politics becomes even less prominent, if political arenas fail to absorb or convey relevant knowledge.  

It is relevant to ask whether contemporary governance has reached such a level of complexity that it has started to defeat its own purpose, namely contributing to good decisions.

The second problem is the implementation trap. After decisions have been made, the responsibility is shoved upon the administration and the front-line bureaucrats. There is nothing new about the fact that policy isn’t implemented as expected, but when demands increase and resources are strained there is also a greater risk of selective implementation and systematic implementation problems.

Complexity clouds responsibility 

The third problem could be called the steering trap. Fundamentally, it has to do with the fact that practical politics today is executed through a complicated mix of different governance mechanisms like legislation, economic incentives and information, but also an abundance of activities that build on cooperation, eg. networks, partnerships, projects and co-administration. Today’s modes of governance put great demands on cooperation and division of responsibility. It isn’t always easy to see who governs and who is governed. 

All of these traps can be triggered in such a way that the results of policy rather weaken than strengthen the trust in democratic institutions. In a readable book, German researchers ask themselves whether the traps of complexity will lead to a paradox where more and more sophisticated knowledge will come to mean less and less for the practical policy formation process (Adam, C. et. al: Policy Accumulation and the Democratic Responsiveness Trap. Cambridge, 2019). In the same spirit, it is relevant to ask whether contemporary governance has reached such a level of complexity that it has started to defeat its own purpose, namely contributing to good decisions.