One entry to Public Denmark

Libraries on an upward move
“An efficient public sector is essential if Denmark wants to remain one of the most affluent countries in the world, with a high level of service and an effective solution of the tasks”.

This is the overriding argument for carrying out a reform of the administrative system in Denmark. There is nothing new in that.More or less the same reasoning was put forward when the previous municipal reform hit the country in 1970. Then almost 1,400 municipalities and 25 counties were reduced to 278 municipalities and 14 counties respectively.

The merging in 1970 abolished the distinction between municipalities and rural districts, and this time the goal is once more to simplify public Denmark. The result will therefore be that the 14 counties with a broad range of i.a. monitoring tasks in relation to the municipalities are reduced to five regions, and that the number of municipalities will be reduced from 278 to 98.Many assignments are redistributed, and the intention is for the new regions only to be responsible for the hospital sector. The remaining county tasks are transferred to the municipalities and – to a lesser degree – to the state.

The motto for the reform as a whole has been “One entry to the public authorities”. This means that the citizens are to be placed at the centre, and that their problems should ideally be dealt with where they first come into contact with the public authorities. In the longer term it means the development of citizens’ service in a broader sense, and not least the possibilities inherent in digital administration are supposed to secure the popularity of the reform with the ordinary man in the street.

But before this becomes a reality, the largest fusion in the history of Denmark will have to be accomplished, and this will bring considerable influence to bear on thousands of public employees having to move workplace, facing changes of assignments or – for many people – both.

The reform is to be carried out within the shortest possible period of time. In the summer of 2002 the discussion on structural reform starts in the media. In the following two years the government sets up a commission who analyse the problem and puts forward proposals. In 2004 the political negotiations ends in a final political agreement and in local and regional elections in November 2005. The reform comes into force on 1. January 2007.

Such extensive and swift changes are, of course, not carried out without some misgivings. Both employees and citizens have expressed concern that the future might bring about some deterioration, but it has been a great help that the reform is carried out during the most dramatic boom in recent times.

The municipal libraries have thus been rather busy over the past few years, but the libraries’ long tradition of cooperation and networking has proved its exceptional value.

Like elsewhere in the municipal world the reform was viewed in public library circles with both expectation and apprehension.

For quite some time many libraries had found it hard to keep up with technological developments. As the professional reality facing staff becomes more and more complex, the need to join together in large professional units increases.

The Danish National Library Authority has therefore for several years been supporting cooperations between various municipal libraries within the framework of the ordinary development pools, but it is quite obvious that a reform which places the libraries in new, larger municipalities is going to offer a far better opportunity to build larger and more efficient professional networks.

So far so good – but there is also considerable fear that the municipalities in the new structure will create libraries with less well defined tasks and an impossible organisation. A lot of people feared that many municipalities would establish independently administrated libraries on an equal footing, with a joint management at the top. This would mean that the tie between management and library professional development would be severed. A development that would hit a sector, which depends on close cooperation across sectoral and municipal borders, harder than others sectors, where the individual institutions live their own lives without being dependent on a larger community.

Most worries on that account seem, however, to have been confounded. This is due not least to the Danish National Library Authority and the National Association of Local Authorities having beforehand prepared a set of guidelines, which have on the whole been adhered to by all municipalities. By far the largest number of municipalities have already formed one joint library service with one library director placed in the library, and in most places the merging process is in full swing. It is a positive thing that there has often been keen competition in the municipalities as to where the main library were to be situated. A library is a bonus for a town – that seems to be generally accepted.

Beforehand it was feared that the appointment of library directors would entail fight and bitterness between previously good colleagues, but mostly things have worked out quite calmly and to the satisfaction of the majority.

Of those tasks that have to be solved before 1. January 2007 it is relatively certain that all municipalities will have ensured their citizens equal conditions as regards library service. Harmonisation of fees, regulations and homepages will be in place in most libraries, but also joint computer systems look to be achieved in time, and generally one has to say that the reform has updated the public libraries technologically. Already before the reform comes into force, many members of staff are therefore experiencing improvements in their daily working conditions.

The reform work has been carried out in great harmony and this is due to the libraries’ long tradition of cooperation, but has also been underpinned by the Danish National Library Authority which already at an early stage set aside means from the central development pool for projects that were to further the process within the libraries. Local publicity in connection with the many projects both outside and within the municipality has helped to put a positive focus on the libraries’ handling of the reform.

There is still reason for some concern, though. Not least as regards the financial side of things. Parallel with the reform in the municipalities, another reform is being carried out concerning a harmonisation system, which is to ensure a fair distribution of resources between the municipalities. As this is being done without the overall financial frame being extended, and as the reform demands a number of investments, the libraries have – with a few exceptions – seen their budgets reduced beyond what could be gained by future rationalisations. This has led to the closure of many libraries. And this time it is not only a question of oldfashioned and infrequently used branches. Large and well-functioning town libraries have succumbed, and even though in most cases it is due to a modernisation of the whole structure, it is a situation that has to be watched carefully.

The libraries, then, are well on their way to fulfilling the demands levelled at them within the time limit set, but it is also necessary to look ahead. With the reform’s overall mantra about one entry to public Denmark, the libraries must continue to develop their competencies within civic service. In a few years when central administrative functions will again be gathered in one single place in the municipalities, decentralised places will become necessary where citizens can get help and guidance with any questions they might want to ask the public.With its long opening hours, mediation skills and IT competencies as well as a deeprooted service tradition, the library will be the obvious place to encompass that service.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Director Skanderborg Library.