The role of libraries in regional strongholds

Certain regions will feel left out and claim that their rightful place is with Jakob Harnesk another region, i.e. a region whose growth potential shows more promise.

How is the social welfare system to be maintained in the future? What is to be administered by the state, municipalities, county councils and regional public authorities – or for that matter, the citizen? These are crucial questions that are currently being dealt with by the Swedish Committee on Public Sector Responsibilities. The results, which will be presented next year, may well result in a shift of power from the state to that of regional public authorities. This may affect the casting of roles for among others the libraries and other culturally interested parties.

The assignment of the Swedish Committee on Public Sector Responsibilities

In February 2007 the Swedish Committee on Public Sector Responsibilities will present its final report and are expected to answer the above questions from a Swedish point of view. Its proposals will most likely pave the way toward major changes and have an effect on the public sector as a whole.

The reason behind the committee’s assignment is the growing awareness that the Swedish social model is under fierce pressure. A state of disequilibrium has arisen between an increase in needs and accessible resources.

Photo: Nils Lund Pedersen

Globalization and information technology suggest new prerequisites with regard to working life, communication, economy and social structures. EU membership often implies the adaptation of Swedish legislation and its Europeanization, concurrently the mobility of the individual crossing borders has increased. There are more people finding employment in the services sector and less in the industries. Demographically, Swedes are growing older; they travel more frequently and study for longer periods of time. Overall the health situation has improved, yet obesity is becoming an issue of concern and people suffering long-term illness are increasing. Class differences are once again on the rise and segregation has not decreased, on the contrary. As the numbers of elderly and those in need of health care rise, the number of able-bodied persons is falling behind. Yet, they say that tax levels have reached their limit.What is the outcome of all this to be?

Previous changes were achieved by merging municipalities

The Swedish social model has become a time honoured tradition. The Constitution states that all power emanates from the people. Democracy, universal suffrage and the political parties have all to a certain degree been influenced over time by the industrialized society. The past years have witnessed an intensifying of what is known as the civic point of view, and it is emphasized that all public services are to take place acknowledging the best interests of the citizenry. But if resources are lacking – are the citizens then expected to step in and perform the services that society has accustomed us to expect? Perhaps the question lacks merit, as this scenario has already become a reality. As a point in case members of families carry out a large amount of work within the elder care services.

One of the tangible problems, and also one of the starting points for the Swedish Committee on Public Sector Responsibilities, is that Swedish municipalities are considered to small. The size of the population and tax potential is on the decrease. There are already discouraging tendencies informing us of the growing difficulty when recruiting for political assignments to some of the smaller municipalities.

Has the time come for yet another round of merging municipal authorities into larger units? Such mergers have previously occurred at regular intervals. In 1952 the number of municipalities was downsized from 2500 to just over 1000. Simultaneously, county councils evolved as an intermediary between the state and the local authorities. The main line of argument advocating these mergers was that local authorities needed to be of a minimum size to enable the managing of their commitments. With the upward growth rate of urbanization and the de-population of the countryside, the state imposed new tasks to the local authorities and there was yet another reform in 1974 which resulted in 277 municipalities. Ever since, development has gone in the opposite direction and 13 mew municipalities have been created through division.

But even if smaller local authorities are increasing their numbers; it remains to be seen whether problems are solved through mergers. Two impoverished local authorities do not automatically make one prosperous local authority. To date, no one is certain what the final report from the Swedish Committee on Public Sector Responsibilities will contain; yet the thought of a new municipal reform and further mergers seem to have been temporarily abandoned. Instead there appears to be different approaches encouraging voluntary acts of collaboration across municipal borders.

Focusing on the regions

It is more likely that a major reform lies in waiting for the county councils and the administrative districts. At present there are 21 administrative districts and several of them have a populace between 150,000 and 330,000. The three major districts (Stockholm, Västra Götaland and Skåne) each have between 1,2 and 1,9 million inhabitants. To each district there is a county administrative board and for every district, with the exception of Gotland, there is a county council.

The predominant area of responsibility of a county council is, in conjunction with the local authorities, the supplying of health and medical care for its inhabitants. Approximately 90 % of county council costs go toward administrating health care services. Besides this they also administer public transportation, educational and cultural services, (e.g. county libraries) and developing industry and commerce. The regional issue has been a topic of interest since the early 1990’s. Its evolvement has been propelled by EU membership, the economic crisis of the early 1990’s and the fact that two regions are permitted a trial period: Västra Götaland and Skåne. Moreover, there are, what is known as, regional councils in nine counties, which function as a kind of municipal joint action groups.

The argument for creating regions is primarily due to the fact that health and medical care services require a minimum number of inhabitants to function in an efficient manner. Furthermore, the idea of regions is motivated by growth policies. Several suggestions have been put forward to establish a limited number of regions, due in part to the need for municipalities with at least half a million inhabitants should be self-sufficient up to 99 % when it comes to health care services. But critics are quick to point out that the northern regions in particular would become disproportionately large and numerous ties between the affected counties would be lost.

The most likely proposal at present is to establish nine regions. A consequence of replacing county councils with regions is that elected officials will be gathered in regional parliaments and a transfer of a certain amount of political power, economic resources and authority from that of the state. In transferring authority to regions the problem of today’s “drainpipe model” is avoided, in which an altogether fragmented sector approach will cause the various government authorities to lose their ability to gain a regional overview.

But rest assured that however the proposal turns out it will undoubtedly cause a major debate. Certain regions will feel left out and claim that their rightful place is with another region, i.e. a region whose growth potential shows more promise.

There are also dividing lines between the political parties. The major political parties, the Social Democrats and the Moderates (formerly the Conservatives), remain for differing reasons sceptical, whilst the other parties are positive to the idea of regions. The opinions held on the issue by the political parties do not adhere to the usual grouping of rightists and leftists.

Does everything have to be streamlined, or are we heading towards a society where multiplicity is the order of the day? Symmetry and equality have always been the cornerstones of Swedish public administration. Social welfare should be of an equalizing nature, regardless of where one lives. But, autonomous local authorities and the increasing decentralization implies that decision-making is taking place farther away from the centre and closer to those who are affected by it.

What are the consequences for libraries?

What are the implications of all these ideas and thoughts on sweeping public reforms for libraries and cultural life in general? So far, no one knows. The work of the Swedish Committee on Public Sector Responsibilities is mainly driven by future demands on health care services. Topics, such as culture, education or libraries have been left off the agenda, or at best positioned somewhere in the periphery on the political map.

- It will be interesting to partake in the final proposition, says Niclas Lindberg, Secretary-General of the Swedish Library Association. – Perhaps the situation is such that certain municipalities are too small to handle a high-quality library service. Today there are any numbers of interesting collaborations between certain local authorities who share Chief Librarian, library tickets, computer systems etc.

- We wish to see a stronger national effort and are pursuing the issue of a coordinated Swedish library policy, continues Niclas Lindberg. The Government should either develop the Library Act further or draw up national goals for the library service. The main thing is not to give up on the ambition to offer all citizens’ equal access to libraries and information. As it stands today, regional differences are too large.

The present Swedish Library Act has been criticised by librarians as spineless. Critics wish to develop the act from that of a so called skeleton law to a more detail regulated law as to content and scope. As for public libraries it is prescribed that each municipality should have a public library, yet nothing is mentioned about the number of library branches needed, opening hours or qualified staff. This is for each local authority to decide. The Act also stipulates that borrowing books should be free of charge.

The libraries most likely to be affected, at least on a short term basis, if ideas about large regions are realised, are the county libraries. The Association of Swedish County Librarians is following the work of the Swedish Committee on Public Sector Responsibilities with great interest: – We have been involved on the issue of which kind of library services should be catered for on a national, regional and local level respectively, says Kerstin Olsson, County Librarian for Östergötland and Chairperson of the Association of Swedish County Librarians.We want to approach this in a strategic manner and attempt to formulate a vision for the public libraries.

A shift from state to region will also give topicality to the issue of who is to decide upon future library policies. Should it be the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs, the National Library, the Ministry of Education, Research and Culture – or should it be passed on to regional participants?

Current regional attempts

The shift of power from the state to the regions is exemplified with regards to culture by what is known as the cultural bag, which has been allotted Region Skåne. The state has given the region “a bag of money” containing all the collected state subsidies aimed at cultural services, yet with the bag are several conditions. The region feels that the cultural bag functions well, but wish they had a greater degree of freedom in distributing the funds according to their own priorities. At the Västra Götalandsregionen, a different model has been chosen whereby the state stipulates contractual obligations with the region. According to a survey by the Swedish Agency for Public Management, the contractual model appears to have proved the most successful.

Toward a cross-sectional approach

The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs has recently undergone a reorganization, which has in part affected what was previously the department for literature and library to merge with the departments representing the other arts. This has given rise to some concern within the public library sector as it is feared that library issues will be the losers. But, the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs emphasize that they want to conduct themselves on a deeper level of dialogue with the county libraries, and in conjunction formulate what the strategic assignments and developmental areas are in relation to other regional tasks. Such new operational methods can be seen as a way to distance itself from the “drain-pipe model” and approach a more comprehensive view.

The need for an overall library authority conducting an active and library policy on a national level is occasionally expressed by representatives from the Swedish library sector. Perhaps this is a realistic prospect, or perhaps it is merely a naïve dream to avoid taking responsibility. One can also pose the question whether the eventual proposals from the Swedish Committee on Public Sector Responsibilities on the issue of a power shift from the state level to that of the regional, would entail the distancing of such a central administrative agency.

Are the libraries running at risk if these issues are located at a regional level? – This might also open up for libraries to begin approaching new arenas, says Peter Alsbjer, County Librarian in Örebro. The county libraries need to respond to strategic municipal development needs. But, instead of applying ourselves in an instrumental or service minded fashion, we need to take a more knowledge-intensive approach, in order to supply a basis for municipal authorities and regions to arrive at dependable and well substantiated decisions.

Translation by Jonathan Pearman Portrait by Susanne Lindell

Library and information Consultant.