Regional government in all of the Nordic countries handles most of the basic services – education, local public transport, health- and social-care, local road networks, social housing, kindergartens, water, many heating and power networks like district heating, as well as cultural services like libraries and local theatres and music venues.
They are ubiquitous and an important part of the body of each country’s government through the Constitution and hundreds of pieces of other separate legislation. All residents by law have the same rights to these basic services that are deemed to be public goods.
This system of central government coexisting together with regional government has it roots going back over 100 years and although the content of the relationship has changed radically over time, it still remains as a cornerstone of life here.
In all four Nordic countries the total population is around 25 million and we enjoy one of the highest standards of living found in the world. The great majority of people have easy access to these basic services which are aimed at producing well educated healthy populations that can work hard producing goods and services for the domestic and foreign markets. From the income derived from this work people pay their taxes to fund these basic services. They agree to do this because it is cheaper and more cost effective for society to work together to produce these basic services like any good cooperative.
The Nordics work like an enlightened cooperative.
Even though the Nordic population is relatively small and spread over a sparsely populated large geographical area, that often experiences extreme cold weather, we are still able to produce world-class products and services and maintain these basic services.
Nordic politics is based on maintaining traditional values and this works well in good and bad times. A healthy sense of honesty permeates in politics and in the media. Some call it “self-censorship” others, like in many other northern European countries define it as being modest. The Dutch say “doe maar gewoon,” or “just be normal”, and the Swedes use “lagom” (pronounced: law-gum) and translated from Swedish it means “just the right amount” or “in moderation”, etc. The Norwegians also use it, and for good measure it is nice to know that the ancient Greeks had a similar metron ariston (μέτρον ἄριστον), meaning “moderation is best” although it would have been nice if the modern Greeks had kept up with their forefather’s traditions.
Regional administrative networks work well when they adapt, and adaption here means only one thing – that the production and maintenance of these basic services must remain cost effective.
This happens with efficient procurement that pays attention to appropriate standards and costs. In all of the Nordics the number of municipalities has been reduced. Sweden and Denmark have been much more aggressive and this has strengthened the cost effectiveness of regional government. Finland, on the other hand, has not done this so well and is plagued by too many small municipalities.
Another Finnish headache is that health- and social care needs to be more centralised to take advantage of new medical techniques and fighting rising costs brought about by populations living longer. Again Finland has been slow to react and that is causing excessive costs in what is still an excellent system when compared to other countries in western Europe.
On a final note it is worth returning to Nordic politics and the big Nordic media companies. The four countries are all fiercely independent in the minds of their respective populations. There are clear and distinct differences that you only see when you live here and read about it every day in the press! The Swedes we are told think that the Finns are Little Brothers, the Norwegians claim that Swedes are stuck up, and Denmark only thinks about itself and ignores the others. The Swedes like the Norwegians because they have oil and plenty of cheap electricity from hydro power plants.
From the outside they look remarkably similar, and that is basically true – there is no big difference except language and a few local food specialities! The media here, like the rest of the western world, is controlled by a few big companies. They have the important task of watching over what the politicians are doing, and that is not an easy task in this brave new world where many of today’s politicians are more concerned about how they are seen on social media rather than what they should be doing.
Big media have cut costs as a result of social media stealing away large hunks of their advertising revenues. Serious journalism is in short supply because they have borne the biggest cuts – their serious stories do not always sell to the mass audiences like the tabloids. The need to attract readers has led the papers to focus on lighter stories that raise our blood pressure and other emotions. Stories about criminals and crimes, juicy headlines, help-yourself columns, and warnings about impeding doom and extreme events are great favourites. The press also looks out for “experts” who have diametrically opposed opinions to the government. These opinions self-perpetuate so much discussion that people start to believe they are actually true and that creates opportunities for more advertising revenues, whatever the social costs à la Trump…
Not one Finnish newspaper has demanded a cut in the number of municipalities and politicians appear careful to avoid forcing such cuts even though but many are reporting the excessive debt and weak financial results. There is nothing special about these problems – the press sells more by making very negative comments about the municipal sector even though it is obliged by law to provide these basic services. The Virus has damaged their financial position like any other body or company.
The same newspapers are cheering when big companies receive state support to help them through these difficult times, but refuse to recognise that the basic services are just as essential for the smooth running of the economy. Yes, the number of municipalities needs to be reduced, but so do many inefficient companies.Yes, municipalities can always be more productive but that does not mean that something awful has happened. It only means that the government must force the municipal sector to become more streamlined and that is simply political decision to be made in Parliament.
However, the fact remains that Finland like the other Nordics, has a great municipal system that up until today has transformed Finland into a wealthy and stable country, and even though we face serious challenges it is only a matter of time for them to be solved.