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Influential shadow people colour the political agenda

Influential shadow people colour the political agenda

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Today’s Swedish government minister is on average surrounded by eight to ten so-called policy professionals. They work as communicators or policy advisors and have great influence over which issues are confronted and driven forward, even though they work in silence and with unclear mandates. These are some of the results from a new research report due to be published in the spring of 2015.

“What surprised me the most was that policy professionals are so sceptical to elected politicians. They are borderline brutal in their description of traditional politics as being slow and tedious. They could not imagine working in that way themselves. They consider themselves to be smarter than the elected politicians, and think their jobs are exciting, fun and an efficient way of influencing policymaking,” says Stefan Svallfors, Professor of Sociology and one of three professors behind the report which is due to be published in 2015.

West WingThe idea for the research project on policy professionals emerged in the mid-2000s. At that time many were glued to their television screens watching the West Wing, captivated by the President’s clever staff — Chief of Staff Leo, the Deputy Chief of Staff Josh, Communications Directors Sam and Toby and Press Secretary CJ. What would, according to the TV dramaturgy, President Bartlett have been without them? 

In Sweden similar structures were emerging around politicians and decision makers in organisations and companies, without there being any real knowledge or debate around this fact. This made Stefan Svallfors and colleague Bo Rothstein, Professor of Political Science, curious. Together they began to develop a research application. They also involved Cristina Garsten, Professor of Social Anthropology, in order to describe this new group of professionals from a social anthropological, sociological and political scientific perspective.

“For many years we had been talking about something new which was taking place in Swedish society and the way in which people worked politically. We wanted to take a look at who these political advisors were, what they were doing and where they were coming from,” explains Stefan Svallfors.

Nordic differences

The emergence of this politically influential group is different in Sweden from the other Nordic countries. A Danish government minister usually brings one press secretary when he or she takes on a ministry. In Sweden you find a group of eight to ten people around a leading politician. Norway is somewhere in between the two.

“The group’s growth in Sweden is a symptom of the organisations’ political crisis with falling membership numbers. The political advisors and communicators see this job as an alternative channel, a way to express themselves politically without subscribing to the entire package,” says Stefan Svallfors. 

The Swedish example can be explained in different ways. There are examples from political history; the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) researcher Rudolf Meidner, together with Gösta Rehn, became the authors of Sweden’s social democratic wage policy. And even Tage Erlander, Prime Minister between 1946 and 1969, appointed political experts to his closest group to serve as a sounding board and discussion partners — among them Olof Palme. During the 1990s the formal corporate decision structures were also being demolished, as The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise left many corporate arenas leaving space for more political initiatives and creating new political dividing lines.  

Ahead of the 1994 EU vote the doors were opened for PR agencies too, with a well-funded yes campaign seeking help to get their message across. Since then the number of political employees — both the ‘fixers’, i.e. those who can handle the political game and the media, and the ‘thinkers’, those applying themselves to the content of policies — has grown, especially in the past ten years.

“If you ask whether it would be possible to manage without these communicators and political experts the answer is “impossible, they have become invaluable”. It’s a kind of arms race between organisations and companies. “They have 50 employees, so we must also have that”,” says Stefan Svallfors.

Well educated city dwellers

After two years of systematically mapping the group and 70 interviews later the researchers have a pretty clear idea of who the policy professionals are, what they do, what drives them and what political influence they have.

The 2,000 to 2,500 people working as policy professionals are well educated and linked to big cities. They are on average around 40 years old and many have studied political science or economy, mainly from universities in Stockholm or Uppsala. They earn relatively well and the group are made up roughly by the same number of women and men. There are slightly more men the closer they work with business. The interviewees have been employed for a short amount of time, approximately two years, and many have been hand picked for their new jobs. Recruitment is quick and informal especially to a higher political level, like to the government offices. 

Once inside a political block or organisation, they don’t move between blocks or organisations with conflicting interests. There is however more breadth among PR agencies who would like to offer their clients policy professionals with different backgrounds.

Their university educations prepare them badly for what they need to do — there is for instance hardly a single line about the function and role of policy professionals in politics to be found in the key political science textbooks.

“One result of this is that a large portion of power becomes invisible. My guess is that a majority of people believe politicians write their own speeches. They never do. With invisibility comes a lack of responsibility too. It is not the policy professional who ends up in the glare of the media when something goes wrong, even if he or she has contributed to a bad decision. The government minister responsible does,” says Stefan Svallfors.

Formulating problems, process knowledge and targeting

Policy professionals are found in the government offices, but also on a local and regional political level. They are found in companies and organisations and their influence is considerable, says Stefan Svallfors. He cites interviews where a person might refer to issues and terms which he or she has created in the first place and which little by little has become established terms which are being used and understood by all.    

“Those we have interviewed are generally aware that they enjoy a lot of power, and some interviewees might say “yes, I have more influence than an MP”. They reflect on their own power, but also think it is OK,” says Stefan Svallfors.

Policy professionals work to identify problems, to learn the process which leads to decisions being made and to pass a question through a big network as quick as lightning and present the correct facts. They sell their knowledge about some of these tasks and this determines their worth. It means they have great influence in everything from getting a question onto the public agenda to determining which description of reality should become dominating. Is for instance unemployment a sign that the economic incentives for applying for a job are too weak, or is it a sign of a tough labour market? The way in which an issue is described can to a large extent be attributed to policy professionals, e.g. who is best at getting their message across. Stefan Svallfors says he can now hardly read a single newspaper without wondering who has launched a certain issue. And how it has been done.

Knowledge about all the parts of the political process is also important to the policy professional. When should an issue be launched — often the earlier in the process the better. Where does the political landscape lie, and how can you turn a special interest issue into one of public interest? Another important task is to get hold of the correct background material when this is needed. It cannot be incorrect. If a government minister during a TV interview says one measure will cost 50 billion, the figure must be right. If not you end up compromising the minister’s credibility.

“Delivering the wrong information is the worst mistake a policy professional can make. It must be both correct and fast in order to work. That’s why the network is so important. They need to know who to call to get the right information fast.”  

Media schizophrenia

Policy professionals have a split attitude to the media. On the one hand good media coverage of “your thing” is the best possible reward, or to hear your own words come out of the government minister’s mouth during a live TV debate. On the other hand they see the immense media pressure elected politicians face from early morning to late in the evening, which means the report’s interviewees are not tempted to become politicians themselves. They are also discouraged by the scrutiny which politicians come under, or as some of the interviewees put it “there’s a whole herd of journalists out there who only want to plunge the knife into you”.

The study has also looked at the group’s relationship with the media, the political parties, voters, the elected representatives as well as civil servants. 

When it comes to the relationship with the media the researchers notice a worrying trend; there are fewer and fewer journalists compared to the number of policy professionals. In Gothenburg, for instance, the number of journalists has been halved in the past ten years while the number of communicators has doubled. This means the city and its businesses have two communicators for every journalist working at the largest newspaper. A serious development, considers Stefan Svallfors.

“There has been a fundamental change in the balance of power and the independent journalist is totally undermined. This is not good for democracy,” he says.

Money plays a larger roll in politics

Money is another major problem. It is expensive to have a group of communicators or other PR people at your disposal.

“Money is quite obviously more important in Swedish politics than it used to be. There is no longer an army of volunteers, you must buy resources and it is not free.”

Full-time politicians have always had an advantage over elected part-time politicians, and with a completely professional staff specialising in PR and communication, the difference grows even bigger.

“Parliament risks becoming a transport firm where special advisors tell party members how they should vote. Similarly, every motion will be scrutinised before it is passed on, and of course you as an MP can present it regardless, but you risk paying a high price and not be elected at the next elections.”

Inspired policy advisors

Yet Stefan Svallfors is careful to point out that the survey’s interviewees are not a gang of power hungry career climbers. They are often inspired and burn for the issues they work with. And since they don’t see work as elected representatives as an alternative, they would not have been working in the political field if this alternative did not exist.

“They are there now and channel their energy into politics. You could also ask whether they are not as good at listening to what is important or even better, despite the fact they are more socially selected than the average MPs,” says Stefan Svallfors. 

He points out that their mandate as researchers has been to map what is going on, not to present solutions. Yet there are problems he wants to address.

“I want to see ethical guidelines for this group. What is their position and responsibility? I also think we need transfer rules for how they can go from a public position of responsibility to other jobs, for instance in the private sector,” says Stefan Svallfors.

Stefan Svallfors

is Professor of Sociology (picture above)


The spring of 2015 will see the publication of a new research report on policy professionals, i.e. the group of people who are hired to work with politics, for instance communicators, political experts and advisors. The work is financed by the Swedish Research Council and has been running from 2012 through 2014. It builds on interviews with 70 policy professionals and on the mapping of the group’s size, qualifications and background. 

Policy professionals represent a growing group which currently numbers between 2,000 and 2,500 people. They are often political scientists and economists educated in Stockholm and Uppsala. Policy professionals are roughly half and half women and men. The report is written by Stefan Svallfors, Professor of Sociology, Bo Rothstein, Professor of Social Science Cristina Garsten, Professor of Social Anthropology. 


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