1.4 Fundamental principles of the political and the administrative system

The central Government administration
The central administration of the Swedish state is organised on two levels: the Government Offices and the central government agencies. Government agencies are placed under the Government as a collective entity. They belong to the area of activity of a specific ministry and of a minister but the minister is not allowed to steer the handling of individual matters by a government agency. The agencies are steered through decisions on organisation, resources and through directives on the goals and aims of the activities of the agency. This way of organising the central administration goes back to the 17th century.

The Government Offices are divided into ministries - currently there are 13 of them including the Prime Minister's Office. These are small by international comparison. In total the Government Offices have about 2000 employees. The rest of the state authorities consist of about 300 000 employees. This organisational model, combined with the previously mentioned principle of free access of official documents means that all written - including electronic - correspondence between a government agency and the Government Offices is public and is available for everyone who wishes to take part of it. The government agencies are responsible for the majority of the expert competence of the central administration of the state. Pronouncements from an expert authority in matters to be decided by the Government are thus public documents, unlike in the majority of countries where they are internal working documents within a ministry.

A number of large government agencies, such as the National Labour Market Board, the Swedish Road Administration, the Swedish Rail Authority and the National Land Survey all have well-developed regional organisations whereas others such as the National Board for Housing, Building and Planning utilise the County Administrative Boards and direct contacts with the municipalities. Most central state authorities are situated in Stockholm but a number of them have, for reasons of regional policy, been located to other towns. The National Board for Housing, Building and Planning is in Karlskrona in South-Eastern Sweden; the National Land Survey is in Gävle in North-Eastern Sweden; the National Road Administration and the Rail Authority are in Borlänge in North-Western Sweden.

The tasks of the government agencies are regulated by a general ordinance for agencies, as well as by the instructions specific for that authority. The instructions for the authority determine the working area, the organisational structure and the forms for decision-making. In other matters the authority has to follow the directives that can be connected to the budget decisions in the Riksdag and are issued by the Government and relate to how allocated funds can be used.
The government agencies are normally headed by a Director-General who is solely responsible for the activities. The government agencies exercise powers of authority, such as control functions, supervision, regulation, making of norms and issuing of permits, allocation of funds such as housing grants, providing advice to municipalities and individuals, research and investigations.

The regional government administration - county administrative boards
Sweden is divided into counties. The sub-division of the realm into counties is very old. It was implemented in the 17th century when Finland still formed part of Sweden and some of the southern and western parts of present-day Sweden belonged to Denmark. This historical background has meant that the division into counties of some parts of the country has not corresponded with today's economic-geographical regions. Despite this, the regional division has remained unchanged for over 300 years. Only during the last decade of the 20th century have certain changes taken place. After these changes Sweden consists of 21 counties.

The county administrative boards (länsstyrelser) were originally established as county governments (lantregering) - the prolonged arm of the King. Since their establishment in the 17th century they have been led by a County Governor (landshövding) who was the "commander of the King" ("Konungens befallningshavande"). They County Governors had two central tasks, namely to represent the interests of the state and simultaneously to represent the regional interests. As the commander of the King, the County Governor was to steer, appoint, control and create justice, and to be the authority vis-ā-vis the subjects in a more general sense. During the last few decades the county administrative boards have gone through significant changes and they are still changing.

According to current (year 2006) valid instructions, the county administrative boards are to monitor the situation of and needs of the county closely, to promote the development of the county and the well-being of the population, to ensure that the different national goals in different sectors of society have an impact in the county, and to be responsible for the state administration in the county where no other public authority is responsible for specific parts of it. In particular, the county administrative board has to ensure that state and municipal activities are co-ordinated and adapted to current and valid goals of environmental and regional policy, and to work for a good management of natural resources. The county administrative board acts as the regional authority of several central authorities. The county administrative board is also the first appeal instance of certain decisions by municipal committees. During the last decade the county administrative boards have gained a new role as the contact authority for EU regional structural funds. This has also meant that the county administrative boards have gained an important task for the regional growth agreements between state, municipal and private partners that are now being established in lieu of traditional state support policy.

The county administrative boards are placed directly under the Government and therefore do not have any direct connection to the population of the county through elections. The question of county democracy has been discussed during several decades. Currently an experiment is being undertaken in several counties where tasks have been transferred to regional authorities that are either directly elected or that constitute co-operative bodies between the municipalities of the county. These experiments may lead to a reform of the county administration.

Municipalities
The Instrument of Government states that popular government in Sweden is to be realised through a representative parliamentary form of government and through municipal self-government. Municipal self-government has a long historical tradition in Sweden and it is connected to fundamental economic and social conditions. The municipalities have the independent powers of taxation. Most citizens only pay income taxes to the municipality. The municipal self-government is distinguished by a wide-ranging right to take initiatives and actions. For self-government on the municipal level, there are currently 290 municipalities (kommuner). On a regional level, there are 18 county councils and two directly elected regional bodies that also have tasks belonging to the county councils. The county council is a second-level local authority (sekundärkommun), which includes several municipalities. They generally cover the same area as the counties. At the recent changes to the counties where some counties were merged the co-ordination between county and county council has temporarily been unsettled.

The highest authority in the municipality is the municipal council (kommunfullmäktige) which is directly elected by the citizens at the same time as elections to the Riksdag. The municipal councils consist of between 31 and 101 members, depending on the size of the municipality. The municipal council meets 6-10 times per year. The municipal council appoints the members of the municipal executive board (kommunstyrelse) and other municipal committees and boards. Those parties that are represented in the municipal council receive seats in boards and committees according to the proportion of seats they have in the municipal council. The main part of the municipal elected representatives' work takes place in the committees. The committees have at their disposal administrative offices with civil servants and other technical and administrative staff.

The task of the committees and boards is to prepare matters that are to be decided by the municipal council (the so called obligation to prepare, beredningstvång), to carry out the decisions of the municipal council and to decide on certain administrative issues. Elected representatives have an opportunity to take part in determinations and decisions on all levels, from preparation to decision to the execution of the decision. Municipalities can decide independently on their own organisation into committees. A municipal executive board is, however, mandatory. It can be seen as the Government of the municipality - the main difference being that all main parties are represented in the executive board.

The competences of the municipalities are regulated in the Local Government Act. It guarantees a democratic decision-making process and ensures protection of minorities. It also allows for insight and control by the member of the municipality and gives them the opportunity to participate in the activities as well as guaranteeing their legal security. The municipalities are, like the county councils, territorially delimited entities with compulsory membership. They have the status of legal persons and also have certain public legal rights, e.g. the aforementioned powers of taxation. Every resident is a member of the municipality where she or he is registered in the population register, or where she/he is assessed for municipal tax. The right to vote is only based on where the individual is registered in the population register.

The division of public tasks between the three levels of public administration - the state, the municipalities and the county councils - is determined by the Riksdag. The main part of public sector activity is the responsibility of the municipalities. The county councils are primarily responsible for health care. On the one hand, the municipalities have a general competence stated in the general clause, through which they are able to deal with matters of public interest and concern. On the other hand, they also have competences regulated by special legislation, where the state obliges them to take care of certain tasks as regulated by law.


The following main principles form the basis for the general competence of the municipalities:

  • The decision must comprise a general public interest for the municipality,
  • The decision must have a connection to the area or members of the municipality,
  • All members of the municipality must be treated equally,
  • The decision needs to have been made in due legal order, according to the regulations in the Local Authority Act,
  • The decision cannot have retroactive effect that is to the disadvantage of the members,
  • A decision cannot be in conflict with laws or other statutes,
  • A decision must be concerned with non-speculative activities and any fees that are levied cannot be profit-making,
  • The municipality is allowed to promote and support businesses through general efforts that businesses can utilise on equal terms. Direct support to individual companies is only allowed if there are significant reasons for this,
  • The municipality is allowed to carry on public non-profit activities in the public interest, such as electricity and water supply, sewage treatment, refuse disposal, bus traffic, rental of housing.

The municipal activities according to the general competence includes the recreational sector, cultural matters, commercial and industrial agencies and activities, water and sewage, energy matters, streets and parks, environment and business, as well as family policy. According to the specially regulated competence the municipality is obliged by the state to take care of certain tasks. In many other countries these matters are matters that directly concern the state, or they are handled by private actors. Some examples of special laws that regulate these tasks include: the Education Act, the Social Services Act, the Environmental Code, the Planning and Building Act, the Rescue Services Act, the Health and Medical Services Act.