The politics of Norwegian policy advisory commissions

Little is known about how governments put together and put to use policy advisory commissions. In her dissertation, Stine Hesstvedt seeks to find out if and how politics play a role in the Norwegian policy advisory commission system.

Since the 1970s, NOUs have influenced public policy in Norway (Photo: Hans Permana CC BY-NC 2.0).

In 2019, ARENA celebrates its 25th anniversary. Since the centre’s establishment, 21 PhDs have graduated. In this interview series, we will introduce three current ARENA PhD fellows and their research projects.

In Norway, ad-hoc advisory commissions (Norges Offentlige Utredninger – NOU) have played a vital role in the formulation of public policy. Since the NOU system was introduced in the 1970s, more than 1550 commissions and 13 000 members have been appointed to provide Norwegian governments with input, advice, and recommendations on future policies and laws. Often composed by civil servants, interest groups, academics, and politicians, commissions are important for infusing expertise, knowledge, and stakeholder perspectives into public policy.

The black box of Norwegian governments’ strategic use of commissions

About EUREX

Expertization of public inquiry commissions in a Europeanized administrative order (EUREX) is a research project examining the role of scientific expertise in the preparation of public policies. The project focuses on the Norwegian system of public inquiry commissions, known as NOUs (Norges offentlige utredninger).

EUREX is funded by the Research Council of Norway's DEMOS programme (2016-2020).

Scholarly research has stressed commissions’ role as cornerstones in the knowledge-intensive, consensus-oriented, and neo-corporatist policy-making tradition in Norway, explains Hesstvedt, who is a PhD fellow in the ARENA project Expertization of public inquiry commissions in a Europeanized administrative order - EUREX.

Commission appointments do not have to pass parliament, and it is up to the government to decide whether and when to make use of the commission system; which members to appoint; which policy areas to investigate, and so on. While commissions are knowledge-oriented and expert-based, they can also be seen as tools in the hands of incumbent political parties, Stine Hesstvedt argues.

‘Appointing commissions that enjoy high institutional independence, composed by independent, external actors is a paradox considering that cabinets have political ambitions and partisan goals’, she says. Parties are elected on the basis of their platforms, have policy agendas to attend to, and want to leave lasting footprints on public policy.

While commissions are knowledge-oriented and expert-based, they can also be seen as tools in the hands of incumbent political parties.

Therefore, Hesstvedt sought to complement existing research by focusing on whether and why political-strategic rationales underpin commission appointments in her PhD project.

‘Simply put, you could say that appointing commissions is as a pretty risky business. So, why do they do it?’

Mixed methods approach

To answer these questions, Hesstvedt has integrated different methods and theoretical perspectives:

‘In particular, I have found theories in intersection between political science and public administration useful. Among other things, I use theories related to public policy, agenda-setting, and party competition’, she says.

Both quantitative and qualitative data collection has been necessary to answer Hesstvedt’s inquiries. She and her colleagues on the EUREX project has built a comprehensive database comprising all NOU commissions, members and secretaries appointed from the 1970s and until today. As her project gradually took shape, Hesstvedt nevertheless came to realize that she had to supplement the database with other data sources.

The EUREX project is important in the sense that it provides Norwegian policy-makers and the broader Norwegian audience with new and systematic knowledge about the NOU system

‘I could not get to the bottom things only by means of the quantitative material. I therefore conducted interviews with civil servants and commission members, which was an interesting turn and moved the project an important step forward’.

Illuminating use of commissions from different empirical angles

Stine Hesstvedt concludes her PhD at ARENA in 2020.

Applying mixed methods has allowed Hesstvedt to examine commission appointments and use over a plurality of dimensions. In one part of the PhD project, she pairs data on commissions with election studies, and party manifests, to study whether ‘policy agendas’ matter for the appointment of commissions.

Further, she uses interviews to understand the appointment process in greater detail, and look into whether and how the government and ministries can control commissions. Here, she is particularly interested in member selection, mandate formulation, and the organisation of commission secretariats.

As a result of her visiting researcher stay at the University of Aarhus, she has also integrated a comparative study with Denmark in her PhD project. There, she assessed how politics mattered for commissions, by studying how appointments vary across governments of different ideological color, strength in parliament, and coalition constellations.

New insights on the politics-bureaucracy nexus

Hesstvedt hopes her dissertation and the EUREX project can bring new knowledge both to stakeholders and fellow scholars.

‘The EUREX project is important in the sense that it provides Norwegian policy-makers and the broader Norwegian audience with new and systematic knowledge about the NOU system’, Hesstvedt asserts and adds:

‘I also hope my project can contribute with new insights on the politics-bureaucracy nexus, and to literatures such as ‘the politics of bureaucracy’.

Hesstvedt has enjoyed her time at ARENA:

‘Bringing together researchers with a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, ARENA is a stimulating and interesting place to be. As a ‘non-EU’ scholar myself, I have learned things and encountered perspectives to which I am grateful. Not least, I have valued sharing the ups and downs of PhD life with a great bunch of fellow PhDs.’

By Eli Melby
Published Nov. 14, 2019 5:09 PM - Last modified Nov. 15, 2019 9:48 AM