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Public sector propaganda


From public sector information to public sector propaganda? A study on opinion-forming activities in the Swedish public sector.

Public administration and authorities have always engaged in opinion formation of some kind, yet there are signs that the extent of this type of work has increased and that the nature of it has changed over the last few decades. The establishment of an information society implies that information has become an important tool in the work of public authorities to promote public opinion and influence the direction of policy. This phenomenon has been criticised in Sweden, and some public authorities such as the National Tax Board and the Swedish Equal Opportunities Ombudsman have been accused of promoting certain politically controversial ideas. Researchers have suggested that we are witnessing the establishment of ideologically driven public authorities with a primary task to promote certain opinions rather than to do the will of the people. According to this idea, the opinion-forming activities of public authorities have increased in terms of both extent and politication. However, the empirical support of this hypothesis is limited both nationally and internationally.

The purpose of the project is to conduct a comparative study of the opinion-forming activities of various Swedish public authorities over time. The questions we set out to find answers to are: 1. To what extent have Swedish public authorities moved away from applying laws and ensuring that they are complied with to opinion-forming activities? 2. What similarities and differences with respect to opinion-forming activities can be identified among different types of public authorities at different points in time? In order to find answers to these questions, the project is developing, based on governance theories, an analysis model aimed to identify which type of opinion formation is compatible with a classic bureaucratically organised administration and a modern goal-oriented organisation. We argue that differences between the normative assumptions linked to these administrative models imply different answers to the question of which type of opinion formation public authorities should engage in in a democracy. Only opinion formation associated with the application of laws – public sector information – is legitimate in a bureaucratically organised administration. A goal-oriented administrative model on the other hand is well consistent with opinion formation in areas unrelated to the task of applying laws – what we call public sector propaganda. However, the public sector propaganda must be based on a clear political assignment. Independent propaganda is problematic also in this model, since it contradicts the idea of public authorities as acting on behalf of the people. By finding answers to the posed questions, the project aims at shedding light both on which changes in the opinion-forming activities of public authorities apply to all public authorities and therefore can be seen as a result of a general alteration of the public sphere, and on what differences exist between different types of public authorities and therefore can be explained by differences in organisational factors. By combining theories regarding the changed public sphere in the media and communication research with theories regarding governance and the importance of organisational factors within the field of political science in this manner, the project can contribute to filling a knowledge gap in both disciplines. Research on public administration has shown limited interest in opinion formation as a central determinant of the operations of public authorities, and studies related to this topic conducted in the field of media and communication science have almost entirely neglected the organisational perspective.

Funding: Vetenskapsrådet

Period: 2008–2010

Page Manager: Mats Ekström|Last update: 7/15/2011
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