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During the Summer 2023 trip by SOU’s Democracy Project to four of the Nordic countries – Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway – one thing jumped out: Nordic countries have fairly strong local governments compared to their counterparts in the United States.
The cities we visited – Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo – all have fairly comparable populations of between 950,000 to 1.3 million. For a sense of scale, these cities are all between the sizes of San Francisco on the low end and San Diego on the high end.
When walking around these cities, there is a completely different feeling than their comparable counterparts in the U.S. Clean, well-maintained streets, little to no homelessness, and fantastic public transportation, among many other amenities. These are the aspects where many U.S. cities struggle to succeed.
The most glaring difference between these countries and the U.S. is the higher tax rates. This is what allows the cities to be run with such quality and care. Trust in the local government is what is most important. Nordic citizens feel like they are getting in services what they pay for in taxes. The U.S. sentiment is almost always the opposite. According to the OECD, public trust in Nordic governments is above 60% with Norway being the highest at 77% while the U.S. public trust in government from a Pew Research study shows as of 2021 it was at 24%. Trust is an essential tool for governments. In the Nordic countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a clear jump in trust. The people believed that their government had their best interests in mind when making policy decisions. This allowed the government to act quickly and efficiently without the need for coercion.
Public trust in Nordic governments is above 60% with Norway being the highest at 77% while the U.S. public trust in government, from a Pew Research study as of 2021, was at 24%.
Where does this trust come from? Where is the U.S. failing when compared to these Nordic countries? There are three main reasons why this is the case: Decentralized local government, a vibrant and diverse political atmosphere, and money. The structure of the local government is more complex than what is here in the U.S. For reference, the city council of San Francisco is 11 people while in Stockholm, it is 101. This allows for a significantly better representation of the city’s population. The local government is so decentralized that there are 13 district councils as well that have even more specific jurisdiction and duties for the needs of the districts they represent. This structure is significantly better at handling issues of all scales than what 11 people can do in San Francisco for a population of over 800,000.
The political atmosphere is another big reason why public trust is so high. In America, we have a two-party system where each party is strongly against the other and generally those who do not identify with a party do not like either party. This system fuels hate and distrust. In Nordic countries, they have a multi-party parliament or legislature. For example, in Norway’s legislature, 10 parties have elected officials representing the people. In a parliamentary system, there is a lot more overlap in opinions and goals, which allow for much more cooperation in legislation.
Another main difference that allows for high public trust is money. Specifically, where does the high tax money go to help the public? When walking around the capital cities you notice a few major differences: clean streets, very few homeless and excellent public transport. Each of the cities has fantastic, widespread subway and bus systems that make it very easy to get around the cities. While walking around, you are always close to a bus stop or a subway entrance. In San Francisco, there is public transportation handled by BART and MUNI, although these are either significantly slower or way less clean than their counterparts in the Nordic countries. The biggest aspect of where the money goes back to the public is the governmental services, education, and health care specifically. In all four countries, there is free education through college and even for master’s and Ph.D. programs. On top of that, there is free health care, and zero payments out of any citizen’s pocket for a full education or anytime they go to a hospital for any reason. In comparison, about 2 million people in the U.S. file for bankruptcy each year – 62% of those because of medical debt.
The people who live in the Nordic countries do pay significantly higher taxes but what they get back for most of them helps them trust their government. They feel that their government has their well-being as a top priority. Public trust is a resource the United States does not have. Trust between government and its citizens is the most important connection to have in order to maintain a healthy democracy. To see countries that work for their people look toward Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
Bell, P. (2022, June 6). Public Trust in Government: 1958-2022. Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/06/06/public-trust-in-government-1958-2022/
Local governance. City of Stockholm. (n.d.). https://international.stockholm.se/governance/city-governance/
OECD iLibrary. (n.d.). Trust and public governance in Norway. Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions in Norway . https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/648a5c4a-en/index.html?itemId=%2Fcontent%2Fcomponent%2F648a5c4a-en
Woods, E. (n.d.). Health Care Costs Number one cause of bankruptcy for American families. American Bankruptcy Institute. https://www.abi.org/feed-item/health-care-costs-number-one-cause-of-bankruptcy-for-american-families
Story by Jason Kelsey, senior Political Science Major (Sociology and Anthropology Minor) at Southern Oregon University