This chapter deals with government-appointed advisory commissions in Norway and Sweden and examines the extent to which their respective governments use evidence in educational reform and policy decision-making. These commission reports are called NOUs in Norway [Norges offentlige utredninger; English: Norwegian Public Studies] and SOUs in Sweden [Statens offentliga utredningar; English: State Public Studies], and both their composition and purpose have changed significantly over the past twenty years.

According to several scholars in political science, government-appointed advisory commissions are typically established to fulfill three broader purposes: expertise, accountability, and representation (e.g., Boswell, 2017, 2018). Governments rely on experts with insider knowledge who are sufficiently familiar with the bureaucracy to provide useful and realistic advice regarding complex matters. Ideally, independent experts—preferably academics working outside the bureaucracy—are needed to provide credible expertise. These independent experts are authorized to observe and evaluate past reforms and, by implication, to hold the administration accountable for its technocratic performance. Finally, governments must satisfy the demands of their political environment for participation and representation in government decisions.

In reality, however, the NOUs and SOUs have been directly affected by the “erosion of the corporatist model” (Lundberg, 2015) or “corporatism in decline” (Rommetvedt et al., 2012), a clear trend that political scientists have explored in great detail. In the research literature, the twentieth-century governance models of Denmark, Norway, and Finland have frequently been showcased as “societal corporatist” systems, in which interest groups exerted active influence on the government by direct participation in commissions and direct interactions with government civil servants. In effect, the rise of this powerful state apparatus sparked a gradual process of depoliticization, whereby power was given to government bureaucrats rather than elected members of parliament. This weakening of parliamentary power as a result of societal corporatism has been a recurring theme in political science and policy studies (Rokkan, 1966).

The perceived attack on the strong state has triggered a series of changes at the heart of government. In the face of “the revival of parliaments” in Norway and Sweden, interest groups such as unions, business organizations, and professional associations have sought out new channels for influencing political decisions. Rather than following the traditional state corporatist model of providing input to government-appointed advisory commissions, these interest groups chose to change their political arena: withdrawing from the NOUs and SOUs and focusing instead on lobbying politicians and elected members in the parliament directly (Lindvall & Rothstein, 2006; Østerud & Selle, 2006). The devolution of power from government to parliament has thus impacted not only the interest groups’ agenda setting and communication strategies but also the composition of NOUs and SOUs, their political reach, and the wider purpose of the “policy advisory system” (Halligan, 1995; see also Craft & Howlett, 2013).

From a broader policy perspective, this shift has also impacted how education is governed in an era of international comparison and evidence-based policy planning. Over the past decade, public policy scholarship has documented a movement toward network governance (Ball & Junemann, 2012) and multi-centric policymaking (Cairney et al., 2019). Across all public sectors, including education, agenda setting and policymaking is now carried out in multiple sites and involves multiple actors. To complicate the policymaking process further, new actors, notably international actors and non-state actors, have become increasingly influential in terms of national agenda setting and policymaking: previous studies have highlighted the proliferation of informal channels of consensus- and coalition-building in government (e.g., Rommetvedt et al., 2012). Governments, including those of corporatist states, are evidently under constant pressure to interact and negotiate with, and to mediate between, a plethora of policy actors, ranging from traditional politicians to this new wave of interest groups.

In our comparative bibliometric network analysis of NOUs and SOUs, we analyze reports from these commissions (Green Papers) in terms of the publications referenced to support their assertions (see Chap. 2 in this book). Equally important is the analysis of the official White Papers themselves, which considers the received knowledge on which the respective Ministries of Education and Research draw when explaining and justifying reform. Finally, we investigate the relationship between the two types of documents (advisory versus decision-making): which references, and how many, that are listed in the commission reports also surface in the actual policy documents? We have termed this latter process—the knowledge transfer from Green to White Paper—political translation.

Green and White Papers: Important Milestones in the Policymaking Process

Against the backdrop of the devolution of power from government to parliament in Norway or from executive to legislative in Sweden, the first research question may be formulated as follows: How have the respective Ministries of Education and Research repurposed their advisory commissions? The second research question focuses on the official use of committee guidance on policy by the respective Ministries. Specifically, we examined the extent to which the commission reports (NOUs and SOUs) draw on a similar body of knowledge as the White Papers.Footnote 1

It is first necessary to explain the role of Green and White Papers in the larger policymaking process. Figure 10.1 depicts the general process of policy formulation in Norway and Sweden. As shown below, Green Papers constitute the first stage in preparing a new policy. Green Papers are then shared with stakeholders (interest groups, professional associations, etc.) for review and feedback, known as “hearings.” The Ministry of Education and Research then prepares the White Paper based on the commissioned Green Papers along with the feedback received.

Fig. 10.1
A process chart has the following components from the left to right. Green papers, advisory commissions, referral process, stakeholders, white papers, Ministry of Education and Research, review process, parliamentary standing committees, resolution, and parliament.

The policymaking process in Norway and Sweden

In both countries, White Papers are produced by the executive body in the education sector, the Ministry of Education and Research. In Sweden, White Papers are then signed by both the Minister of Education and Research and the Prime Minister. In Norway, the Council of State (the King and the government) formally approves the White Paper. Thereafter, the Standing Committee on Education and Research submits its recommendations to the legislative body (parliament), which is responsible for making the final decision. Our focus here is on the transfer of knowledge from the advisory body to the decision-making authority, a process we call political translation. In addition, comparative analysis of the two policy-advisory systems enables us to distill context-specific features of the policymaking process in Norway and Sweden.

Ultimately, this study aims to address the common suspicion held by the public when it comes to the seemingly innumerous government-appointed advisory commissions: Do governments merely use them for window dressing, or do they listen to their advice? If they do, which advice is taken, which is left out, and which is politically reframed, and why?

Methodology: The Bibliometric Database, Case Studies, and Comparative Methods of Inquiry

Certain methodological explanations are in order here. In particular, a more detailed description of the bibliometric database and the comparative research design may help the reader to put our findings in perspective.

Sampling of Source Documents and Bibliometric Database

As explained in greater detail in previous chapters, our bibliometric database was drawn from the references of White Papers and commission reports. We used a set of White Papers prepared for the renewal of the Knowledge Promotion Reform (2016/2020) (Norway) and the Swedish School Reform of 2015/2018 as source documents. Those commission reports that were explicitly mentioned in the identified White Papers were also added. We extracted all references from the source documents and entered them into the database. It is important to note that NOU 2015:2 was cited in both White Papers in Norway; NOU 2014:7 and NOU 2015:8 were produced by the same commission (the Ludvigsen Commission); and SOU 2016:66 did not have any formal references. In total, the White Papers and commission reports from Norway and Sweden cited 2312 documents and 1421 documents, respectively. Table 10.1 presents the composition of the bibliometric database.

Table 10.1 Bibliometric databases (Norway and Sweden)

In this chapter, we turned our attention to the reference attributes, including types of document and location of publication. We employed the categorization used by Christensen and Holst (2017) for coding. The eight values for types of documents were as follows: (1) national policy documents; (2) national policy research; (3) national academic research; (4) international policy documents; (5) international policy research; (6) international academic research; (7) interest groups, think tanks, and so on; and (8) others. We then clustered these values into three location categories: (1) national, (2) international, and (3) others. To ensure intercoder reliability, we first discussed the coding scheme extensively, carried out independent reviews, and (in case of divergence) reiterated the review and coding. We used UCINET 6.681 and NetDraw 2.168 for network data analysis and visualization and STATA 14.2 for statistical analysis.

Units of Analysis: School Reform in Norway and Sweden

A brief outline of the substance of school reforms in both countries and of the specific mandates of the government-appointed commissions allowed us to place the two types of source documents—White Papers and Green Papers—into their larger policy context.

Norwegian School Reform 2016/2020

In Chap. 7 of this book, we examined the renewal of the Knowledge Promotion Reform (2016/2020) in Norway. This reform was initially tabled by two White Papers produced by the Ministry of Education and Research and enacted by parliament in 2016 and 2017. The reform was planned to go into effect in 2020. It is considered an incremental reform, which reconfirms the Knowledge Promotion Reform launched a decade earlier. It is therefore necessary to discuss the current reform in its historical context.

The Norwegian school reform known as the Knowledge Promotion Reform came into effect in 2006, replacing two previous reforms of primary and lower secondary curricula as well as upper secondary education. It can be considered a fundamental reform (Steiner-Khamsi et al., 2020) as it represented a shift from input-oriented to output-oriented policy instruments, such as measurable objectives, standardized tests, and data-based planning (Møller & Skedsmo, 2013). As pointed out by other researchers, the reform was partly motivated and legitimized by the results of the PISA test released in December 2001 (see Skedsmo, 2018). Alarmed by the PISA findings, the government concluded that the school system had serious weaknesses in need of immediate repair. To meet these challenges, the Ministry of Education and Research suggested the introduction of a national testing system and improvements to the competencies of teachers, school leaders, and administrators through the establishment of a “culture of learning” (Karseth & Sivesind, 2010). The reform brought about increased decentralization, on the one hand, and increased accountability, on the other.

The revised national curriculum targeted specific competencies for student learning outcomes and emphasized basic or foundational skills that were supposed to be integrated in all subjects and across all grades (Imsen & Volckmar, 2014). Furthermore, a national quality assessment system was introduced alongside the curriculum reform (Møller & Skedsmo, 2013), and national testing was first implemented in 2004. For the first time, the test results were published and made publicly available, allowing schools to be benchmarked, ranked, and compared. Undoubtedly, this shift toward outcomes-based monitoring represented a radical break with and departure from the traditionally input-based regulation of Norwegian education (Helgøy & Homme, 2016).

Seven years later, the Ministry concluded in hindsight that the 2006 reform had been an overall success, as exemplified by rising scores in international large-scale student assessments, among other indicators (Ministry of Education and Research, 2013, p. 12). However, it also found that certain shortcomings in the reform had become a cause for public concern. First, the curriculum was seen as overloaded, leading the Ministry of Education and Research to suggest that priorities—in terms of both content knowledge and subjects—needed to be set based on evidence and formative evaluation. Second, as a result of prioritization and the emphasis on deep learning, the Ministry of Education and Research mandated that the key elements for each school subject be defined in greater detail. Third, acknowledging the importance of social development, three interdisciplinary topics were given high priority: democracy and citizenship, sustainable development, and public health and well-being. Fourth, the reform introduced remedial measures for students with low achievements in reading, writing, and numeracy in grades one to four. Among the many improvements that the 2020 reform intended to achieve, one more is worth mentioning: the reform reaffirmed the principle of “test-based accountability” (Verger & Parcerisa, 2018), whereby local authorities are held accountable for student learning outcomes in the schools under their jurisdiction.

Consequently, the Ministry put in motion a two-pronged incremental reform process to renew the existing curriculum and to develop the national quality system further. We have labeled the resulting 2020 school reform the Curriculum Renewal/Quality Monitoring Reform and, for easier reference in this book, merged the two as the renewal of the Knowledge Promotion Reform (2016/2020). This is the reform investigated in this chapter. In particular, we examine two White Papers that the Ministry of Education issued in 2016 and 2017, respectively, when it announced the 2020 reform: the Renewal of the Norwegian Knowledge Promotion Reform (Ministry of Education and Research, 2016)Footnote 2 and the Early Intervention and Quality Monitoring Reform (Ministry of Education and Research, 2017).Footnote 3

Swedish School Reform 2015/2018

In the 1990s, Sweden introduced a series of neoliberal school reforms that featured large-scale privatization and a decentralization of decision-making authority from the central to the local level. Within a short period of time, the 290 municipalities were put in charge of overseeing compulsory schooling. The 2015 Final Report of the School Commission, Gathering for School (SOU 2017:35), set the reform in motion, which came into effect in 2018 (White Paper 2017/18:182). In this book, we have therefore labeled the Swedish school reform the 2015/2018 Knowledge Achievement Reform.

Naturally, the deterioration of the strong Swedish welfare state and free public services has not gone unnoticed in the research literature (Englund, 1996; Lundahl, 2007). Weaponized by weak performances in the PISA tests from 2003 to 2012, when Sweden reached its lowest scores, vociferous public debates about the education crisis spread across the country (Nordin, 2019). In 2006, the Swedish government agreed to instate a commission to investigate the challenges in the education sector. Based on that decision, the Ministry of Education and Research appointed a commission with the mandate to explore the reasons for the rapid fall in PISA scores. In practice, the commission was a one-person commission without any members, chaired by the Assistant Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Research, Leif Davidsson. The commission report, Clear Goals and Knowledge Demands in Elementary SchoolFootnote 4 (SOU 2007:28), asserted that the compulsory school curriculum was too vague and ideological and criticized the decentralization reform for its detrimental effects on equal opportunities and equality. According to the report, the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s and the turn of the century had benefitted only a precious few municipalities, leaving the overwhelming majority struggling to offer quality education.

Following the recommendations of the commission report, the Swedish government launched a second series of fundamental reforms in 2011, the most prominent features of which were a new education law and a new national curriculum for compulsory schooling that paid great attention to learning outcomes and the reform of teacher education. A more refined grading system was introduced, and test-based accountability was actively pursued: students had to take a higher number of national, standardized tests, which allowed the Ministry of Education and Research to resume oversight over the quality of education. This outcomes-based reorientation was not out of the ordinary per se, but in Sweden it enabled the Ministry of Education and Research to reclaim central control over a school system that had been decentralized only a decade earlier.

However, the introduction of clearly defined standards, unambiguous accountability measures, and massive investments into the Swedish education sector did not yield the expected results. In 2012, only a year after the launch of the extensive reform package, Sweden reached its lowest PISA scores ever. Humiliated, the government turned to the OECD, seeking help with analyzing the problems of the Swedish school system as well as recommendations on how to fix them (see Grek, 2019; Pettersson et al., 2017). The resulting OECD findings (2015) were presented in Improving Schools in Sweden, a study that proposed comprehensive reforms in three priority areas: (a) to establish conditions that promote quality with equality across Swedish schools; (b) to build capacity for teaching and learning through a long-term HR strategy; and (c) to strengthen steering of policy and accountability with a focus on improvement. As a follow-up, the Swedish government appointed a commission with the explicit mandate to review the OECD proposals for educational reform. The commission’s review of the OECD analyses and recommendations was published in the SOU report Gathering for School: A National Strategy for Quality and Equivalence. Final Report of the 2015 School Commission (2017:35).Footnote 5 It would appear that the Ministry of Education and Research took this particular SOU report to heart, as it became the foundation for the 2015/2018 school reform in Sweden. Indeed, even the name of the subsequent White Paper, Gathering for School, was taken from its Green Paper precedent.

Comparative Design

Norway and Sweden are commensurable in terms of their institutionalization of the policymaking process. The practice of instating advisory councils, for example, dates back to the sixteenth century (Lundberg, 2015). The system has naturally changed over time and, following the independence of Norway and Sweden from Denmark, bifurcated in two different directions. Today, however, the two systems have remained sufficiently similar to be considered comparable when it comes to the policymaking process.

As Fig. 10.2 illustrates, the research design enabled us to carry out three types of comparison: (1) of policy-advisory systems; (2) of policy-decision systems; and (3) of knowledge transferred from the former to the latter. We have coined the term political translation to denote this particular transfer process; this third type of comparison entails identification of shared knowledge between the commission reports and White Papers in Norway (3a) and Sweden (3b), as well as a comparison of these two patterns of political translation (3c).

Fig. 10.2
A table has 2 columns and 2 rows. The column headers are green papers and white papers. The row headers are Norway and Sweden.

Overview of the comparative research design

Specifically, the three types of comparison draw on the following data:

Type 1—Comparison of the two policy-advisory systems. The database consists of eight commission reports from Norway (NOUs) and eight commission reports from Sweden (SOUs). How do these two sets of reports differ in terms of their references? In particular, are there differences in terms of their national/international orientation and the type of documents that they reference?

Type 2—Comparison of the two policy-decision systems. The Ministry of Education and Research of Norway outlined the renewal of the Knowledge Promotion Reform (2016/2020) in two White Papers, which together contain a total of 294 references. For the 2015/2018 Knowledge Achievement Reform in Sweden, the Ministry of Education and Research issued one White Paper that includes 86 references. For a comparative bibliometric analysis, the key questions are as follows: On what knowledge sources do the two ministries draw? Is there a preference for certain types of texts? Do the two ministries differ in their selection of referenced texts?

Type 3—Comparison of commission reports and White Papers (political translation). A comparison of the two types of documents with different functions (advisory versus decision-making) yields interesting insights in terms of political translation. Methodologically, we compared the ratio of shared knowledge/references as a percentage of all references listed in the commission reports of each respective country. In other words, what percentage of references listed in the commission reports also appear in the reference section of the White Papers? The ratio of shared references is interpreted as an indication of the political translation process. After completing the analysis for each of the political systems (3a and 3b), we then compared the two political translation processes in Norway and Sweden (3c).

Research Findings

Comparison of the Policy-Advisory Systems

A juxtaposition of the references listed in the respective commission reports highlights two key similarities and two key differences between the policy-advisory systems of the two countries that are worth exploring in greater detail.

In terms of shared characteristics, the commissions in both countries substantiate their reviews and their recommendations with a large number of references. For Norway, the number of references listed in NOUs ranges from 146 to 703 references, with an average of 292 references per report. This practice of excessive referencing may also be found in the Swedish policy-advisory system: the SOUs show a maximum number of references of 337 and an overall average of 191.Footnote 6 The pressure to make knowledge sources transparent and to provide “evidence” for the commission’s assertions is clearly discernible. A second commonality is the national orientation of the commissions in terms of their reference literature: approximately two-thirds of the references listed in the commission reports for both countries were published domestically.

Both of these phenomena deserve theorizing. The first confirms the belief in knowledge-based or evidence-based policy advice. It is expected of modern-day commissions that they read and reference relevant texts excessively and ostentatiously. Second, the commissions in both countries tend to cite national authors, that is, either themselves or authors known to them. The large proportion of national references may also reflect the practice of commissions to reflect and report on contemporary topical debates and controversies (Sweden: low learning outcomes and student absenteeism; Norway: drop-outs and concerns about students’ psychosocial environment).

There is, however, a statistically significant difference (p < 0.05) between the types of references listed in the commission reports of the two countries. In Norway, 41.2% of all references in the eight examined commission reports (867 out of 2106 references) are academic research. In stark contrast, academic studies make up only 19.7% of the references in the eight examined SOUs from Sweden (270 out of 1373 references). Instead, the Swedish policy-advisory system relies heavily on national policy documents (34.81%) and national policy research (29.86%) to support commission reviews and recommendations (see Table 10.2).

Table 10.2 Types of references in commission reports and White Papers

The academization of Norway’s policy-advisory system is a well-studied phenomenon (Christensen & Holst, 2017). In our bibliometric network analysis of the 2006 Knowledge Promotion Reform in Norway (Steiner-Khamsi et al., 2020), we cursorily examined the composition of government-appointed commissions over time and found that the number of academics appointed had increased dramatically over the previous twenty years. Our observations concur with those of a larger study on expert commissions (Christensen & Holst, 2017; Christensen & Hesstvedt, 2019), which considered the composition of advisory commissions across various ministries over a period of close to fifty years. What they found is striking: the representation of interest groups in education sector commissions has dropped sharply and is now half of what it was four decades ago. During the same time span, the proportion of academics on education-related NOUs has seen a nearly fourfold increase: from 9% in the 1970s to 35% in the 2000s. The dramatic upsurge of researchers came at the expense not only of the interest groups but also of civil/public servants: whereas forty years ago, more than half of NOU representatives were government officials, they now constitute only one-third of commission members.

Today, the two largest groups represented in the NOUs are researchers and government officials, which together account for more than 90% of members. In contrast, interest group representation stands at less than 10. The explosive growth of researcher representation in NOUs has led Christensen and Hesstvedt (2019) to suggest that further investigations are necessary to understand the “expertization” of Norwegian advisory commissions in greater detail. The breakdown of commissions by chairpersons and secretariats portrays a similar picture. As Christensen and Holst (2017) have asserted, academics have replaced civil servants as chairpersons in the majority of commissions since the year 2000. In other words, academics have become the public face of the commissions.

By contrast, the academization of the Swedish advisory commissions is conspicuous by its absence. Our bibliometric study demonstrates that only 19.7% of the references consist of academic research. This is surprising given the heavy representation of academics as chairs of government-appointed commissions: five out of the eight commissions included in this study were led by academics who are either employed at universities or have completed their doctoral degree. Two were led by politicians and one by a civil servant. On the one hand, then, academics are visible and influential as chairs of Swedish advisory commissions, as seen in Norway above. A case in point is the change in chairpersonship for the commission that produced the influential Gathering for School Green Paper in 2017. When the commission was established in April 2015, Anna Ekström, an influential civil servant and Director-General of the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket), was appointed as the chair, but when she left the commission in September 2016 to assume the position of Minister of Education and Research, she was replaced by Jan-Eric Gustafsson, a professor of education at the University of Gothenburg.

On the other hand, a distinct feature of the Swedish policy-advisory system is the move from larger advisory to one-person commissions known as Special Investigator Commissions. Whereas the former advisory commissions served as a representative and participatory body of various stakeholders (mirroring the composition of parliament), each Special Investigator Commission is led by an individual considered appropriate by the Ministry of Education and Research. The appointed individual is often a politician, civil servant, or academic with a group of associated experts at his or her disposal for consultation. This gradual shift from advisory commissions to Special Investigator Commissions that began more than two decades ago, therefore, has meant a reduction in terms of representativeness and of parliamentary and societal legitimacy as a result.

In the Green Paper SOU 1999:121, Hermansson and colleagues examined 509 commissions and found that the share of Special Investigator Commissions had doubled from 30% in 1960 to 60% in 1995. This development has been confirmed in a more recent analysis by Dahlström et al. (2019), who demonstrated that in 2016, as many as 90% of all government-appointed commissions in Sweden were led by Special Investigators. The removal of politicians and interest group representatives from these commissions tipped the balance between representativeness and efficiency: drastically shortening the investigation period from a few years, in extreme cases, to only a few months or even weeks (Dahlström et al., 2020), while downsizing, expertizing, and depoliticizing the commissions themselves (see Petersson, 2016). Indeed, the diminished political influence of government-appointed commissions is well captured by Lundberg’s verdict: “injured but not yet dead” (2015). The pattern is also repeated in the commissions that advised the Ministry of Education and Research on the most recent reform: of the eight SOUs identified as relevant to the 2015/2018 Knowledge Achievement Reform, six were produced by a Special Investigator Commission. Against this general pattern, it is worth noting that the Gathering for School Green Paper (SOU 2017:35) chaired by Professor Jan-Eric Gustafsson, and central to the 2015/2018 Knowledge Achievement Reform, is one of the two SOUs produced by larger advisory commissions.

Another historical characteristic of Swedish advisory commissions has been a considerable degree of autonomy in relation to central government (Trägårdh, 2007). However, as underlined by Petersson (2016), the shift away from broadly representative and politically powerful commissions to smaller Special Investigation Commissions has led to a tightening of control by the ministries and a subsequent reduction of autonomy. Significantly, the twin processes of depoliticization and bureaucratization of the commissions have served to increase governmental power over the policy-advisory process. This is also evidenced by the rise, from 1990 to 2014, in the number of commission directives (kommitédirektiv), the written instruction to the appointed commission stating its missions, mandate and timeframe, and the most important tool with which the government can control commissions (Dahlström et al., 2020). Crucially, the government can also adjust or replace these directives over time as a way to exert control within the process.

Clearly, then, both countries have chosen different pathways to cope with the corporatist dilemma of the 1980s and 1990s. In Norway, interest groups reduced their presence in the commissions and instead sought more effective means of exerting political influence. Together with the devolution of power from government to parliament, this led to a depoliticization of the commissions. Longitudinal studies (Christensen & Holst, 2017; Christensen & Hesstvedt, 2019) have suggested that the empty seats left behind by the political interest groups were filled by academics and that political representation was jettisoned in favor of scientific expertise.

Comparison of the Policy-Decision Systems

The heavier reliance on research (both independent/academic and commissioned/applied policy research) in the Norwegian policymaking process also resonates at the ministerial level. As Table 10.2 shows, of the 294 references listed in the two White Papers on Norwegian school reform (WP 2015/16 and WP 2016/17), an overwhelming majority (79.25%) fall under either national policy research (38.10%), national academic research (8.16%), international policy research (14.97%), or international academic research (18.03%). According to the categorization system used by Christensen and Holst (2017), we found that four in five of the references (233 out of 294) represent analytical publications, that is, national or international policy research or academic research.

Conversely, in Sweden, analytical publications make up less than a quarter (24.42%) of the references listed in the ministerial Gathering for School White Paper. It is equally important to note that the Ministry of Education and Research has not cited a single academic publication, whether national or international. The marked absence of academic references in the Swedish White Paper calls into question whether the Ministry has a troubled relationship with its own academic community and with foundational research in general.

A second finding has been somewhat surprising, too: in Norway, the Ministry of Education and Research cites significantly more research-related publications in its White Papers than its appointed expert commissions do in their reports. Specifically, the bibliographies of the White Papers comprise 79.25% analytical publications, compared with 68.8% for the NOUs (see Table 10.2).

Both of these unexpected results require further unpacking: the first in light of the differentiation between “mode 1” and “mode 2” knowledge (Nowotny et al., 2003) and the second in light of the importance of the chairpersonship to the commissions’ work.

First, the differentiation between foundational, academic knowledge (mode 1 knowledge) and applied, policy research (mode 2 knowledge) helps us to understand why, at first glance, the Ministry of Education and Research of Norway seems to be more committed to research than its own expert commissions. As previously discussed by Steiner-Khamsi et al. (2020), mode 1 knowledge represents foundational research that is primarily concerned with advancing scientific discovery and disciplines. Mode 2 knowledge, meanwhile, refers to application-oriented, transdisciplinary, local, and involved expertise found outside purely academic settings (Gibbons et al., 1994; Nowotny et al., 2003). Without doubt, sector trends like open access to knowledge products, demand for evidence-based policy planning, and the pluralization of expertise (see Cairney et al., 2019; Eyal, 2019; Maasen & Weingart, 2005) have boosted the importance of mode 2 knowledge in this context. In Norway, this type of research is actively promoted: the so-called institute sector—including, for example, the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU, formerly NIFU STEP)—has become a significant knowledge producer in the education sector and is likely to expand in the near future.

Closer analysis of the research publications listed in the White Papers here reveals the ministerial propensity to rely on mode 2 research. Comparing the bibliographies of the White Papers with those of the commission reports, the proportion of both national policy research and international policy research is noticeably higher in the White Papers (38.10% vs. 22.84% and 14.97% vs. 4.8%, respectively), while references to international academic research are roughly equivalent (around 20% for each). In turn, the extent to which these references represent work published by members of the advisory commissions themselves needs to be investigated empirically.

Second, the chairperson of a given commission has a significant impact on its research orientation and knowledge production. In the Norwegian context, we considered the high-profile example of Sten Ludvigsen, who chaired the commission that produced NOU 2014:7 and NOU 2015:8. Ludvigsen is a professor in learning and technology at the University of Oslo. He played a pivotal role in the research-based evaluation of the 2006 reform, organized by the Directorate for Education and Training and implemented between 2006 and 2012. Ludvigsen was also the leader of the program board of evaluation from 2008 to 2012. Through his leadership role in the evaluation, Ludvigsen gained a strong reputation as an expert and policy advisor within the sector before his appointment as commission chair.

A Swedish analogy to Ludvigsen can be found in the figure of Jan-Eric Gustafsson, who chaired the commission that produced the Gathering for School Green Paper (SOU 2017:35),Footnote 7 which led to the White Paper of the same name as part of the 2015/2018 reform. Gustafsson is a professor of education at the University of Gothenburg and is considered an expert in Swedish school reform, especially in the area of large-scale student assessments. Gustafsson is the most cited academic author, not only in the commission that he chaired, but also in the other Green Papers that the Ministry of Education and Research references in its White Paper.

Figure 10.3 illustrates the author-reference network, where each author is connected to the documents that s/he authored and to their coauthors. A node size indicates how many references s/he served as an author. The map shows the top 15 authors who were most frequently cited. Among them, Gustafsson was the only individual researcher cited in the relevant SOUs and the Swedish White Paper. All other influential texts cited in the source documents were authored by institutions, including the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket) and the Swedish Schools Inspectorate (Skolinspektionen), or by legal entities such as the Government (Regeringen) or Parliament (Riksdagen), as visualized in Fig. 10.3.

Fig. 10.3
A circular cluster of networks. Some are labeled O E C D, Skolverket, Regeringen, and Riskdagen.

Author-reference network. (Note: Circle: References. Square: Authors)

In contrast to the frequent citation of Gustafsson’s work in the SOUs, Ludvigsen’s work was not cited once in the NOUs. This may seem surprising given his role as chair and his exemplary reputation as a policy advisor and scholar in educational studies (see Baek, 2020). Indeed, according to interviews with several members of the NOUs, Ludvigsen showed his commitment to evidence-based policymaking by distributing reading lists to commission members to ensure informed policy advice.

The Ludvigsen commission appointed in 2013 consisted of eleven members.Footnote 8 The commission was tasked to submit an interim report including historical and comparative analyses of school subjects in primary and secondary education, a feasibility study of international competence-based curriculum frameworks, and recommendations of national stakeholders in terms of students’ competency requirements. The interim report was delivered in 2014 (NOU 2014:7) and examined the knowledge on competencies from “various international organizations, education authorities in a number of countries and comprehensive research and report projects” (NOU 2015:8, p. 16). In addition, the commission appointed a research team that was tasked with providing an overview and making an assessment of different competency concepts and frameworks (see Erstad et al., 2014). The final report (NOU 2015:8) drew on both the interim report (2014:8) and the work of the research team and proposed a broad competency concept with four suggested areas as the foundation for the curriculum.

In their role as chairs of their respective advisory commissions, Ludvigsen and Gustafsson publicly provided a scientific stamp of approval for OECD-informed national education policies. In Norway, however, the OECD link is a more complicated one: several international organizations and commercial actors had a bearing on the recommendations presented by the commission. These included the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the International Society for Technology in Education, the EU and Key Competence Network on School Education, and Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft, who initiated the Meeting Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (see NOU 2014:7, Chapter 8).

The two decision-making authorities of Norway and Sweden display marked differences in how they explain and justify the necessity for reform. In Norway, the Ministry of Education and Research draws on research (with a preference for mode 2 knowledge in the form of applied policy research), whereas the ministry in Sweden legitimizes its policy decisions with greater reference to national policy documents. This orientation toward research in Norway versus compliance in Sweden has been discernible at various levels of analysis.

Comparison of Political Translation Processes

The previous two sections examined the act of knowledge production carried out by the commissions and the ministries, respectively. In this section, we consider the application of this knowledge, guided by two key questions: To what extent do the respective Ministries use the knowledge provided by their expert commissions? And what kind of knowledge (or, more specifically, which references) from the NOUs and SOUs have been formally adopted in the White Papers?

The answer to the first question is that significantly more knowledge from commission reports is used in Sweden than in Norway, but overall knowledge transfer is very scarce. As presented in Fig. 10.4, only 30% of the references used in the Norwegian White Papers are identical to those forwarded in the corresponding NOUs. The remaining 70% are novel references; the Ministry of Education and Research of Norway is very much an evidence-producer in its own right. We chose to describe this esoteric ministerial knowledge, entirely separate from the knowledge offered in the NOUs, as “political knowledge.”

Fig. 10.4
Two pie charts have the following values in percentage. Sweden, political knowledge, 56, shared knowledge, 44. Norway, political knowledge, 70, shared knowledge, 30.

Reference distribution in White Papers in Norway and Sweden

In Sweden, the Ministry of Education and Research seems more inclined to adopt the knowledge sources used by the SOUs to support their assertions. Forty-four percent of the references in the White Papers are identical to those produced in the Green Papers. The two diagrams in Fig. 10.4 tell the ministerial, top-down side of the story; this perspective is explored further in the case study chapter on Sweden in Chap. 8 of this book. Yet we can equally invert the perspective and consider political translation from the bottom-up (i.e., from the viewpoint of the advisory commissions): Were the thorough reviews of policy documents, studies, and other relevant publications worth the time, effort, and resources? Was there any uptake at the higher political level? The question of whose knowledge (and which kind) is adopted at the political level is important since governments appoint numerous commissions whose output can then go unnoticed in terms of political uptake.

Such uptake is barely visible in the Norwegian case: of the 2106 publications amassed by the commissions to produce evidence for their reviews and recommendations, only 4% were then mentioned in the bibliographies of the two White Papers. As illustrated in Fig. 10.5, this means that, on average, 96% of the expert knowledge references—gathered with great diligence and reviewed in great detail in the NOUs—were not explicitly mentioned in the two White Papers of the 2016/2020 reform.

Fig. 10.5
A stacked column chart plots the percentage versus N O Us for lost in political translation and shared by W P. The columns are the tallest for the lost in political translation.

Political translation attrition (Norway)

The same pattern reemerges in the Swedish case, with only a slightly worse political uptake of commission report references. The bottom-up perspective suggests a very high cost of political transaction: only 38 documentsFootnote 9 out of a possible 1373 cited in the SOUs (3%) reached the political level. Again, this suggests that a significant amount (97%) of expert knowledge has been lost in political translation. Given the highly selective reception of commission reports at the political level (3% in Sweden; 4% in Norway), the question becomes: which references did “make it”?

The charts in Figs. 10.5 and 10.6 point to the fact that certain commission reports proved more attractive to their respective Ministry than others. In Norway, the Green Papers NOU 2014:7 (Pupils’ Learning in the School of the Future: A Knowledge Base)Footnote 10 and NOU 2015:8 (The School of the Future: Renewal of Subjects and Competences)Footnote 11 constitute the two reports with the greatest political influence. As noted above, both were the products of the Ludvigsen commission. More than any other, this commission was specifically tasked with identifying the areas where adaptation of the existing curriculum was deemed necessary.

Fig. 10.6
A stacked column chart plots the percentage versus S O Us for lost in political translation and shared by W P. The columns are the tallest for the lost in political translation.

Political translation attrition (Sweden)

Regardless of report length or number of references, NOU 2014:7 and NOU 2015:8 have clearly caught the attention of the Ministry of Education and Research. In the 2020 reform, for example, NOU 2015:2 includes a thorough literature review (703 publications) and is cited by both White Papers, yet the Ministry of Education and Research only considered 25 of them relevant at the decision-making level.

Similarly, the Swedish Ministry of Education and Research appointed several commissions in preparation for the 2015/2018 reform. However, as shown in Fig. 10.6, not all of them had equal influence at the political level. As noted above, the Green Papers SOU 2017:35 and SOU 2016:94 were especially integral to the Samling för skolanFootnote 12 White Paper, not just to its title but also to the 2015/2018 reform as a whole. Together with SOU 2013:56, SOU 2017:35 is the only Swedish source document to be produced by a larger advisory commission; all the others came from one-person commissions, including SOU 2016:94 (Saknad!),Footnote 13 chaired by the psychologist Malin Gren Landell. Such selective use of expert knowledge would appear to support the argument that appointed advisory commissions are becoming weaker (Lundberg, 2015), while the government at the same time grows in strength and independence in relation to its appointed advisory commissions (Petersson, 2016).

We would be remiss if our descriptive bibliometric analysis excluded a qualitative review of the most politically influential commission reports in both countries. In Norway, the Green Papers NOU 2014:7 and NOU 2015:8 have had the greatest impact in terms of political translation or knowledge transfer from the expert to the political level. The mandate of the Ludvigsen commission was to assess the degree to which the curriculum covers the competencies that students would need for the future, both professionally and socially. Unlike the Swedish case, the commission was not directly tasked with drawing on expert knowledge from the OECD. In fact, there was no need to do so, because the OECD competency-based Definition and Selection of Key Competencies curriculum framework (DeSeCo) had already been implemented in the reform of 2006 (see Steiner-Khamsi et al., 2020). This time, the question was whether, ten years later, adaptations and modifications needed to be made.

The Ludvigsen commission supported the fundamental curriculum reform that was launched in 2006 and recommended that adaptations were made to reflect more recent educational frameworks and debates. It considered its work an “advancement of the competence-oriented subject curricula today” (2015:8, p. 15). After reviewing several competency frameworks, notably, OECD’s DeSeCo framework, Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S), Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), Key Competences for Lifelong Learning (KeyCoNet), and National Educational Technology Standards (NETS), the Ludvigsen Commission recommended in its main report a broad concept of competence comprising cognitive and practical skills as well as social and emotional learning and development (NOU 2015:8, p. 9). It proposed the following four areas of competence as the basis for setting priorities for school activities: subject-specific competence; competence in learning; competence in communicating, interacting, and participating; and competence in exploring and creating. These recommendations aligned with those of the international policy agenda and the OECD. Additionally, they built on learning sciences, and the commission emphasizes the importance of combining learning sciences and subject didactics research (Greeno, 2006, p. 46). Another key concept of the commission was cross-curricular competence; this particular recommendation, however, was not followed up in the White Paper. Instead, the Ministry explicitly stated that the renewal of the curriculum should focus on school subjects and not on cross-curricular competence (Ministry of Education and Research of Norway, 2016, p. 42).

In Sweden, the two reports with the greatest political uptake of shared knowledge or references could be considered OECD reviews in national disguise. This applies to SOU 2017:35 in particular, where the commission was explicitly instructed to make proposals based on the OECD Improving Schools in Sweden report given to the Swedish government in 2015, a study itself triggered by Sweden’s poor performance in the PISA tests. The OECD contextualization, therefore, lies at the core of the entire 2015/2018 school reform process in Sweden. As for SOU 2016:94, the OECD influence is somewhat more indirect, given that the commission was not explicitly asked to draw on OECD expert knowledge. However, the OECD influence is present nonetheless: as early as the introduction, the report refers to student absenteeism as an important factor in declining Swedish PISA performance. More specifically, the report points to a significant correlation between tardiness and students’ results in science education (SOU 2016:94, p. 111). Hence, unlike the straightforward national adaptation of the 2015 OECD study in SOU 2017:35, SOU 2016:94 implicitly draws on an OECD governance tool (the PISA test) to generate reform pressure. The measures to increase student attendance are instead couched in the strong national belief in equality, according to which the school system is charged with generating equal opportunities and life chances for all. Thus, rather than referring to OECD recommendations directly, in the case of SOU 2016:94, the Ministry of Education and Research leverages its policy-advisory system and cites a nationally adopted or “indigenized” version of an OECD recommendation.

Summary and Conclusions

In this bibliometric study, we compared policy documents relevant to the most recent school reforms in Norway and Sweden. The comparison focused on knowledge produced by the advisory commissions and the Ministries of Education and Research of the two countries. In particular, we were eager to understand the recourse to knowledge—in terms of frequency and type of knowledge used in references—in the reports of the advisory commissions (Green Papers) and in the ministerial decrees (White Papers). As well as knowledge production, we also investigated how much and which knowledge presented in the commission reports was actually taken up by the respective Ministry of Education and Research at the political level. In line with an earlier study (Steiner-Khamsi et al., 2020), we applied the concept of political translation to encapsulate the process of knowledge transfer from science to politics, from Green to White Papers, or from the advisory commissions to the Ministries of Education and Research. Naturally, this will always be a process in which some knowledge gets lost, rebalanced, and reinterpreted.

In this study, we have considered at least three broader interpretations that help to theorize the policymaking process. Both deal to a certain degree with the observed repurposing of advisory commissions: (a) from a tripartite function (accountability, expertise, representation) to a singular function (expertise); (b) as the first stage in a long process of evidence-based policymaking; and (c) as domestic reviewers and translators of global education policies. In this concluding section, we attempt to “de-Scandinavize” our findings and reflect on the larger phenomenon of network governance (Ball & Junemann, 2012) or polycentric governance (Cairney et al., 2019).

First, the traditional, tripartite purpose of advisory commissions—accountability, representation, and expertise—has dissipated, replaced with a solitary focus on expertise. Commissions are no longer appointed to keep the government accountable for its political decisions, but function rather as prolonged arms of the Ministry of Education and Research. In Sweden, for example, the number of instructions that the advisory commissions receive from the Ministry of Education and Research has increased significantly over the past twenty-five years (Dahlström et al., 2020). Some analysts see the close collaboration between commissions and the bureaucracy as an attempt to accelerate the pace of commission work and improve efficiency. Others regard the collaboration as too close for comfort, at risk of seriously undermining the independence of the commissions.

Unsurprisingly, representation of diverse political perspectives has ceased to be one of the key requirements of commissions. As shown by Christensen and Holst (2017) in Norway and by Dahlström et al. (2020) in Sweden, political interest group representation in advisory commissions has decreased rapidly over the past twenty years. In Norway in particular, academics and other researchers have filled the spaces left behind by the interest groups. Yet perhaps the most visible signpost of how advisory commissions have been repurposed is the advent of Special Investigator commissions in Sweden, also known as one-person commissions.

The decline of social corporatism in Scandinavia is a well-documented and well-studied phenomenon in political science. The traces are equally discernible in the advisory commissions in the education sector: our research has shown that we need only focus on the composition of their members. Compared to earlier compositions that reflected a greater, broader representation from various interested parties, the advisory commissions have indeed become depoliticized and are now narrowly charged with producing bodies of “evidence.”

Second, the expertization of advisory commissions does not imply a depoliticization of the policymaking process as a whole. On the contrary, as mentioned in the introductory chapter, interest groups now exert their political influence elsewhere, most notably during the stakeholder review process (stage 2) and in standing committees or parliamentary committees (stage 4), as shown in Fig. 10.1. In an effort to refine the definition of the expertization of advisory commissions, we suggest the adoption of a multi-level perspective that brings the entire policymaking process into focus. In particular, it may be useful here to rephrase the five stages of the policymaking process in terms of evidence-based policymaking. The same figure presented in the introductory section (see Fig. 10.1) may be depicted in terms of the binary between science and politics, with the collection of scientific evidence assigned to the advisory commission (left side) and the issuing of a decree or legally binding act by the legislative body (right side). Figure 10.7 depicts this binary in greater detail.

Fig. 10.7
A process chart has the following components from the left to right. Science, green papers, advisory commissions, referral process, stakeholders, white papers, Ministry of Education and Research, review process, parliamentary standing committees, resolution, parliament, and politics.

The premise of evidence-based policymaking

Nevertheless, the sequence of evidence-based policy planning depicted above—starting with the gathering of evidence in commission and ending with evidence-based bills or parliamentary acts—is not as linear in actual practice as the arrow would have us believe. In reality, until a new bill or act is actually passed, a multitude of policy actors are involved. These include experts in advisory commissions; stakeholders, interest groups, and civil society during the referral process; the executive body of government, that is, the Ministry of Education and Research; political parties and interest groups that exert influence on the parliamentary/standing committees; and the legislative body in the form of parliament. Thus, the same reform idea (competency-based curriculum reform in Norway, strengthening student performance in Sweden) “morphs as it moves” (Cowen, 2009) at each subsequent stage of the policymaking process. With each transfer from one level to the next, both science and politics come into play, and there is no smooth continuum from one to the other. Rather, the left-to-right sequence is “interrupted” by several rounds of additional information-gathering (scientific) and consultation (political). As a result, evidence-based policymaking occurs in an iterative and ubiquitous manner that cannot be neatly confined to a designated stage in the policymaking process.

Two examples may suffice here. On the one hand, the production of evidence, a role designated to the advisory commissions, also occurs in White Papers. In fact, as shown in the political translation section of this chapter, the two Ministries incorporate remarkably few references from their advisory commissions and instead draw on their own bases of knowledge. A meager 3% and 4% of the knowledge sources or references amassed by the advisory commissions in Sweden and Norway, respectively, are actually used by the Ministry of Education. As illustrated in Table 10.2, most of the knowledge referenced in the White Papers is home-spun, taken from domestic policy documents. This knowledge qualifies as “regulatory science” (see Eyal, 2019) or mode 2 knowledge; in other words, advisory commissions are not the only entity in the policymaking process that produces knowledge. Different kinds of knowledge and “evidence” are produced by different actors at the various stages of the policymaking process, and this “evidence” is produced, translated, and changed at each subsequent level of the policymaking process.

On the other hand, political coalition- and consensus-building is not restricted to the last two stages (parliamentary/standing committees and parliament) of the policymaking process, but also occurs at the earlier stages as well. In particular, the referral process or the stakeholder review (known as the “hearing” in Norwegian and Swedish contexts) is meant to ensure democratic participation in the policymaking process. For example, the hearing for the school subject Norwegian Language—conducted in March–June 2019 as part of the renewal of the Knowledge Promotion Reform (2016/2020)—yielded a total of 1074 replies (UDIR, 2019). Similarly, political viewpoints determine to a certain extent which contributions from which members of a standing committee are considered as valid “evidence.” In sum, different kinds of “evidence” are produced at each and every stage of the policymaking process, and actions taken are political, sometimes more overtly than at other stages. It is therefore important to juxtapose the premise of evidence-based policymaking (Fig. 10.7) with its actual practice.

As shown in Fig. 10.8, information-gathering and consensus-building occurs in practice at each and every step of the policymaking process, blurring the line between science and politics.

Fig. 10.8
A process chart has the following components from the left to right. Science, politics, green papers, advisory commissions, referral process, stakeholders, white papers, Ministry of Education and Research, review process, parliamentary standing committees, resolution, and parliament.

The practice of evidence-based policymaking

A good case in point are advisory commissions that, despite their mandate to find facts and gather information, build consensus with stakeholders outside the commission as well as among its constituent members. In Norway, the informal collaboration with the teachers’ union illustrates this consensus-building process with external stakeholders: even though the teacher unions were not formally represented in the Ludvigsen commissions, the Union of Education Norway explicitly expressed its support for the commission’s work (Utdanningsforbundet, 2015). Likewise, the commission made a point of highlighting its regular meetings with the teacher unions as well as with other interest groups and stakeholders (NOU 2015:8, p. 17). In an effort to reach out to stakeholders and the general public, the commission even set up its own blog. Several experts have interpreted this novel outreach approach as a sign of network governance, in which the perspectives of various stakeholders are informally incorporated at an early stage to secure broad political support later in the process, when the report and the recommendations are released. These informal collaboration networks also demonstrate the crucial role of the chairs of the commissions, who may decide whether extra effort is made to include additional experts and stakeholders not otherwise represented in the commission.

In addition to securing political support from diverse stakeholders outside the commission, a Green Paper is in and of itself a compromise and an outcome of negotiations among the members of the advisory commission. In his empirical study of expertise-seeking arrangements in policymaking, Baek (2020) interviewed twelve policy experts who had served on Norwegian expert commissions. The participants shared that viewpoints that were considered too radical to be accepted at the ministerial and parliamentary levels were sometimes left out from the “consented” reports. Furthermore, the consensus-building process was seen to be influenced by the existing hierarchy among the committee members.

A closer examination of evidence-based policymaking demonstrates that, rather than conceiving of science and politics as binary opposites, it is more accurate to consider them as structurally coupled. The overlap between science and politics not only makes the policymaking process non-linear and messier, but also creates room for non-state actors to participate in the policymaking process, including experts, users, professionals, and (in Sweden more so than in Norway) businesses.

Third, we have shown that a transnational lens is indispensable to understanding why and how advisory commissions have become repurposed in an era of global education policies. Our findings clearly indicate that the most influential Green Papers in both countries were those that reviewed OECD recommendations and, in the case of Norway, compared OECD recommendations (the DeSeCo framework) with other international competence-based curriculum frameworks. Thus, the advisory commissions acted as important bridges between global and national reform debates, helping to translate and adapt global education policies, or more narrowly OECD policies, into a national setting. Drawing on the multitude of available international curriculum frameworks, or global education policies more broadly, as sources of authority with which to back up national agendas is not out of the ordinary. What is striking, however, is the preference of national policymakers for a very particular kind of international knowledge: one that provides metrics, relies on international comparisons, and is published by a cluster of affluent countries. In Europe, government officials are especially receptive to OECD data, studies, and recommendations (Grek, 2017; Niemann & Martens, 2018; Ydesen, 2019). In this study, we have seen how OECD recommendations were elevated to a gold standard explicitly in Sweden as part of the 2015/2018 reform and implicitly in Norway as part of the 2006 curriculum reform.

We conclude this study with three observations. First, the advisory commissions in Norway and Sweden have been repurposed in ways that place greater emphasis on expertise at the expense of accountability and representation. Second, multi-level analysis reinforces the notion that these commissions represent only one stage in a long sequence of evidence-based policymaking. Finally, the transnational perspective helps us to see how advisory commissions have more recently been used as bridges between global and national policy arenas. In particular, they can review, translate, and recontextualize OECD recommendations—or, in the case of the recent reform in Norway, OECD and other international frameworks—to fit into the specific national context.