Faculty Spotlight: Dr. John Kelley (Part 2)

Check out the second half of MPA faculty member Dr. John Kelley’s story about his amazing experiences in Copenhagen!


From the public administration perspective, Denmark can be baffling with its sixteen (or so) political parties. No single party has won a majority of all voters since 1901! This means compromises and coalitions which tend to form along traditional liberal and conservative lines. In the June 2015 elections, ten parties accumulated enough votes to gain seats in Parliament, ranging from 47 seats for the Social Democrats to 1 seat for the Faroe Islands Republic Party. However, by the narrowest of margins, a coalition of the more conservative parties replaced the Social Democrat led liberal coalition. A key player this time around was the
Danish People’s Party which vaulted into an all-time high of 21% of the vote (this translated to 37 of the 179 seats). This latter party’s nationalistic policies of sharp restrictions on immigration and asylum policy have brought biting criticism from the U.S. and other countries especially in light of the Syrian refugees.

But to further perplex our U.S. mindset, the Danish system (along with a number of other countries) grants the Prime Minister the power hold a “Snap Election,” an election called earlier than expected. Often, these are called at moments when the incumbent coalition is especially popular, thus giving it improved chances to win. However, Snap Elections are also called in Denmark when there is doubt as to whether the populace supports the incumbent policies. Such was the case in the June 2015 Snap Election (three months earlier than the last possible election date) and indeed there was a shift in the ruling coalition. Already, however, there is a strong liberal backlash that may result in another Snap Election, earlier than the four year term of office for Parliament members.

Three other intriguing features of the Danish system are: (1) a narrow window for putting up public election posters – “from midnight the fourth Saturday before the election date;” (2) restricted TV time – each party may submit a two minute TV presentation, these are randomly assigned and each is shown on only one evening, followed by a half hour talk by party officials/candidates; and (3) there is virtually no door to door canvassing. Can you imagine what our campaigns would feel like if we adopted these measures? By the way, voter turnout was 86% in Denmark this year; compare that with our 56% voter turnout in the last presidential election.)

Turning briefly to the nonprofit dimension of the Danish system, there are also major differences. As you would expect, the nonprofit human services sector is proportionately much smaller since most services are delivered by the state, such as mental health counseling, daycare, and employment training. However, there is a significant and vocal nonprofit social service sector that tends to play two roles. First, many services dealing with the most difficult cases were historically provided by the church or by voluntary NGOs. This still continues and we see nonprofits delivering the bulk of direct care in areas such as the homeless and addiction. Second, the nonprofit sector is a gadfly with an exceptional wingspan, aggressively advocating for programs in emerging areas of need (e.g., HIV) and in responding vigorously to vulnerable populations. For example, many see nonprofit nudging as the spark that led to the Danish Homeless Strategy, the only European example of a large-scale Housing First program, involving more than a thousand participants.

It is well known that Denmark s not a church going society. In fact, one colleague describes paranoia as “being in church and imagining there is someone in the pew behind you.” But many Danes assert that “community” and “compromise” are indeed their religious precepts. A deep sense of community, well rooted in Danish history, has been identified as an undercurrent that nurtures the social welfare system in this country of 5.6 million. All Danes have a right to have their basic needs met including needs such as education and child rearing. (This “caring homogeneity” has, in the opinion of many, also led significant numbers of Danes to adopt to anti-immigration attitudes, both to preserve “Danishness,” and the fiscal viability of the social welfare system.) Finally, Danes would rather compromise than confront. This makes it possible for the double-figure party system to function and form leading coalitions; this makes it possible for some remarkable alliances between management and labor unions – over 70% of Danish wage earners are reported to be members of unions, whereas our US union participation has ebbed to about 11%.

So, MPAers, I hope this read was informative. Coming to Denmark has been “a wonderful ride” for Nancy and me. I hope that you too have the chance to travel and absorb our global community. For now, however, we wish you all success in the final months in your Fall 2015 semester.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving! (In November, we’ll be with Danes, celebrating the ancient feast Martinmas Eve, the evening before St Martin’s Day. Many Danes eat roast duck or goose on this evening. According to the legend, Martin was revealed by some geese when he modestly hid to avoid becoming a bishop. He therefore decided that every year on this day, 11 November, the geese must lose their lives to be eaten.

Med venlig hilsen,

John Kelley, Adjunct Professor, Villanova University & Visiting professor, Danish Institute for Study Abroad

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