BFS Starting Grant

Understanding what makes regional democracy work

"The BFS Starting Grant is a life changer", says Arjan Schakel. For the next four years, he will lead a project at the University of Bergen which aims to understand when and how regional reform contributes to good democratic regional governance.

Arjan Schakel
Arjan Schakel looks forward to moving to Bergen, and work with local and international partners in his new project about regional democracy.
Melanie Burford/Silvereye Pictures

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Multilevel democracy is widespread today, as 82 per cent of the 532 million citizens in Europe are subjects of regional government. Frequently, the main argument for implementing institutional reform is to improve representative democracy. Yet, when and how regional reform contributes to good democratic regional governance is poorly understood, according to Dutch political scientist Arjan Schakel.

He wants to address these questions in his new project; Strengthening Regional Democracy – Contributing to Good Democratic Governance, which will start at the University of Bergen (UiB) in June 2019. The project is funded by Bergen Research Foundation (BFS) and UiB.

"My hope is that we will be able to contribute to good regional democratic governance, and that my team will contribute to sustainable development goal number 16 of the United Nations (Peace, justice and strong institutions), by providing knowledge on how to build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at the regional level", says Schakel.

Local and international collaboration

December 7, Schakel received the BFS Starting Grant at the University Aula in Bergen, a city he knows well from numerous previous visits at the Department of Comparative Politics; for workshops, guest lectures, and collaborative research projects.

"I am very much looking forward to move to Bergen and to expand and intensify the collaboration with eminent colleagues from the Department of Comparative Politics but also from the Digital Social Science Core Facility (DIGSSCORE), the Department of Administration and Organisation Theory, NORCE, and the Norwegian Centre for Research Data (NSD)", says Schakel.

He adds that the research project will only realise its full potential in collaboration with local colleagues.

"Together, we -that is my team and local and international collaborators- will be able to generate large amounts of data on regional democracy and we will significantly increase our understanding of what makes regional democracy work".

Perfect placing in Bergen

With regional democracy, Schakel refers to intermediate tiers of government in between the local, municipal tier and national government such as fylkeskommune in Norway, län in Sweden, Länder in Germany, and provincies in the Netherlands.

"Often, we embark on a regional reform trajectory, as is currently the case in Norway, without really knowing whether the intended outcomes of the regional reform will actually be realised. My team will investigate when regional reform will work and when not. We will find out which arrangements contribute to good regional democratic governance and which ones does not, and we will identify best practices in regional democracy" he says.

The research team will collect a huge amount of data on regional democracy such as regional elections, regional election surveys and experimental panel data on regional and local voters and politicians.

"That will enable us to significantly increase our understanding of the motives underlying people's vote in regional elections and how regional politicians perceive their role as representatives", he explains.

Schakel also believes the timing and placing of the project in Bergen is perfect:

"This enables my team to make use of a rare opportunity to track citizen’s opinion and politician’s attitudes before, during, and after the regional reform which will be implemented in Norway in 2020".

Important to share knowledge

"We will actively approach Hordaland, and later on Vestland once Hordaland has been merged with Sogn og Fjordane, to explore opportunities to share our knowledge", says Schakel.

The team will also write a policy report in which they identify best practices and explain under which conditions regional reform is likely to have its desired impact. This policy report will be informed by and shared with organisations that represent regional governments in Europe, and European Union institutions.

According to Schakel, the findings will be published in one edited book, a monograph, a website and numerous academic journal articles. 

"In addition, we will generate a lot of empirical data which we will share through a data download portal on the project's website. In this way, we can open up a new research field on regional democracy also for other interested researchers", he says.

Unique opportunity

"The BFS Starting Grant is a life changer", Schakel states, adding:

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I am very grateful to the Bergen Research Foundation and the University of Bergen for this excellent and highly unique opportunity".