One thing that's been normal in this year’s bizarre US presidential election cycle is the debate about the proper role of the public sector in a market-driven economy. While it's an age-old discussion, it's coming to a head at a time of crumbling infrastructure and continued middle class decline.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump's nomination acceptance speech lambasted the public sector's inefficiency and inability to get things done, while calling for more massive tax cuts for the wealthy. On the Democratic side, nominee Hillary Clinton called on Americans to reinvest in the public sector and make it work for the benefit of all citizens. During the Democratic primary, candidate Bernie Sanders even pointed to Denmark’s public sector as a model for the United States to emulate. All considered, Sanders was probably more right on this point than many gave him credit for.

It's well known that Denmark has achieved a highly egalitarian economy and society relative to the United States. Based on the distribution of income, Denmark is one of the most equal societies in the world, along with Iceland, Norway, and Slovenia. Voter participation in Denmark is among the highest in the world at 80 percent, and the quality of life as indicated by the so-called “happiness index” is highest in the world. The government makes available a wide range of services—including free childcare, health care and education, and well-run job training and placement programs—to support the well-being of citizens.

In return for these benefits, Danes are willing to pay some of the highest taxes in the world and are keen about holding government accountable for spending these taxes effectively. As a result, they have built a well-functioning public sector that supports a thriving democracy and capitalist market economy. Indeed, leading economists at the World Economic Forum in Davos argued that Denmark and other Nordic countries have built some of the most competitive and productive capitalist economies in the world.

In the midst of this success and high levels of support for the public sector, there are emerging critiques in Denmark that the public sector is weakening community ties by doing too much for citizens, putting them into positions of dependency. The consequence, they argue, is reduced quality of life for citizens who are not gainfully employed and not contributing to the well-being of others in a society that takes tremendous pride in its work ethic.

The Danes have an interesting analysis of the causes and solutions for this dependency; they don’t see it as arising from individual moral flaws or “lazy people,” but rather as an outgrowth of the public sector itself, and its design as a professionalized bureaucracy.

So now a new vision is emerging for a more relational, solution-oriented, citizen-driven public sector to break the cycle of dependence, one family at a time. Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark, began to articulate this vision in 2013 with a statement by city managers titled, “The Loving Municipality.” (The debate further developed and is now called “Rethink Welfare.”) An excerpt:

Love and freedom ... are core values of the municipality of the future. You may be wondering about the choice of words and feeling that it sounds a bit “old hippie.” The welfare state is not an insurance company. We can't resort to offering a lifelong compensation for lost abilities and missing relationships. Instead we have to think about rehabilitation, well-being, technology, and citizenship. ... In short we need each other. Not to save money. Not to cut jobs. ... But for more well-being and more closeness. That is not unique to us. All municipalities in Denmark are learning how the municipality can push in the direction of more citizen self-help, for each other and with each other.

To support this goal of a relational public sector, Denmark has been working to redesign its bureaucratic public sector toward more horizontal, collaborative relationships—across bureaucratic siloes and among citizens themselves. They want to foster communication that is timely and accurate; problem-solving rather than blaming; and supported by shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect. As one city manager explained:

If we look at the most challenged families, they often have between 10-20 contacts in different parts of the public sector. Each part trying to do their job, yet no one attending to the whole. The result? What we're doing isn’t helping much. ... So we need to rethink our practice. We need to stop trying to fix systemic challenges with fragmented solutions, and instead start collaborating with the families on how we can put together support that builds on the strengths and hopes of these families so that we work to create long-term solutions [and] restore their dignity as fellow citizens. To achieve this, we need to learn to collaborate across sectors and silos. It cannot be our citizens' problem that the public sector is organized in ways that do not fit the challenges of their lives.

As the Danes work to build a relational public sector, many of them see America's thriving nonprofit sector and community-based organizations as models to emulate. Rather than throwing away its current system, the Danes are seeking to bring the relational energy of the nonprofit, or “third sector,” into its public sector. Some initiatives from the Obama administration have moved in this direction as well. According to a White House blog:

Over the course of the past six years, [the Obama] Administration has been steadily creating programs in partnership with the communities they intend to serve—from southeastern Kentucky to Fresno to Detroit. While there are a lot of things we have been up to, from addressing climate change to poverty alleviation, we are taking a new approach—one that relies on communities developing plans that best fit their needs rather than the laundry list of programs the government has. It’s pretty simple. First, we partner with communities by seeking out their plans or vision. Second, we take a one-government approach that crosses agency and program silos to support communities in implementing their plans for improvement.

Denmark is working to build this kind of partnership at the municipal level, with individual citizens and their families. And research supports these changes. We are finding that relational coordination across silos and relational coproduction with clients—based on shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect—can drive quality and efficiency performance in both the public and private sectors. 

Striving to adopt the best ideas from around the world is arguably the mark of a highly evolved society. We think the United States has a great deal to learn from Denmark— and vice versa—about building a public sector that supports greater equality, workforce participation, and democratic engagement. We may even increase ratings on the “happiness index.” As a typically understated Dane might say, there are worse things you could do.  In a US presidential election dominated by personal attacks, let's not lose sight of what's at stake.