Obeying Ministers or Laws? A Study of Danish Civil Servants' Responses to Illegal Requests

Carina Saxlund Bischoff


It is part of a civil servants job description to be responsive to its political leadership as well as to uphold legal norms. But what happens when the two types of demands conflict? When legal norms stipulate one thing, but political leaders want another. In modern de- mocracies, observing the rule of law is no less important than holding elections. Respect for legal norms by those who exercise government authority is widely regarded as the cornerstone of democracy and good governance. The question is what role the bureaucra- cy plays when it comes to defending legal norms vis-à-vis its political leaders. This article investigates this question theoretically as well as empirically. First by exploring the nor- mative and positive theoretical issues involved, and secondly by examining the institu- tional context and behavior of the civil service in the Danish state administration. The analysis draws on survey data where civil servants have been asked to respond to fictive scenarios that present a conflict between obedience to the minister and observing the law. A substantial share of the civil servants – up to 1⁄4 - choose to compromise legal obliga- tions to comply with Ministerial requests. The findings suggest that educational back- ground, position in the hierarchy, and work place and function matters. Lawyers, leaders, those who work in departments – as opposed to agencies – are thus less likely to show willingness to compromise their legal obligations than their colleagues are.

Full Text: PDF

Scandinavian Journal of Public Administration

School of Public Administration, Box 712 - SE-405 30 Göteborg

ISSN: 2001-7405, E-ISSN: 2001-7413