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“My small contribution to peace on earth.”


Academic year: 2021

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“My small contribution to peace on earth.”

An interview study on the role perception of street-level

bureaucrats within EU soft law

Mikaela Åhlén Uppsala University Department of Government Master Thesis 30 ECTS, Autumn 2020 Words: 19 966 Supervisor: Karin Leijon



The aim of the thesis is to explore how national street-level bureaucrats perceive their role when implementing EU soft law in a Europeanised environment. Existing studies have focused on the role perception of public servants working within implementation of EU hard law, or being diplomats or working on ministerial level. These studies find that there is an additional EU servant role perception, beyond the national servant role perception. It provides the theoretical and empirical expectation that the public servants on the street-level and within EU soft law are national servants and do not hold an additional EU role perception. The study uses theories on Europeanisation, identity and role perception, and street-level bureaucracy to further understand the case.

The thesis is based on 13 semi-structured interviews to understand the role perception. The selected case is a least-likely study as it explores role perception of street-level bureaucrats within EU soft law. More precisely, the field of higher education and its internationalisation, as the study selects the Erasmus+ programme and street-level bureaucrats who work with its implementation in Sweden. This, to understand how they perceive their role when implementing an EU programme and in a Europeanised, but also national, environment.

The findings of the thesis show that the street-level bureaucrats hold a national role perception but there are respondents who also present a perception of an additional EU role perception, for example five respondents who presented to be working for the EU in addition to the Higher Education Institution. Thus, it does not provide enough support for the theoretical and empirical expectations to be confirmed that street-level bureaucrats within EU soft law only hold a national servant role perception. Hence, it shows that it also exists a perception of also being an EU servant and holding loyalty to the EU.

Keywords: EU, Europeanisation, EU soft law, Role perception, Erasmus+, Higher Education, Street-level bureaucracy, Public servants


Preface and acknowledgements

This Master’s thesis was originally supposed to take place in Rwanda for an 8 week long Minor Field Study funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). However, a pandemic put the world upside down and suddenly the field study was cancelled and there were increased difficulties for the planned topic. What is then more suitable than writing about an area in which you already hold knowledge and a personal interest in?

I would like to thank the respondents of this study, for having given your time, your experiences and your perceptions of working with the success story of the EU. The results in this thesis are based on your contributions – which resulted in a transcribed document of over 130 pages and in total over 80 000 words. Sadly, only a minor part of your experiences of working with the Erasmus+ programme is included in this thesis, but I am still indeed very grateful. Secondly, I would like to thank my supervisor Karin Leijon for the great support, feedback and allowing me to reflect and get inspiration and motivation after every single meeting – I never felt as confident about completing this study as after our meetings. Finally, a thank you to friends and family who provided feedback to the study and for your support throughout the process.

Lastly, I am grateful to the EU and the Erasmus+ programme that have allowed me to grow as a citizen and to consider myself a European citizen. I am on a personal level a supporter and advocate for what is the most striking success story of the Union – the Erasmus+ programme – and very thankful for the opportunities it has given me.


Table of Content


1.1 Aim of the study 3


2.1 Europeanisation 4

2.2 Role perception and identity 4

2.3 Street-level bureaucracy 8

2.3.1 Summary of theoretical framework and previous research 9


3.1 Qualitative interviews 11

3.1.2 Operationalisation 11

3.2 Research design 12

3.3 Case selection 12

3.3.1 Hypotheses 13

3.3.2 Selection of Higher Education Institutions (HEI) 14

3.3.3 Selection of respondents 15

3.3.4 Data collection 16

3.4 Ethical considerations 17


4.1 Public servants 18

4.2 The Erasmus+ programme 18

4.2.1 Programme period 2021-2027 20

4.2.2 European Universities Initiative 20


5.1 Background of the respondents and Erasmus+ at the HEI 22 5.2 Street-level bureaucrats’ loyalty to different actors 23 5.3 Street-level bureaucrats’ role and its influence of the EU 33 5.4 Street-level bureaucrats and national and European actors 39


6.1 Future research 45



8.1 Interview guide 51

8.2 Consent form 54

8.3 Contact form to respondents 55

8.4 Overview of respondents 56 *** Abbreviations: HE Higher Education NA National Agency EU European Union

UHR Universitets- och högskolerådet HEI Higher Education Institution

KA Key Action

MFF Multi Financial Framework

ECHE Erasmus Charter for Higher Education EUI European Universities Initiative HEO Higher Education Ordinance


1. Introduction

Policy-making and its implementation are vital aspects of each nation state. Nonetheless, lately there has been an increasing influence from the EU level on the member state through further integration, referred to as a process of Europeanisation, that can impact the policies, political and administrative structures of the member states (Héritier et al. 2001). Moreover, the implementation of the policies take place in the member state. Hence, it occurs far away from the negotiators and decision-makers but close to the citizens and by the public servants who are referred to as street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 1980). Instead, citizens meet public servants who represent the government, and these encounters present instances of policy delivery. Thus, they hold a key role into the implementation of policies. Street-level bureaucrats affects lives and opportunities of citizens, as they deliver benefits and sanctions (ibid).

Studies have explored (e.g. Egeberg 1999, Trondal and Veggeland 2003, Geuijen et al. 2008, Wockelberg 2014) that when working with either the decision-making or the implementation of policies, it has an effect on the role perception of the individual public servant. In particular, this is the case in scenarios of implementation of EU legislation or being in a Europeanised environment. Hence, the public servants may develop a sense of belonging or identify with an additional actor, instead of adhering to a purely national role perception. This may have an impact on the public servant’s work and decisions. Furthermore, a role is explained as expectations that predict the anticipated behaviour of the role-holder (Egeberg and Sætren 1999). In terms of roles, scholarly work has for example found that within implementation of EU hard law in national authorities in Sweden and Denmark, public servants primarily displayed a role perception as independent experts or national servants. However, there is not enough convincing evidence to reject that there is also a perception of being EU servants, meaning holding an additional EU role perception than only the national role. Thus, more research is needed (Wockelberg 2014). Other studies suggest that there may be an EU role perception and consequently a shift in loyalty when working on a supranational level, however it would only be marginally. The EU setting does not by default replace the national role perception, but can be an additional second or third role (Egeberg 1999). Also, a third study found that there may be a conflict between several role perceptions. Public servants, as mentioned above, may develop roles such as independent expert, government representative or supranational actor. Between these three roles, conflicts may arise and challenge the loyalty to an actor (Trondal and Veggeland 2003). A common feature of the presented studies is the focus on either non-national arenas or focus on hard EU law. As a result of this, it creates an empirical and theoretical expectation that public servants who work in Europeanised environments or in national forums with a strong EU presence hold, beyond their national role, an additional or shared role perception with a supranational actor.


On the opposite from hard EU law, there are non-binding and voluntary measures from the EU to each member state within EU soft law. Those measures have a soft or no obligation or enforcement to implement in the national context. For example, it can vary from recommendations, incentives, guidelines to objectives (Saurugger and Terpan 2020: 4). Recently, there has been an increased scholarly interest in the field of EU soft law, but targeted its rationale and its production. However, there is a gap in the literature on the effects that EU soft law has in the member states (Hartlapp and Hofmann 2020: 2). Accordingly, the EU is incapable to ensure that the soft law is enforced in the EU member states as it holds no competence in the area, as compared to for example fishing or competition politics.

Thus, there is a lack of research on the public servants’ role perception within EU soft law and being far away from the negotiators and the decision-makers. Moreover, the public servants who implement EU policy on street-level hold an important role (Hysing and Olsson 2012: 11). This raises several questions regarding this topic. Is there an impact of Europeanisation on individual street-level bureaucrats who implement EU soft law? Does it have an impact on their role perception or do they remain national servants as there are only voluntary and non-binding measures within the field of EU soft law? How do the street-level bureaucrats relate to actors? And if they have an additional role, does their loyalty differ? Moreover, is there a spillover effect of Europeanisation on the individual level?

It is important to understand the role perception of individual public servants as it potentially can have an impact on their tasks in the implementation of EU soft law. In addition, it is vital to shed new light on the existing debate regarding the possibility of public servants holding an additional EU role beyond their national role. A study of street-level bureaucrats within EU soft law can provide a better understanding of how Europeanisation can influence the individual public servant’s role perception. On a further note, it may also have an impact on how the nationally regulated work is being executed in terms of loyalty to an additional actor. By studying a case within EU soft law, the knowledge within the field in general can be increased. As can be seen, there is a research gap on the street-level bureaucrats’ role perception, as studies primarily focused on the role perception of those working on ministerial or diplomatic levels. Moreover, studies have primarily focused on hard EU law. This study thus aims to address both research gaps and focus on the street-level bureaucrats and an area of EU soft law. Within EU soft law, the field of education is understudied and requires further research. Hence, this study will explore the role perception of the public servants who work within internationalisation of higher education and implementation of the EU flagship programme Erasmus+.


1.1 Aim of the study

The aim of the study is to explore how national street-level bureaucrats perceive their role when implementing EU soft law in a Europeanised environment. In addition, the study aims to shed new light on the debate of national bureaucrats holding an additional EU role or not.


2. Literature review and theoretical framework

Following the previously presented research gap and aim of the study, this chapter will further give an overview and introduction to the current scholarly work in the field and the theoretical framework that will be applied in the study.

2.1 Europeanisation

Europeanisation is a concept holding multiple scholarly definitions. Börzel (1999) defines it as “a process by which domestic policy areas become increasingly subject to European policy-making” (Börzel 1999: 574). Another definition using a top-down perspective is the following one: “Europeanisation is defined as the process of influence deriving from European decisions and impacting member states’ policies and political and administrative structures”. As a result, Europeanisation grows from below but imposed from above (Héritier et al. 2001: 3).

To understand the development of national governance structures, it is vital to understand the process of Europeanisation. EU policy making can both be understood as a political and bureaucratic process, which results in increased bureaucratisation. This is due to the fact that national public servants govern the domestic EU related policy-making (Connaughton 2015: 200). In addition, the process of Europeanisation and its effects on the national level have received more focus in recent years (Cowles, Caparaso and Risse 2001: 3). Thus, it results in domestic effects within policies, politics and polity. Within the dimension of polity, it can be effects within political institutions, public administration and shared identities. Moreover, the impact of the EU on member states is no longer considered controversial (Börzel and Risse 2003: 60). Consequently, the EU affects the member states through political decisions, institutional structure and, in addition, also on individuals’ perceptions. Hence, increased Europeanisation is discussed as a likely challenge to the social ‘identity’. It is also expected that there is an influence on the ‘official’ identity. This can be questioned if it results in a European identity, a hybrid identity or if the identity remains nation-based (Connaughton 2015: 200).

2.2 Role perception and identity

Europeanisation has been confirmed to not only have an impact on the national systems, but also on public servants' role perception and identity. There are studies which are primarily focused on public servants working in ministries or being diplomats, and studies focused on hard EU law and not soft EU governance (e.g. Egeberg 1999, Geuijen et al. 2008, Wockelberg 2014). It is argued that there is a lack of research on the role of individual key actors, since previously published scholarly work on Europeanisation is within the field of domestic impact on policy, politics and polity. Nonetheless, there exists empirical research that proves that the individual actor has an important and, in some cases, critical role within an organisation (Hysing and Olsson 2012: 11).


Consequently, there is little empirical research within this area and on the national street-level bureaucrats involved in EU policy implementation.

Literature on public servants within EU affairs presents that different roles and identities develop and later result in supranational role perceptions. The common trait within this conception is that the supranational loyalty is secondary, while the national one is primary. Consequently, public servants retain the perception that they are national agents, even though their tasks are both national and European (Connaughton 2015: 201-202).

Morten Egeberg (1999) is frequently referred to regarding EU influence on public servants and their role perception. Egeberg explored the role and identity perceptions of national public servants participating in EU decision-making processes, and how the process either supplement or replace the national role perception and identity (ibid: 457). He argued that there was little empirical proof and research on the topic, and little connection between public servants and the EU. Moreover, the effects that European co-operation could have on loyalties, identities and roles of public servants within the political or administrative sphere were not well-studied (ibid: 456).

It was, in addition, explored if shifted role perception could be the result of the public servant’s participation and their experience within the EU level. Moreover, if the individual's own attitudes to the European integration and Europe could also influence their identity perception. Both expectations were not found (ibid: 462). According to organisational and institutional theory, shifts regarding loyalty when related to supranationalism can possibly happen, but the shift would only be to a marginal extent (ibid: 470). In addition, public servants from the older EU member states developed a stronger supranational attitude compared to the member states that recently joined the union (ibid: 462). Nonetheless, the identity developed within EU settings does not by default replace the national identity, but it can be complementary or secondary (ibid: 470-471 and Egeberg 2006).

Jarle Trondal and Frode Veggeland (2003) identified the third role perception of public servants as the supranational actors and it became an additional role of independent expert and the role of government representative. Trondal and Veggeland also found a potential role conflict between these three roles, which as a result could cause problems for national governments in situations when role expectations arise when the bureaucrats participate in EU related matters (Trondal and Veggeland 2003: 63).

Trondal and Veggeland’s study (2003) focused on the conflict between political loyalty and professional autonomy, existing in bureaucratic structures. The EU integration introduced a supranational dimension into this relation. The scholars explored if national public servants, who participated in expert committees hosted by the European Commission, perceived themselves to be either national representatives for the government, independent experts or supranational actors. Their study presented that there was a difference within the case, between the Swedish and the Norwegian public servants where the Swedish ones had supranational roles to a higher extent than


their Norwegian colleagues. However, both groups developed several different role perceptions. One of their results was that intensive participation in EU committees had an effect on the development of a supranational role perception. By being exposed to EU institutions, the chances increased to have a shared supranational role perception with the national role (Trondal and Veggeland 2003: 71-72).

Karin Geuijen, Paul ‘t Hart and Kutsal Yesilkagit (2007) studied European governance through the public servants who execute and implement European governance, and what meaning it has to work in Europeanised environments. The authors conducted interviews with public servants from ministries and agencies, working in areas of both hard and EU soft law and who frequently participated in working groups and other meetings in Brussels (Geuijen, ‘t Hart and Yesilkagit 2007: 131-132).

They identified the ‘street-level entrepreneur’ who differed from the ‘bureaucrat-diplomat’ and whose main priority was to use the European stage to solve the practical problems from their daily work. In addition, the primary focus was their profession (ibid: 148). Street-level entrepreneurs had no underlying commitment to the EU project and the EU institutions (ibid: 152). Moreover, street-level entrepreneurs aimed for autonomy and perceived the ministries as gatekeepers to further participation in EU networks. However, these networks were considered to be unhelpful for their work and instead matters could be solved among professionals more effectively (ibid: 153). Finally, they found that the ideal-types of Dutch Eurocrats ‘Bureaucrat-diplomats’ and ‘street-level entrepreneurs’ had different role perceptions which reflected on individual differences and between those perceived as ‘policy bureaucrats’ and operational ‘doers’. For example, the bureaucrats-diplomats’ natural habitat was the formal working parties, while the street-level bureaucrats operated in networks where sharing good practices was in focus. Moreover, the bureaucrat-diplomats focused on achieving EU policies and an impact on EU agendas, while the street-level entrepreneurs aimed to have real operational success (ibid: 154-155).

The scholars above together with Sebastiaan Princen, also explored European integration on the level of an individual. They argued that it was important to study European integration from a public servant’s perspective as they are the ones who implement EU policies on a daily basis. The scholars discussed that a lot of integration literature focused on ‘the bigger picture’ of EU integration, nonetheless a closer viewpoint on individuals can provide new observations and explanations of the Europeanisation of public servants (Geuijen et al. 2008: 146).

Their study focused primarily on national diplomats, referred to as Eurocrats who operated directly in EU settings in Brussels, and public servants in ministries in The Hague, The Netherlands. The national diplomats encountered a perception of being present on two different sides during their work; the national one and the EU one, and therefore possibly perceive a conflict of loyalty between the national and European role (ibid: 23). Consequently, having dual roles could create tensions between the selection between the national and the EU’s policy preference (ibid: 131). The scholars developed three Eurocratic ideal-types and found strengths and weaknesses. For example, the


street-level entrepreneurs were practical professional problems solvers but on the other hand they had no full picture or understanding of the core game of European integration.

On the contrary, the bureaucrat-diplomats were skilled negotiators who favoured European integration prior to the national opportunities and were players who were engaged with procedure politics of the EU. Finally, the back-office coordinators facilitated the national position. However, they were too involved in purely domestic politics and had little connection or relation to the EU level (ibid: 132). The study concluded that the EU-related loyalty is scarcer among national public servants as their loyalty is primarily towards their national government or to the policy area (ibid: 133).

In a similar study, Bernadette Connaughton (2015: 209) explored national bureaucrats representing the government in Brussels at the Permanent Representation. It was found that those public servants have thorough socialisation experience from the EU environment. Moreover, Sager and Overeem (2015) published an edited volume discussing the development of the public servant into a common European administrative identity. They identified there is little knowledge of the idea of the public servant in Europe and thus a European administrative identity (Sager and Overeem 2015: 5). Nonetheless, the Europeanised public servants have been confirmed to be key players in the European integration (ibid: 4).

Helena Wockelberg (2014) studied the bureaucratic role perception and the implementation of EU policies within taxation and food policies at member-state level. She compared public servants from Swedish and Danish national agencies and presented that established theories on bureaucratic role perception could explain the differences within the late stage of implementation of EU policies. The theoretical expectations were that a third role as EU servant as a consequence of EU integration, would not replace any of the primary roles as independent expert or national servant (ibid: 734).

Wockelberg in the end found support that national bureaucrats who implement EU law do that holding a role of being an independent expert or national political servant, depending on the case of Sweden or Denmark. However, more research is needed to fully reject that bureaucrats perceive themselves as EU servants when implementing EU law and that implementation decisions are made on loyalty towards the EU and not the nation-state. It is found that within a nationally regulated area, there is displayed a national role perception. For example, of being independent experts or national servants. It is also discussed if further EU integration within a field can result in a role perception of being EU servant. Finally, loyalty to the EU is found rare but implementation of polies can still be efficiently executed (ibid: 745).

The public servant’s decisions can be guided by an organisation’s goals, objectives and norms if he identifies with an organisation. Depending on the sense of belonging or identify with an organisation, it can have an effect on the public servant’s decision-making (Egeberg and Sætren 1999: 93-94).


Moreover, in most organisations, people tend to execute their tasks in agreement to previously specified rules that relate to their identity within the organisation. Organisations may train people within an identity and, through a socialisation process, have them adopt identities (March 1994: 60). Identities are, in addition, developed both by the individual and being imposed on the individual. In the case of socialisation, identities are not developed, but instead being adopted on the individual. Identity formation can both be voluntarily chosen and non-chosen (ibid: 62-63). By having several role perceptions, it can assist to perceive being part of different entities and, consequently, it can facilitate conflict resolution and problem-solving by take advantage of the different roles (ibid: 68-73).

Nina M. Vestlund (2018) studied resource pooling in a European network within medicine and its connection to organisation structure. It was found that participants in networks pool resources both through interaction and sharing information, practices and experiences. Moreover, they also have a division of labour by holding an expertise in a certain field, which is coordinated by an EU agency (Vestlund 2018: 76).

2.3 Street-level bureaucracy

The theory on street-level bureaucracy originates from Michael Lipsky (1980) who referred to the public servants who directly interact with citizens in their daily work life. Each encounter with the government in any indirect form that is made by citizens is a representation of policy delivery, even though they do not directly face the governments' representative but the public servants on the street-level. A street-level bureaucrat can be a public employee that provides access to government programmes and its services (Lipsky 1980: 3). The focus is on the behaviour behind a street-level bureaucrat who holds direct interaction with citizens in situations such as implementation and delivery of public policies (Lipsky 1980).

The street-level bureaucrats have direct influence on citizens’ lives and provide benefits and sanctions. By providing benefits, it is a way of extending the state’s influence and control (ibid: 4). From the citizens’ viewpoint, the street-level bureaucrats hold roles that are as extensive as the functions of the government. From the side of a street-level bureaucrat, they are the hope of citizens to have fair and effective treatment indirectly by the government (ibid: 12). Street-level bureaucrats conduct tasks in sectors which are characterised by high amount of discretion and regular interaction with citizens (ibid: 27).

The major difference between a public servant and the one acting on street-level is that the latter one has direct contact with the citizens who take part in the policy implementation. When the public servants on a higher level discuss policies, it may often be in broad and general terms, but it is the individual street-level public servant who is responsible for its implementation towards the citizens. Even though they work closely with regulations, they still have a space and freedom in the implementation of


policies. Thus, they can interpret and adjust the policies to certain cases and situations. Street-level bureaucrats also have an impact on how citizens perceive a certain policy area and political institutions. This as they may be the only contact in a certain field and thus become representatives in a larger picture, and also the face of a certain political institution (Hysing and Olsson 2012: 70). The street-level bureaucrats often perceive themselves as being far away and disconnected from politics. Nonetheless, they are the ones who form and implement the politics that the citizens take part of (ibid: 71).

2.3.1 Summary of theoretical framework and previous research

Model by the author.

Model 1. The theoretical framework on the public servants in policy implementation and the Europeanisation influence on its role perception.

It is evident, based on previous studies, that there is an impact of Europeanisation on individual member states’ systems. In this chapter, it has been concluded that there exists a discussion whether there is also Europeanisation of individual public servants, which impacts their role perception in different ways. In addition, there is little knowledge of public servants working at levels such as the street-level, as studies have focused on other levels and additionally on EU hard law. Thus, previous research provides theoretical and empirical expectations to the study. It is an interesting and puzzling case to explore if the role perception of street-level bureaucrats within a field of EU soft law can be influenced to some extent by the EU, even though being at the end of the implementation chain and purely voluntary measures.

The model above portrays the theoretical and empirical expectations on how street-level bureaucrats can be influenced from Europeanisation in the implementation of EU soft law which results in possibly an additional role perception beyond the national role. Hence, this should be further explored and explained.

The following sub-research questions have been created based on the theoretical and empirical expectations and will support answering the aim of the study. The questions will allow to further shed a light on the research gap in the field.


- How do the street-level bureaucrats perceive their role being influenced by the EU?

- How do the street-level bureaucrats relate to national and European actors?

The next chapter will present the research design and how this chapter will be applied to further assist the methodology of the study and how the selection will be conducted.


3. Design of the study and material

The following chapter will present the methodology for the study which is selected to explore the aim of the study. It will also present the case selection and how the study is designed.

3.1 Qualitative interviews

The aim of the study is to explore the role perception of national street-level bureaucrats implementing EU soft law in a Europeanised environment, and to shed light on two areas that previous research has not targeted. As the study aims to understand how street-level bureaucrats perceive their role, a suitable method for that is qualitative interviews as it assists to understand how people perceive their own world (Esaiasson et al. 2012: 253 and Marsh, Ercan and Furlong 2018: 190). The interviews are semi-structured as the respondents can present their individual understandings and experiences, where the focus is on understanding instead of factual and statistical information (King, Horrocks and Brooks 2019: 17). Moreover, in a semi-structured interview, it is possible for the respondent to talk about a topic which relates to the research question, with focus on phenomena and experiences that in turn shape meanings (Magnusson and Marecek 2015: 83).

Qualitative research is generally found to belong to interpretivism as it describes how the social world is experienced and understood (King, Horrocks and Brooks 2019: 11). This connects to the study, where the aim is to explore how street-level bureaucrats perceive their role. With qualitative interviews, the respondents will be able to share how they understand a certain context and how they experience something. Moreover, there are different realities of life and different interpretations of realities as there exist multiple ones (ibid: 11). By conducting interpretivist research, it facilitates understanding how a certain context is perceived within multiple versions of realities, as the world is socially constructed (ibid: 16 and Marsh, Ercan and Furlong 2018: 190). Interpretivism is targeting understanding the different meanings and its results can provide interpretation of a single social phenomena (Marsh, Ercan and Furlong 2018: 185). Following this approach, it will further assist to understand and explore how the different meanings of the respondents’ role perceptions are understood.

3.1.2 Operationalisation

The previous chapter facilitated and supported the development and the operationalisation of the interview guide. By using similar questions as previous empirical studies, the study will further be able to explore the aim of the study, which is to understand the role perception of the street-level bureaucrats within EU soft law and in a Europeanised environment. The first sub-research question on loyalty to different actors was developed to interview questions on, for example, the


implementation chain, description of the national competence of EU soft law and if considering working for the EU as additional actor. The second sub-research question on influence by the EU inspired interview questions such as the street-level bureaucrat’s motivation and perceiving impacts from different actors on the tasks. Finally, the third sub-research question on how street-level bureaucrats relate to actors is connected to interview questions such as opinion on the EU, potential conflicts between actors and how different actors are involved in the programme.

The interview guide includes questions that allow discovering the role perception that respondents may not be aware of. Hence, the relation and loyalty to different actors can possibly be subconscious, and it can be an aspect that the respondents do not reflect on in daily life.

3.2 Research design

The theoretical and empirical background expect the case to be characterised by street-level bureaucrats holding a national role perception in EU soft law implementation. Thus, it can be argued that the design of the study is a least-likely case to be holding an additional European role perception beyond the national role perception. Street-level bureaucrats within EU soft law follow voluntary measures by the EU, in relation to hard EU law which is regulated by legal measures. Thus, the national legislation is superior to the EU recommendations in the field of EU soft law. Moreover, the street-level bureaucrats are far away from the EU arena and negotiation process, thus it is expected less of a Europeanised role perception. Consequently, those working within EU soft law are theoretically expected to have less of an EU role perception. Hence, street-level bureaucrats within EU soft law are a least-likely case to find an EU role perception.

3.3 Case selection

Previous research has proven that there is a puzzling and interesting case within role perception in EU soft law. A field within EU soft law, which is heavily dominated by non-binding legislation, as it is a national competence of each EU member state, is the field of education. The education field includes recommendations and Council conclusions, compared to other fields that have more EU directives and regulations. It is interesting to explore what kind of spillover effect the EU can have on the role perception within an area where the EU has no possibility to put legal measures, but it is each member state that regulates it. Hence, it makes the education field suitable to explore the aim of the study.

To make the case narrower, the field of internationalisation of higher education in Sweden and the implementation of the EU programme Erasmus+ has been selected as the case, since it can facilitate to understand the street-level bureaucrats’ role perception within EU soft law. The case is chosen to explore a field that is highly characterised by EU soft law and national competence by each member state. However, there is also an


EU presence in the Erasmus+ programme which is a suitable case when exploring an additional EU role perception. Nonetheless, it is argued that the field is highly regulated nationally and the ones who implement the programme are far from the EU arena, which makes the least-likely case still applicable. The public servants within education are expected to be more loyal to the nation-state, due to the national competence and even though there is an EU presence in the implementation, the case is still a least-likely one. Moreover, Sweden is a country which meets the requirement of being an EU member state, but it is often referred to within literature of public administration as a representative case for the Scandinavian administration or the Nordic model (e.g. Kuhlmann and Wollmann 2019). Research has also suggested that older EU member states develop a stronger supranational attitude, compared to member states who recently have joined (Egeberg 1999).

In Sweden, the state authorities are responsible to execute the administrative tasks of the central-state and are responsible for a certain task and sector. However, these authorities hold a high amount of autonomy, both in terms to the government as well to the parliament (Kuhlmann and Wollmann 2019: 102). Swedish authorities are less integrated with the Swedish government, than for example the Danish ones. Swedish national authorities seek advice and guidance from EU institutions or networks, due to the independency from the government (Edwardsson and Wockelberg 2013: 370) The public administration in Sweden and other Nordic countries have a strong and efficient steering on the local level (Premfors et al. 2009: 68). Public administration is often considered to be responsible for implementing politics, however there are also public administration that is working to design and shape the policies. The EU has also had an effect on this and has increased the public servants’ policy-making activities (ibid: 112-113). Swedish bureaucracy is decentralised, where the central ministries are relatively small in size and mainly responsible for policy development and the agencies execute the implementation (Peters 2018: 134). Following this background, it is argued that the street-level bureaucrats in Sweden already hold a strong identity of being public servant but still being autonomous and surrounded by policy implementation and independency from the government. The identity and responsibility of being a public servant is present in Sweden. Thus, the street-level bureaucrats in Sweden make an interesting case.

3.3.1 Hypotheses

Following the presented case, a selection of Higher Education Institutions (HEI) is needed to select the respondents of the study. The theoretical and empirical expectations described in chapter two, explored participation in EU arenas as a factor that can result in an additional role perception. Thus, the following hypothesis will guide the selection of HEIs:

H1: Street-level bureaucrats who work at an HEI with high internationalisation hold

loyalty to the EU, compared to the ones who work at an HEI with low internationalisation.


The hypothesis aims to guide the selection of HEIs and to explore an aspect which previous research also found to be of relevance to study. In addition, the hypothesis can shed a light on possible variations in the presented role perception of the street-level bureaucrats.

3.3.2 Selection of Higher Education Institutions (HEI)

The study will conduct interviews with street-level bureaucrats who work with the EU programme Erasmus+ on a daily basis to explore their role perception. In Sweden, there are in total seventeen HEIs holding the status of university and thirteen HEIs with the status of university college (Universitetskanslersämbetet 2020a). University colleges of fine, applied and performing arts were not selected, as they are often very small institutions, and some do not have any outgoing students. In total in the academic year of 2018/2019, 7714 students at Swedish universities and university colleges studied abroad. Of those, 3462 studied under the Erasmus+ programme for their semester(s) abroad (Universitetskanslersämbetet 2020b).

The HEIs have been strategically selected through the hypothesis that the role perception varies, depending on the participation in EU affairs or arenas which is based on the theoretical and empirical expectations. In this study, it will be applied to the level of ‘internationalisation’ at the HEI. This was developed through a summary of the total number of students enrolled in each HEI in Sweden during the academic year of 2018/2019, the number of outgoing students in total where the Erasmus+ programme participants are included and in addition non-Erasmus+ student mobilities, and finally the students participating in only the Erasmus+ programme. Consequently, a percentage was calculated on how many of the students at each HEI have any international mobility experience; either Erasmus+ or any other programme. This provides the percentage of ‘internationalisation’ at the HEI in terms of student mobility, which can be argued to provide an idea on the focus of the field is at the HEI. Moreover, it can give an insight to the resources in the field of internationalisation at the HEI. Nonetheless, there are also other aspects of internationalisation than only student mobility abroad, such as attractiveness as a host university for incoming students, international teaching and research, and international possibilities at home.

If only the percentage of Erasmus+ mobilities would have been included instead of the total number of mobilities, the percentage would have been lower as there are fewer Erasmus+ mobilities than there are Erasmus+ and non-Erasmus+ mobilities combined together. In addition, small HEIs often have more partner agreements with other HEIs under the framework of Erasmus+ than they have with non-Erasmus+ partner universities. This is based on the fact that the Erasmus+ programme is a good tool for HEIs to use in order to offer student mobility. In addition, it is clear that many of the smaller HEIs have more than half of their student mobilities being Erasmus+ mobilities.


Thus, the total number of outgoing students have instead been selected to calculate the total percentage of mobile students to not have misleading results.

After having combined the percentages of ‘internationalisation’ for all 30 HEIs in Sweden, the range is between 14,51% and 0,23%. Nevertheless, the study has chosen to not select HEI that are independent higher education providers1. As the study aims to study the public servants in the public sector, the study has thus excluded those HEIs. Nevertheless, an interesting factor is that they hold some of the highest levels of internationalisation in Sweden.

Hence, with the three above mentioned HEIs excluded from the study, the percentage of the 27 HEIs in Sweden range between 4,88% - 0,23%, which makes the median value be 1,62%. As a result, this is what determines high or low ‘internationalisation’ in terms of student mobility at a HEI in this study. The HEIs with percentage below 1,62% are referred to as having low internationalisation, while the ones with percentage above 1,62% are referred to as having high levels of internationalisation.

Primarily, six HEIs with high internationalisation and six HEIs with low internationalisation were selected. The answer rate varied, which resulted in nine interviews with public servants working at HEIs with high internationalisation and four interviews with public servants working at HEIs with low internationalisation. In total, nine HEIs with high internationalisation and ten HEIs with low internationalisation were contacted2; the difference that one additional HEI with low internationalisation was contacted was due to an attempt to even out the unequal distribution of interviews with HEIs; four HEIs with low internationalisation and eight HEIs with high internationalisation. The selected HEIs remain anonymous in the study.

3.3.3 Selection of respondents

The study will conduct interviews with street-level bureaucrats who work with the Erasmus+ programme. Those frequently work in the International Office of an HEI. Those public servants work at the end of the implementation chain; thus the street-level bureaucracy theory is applicable to the selection. Nonetheless, they may be holding different tasks in the International Office. For example, the difference between responsibility of strategic and operational tasks. The study aims to examine those who have a more strategic role at the HEI and those who are responsible for the implementation of the Erasmus+ programme at the HEI. It can be argued that the ones who hold a more operational position are more in contact with the students, nonetheless


Examples of such are the HEI that are run by actors other than the state, for example by foundations or associations (Universitets- och högskolerådet 2020a), and for example being Chalmers University of Technology, Jönköping University and Stockholm School of Economics.


Seven HEIs never responded to the contact email sent regarding participating in an interview. One reminder was sent after between 7-10 days after the interview request, nonetheless it resulted unsuccessfully.


the ones who work more strategically are more in direct contact with the Erasmus+ programme which is the case of the study. They may also have closer contact with institutions such as the European Commission or the National Agency for Higher Education in Sweden. However, they work in an atmosphere where students as a target group are very dominated and focused, which can be argued to be applicable to the street-level bureaucrat theory.

3.3.4 Data collection

To establish contact with the street-level bureaucrats who work with the Erasmus+ programme, an email was sent to the selected HEI. A search was conducted on each HEI’s website on ‘Erasmus’ in order to find an appropriate contact email. Every HEI had a type of contact email to either the Erasmus+ office or the International Office, or the one responsible for the Erasmus+ programme at the HEI. If not, the email would be sent to the Registrar office.

In total, twelve HEIs participated in the study. In one of the HEIs, two respondents were interviewed during a single interview. The data of the study is thus twelve HEIs and thirteen respondents3.

The interview guide was translated to Swedish4 and all interviews were conducted

in Swedish, since all the respondents were Swedish speaking as well as the author. The interview guide was adjusted after the second interview with one question under the theme of role perception. Nonetheless, this question was asked in written format via email to the two respondents who were not asked the question during the interview. After around half of the interviews were conducted, a pattern started to be found and the answers became more similar to each other and theoretical saturation was achieved.

The interviews were conducted from the 2nd of November until the 27th of November 2020 and were transcribed ongoing throughout the process. The interviews were organised through the online platform Zoom which was familiar to both the respondents and the researcher. This can have contributed to feeling comfortable during the interview. An advantage to conduct the study throughout an ongoing pandemic may have been the willingness of the respondents to be interviewed on Zoom. This also allowed to include respondents from different cities in the study. Nevertheless, the selected respondents can be argued to work well with people who are not in the same city due to their tasks, which means that the online format probably had little or no impact.

The interviews were recorded which allowed the researcher to be focused on the interview and to listen actively, however, with some notes-taking. The recordings of the interviews were later stored on a computer and transcribed into a document for the analysis, as suggested by Brinkmann and Kvale (2015: 205), and the transcribing was


More detailed overview of the respondents can be found in the appendix.



done by the researcher alone. The transcriptions aimed to be as close to the verbal reality, nonetheless, there may be few words missing such as linking words and other non-verbal elements. Hesitations were aimed to be included as much as possible, or when the respondent changed the sentence mid-way. However, the transcriptions are as detailed as needed to allow for a thorough analysis and include what is said, with exception for minor words as mentioned above.

At the time of the interview were to be conducted, the respondents were also given an introduction5 to the topic of the thesis and definition of the concepts6, that they participated in one out of several studies and how the selection had been conducted. This was similar to the information given in the email and aimed to remind the respondents of the focus in the interview. Thereafter, the recording began and the interview itself.

3.4 Ethical considerations

The respondents signed a consent form7 before the interview8, where they for example agreed to take part in the interview, that it was recorded, the right to withdraw, and the use of the interview in the research. This is important as the respondents need to be informed about the procedure regarding the research and give their consent to it. In addition, this has to take place before the interviews begin (King, Horrocks and Brooks 2019: 34-35, and Brinkmann and Kvale 2015: 93).

The data of each interview was also transcribed with confidentiality to the respondent in order to not expose his or her identity and directly adding a pseudonym such as ‘public servant at x HEI’ or ‘respondent 1’. As a result, all data was treated anonymously (King, Horrocks and Brooks 2019: 45-57).

The upcoming chapter will present a background of the case of HE and the Erasmus+ programme which aims to provide a context to the study.

5 To be found in the appendix, nonetheless only in Swedish as the interviews were only conducted in



This was something the pilot interview provided as feedback to the study. The pilot interview took place in the end of October where the interviewee was partly working with the Erasmus+ programme.

7 To be found in the appendix.

8 Two respondents had no access to the office and a printer/scanner due to the pandemic restrictions, thus


4. Background and context of the study

This chapter will present a background which provides a context to further understand the result of the interviews and its analysis. It presents a brief background on public servants as profession and the Erasmus+ programme as case.

4.1 Public servants

An official working within the public sector is referred to as a public servant, which also relates to the respondents who work in a public agency. There are set rules and regulations on how the public servant should execute its tasks, to treat everyone equally and according to the laws. The public servant performs the tasks and decisions based on the regulations in the organisation (Hysing and Olsson 2012: 40). The regulations are often based on socialisation within an organisation and its work requires loyalty and a sense of duty. Moreover, the public servant acts impersonal and without personal feelings or opinions but remains unbiased in every case and situation (ibid: 41). Finally, the public servant needs to be independent towards other actors in the society, such as companies, organisations or the citizens. Thus, act impersonal in its tasks (ibid: 42).

4.2 The Erasmus+ programme

After 30 years we can proudly say: #Erasmus is9 one of the greatest unifying achievements in the history of our Union.

- Ursula von der Leyen, 2020

The EU programme Erasmus+ was established in 1987 and was only a student exchange programme in higher education, but today it offers opportunities in more sectors such as school education, youth, sport and adult education. The programme provides young Europeans with skills suitable for the labour market, gives them a sense of belonging to a community and encourages equity and inclusion. The programme runs in seven-year long cycles, where the current programme is between 2014 - 2020 (European Commission 2017).

One of the sub-research questions that is developed to answer the aim of the study is how street-level bureaucrats relate to different actors, such as national or European ones. Thus, the following section provides a context to the implementation chain of the Erasmus+ programme.



Model by the author.

Model 2. The implementation chain of the Erasmus+ programme.

The model above explains the Erasmus+ programme chain and the contacts for each actor. The Erasmus+ programme originates from a proposal from the European Commission and is included in the Multi Financial Framework (MFF) which is approved by the European Council. Similarly, the Erasmus+ programme is also deliberated and discussed by the working groups and approved by the ministers in the Council. The programme includes three so called Key Actions (KA)10, where one is referred to as KA1 Mobility11 and one the respondents of the study work with. This

action is decentralised from the European Commission and managed by the National Agency (NA) in each member state, for example in terms of contact, applications for projects, and funds. In Sweden, it is Universitets- och högskolerådet (UHR) which is a government agency under the Ministry of Education and Research (Universitets- och högskolerådet 2020b and European Commission 2020e). UHR is, for example, responsible to select projects that shall be funded, monitor and evaluate the programme, support the applicants and the participants, and work with other National Agencies and the EU (Universitets- och högskolerådet 2020c). Following prior mentioned, it is evident that the ones who work on the street-level at HEIs with the Erasmus+ programme primarily do not have contact with the European Commission but with their National Agency. It is still of relevance to understand how the public servants perceive their role when implementing an EU programme, even though the EU as an actor is not very present. One can still argue that there is a high level of socialisation of the EU which can influence the individual public servant’s role perception.

The education field is one of the areas where the member state is responsible, and the EU does not have the power to legislate. This is referred to as a national competence of the member state. Thus, no directive or regulation can be adopted, but only for example conclusions or recommendations from the Council can further guide the member state based on voluntary measures. In addition, programmes and various policies and funding instruments, for example the Erasmus+ programme. The role of the EU is thus only to support the member states within the field (European Commission 2020f). The

10 In addition, Key Action 2 Cooperation and Key Action 3 Policy.

11 Further known as "Learning Mobility": The mobility of higher education students and staff. (European


Erasmus+ programme is thus an excellent for attempts to influence the education systems of each member state, as it is highly present in both countries and HEIs. Nevertheless, it is a voluntary choice by the HEIs and the member states to participate in the programme. Through a way that each member state and HEI finds the Erasmus+ programme as something beneficial, the EU can actually make changes and provide or change the direction within the field. For example, in each new programme period there are new focal areas, and those ones have a significant impact in the work of the HEIs.

Consequently, this leads to an interesting aspect between the national and the European. The education field is very nationally regulated, and with the Erasmus+ programme comes European influences in the national field. The question is if this possibly only affects the education, or if it also has an impact on the public servants who work nationally but with a European programme.

Sweden’s participation in the Erasmus+ programme is relatively low, especially comparing incoming and outgoing students where there are twice as many incoming as outgoing Erasmus+ students. For example, there is both an EU target and a previous Swedish inquiry that called for 20-25% of students to have studied abroad in a minimum of three months (Universitets- och högskolerådet 2018: 14-15 and Internationaliseringsutredningen 2018: 131). As can be seen in the appendix, Swedish HEIs are far from these targets.

4.2.1 Programme period 2021-2027

Each HEI needs to sign the Erasmus Charter for Higher Education (ECHE) to confirm its participation in the programme and what aspects that need to be obeyed to. In the ECHE, the European Commission also adds priorities and new focus that are being renewed in each programme period (European Commission 2020b). One focus in the upcoming programme period is the matter of Automatic recognition of the studies abroad which challenges the national competence in Sweden. In Sweden, it is regulated by the Higher Education Ordinance (HEO) and every student who wishes to have a mobility period recognised needs to make an application to have the credits transferred and it does not happen automatically.

4.2.2 European Universities Initiative

I believe we should create European Universities – a network of universities across Europe with programmes that have all their students study abroad and take classes in at least two languages.

- Emmanuel Macron, 26 September 2017 (Ouest France 2017)

The European Universities Initiative (EUI) aims to strengthen strategic partnership in European higher education and by studying at a European University students should be able to obtain a degree through a combination of studies in several EU member states.


The initiative is also part of the EU’s ambition to create a European Education Area. The EUI is included in the upcoming Erasmus+ programme and arose from a speech by Emmanuel Macron and later the Social Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden. Later, the European Council included the EUI in the December 2017 Conclusions (European Commission 2020d). Nonetheless, the EUI may face challenges in terms of conflicts to the national competence of each member state, in comparison to the Erasmus+ student mobilities.

The next chapter will present the result and an analysis of the interviews which were conducted with street-level bureaucrats working with the implementation of the Erasmus+ programme. It will also connect the result to the theoretical framework and previous research in the field.


5. Results and analysis

The following sections present the results of the 13 semi-structured interviews, aiming to answer how national street-level bureaucrats perceive their role when implementing EU soft law in a Europeanised environment. As prior mentioned, there are also sub-research questions intending to lead to the aim of the study and will structure the chapter, with exception on the first section that intends to bring a context. Some aspects have been mentioned several times by the respondents, and may be returned to in another section, thus referred to more than once. The presented quotes have been translated from Swedish to English by the author.

The result will be presented in a qualitative approach. It is more important that someone stated something and through that shed light on how the respondents perceived their role connected to working with the Erasmus+ programme – a field of EU soft law. Dalen (2007: 103) calls to be careful to have interview data quantified, even though in few aspects it can provide benefits to the result. In this chapter, it will be applied in the summary of each section.

When attempting to understand the meaning of an interview statement, it goes beyond only what is said verbally to more critical interpretations of it. In this context, it is important to further explore what is said and the meaning behind it and what may not be visible in the statement (Brinkmann and Kvale 2015: 235). It is done in relation to the theoretical framework and the previous research. It also requires the researcher to judge the statement and how the reflections, points of view, and experiences that the respondents present as meaning to their experiences (Magnusson and Marecek 2015: 83). It can be discussed if the results are subjective, however throughout the process it has attempted to be avoided as much as possible to objectively answer the aim of the study through the respondents’ statements.

5.1 Background of the respondents and Erasmus+ at the HEI

Study background and experiences abroad

The respondents in the study shared a similar background in terms of studies and work experience. All of the respondents have studied at university level and hold at least a Bachelor’s degree. The fields of study varied for example from Political Science, Sociology, Study and Career Guidance, Languages and Business. Moreover, the large majority have studied or worked abroad and only three respondents had no experience from neither working nor studying abroad. The respondents who had international experience frequently referred to it as a good asset in the work with the Erasmus+ programme.

The large majority of the respondents held a seniority in the field, where only two respondents held less than five years of experience working with Erasmus+ programme.


Five respondents had experience since the focus of internationalisation of HE began in Sweden in the 1990s.

Structure of the Erasmus+ programme at the HEI

The respondents presented how the Erasmus+ programme was structured at their HEI, this in order to provide a better understanding how possible differences in the respondents’ answers during the interview can relate to the internal structure at the HEI. One respondent (13) explained that the structure frequently depends on the size of the HEI and that smaller HEIs have more centralisation and bigger HEI have more decentralisation but it may vary. This was applicable to the respondents’ answers. In addition, it is important to note that the tasks can vary depending on the internal organisation at the HEI even though holding the same position as Erasmus+ responsible. For example, in a centralised organisation there are more operational tasks connected with the programme and thus more student contact. This as a result can have an influence on the presented role perception.

5.2 Street-level bureaucrats’ loyalty to different actors

The first sub-research question that developed through the previous research was on how the street-level bureaucrats’ loyalty to different actors is expressed. The section will present how the respondents perceived to work for the EU in addition to the HEI and their preference on national or European regulations in order to answer the sub-research question.

Working for the EU in addition to the HEI

In terms of having a perception of working for the EU as well in addition to the HEI, the respondents presented varied answers. This allowed to explore whether the respondents hold loyalty to the EU, in addition to national loyalty. Two of the respondents explained it as the following:

It is clear that it is ultimately the EU I work for, but it is not something I think about on a daily basis. [...] It is primarily with them [UHR] that we interact on most issues, so the Commission is not present on a daily basis. On the other hand, we work in their [the EU] system, so of course we work for the EU. (Respondent 1)

I feel that I work for the EU. It is… I feel that I am there, and I work towards them even if I am here at a university. But I also work towards them even if UHR is in between, so I feel that I work for the EU. (Respondent 12)

Even though the national actor is perceived as closer and there is little contact with the EU, the respondents above still perceived that they work for the EU as well. It can be discussed if they also hold a loyalty to the EU as well, and not only to the HEI and thus


an additional EU role. How that loyalty looks is, nonetheless, uncertain. If the respondent would also be loyal to the EU, it would according to previous studies (Egeberg 1999) only be marginally and it would not replace the loyalty towards for example the national actor. It is evident that there is no primary role perception as none is superior, thus there is no loyalty conflict between the roles. This finding is similar to previous studies (e.g. Connaughton 2015) that found the national loyalty to be primary and the supranational loyalty to be secondary when working with EU matters, even though the tasks are both European and national.

Moreover, five of the respondents perceived extensively that they work for the EU in addition to the HEI and two respondents perceived to some extent that they have a mission for the EU and are part of an EU chain. It was presented as an additional role which does not by default result in loyalty conflicts. However, this finding is very interesting and differs from theoretical and empirical expectations that street-level bureaucrats do not hold an additional EU role perception.

A respondent (2) mentioned to work for the HEI primarily, but the mission is connected to the EU. Without the EU and its programme, there would be no tasks for the respondent. This suggests that the role perception is influenced by the EU. In addition, one of the respondents referred to work for the HEI but still holding a morality and loyalty that the regulations from the EU are being followed:

I probably feel most for x [name of HEI]. [...] Or you have some kind of morality and loyalty that it is being followed as it is promised [the commitment to the ECHE by the HEI]. We need to make proper reports and be careful and not deviate from the regulations [...] (Respondent 3).

The respondent above claimed to be working for the HEI, and did not perceive to work for the EU, even though expressing a moral and loyal obligation that the EU regulations are followed. This finding presents that the respondent on one hand perceives the EU to be far away and (s)he does not work for it when implementing EU soft law, but on the other hand there is a moral obligation and loyalty that EU regulations are followed. The socialisation and presence of the EU is still very strong, and it may be a subconscious perception of being an EU servant. Connaughton (2015) found strong socialisation experience when working in an EU environment in Brussels, where in this case the socialisation can be perceived to be strong enough to socialise into a Europeanised environment. An additional respondent (11) may also have a subconscious role perception as (s)he has not reflected on working for the EU but considered to some effect that (s)he does it. This perception originates from finding it important to uphold the ideas that are essential for the Erasmus+ programme. This presents that the respondent identified with the ideas that the EU has with the programme and there is a personal connection to it, which influences the EU role perception.


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