Catharina Nyström Höög

The archaeology of a new genre: Vision and values texts of public authorities in Sweden

In the 'vision and values' genre the core values of an organisation are presented. Since the early 21th century this genre has become salient at Swedish public authorities - an unprecedented change in the historically stable repertoire of genres of such authorities. These texts aim to influence the attitudes and behaviour of employees rather than to regulate the core activities of the authorities. This is achieved through an elaborate use of language, but significantly also by employing visual resources. The project aims at developing a critical understanding of the 'vision and values' genre through a large-scale analysis of texts, employing techniques from 'critical discourse analysis' (CDA). The archaeology of the genre and its intertextual relations to other genres and texts in the public and private sector will be analysed. The project will contribute to fill a substantial gap in research on the history of texts from public authorities, not the least in terms of their increasing visualisation. The research questions are: 1) How can the 'vision and values' genre be understood in relation to other genres and in relation to economic and political changes, including changes in public management, in Sweden? 2) How can the systematic use of visual resources be understood from a critical perspective? 3) Which are the methodological tools that need to be developed in order to analyse historical, intertextual and multimodal genre change?
Final report
Project staff: Catharina Nyström Höög and Anders Björkvall.
The purpose of the project was to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon ‘platform of values’ and its role in public administration. ‘Platforms of values’ are a relatively new addition to the administrative text culture. They deviate from traditional text norms in that context by resembling commercial texts in their design. More precisely, the project set out to answer the following research questions:
1) How can the 'vision and values' genre be understood in relation to other genres and in relation to economic and political changes, including changes in public management, in Sweden?
2) How can the systematic use of visual resources in ‘platforms of values’ texts be understood from a critical perspective?
3) Which are the methodological tools that need to be developed in order to analyze historical, intertextual and multimodal genre change?
The first research question forms an overarching frame for understanding the genre in question, and was directive when the main data was collected, during early spring of 2016. In order to reach a complete overview over the public administration and their policy text culture, we contacted all 154 public authorities, as listed in Statistics Sweden’s register for administrative authorities, to gather their ‘platforms of values’ and related texts. A total of 230 texts were gathered, which were then subjected to close readings and different processes of categorization, in a first attempt to understand both the functions of the texts and their visual design.
Early on, a theoretical framework was established, based on the Critical Genre Analysis advocated by, primarily, Vijay K. Bhatia. In line with that understanding of how texts are embedded in social and/or professional processes inside organizations, we supplemented our textual data with a focus group discussion, performed in March of 2016, where 7 participants from just as many public authorities discussed the functions of ‘platforms of values’. All the participants represented HR departments or departments of communication; accordingly they were also key persons in establishing and working with ‘platforms of values’ – what we have come to call ‘PV practices’ (‘platform of values’ practices). The focus group discussion contributed with two important insights. First, the group strongly emphasized that the function of the PV text was not external communication or marketization of the authorities, and, second, that conversations on ‘platforms of values’ were considered very important.
The results from the focus group required to be checked against a larger sample of informants, and in the spring of 2017 a questionnaire survey was performed at three larger public authorities, where 492 persons responded to ten questions regarding ‘platforms of values’. As in the focus group, the focus was on the ‘platform of values’ as a general phenomenon, not the specific ‘platform of values’ at the single authorities. The questionnaire confirmed what the focus group had indicated: the primary function of PV texts is internal. Further, an insight that PV practices are tightly connected to the goal fulfilment of public authorities, was confirmed and reinforced. Based on the three data sets, we could proceed to formulate our understanding of the role of PV texts in public administration and our methods for analysis.
Right from the start, collaboration with groups outside the academic community has been a crucial part of the project. Ongoing communication with public authorities has been a prerequisite for all forms of data collection.
In the concluding phase of the project, from the summer of 2017 through the end of 2019, the collected texts have been subjected to different types of analysis, all more or less related to the results from focus group and questionnaire. As an example of these studies, the analysis of explicit legitimations in the ‘platforms of values’ texts should be mentioned (Björkvall and Nyström Höög 2019). In that paper we were able to show how goal fulfilment is pivotal when the function of PV texts is articulated in the texts themselves, where PV practices are often described as a tool for reaching the goals of the authority.
The most important results of the project can be summarized as follows:
• ‘Platforms of values’ (PV) are not primarily about external communication and marketization, which a large part of previous research has indicated, and which is easy to conclude when PV texts are studied as artefacts and not as parts of practices. The primary function is rather internally directed communication, related to the goals of the authority, how to reach them or how employees are to behave in order for the authority to reach its goals smoothly. In the light of international research, one can conclude that the primary function of the PV texts is to invite to discussion, in connection to a discursive construction of desirable identities among the staff. There are different ways of describing this pattern. The texts can be seen as a kind of autocommunication where the authority is both sender and receiver and where the desired outcome is a set of PV practices which can achieve change. From a more critical perspective, the invitation to discussion which the PV texts afford gives an opportunity for the staff to devote their time to discuss issues of values, while the governing of the authority is performed elsewhere, or at least placed outside of the immediate focus of civil servants. Our conclusion is that all these aspects are relevant components for the understanding of the functions of PV texts and practices.
• Based on the conclusion that the main purpose of PV texts is to communicate internally on goal achievement, they are purposefully designed. Specifically, visual and verbal components communicate their content rather vaguely and jointly opens (vague) topics of conversation for employees. At the same time the texts facilitate the construction of positive attitude and emphasizes the community of the workplace. When pictures occur in PV texts, they are always designed as propositions, never as demands, and they always have a positive atmosphere, sometimes inviting the gaze of the reader to strive upwards or above (metaphorically positive directions). Verbally, the pronoun ‘we’ is very frequent, as a signal of collective identity, and core value words are typically positive but vague, such as ‘openness’ and ‘courage’.
• A scientifically based understanding of this type of text, embedded in an organization, requires a theoretical frame taking both texts and practices into account. In our project, we have applied Critical Genre Analysis (CGA), and have been able to give important contributions to knowledge on the textual cultures of organizations. Further, we have contributed to the experience of applying CGA and enriched this theoretical framework by using the concepts of ‘affordance’ and ‘provenance’ as key analytical tools. We have repeatedly asked the questions “why is it purposeful for the Swedish public administration to design the texts in this manner?” and “what ‘provenance’ – cultural and historical – might these texts and their textual elements have?”.
The research results regarding the functions of PV texts generate new questions, first and foremost on the connection between PV practices and governance. Why, from the perspective of management, is it purposeful that the staff devote their time to discussions on PV texts? The question is related both to organizational changes in the public administration – as well as in the public sector as a whole – and to the first research question of this project, the question of what was there before platforms of values. If PV practices are vital for today’s public administration, what was there before that filled the same purpose? International research often claims that this type of policy texts co-occurs with organizational changes where important decisions are moved further away from the front-line workers. A mutual core of ideas, which PV texts may help to create, might be the putty which holds such an organisation together. To look further into these lines of thinking, one could consider a joint research venture including sociologists and/or political scientists, based on new institutional theory.
The research projected has concerned itself with specifically Swedish circumstances but is of course theoretically and methodically intertwined with international research. One of the publications, Björkvall (2020), is focused on the genre as part of an international culture of policytexts. In a scientific reference group for the project, professor Theo van Leeuwen has been an international participant, and both read and discussed drafts for papers. During 2017, we guested the Vienna University of Economics and Business, where we were spurred to argue for our theoretical position in CGA, as opposed to Critical Discourse Studies (CDS). Our time at that institution, and the meetings with professor Gerlinde Mautner, also inspired to the use of corpus methods in one of our papers (Nyström Höög 2020).
Research presentations, a selection:
Applied linguistics and professional practice (ALAPP) 2018, Cardiff, September 2018: “Opening the discussion on the meaning of values. Functions and features of a pivotal genre in Swedish public administration”
Vienna University of Economics and Business, November 2017: “‘Empty’ texts or the backbone of professional practice? Value-texts from public authorities in Sweden
Research seminar, Örebro School of Economics, October 2018: "The practice of stating the obvious? ’Value work’ in texts from public authorities"
School of public administration, Gothenburg University, September 2019: ”Vaghet i målstyrningens tjänst. Statliga myndigheters värdegrunder i kritiskt perspektiv” [vagueness for the purpose of goal fulfilment. A critical perspective on PV texts of public administration]
Publication list
Nyström Höög, Catharina, 2017: Texts at work. The construction of an ideal workplace in ‘platforms of values’. I: Discourse Studies – Ways and Crossroads, red. av K. Bros & G. Kowalski. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. S. 231–145.
(grön open access) diva2:1274178

Björkvall, 2018: Critical Genre Analysis of management texts in the public sector. I: Kritiska text- och diskursstudier, red. av C. Seiler Brylla m.fl. Södertörns högskola.

Nyström Höög & Björkvall, 2018: Keeping the discussion among civil servants alive. ‘Platform of values’ as an emerging genre within the public sector in Sweden. Scandinavian Journal of public administration 22(3), 2018.

Björkvall & Nyström Höög, 2019: Legitimation of value practices, value texts and core values at public authorities. Discourse & Communication 13(4), 2019.

Nyström Höög, Catharina, 2020: Framåt och uppåt. Om bildmotiv i svenska myndigheters värdegrunder. HumaNetten nr 44: 207-228.

Björkvall, Anders (under utg. 2020) The critical analysis of genre and social action. I: The Cambridge Handbook of Discourse Studies, red av A. De Fina & A. Georgakopoulou. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nyström Höög, Catharina (under utg. 2020) Core values in public administration. Tools for openness and democracy? CADAAD Journal.(Open Access tidskrift)

Björkvall & Nyström Höög (inskickad) Semiotic vagueness as a tool for goal fulfilment: ‘Platforms of values’ in Swedish public administration.
Grant administrator
Uppsala University
Reference number
SEK 3,297,000.00
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