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Why Swedes are okay with paying taxes

There is something odd about the Swedish Tax Agency. A whopping 83 per cent of Swedes say they have confidence in the government agency, despite Sweden’s famously high income taxes. From the cradle to the grave, the Swedish Tax Agency plays an important part in every Swede’s life. Here’s why.

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The Swedish Tax Agency – with an open door, most of the time.

Photo: Kenny Bengtsson/Scanpix

A highly trusted public body

Everyone knows that Swedes pay a lot of tax; Sweden is as noted for its high personal taxes as it is for IKEA furniture and ABBA. Given that tax is a dirty word for many people around the world, you might expect that the government agency that grabs about a third of the average hard-working Swede’s pay packet would be public enemy No 1.

But the truth couldn’t be more different. Skatteverket, the Swedish Tax Agency, is popular. In fact, it is really popular, with poll after poll showing that it is trusted and respected. A 2013 survey concluded that the Tax Agency has the second-best reputation – beaten only by the Swedish Consumer Agency – of 26 major Swedish public bodies, scoring highly for its customer service and for ‘contributing positively to society’.

‘You don’t have to like taxes, but most people seem confident that things are done fairly’, says Toivo Sjörén of market research institute TNS Sifo, which conducted the poll (link in Swedish).

By contrast its American equivalent, the Internal Revenue Service, is one of the least popular federal agencies in the United States, according to a 2013 poll.

So how has the Swedish Tax Agency managed to pull off what seems like the ultimate confidence trick – taking people’s money but leaving most of them grateful and smiling?

From cradle to grave – literally

First, it should be pointed out that the Tax Agency does more than just collect tax. As the authority responsible for population registration (folkbokföring), it keeps track of many important events in every Swede’s life.

When a baby is born, the agency registers the birth and sends out a personal identity number. It is the Tax Agency to whom the parents then apply to register the baby’s name; yes, the Tax Agency has the power to reject their choice of name – as parents who have wanted to call their children Sickboy, Superman, Dotcom and Krank found the hard way.

When you decide to get married, between ‘will you marry me?’ and ‘I do’, there is the not-particularly-romantic matter of applying to the Tax Agency for an ‘investigation of impediments to marriage’ to prove you are eligible to tie the knot. It’s probably best not to bring this up before you pop the question.

Each time you move, you have to notify the Tax Agency of your new address within a week. And, inevitably, even in death you will be requiring its services. The doctor who declares you dead informs the Tax Agency, and your grieving relatives will need to get the ‘cremation or burial’ certificate required for the funeral from the agency before they can say their final goodbyes.

All of which seems fine to most Swedes. Their Big Brother has good intentions, and they know it. But among many, the Tax Agency’s popularity runs even deeper than that.

For many in Sweden, submitting the income tax return only involves a couple of smartphone taps.

Photo: Ivan Arvsäter/Skatteverket

In tax we trust

A good starting point for the Tax Agency’s consistently high approval ratings is the fact that many Swedes are not naturally anti-tax. In fact, unlike in some countries where paying tax is seen as something negative, many Swedes tolerate – and even welcome – high taxes. And a growing number would accept even higher taxes to pay for a largely fair and well-functioning society, with decent public services and a universal safety net.

In fact, the Swedish word for tax – skatt – has another meaning: treasure. There can’t be many languages in which the word for tax has such positive connotations.

Besides the generally positive view towards taxes, another reason for the Tax Agency’s popularity is its accessibility and customer-friendliness. Many errands can be done electronically, which suits tech-savvy Swedes. For example, you can submit your income tax return online, by app, phone or even text message.

Those 3.6 million people who did so in 2013 were rewarded by getting their tax refunds early (link in Swedish). They shared more than SEK 30 billion in total, and received them just in time to spend them on pickled herring and schnapps for one of the highpoints of the Swedish calendar, Midsummer.

Is Sweden as over-taxed as they say? This CNN feature provides another perspective.

Is Sweden as over-taxed as they say? This CNN feature provides another perspective.

Things actually work

The Tax Agency is also easy to deal with because you often don’t have to take the initiative. When something happens that falls under its remit, it knows about it, and the forms you need to sign arrive in the post. So your tax return shows up in your mailbox each year already filled in.

And when you have a baby, the hospital informs the authority, which registers the birth and sends out the personal identity number. So you can focus on the important business of midnight feeds and dirty nappies.

Sick and tired of dealing with nameless drones in call centres? Letters from the Tax Agency often give the name and direct phone number of the employee dealing with your case, leading to quick and personal service.

‘The Tax Agency has managed to identify pretty precisely what people need and are interested in’, said political scientist Sanna Johannson, from Gothenburg University, in an article in the news magazine Fokus.

And so the agency remains that rarest of things: a beloved collector of taxes. Which is just as well, considering that you can’t avoid it…

Last updated: 25 March 2014

David Wiles

David Wiles

David Wiles is a British journalist living in Ystad in the south of Sweden.