‘Smear campaign’ at Innovation Norway

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Anita Krohn Traaseth, chief executive of Innovation Norway, believes “internal forces” are carrying out a “smear campaign” aimed at herself and “other new key people” at the government-owned business and development agency. Traaseth has also suggested that the alleged campaign is aimed at sabotaging the changes she has launched after taking over as boss last year.

Innovation Norway boss Anita Krohn Traaseth is caught in what she calls a "smear campaign" rooted in the word on the screen on the right, which means "change." PHOTO: Innovation Norway

Innovation Norway boss Anita Krohn Traaseth is caught in what she calls a “smear campaign” rooted in the word “endring” on the screen on the right, which means “change.” PHOTO: Innovation Norway

“We are experiencing a smear campaign against Innovation Norway and the process of change we are in the midst of,” Traaseth wrote in her blog over the weekend. “It’s natural to go after the leaders and key people who represent the process.”

Traaseth told business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday that she thinks her role is especially targeted, “because I’m carrying out major, real changes that not everybody likes.”

Traaseth, who formerly headed Hewlett Packard in Norway and has held a high profile in Norwegian business, was brought in to take over Innovation Norway after the new Conservatives-led government coalition won the last national election in 2013. Traaseth replaced longtime Innovation Norway boss Gunn Ovesen, whose sudden resignation just a few months after the election was “desired and initiated” by the state- and county agency’s own board. Ovesen, who had run the agency since its inception more than a decade earlier, was granted a lucrative severance package but didn’t hide how she didn’t want to leave.

Rumbling within the ranks
Five months later Traaseth was appointed as the new boss of Innovation Norway. After promising to listen and get “more insight” into the organization with more than 700 employees in all Norwegian countries and more than 30 countries around the world, Traaseth embarked on her restructuring program. She says herself that it has aimed to both cut staff and invest in the future.

There’s been rumbling within the ranks at Innovation Norway since last autumn, when the restructuring began. It was at least partly rooted in last year’s state budget, which boosted funding for “innovation and business development” by as much as NOK 864 million but demanded more efficient administration. Innovation Norway’s budget was cut by NOK 35 million, which was described as an order to “work differently and more efficiently.” That led to the unpopular staff cuts: Of the 51 workers whose jobs disappeared in the restructuring, 37 were laid off and 14 were transferred to different jobs.

Traaseth (center) with two of her ultimate bosses, Fisheries Minister Elisabeth Aspaker (left) and Trade Minister Monica Mæland. Their government paved the way for the recent changes at Innovation Norway. PHOTO: Innovation Norway

Traaseth (center) with two of her ultimate bosses, Fisheries Minister Elisabeth Aspaker (left) and Trade Minister Monica Mæland. Their government paved the way for the recent changes at Innovation Norway. PHOTO: Innovation Norway

The “smear campaign” that Traaseth now suspects is underway has allegedly led to a string of negative articles in Norwegian media in recent weeks, not least a story in newspaper Dagsavisen that reported “galloping” pay levels for management at Innovation Norway. A total of 136 employees at Innovation Norway were said to now earn NOK 800,000 (USD 93,000) or more a year, while 59 earned more than NOK 900,000 and 38 have salaries of more than NOK 1 millon. Traaseth herself earns NOK 2.5 million in the agency that’s owned by the state (51 percent) and Norwegian counties (49 percent).

Dagsavisen reported that the high pay levels were raising alarm internally, at a time when some employees were losing their jobs. There’s also been concern that the government wants the agency to concentrate more on business innovation and less on “district politics” aimed at providing economic support for outlying areas in Norway.

Traaseth claimed last week that no new staff cuts were planned as a result of changes in her top management team. She also denied there has been “galloping pay” at Innovation Norway, stressing that the numbers of management positions actually have been reduced despite her creation of a larger top management team.

Lawsuits threatened, results questioned
The wave of negative media coverage has continued, however, with news that one local union was filing lawsuits on behalf of six members who claim to have been wrongfully dismissed during staff cuts. Traaseth claimed at least three had been offered alternative positions. She denied the higher pay for her management recruits came at the expanse of staff cuts. The “internal document” that Dagsavisen cited in its articles is also published on Innovation Norway’s own website.

Innovation Norway’s management was also confronted by criticism of the agency’s claims about documented good results from its operations, which mostly foster entrepreneurs and profile Norwegian business and Norway as a tourism destination. State statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway) concluded that it was difficult to determine whether Innovation Norway created value for society that was greater than what its operations cost. Lars Peder Nordbakken, economist at the think tank Civita, told DN that it “wasn’t possible” to measure the results Innovation Norway claimed. The agency responded it “doesn’t cheat” with its data and stressed that SSB couldn’t find any divergence between its report on Innovation Norway and the agency’s own.

Claims of support
Traaseth has claimed she has widespread support from both employee representatives and the board of Innovation Norway, which also includes Norway’s tourism promotion organization Visit Norway. She warned the board in October about an ukultur (literally, a lack of culture, or simmering discontent) within Innovation Norway but claimed it was not representative of the organization itself. DN reported that she conceded, however, that it could “materialize in the form of negative and unprofessional customer service and unrest within some divisions and offices.”

Anne Marie Kittelsen, an employee representative, told DN there are legitimate reasons to warn of trouble within the organization, “but there are things that suggest this was done to weaken management and all of Innovation Norway.” She said morale was poor in some areas and had been for a while: “It’s possible there was also a problem before Anita Krohn Traaseth arrived, but that it has increased when someone comes with new brooms.”

The new board chairman of Innovation Norway, Per Otto Dyb, told DN that he praised the organization for “delivering very well at a time of great change.” He made it clear that it was management’s job to address the discontent, and he expected that would be done.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund