SSB boss resigns after bureau battles

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The embattled boss of Norway’s state statistics bureau SSB, Christine Meyer, has called it quits after being called on the carpet this week by  Finance Minister Siv Jensen. Meyer reportedly felt she lacked support from the ministry over a proposed reorganization at SSB that’s set off a storm of protests.

Christine Meyer faces another meeting with Finance Minister Siv Jensen at the end of the week. PHOTO: SSB

SSB’s several hundred employees have been called into a meeting on Friday that was supposed to follow Meyer’s third meeting this week with Finance Minister Jensen. State broadcaster NRK had reported earlier on Thursday that the meeting would explain what measures would now be proposed to end the uproar at and around SSB. A meeting with SSB’s management and its beleaguered research division, which was being all but gutted in the reorganization, was also announced, followed by the general meeting later in the day.

Now newspaper Aftenposten has obtained confirmation that Meyer will no long be the boss of SSB. It’s likely the entire reorganization will be put on ice pending results of a state commission’s report on its own evaluation of how the venerable institution functions as it chronicles Norway’s economy and social structure.

Meyer’s resignation after just two years on the job is the latest development in a turbulent year at SSB that also sparked concerns from politicians, labour and employer organizations and many others. SSB is and has always been an extremely important institution in Norway, with some contending that it “writes Norway’s history” on an ongoing basis.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) had editorialized on Thursday that Meyer deserves credit for having been open about changes looming ahead for SSB as she was charged with modernizing and guiding it into the digital future. DN also noted that Jensen’s finance ministry has been well-aware that a new strategy and reorganization loomed as well. “Unless Meyer has acted in clear opposition to the ministry, Jensen’s reaction can look like a boss (for Meyer) who withdraws support when there’s too much noise and opposition. That’s not good leadership either,” DN intoned.

‘Good meeting’ may have turned bad
Meyer had said she “had a good meeting” with Jensen on Wednesday. “We discussed ways of calming things down over the reorganization process in SSB,” she said. “The situation is still complicated and we need more time. I look forward to discuss this further at a new meeting with the finance minister on Friday.”

They were still scheduled to meet at 9am Friday. Some critics have contended that all the opposition to the reorganization of SSB has put its reputation and credibility at stake, not least after Meyer confirmed in mid-October that 25 researchers would be transferred out of the research division. They included Erling Holmøy, a veteran researcher who’s best known for creating Norway’s so-called “immigration account,” which calculates what immigration costs the country.

Meyer, who supports immigration, has denied claims that she wanted to get rid of the immigration account that she was skeptical about when she took over at SSB in 2015. She has said, however, that she has feared the accounting of costs tied to immigration would stigmatize immigrants.

Denies any political agenda
She has also been forced to repeatedly reject suggestions that the entire reorganization of SSB is politically motivated. “I think it’s difficult to live with such accusations and have felt a need to be clear that I am a professional leader,” Meyer told state broadcaster NRK last week. “I would never, never go in and put political restraints on what SSB does, in any manner whatsoever.”

Then came accusations that Meyer also intentionally delayed a new report on what the current pace of immigration will mean for Norway by the end of this century. It reportedly was completed in May but only recently released. Meyer denies she withheld its release for political reasons.

The report projects that Norway’s population will pass 8.5 million right after the year 2100. The portion of the population with background from outside the European Economic Area, North America, Australia and New Zealand is expected to steadily increase from 10 percent in 2016 to 29 percent by 2100. The portion of children born in Norway with at least one Norwegian-born parent is expected to decline from 83 to 64 percent in the same period.

Disposable income among those living in Norway is also projected to decline, with real income per resident reduced by NOK 72,000 a year by 2100. Immigration is also expected to contribute towards weaking public finances, mostly because the state’s returns on its sovereign wealth fund known as the Oil Fund must be shared by more residents.

SSB’s reputation at stake
Even the suggestions that Meyer tried to suppress such research added to the uproar at SSB and set off protests from economists at both Norway’s largest trade union federation (LO) and its national employers’ association (NHO). Several Members of Parliament have expressed concerns as well, not least MPs from opposition parties who claim they’re now worried about SSB’s reputation, independence and integrity. Finance Minister Jensen’s own Progress Party joined the chorus of critics as well, after its parliamentary delegation gave up trying to get SSB to compile statistics on crime among asylum seekers and refugees based on what countries they come from.

Meyer’s proposed reorganization of SSB also faced threatened lawsuits from labour organizations representing SSB employees. Since a government commission is already due to evaluate SSB’s operations, its leader told DN over the weekend that Meyer should have waited to launch the reorganization. Others also thought it was premature.

Still others defend Meyer and her attempts to both modernize and digitalize SSB. While newspaper Dagsavisen called for SSB to be preserved as the chronicler of Norway’s history it the country’s “best supplier of public statistics, important community analysis and reports,” newspaper Aftenposten wrote that SSB needs to undergo some change. Meyer is meeting lots of opposition, the paper editorialized, but contended that was no basis to demand her resignation. It’s unclear whether Meyer is resigning voluntarily. Meyer’s and SSB’s fate is largely in the hands of Jensen, who’s ultimately faced with restoring confidence in SSB and order.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund