Battle flares over control of SSB

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Finance Minister Siv Jensen and the woman Jensen hired to run state statistics bureau SSB, Christine Meyer, squared off at a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday. Meyer claimed Jensen forced her out of SSB last fall, in an illegal move to exert political control over SSB, while Jensen claimed Meyer had ignored several warnings about making too many changes at SSB, too quickly.

Finance Minister Siv Jensen (center right) was among those testifying at this week’s hearing on SSB, where she defended how she handled a dramatic political conflict over how the statistics agency was being reorganized. PHOTO: Stortinget

Jensen testified that “we (her finance ministry, which officially owns SSB) had warned against changes … several times” that can preempt advice from a special commission due to make its own recommendations for SSB later this year. “We have specified that SSB must secure the quality of (the statistics) it supplies to the Parliament and the ministries, and that the work with models must not be weakend as a result of any reorganization,” Jensen testified.

“Last fall Meyer nonethless moved forward with what we had warned against,” Jensen said. “Central players (most notably the chief economists at both Norway’s trade union confederation LO and employers’ organization NHO) withdrew their confidence in Meyer as a leader. We received massive criticism and questions from various players within business, from economists, from (SSB) employees, from the press and also from the Parliament.”

Jensen said that’s what prompted her to call Meyer in for a meeting. Jensen stressed that she wanted to find a solution. “But during my conversations with her, I unfortunately became uneasy,” Jensen testified. “I had the impression that she (Meyer) didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation.”

Meyer still wanted to transfer dozens of researchers, including immigration expert Erling Holmøy, from the research division to the statistics division. Jensen ultimately expressed a lack of confidence in Meyer, who resigned under pressure.

Former SSB director Christine Meyer, testifying at the hearing over the conflict that resulted in her resignation under fire. She claims she’s a victim of Finance Minister Siv Jensen’s attempt to seize political control of the statistics bureau. PHOTO NRK screen grab

Meyer has a completely different version of events, claiming she was carrying out a mandate to modernize and restructure SSB. She objects to Jensen’s claims that she received several warnings to slow down or drop the restructuring plan she began to put in motion early last year. “In reality, the finance minister forced me to resign, without consideration to the laws and regulations that apply for ending employment in the state,” Meyer testified at the hearing called by the Parliament’s disciplinary committee. It’s trying to get to the bottom of the management conflict over SSB.

Meyer directly attacked how Jensen handled the conflict. Meyer testified that she was most concerned over three things: SSB’s professional independence, restructuring of state operations, and job protection and due process for state leaders.

“The most serious is that doubt has now arisen over how independent the SSB director can be, and over how strong the position really is,” Meyer said. She accused Jensen of launching a new practice that exerted political control over a statistics bureau that’s supposed to be independent.

Jensen, however, won support from both the top economists at LO and NHO, arguably two of Norway’s most powerful institutions in the labour market. “I’m unsure whether Meyer has understood how important SSB’s role in society is,” said NHO’s chief economist, Øystein Dørum. NHO is often at odds with LO, but LO’s chief economist had little if any support for Meyer either. Roger Bjørnstad confirmed that Meyer had been warned several times against moving forward with her reorganization of SSB.

The open hearing also included testimony from top officials in the finance ministry, representatives of employees at SSB, the leader and deputy leader of SSB’s board and others. The Members of Parliament asking questions and registering the testimony will later draw their own conclusion that’s likely to determine how SSB will continue to function pending the recommendations of the commission due later in the year.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund