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Monday, July 22, 2024

Bureaucrat hailed for exposing and questioning his own bureaucracy

A divisional director in Norway’s Ministry of Culture has been hailed by outsiders as being very brave, for daring to air his thoughts on how the ministry bureaucracy functions – or doesn’t. His frank and almost brutally straightforward commentary in one of Norway’s biggest newspapers late last week has sparked lots of reaction, except from his own employer.

Eivind Tesaker later told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he’d been thinking about how things work in his own ministry for quite a while and finally decided to share his thoughts.  NRK had invited him in to elaborate on them during its nightly national newscast Dagsrevy, after his column appeared in newspaper Aftenposten.

Fear prevents action
Tesaker basically believes that constant striving for consensus among ministry workers and fear of criticism mean that it’s taking more and more time to actually get anything done. Any real action can be delayed for years, sometimes infinitely, because no one is willing to make a decision and accept the consequences of it.

“In my workplace,” Tesaker wrote often throughout his commentary in a repetitive style that was extraordinarily effective for its simplicity, “there are often six or seven levels of decision-making, from case worker up to government minister. It’s been that way for a long time. What’s new is that all work shall also move laterally through the various divisions and ministries. Instead of talking to one another in the corridor or sending an e-mail about a case that’s on its way up through the system, there shall be held meetings, we shall all cooperate and create consensus as well. The problem is that it easily becomes more important to gain consensus than to reach a decision.”

Endless reports
Tesaker wrote how, in his workplace, it’s become much more important to write reports on issues and cases. Reports must be sent internally and to other ministries, to the authorities and to international organizations. “We write reports on our plans, our activity calendars, on risk analysis and to, among others, the State Auditor General (Riksrevisjonen),” Tesaker wrote. “The reports shall document what we have done and haven’t done, so that the various control posts along the way can include the data in their own program as a basis for more reporting and further control.”

Tesaker’s column was as amusing as it was detailed, offering rare insight into the daily lives of top state bureaucrats. He rattled off a long list of statistics which boil down to how his ministry sent an average of 5.6 law proposals and 4.1 reports to the parliament every year from 2001 to 2008. “Since 2009, we have sent 1.7 proposed laws and one report to parliament,” he wrote, “even though many duties have been eliminated and we have more employees (137 last year compared to 122 in 2001).”

Goals and courses
He described all the goals he and his colleagues are supposed to meet, from being at the forefront of new technology to mastering new means of forming strategy and policies, how to write documents for government ministers, how to measure results, how to be a better colleague, or how to conduct personnel meetings. The 137 employees in his division therefore also spend a lot of time attending courses. Departmental reorganization and new leadership techniques are frequently imposed. “‘I still have great faith in this,’ our leaders can say, in case anyone is uneasy that there’s been too much reorganization and too little action,” Tesaker wrote, adding that “a preliminary summary of the current organizational development can be found in a 64-page report published by the Ministry of Culture.”

Most importantly, Tesaker wrote that “fear of criticism from your boss, from the minister, the media, the state auditor, EU authorities in Brussels, other ministries or involved” means that “more and more cases take more and more time or get shelved.”

Relevant, but met with silence
Tesaker told NRK and other media that he thought it was relevant to share his views on the inner workings of his ministry, given the criticism directed at the government and its bureaucracy by the government-appointed commission studying the emergency response to last year’s terrorist attacks in Norway. It cited many things that went wrong, among them a lack of action on critical security issues like why the main street running through the government complex was never blocked off, or why staffing shortages hadn’t been addressed. Fortunately, Tesaker noted, the time-consuming practices of his own department don’t have much to do with national security. He can only speculate on whether the same practices exist in other ministries, and whether that can help explain the lack of action.

While his commentary caught attention in most major media outlets in Norway, and high praise from professors and leadership experts and former government minister Erik Solheim, there’s been little if any reaction from the top officials at the Ministry of Culture or from Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg himself, who’s been urging a “change of culture” within the bureaucracy and could be expected to praise Tesaker as well.

Instead, Tesaker has been met mostly with silence. Neither Stoltenberg nor Anniken Huitfeldt, who perhaps coincidentally was replaced as Minister of Culture the day after Tesaker’s column appeared, would comment. Kristin Berge, the top bureaucrat in the ministry (departementsråd) said only that she “didn’t recognize” Tesaker’s views and that she didn’t want to conduct a debate with an employee through the media.

Berge claimed in a text message to Aftenposten that she thinks her subordinates feel they can come to her with their thoughts and be assured “that it’s internally, within the ministry, that we carry on such discussions.” Tesaker, who said he has brought up his concerns to his superiors on earlier occasions without seeing any change, said he had received only one message from his bosses:

“They advised that it was important that I stress that what I wrote was my own opinion and not the ministry’s official view. That’s the only thing I’ve heard back.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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