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Defense partying catches flak

Rooms at Oslo’s Grand Hotel and lavish social gatherings with free-flowing drinks: State officials and employees in charge of defense ministry real estate had to come to their own defense on Wednesday, after newspaper Aftenposten published details about allegedly frequent partying at taxpayer expense. News of the millions spent on accommodation, travel, entertainment and festive meals comes at time of complaints over poor defense property maintenance despite increased staffing.

Oslo's Grand Hotel is one of the Norwegian capital's finest and traditionally hosts the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize every year. PHOTO:
Oslo’s Grand Hotel is one of the Norwegian capital’s finest and traditionally hosts the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize every year. PHOTO:

The state agency under fire is called Forsvarsbygg. It functions within the Defense Ministry (Forsvarsdepartementet) and ranks as Norway’s largest property manager with responsibility for 13,000 state-owned buildings comprising 4.3 million square meters of space. Forsvarsbygg itself says it manages 18,000 properties in 365 municipalities nationwide, the biggest being the Rena Leir military base in Hedmark and Setermoen in Troms. It also builds, operates and sells real estate for the defense establishment.

Many historic properties in Norway such as the landmark Akershus Fortress and Castle in Oslo are ultimately under Forsvarsbygg’s purview, but the agency is also in charge of all property used by the defense ministry and military units, and, according to Aftenposten, has a controversial role internally. It rents out the properties to their actual users within the defense department, a practice meant to boost efficiency and make users more conscious of the space they’re using. Instead, defense “tenants” have complained over a lack of maintenance and Forsvarbygg’s own efficiency, because it’s viewed as too large and bureaucratic.

Even Norway’s state auditor Riksrevisjonen has complained that maintenance is poor and that the physical condition of property for which Forsvarsbygg is responsible had “negative development” from 2004 to 2010. Its accounting procedures have also been criticized.

The Akershus complex in Oslo is among the historic military properties for which Forsvarsbygg is ultimately responsible. It has had some major maintenance in recent years. PHOTO: Forsvaret
The Akershus complex in Oslo is among the historic military properties for which Forsvarsbygg is ultimately responsible. It has had some major maintenance in recent years. PHOTO: Forsvaret

Meanwhile, Aftenposten reported that Forsvarsbygg has spent more than NOK 4 million (nearly USD 700,000) on annual staff parties since 2007. Last month, for example, Forsvarsbygg covered travel expenses to Oslo for 170 top employees, rented rooms for all of them at Oslo’s Grand Hotel and arranged transport to Wallmanns Salonger for dinner and entertainment that included a variety of internal prizes for the workers on the public payroll.

Earlier parties, which the state agency itself refers to at its “answer to the Oscar ceremonies,” have included rooms at many of Oslo’s best hotels like the Bristol and Radisson Plaza. The budget for the recent party at Wallmanns Salonger  was estimated at NOK 290,000 alone. Among expenses over the years detailed by Aftenposten were NOK 26,913 for plaques for the prizewinners, NOK 20,000 for fireworks in 2008, NOK 148,000 for travel to the parties in 2012 and NOK 54,000 for dancers from an Oslo dancing school in 2010.

The NOK 4 million used on the big annual “Oscar” parties comes in addition to other social events for Forsvarsbygg’s employees such as Christmas parties and summer gatherings, reported Aftenposten.

Meant to ‘improve service’
Asked why Forsvarsbygg feels it’s necessary to sponsor parties for state workers, where calls for bids have informed hotels that the agency expects something “out of the ordinary,” communications director Rina Brunsell-Harsvik claimed they were a “strategic measure for getting better at service for our customers” within the defense establishment. Asked whether they had become better, Brunsell-Harsvik said service levels hadn’t been measured, “but we carry out surveys among our workers and we score highly. We also get feedback from folks returning from the arrangements, who say they are very motivated.”

As for the perceived need for a state agency to have its “own answer to the Oscars,” she said: “We arrange this to be better at service, and we hold ourselves within the state’s rules for entertainment.” Brunsell-Harsvik also said Forsvarsbygg hadn’t received any criticism from the state auditor for 2011.

“We can understand that there is some impatience regarding (property) maintenance, and we agree that the situation isn’t as good as we’d like,” Brunsell-Harsvik told Aftenposten. “We use NOK 1.5 billion on maintenance every year and work systematically to make improvements together with the defense department. At the same time, it’s important to become better at service … to motivate our employees.”

‘Taking liberties’
Opposition politicians in Parliament erupted with criticism over reports of the spending on partying, despite it being a small percentage of overall spending. “This shows a lack of understanding for what kind of signals are being sent out,” Jan Arild Ellingsen of the Progress Party, which traditionally supports a strong defense, told Aftenposten. “My understanding is that the state should entertain modestly, but this is about as far from that as you can get. We can’t accept certain parts of state management taking liberties like this.”

Ellingsen, who is a member of the parliament’s foreign relations and defense committee, said he would take up the issue with Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen, from the ruling Labour Party, “as soon as possible.”

Ivar Kristiansen, the Conservative Party’s spokesman on defense issues, said the revelations of partying at Forsvarsbygg hurt the reputation of the defense establishment.

“There’s great frustration with Forsvarsbygg and economic pressure within the entire sector,” Kristiansen told Aftenposten. “We even hear of recruits who can’t train. These are millions that could have been used much better. The defense budget isn’t supposed to be spent on hotels and restaurants on Karl Johan (a reference to Oslo’s main boulevard).”

The ministry itself wrote in an e-mail that it couldn’t see that the money spent on Forsvarsbygg’s parties violated state rules and that it therefore “wasn’t natural” for the ministry’s political leadership (Strøm-Erichsen) to comment.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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