Sigrun Vågeng started her new job as head of Norway’s state welfare agency NAV this week, a post billed as one of the worst and most difficult jobs in the country. Given the rising unemployment rate in Norway, Vågeng likely will get more colleagues in addition to the 19,000 already under her wing.
“This is a job that many have claimed is an impossible job,” Vågeng said when her appointment was announced by Labour Minister Robert Eriksson a few weeks ago. “I see it as an incredibly demanding but exciting job.”
Her predecessor, Joakim Lystad, was fired after Vågeng herself had delivered a crushing report last spring about how NAV was simply not functioning properly. As a former head of the municipal employers’ group KS and a director of national employers’ organization NHO, Vågeng had been tapped to head a state commission formed to evaluate NAV after years of criticism.
She delivered the assessment after studying the huge, bureaucratic agency that was formed several years ago by a merger of the state’s unemployment agency and welfare agency. An earlier Conservative government had decided it would be most efficient to combine all functions from the payout of unemployment benefits to sick leave, welfare and pension payments.
Instead NAV clients and employees have complained ever since. The various agencies were not coordinated, lacked common information technology systems and were deemed as directly client-unfriendly. NAV has also lost huge sums of taxpayer money on various failed attempts to integrate its technology.
While some might see Vågeng, who turns 65 later this month, as an unlikely candidate to run NAV since she’d been so critical, both Eriksson and Vågeng herself see her insight and toughness as a plus. So does the NAV employees’ union and a state organization representing NAV clients. They have high expectations that if anyone can make NAV function as intended, it’s Vågeng.
Her top stated ambition is for NAV workers to spend far more time helping unemployed clients or those on disability to get back to work. Vågeng thinks NAV has been too quick to simply send out benefits instead of training or counseling out-of-work Norwegians back into the labour force. She also has lots of ideas for making NAV more efficient and motivating its employees. As the daughter of Salvation Army officers who moved frequently around Norway, Vågeng learned to work hard and be adaptable, values that can come in handy as leader of NAV
She seems to be warmly welcomed as a respected leader, with NAV employee groups publicly stating their support for her appointment. Vågeng herself, who recently became a grandmother, said she doesn’t fear the high public-profile or the storm that always seems to surround NAV, only the time her job will take at the expense of family and friends. She’ll be well-compensated, though. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that with a salary of NOK 1.85 million (USD 223,000), she’ll earn more than Prime Minister Erna Solberg and NOK 330,000 more than her predecessor. “I got the NAV director I wanted,” Eriksson said.