NEWS ANALYSIS: An uneasy peace seemed to settle over state statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway) during the Christmas holidays. It may not be a happy New Year, though, as the unprecedented drama over SSB’s management resurfaces at this week’s open hearing in Parliament. At stake is SSB’s independence, future and even the credibility of its numbers that traditionally tell Norway’s story.
SSB’s hundreds of number-crunchers, researchers and support personnel have been getting back to what they’re best at, releasing year-end studies in recent weeks on everything from economic development to pay levels and attitudes towards immigration. While it may not be business as usual after SSB’s turbulent autumn, the state agency’s reports are still relied upon to reflect Norwegian society, its governance and the economy on an objective and factual basis.
That’s important at a time when leaders of the Parliament’s disciplinary committee now see a need to grill both former SSB boss Christine Meyer and Finance Minister Siv Jensen after they butted heads last fall. Norway’s Finance Ministry officially “owns” SSB, and Jensen was thus widely viewed as Meyer’s boss. They’ve both been called in to testify about the power struggle that erupted between them over how SSB is run. They have very different versions of what happened after efforts began to “modernize” and restructure SSB.
Some former and current SSB directors will testify as well, along with the chief economists of Norway’s national employers’ organization NHO and its largest trade union confederation LO. They struck an unusual alliance amidst all the turbulence, and both highly praised Jensen when Meyer was forced to resign in November.
A matter of control
At issue is SSB’s independence from political control, even though the country’s finance minister is ultimately responsible for the bureau. It was Jensen who hired Meyer to run SSB in 2015, and Jensen was the one defending Meyer at the time in the face of criticism from the former chief economist at LO, Stein Reegård. He didn’t think Meyer, a business school professor who was leading Norway’s competition authority at the time, had a broad-enough background to lead SSB.
“I think it’s most unfortunate that Reegård has raised questions about the qualifications of such a competent female leader and academic like Meyer,” retorted Jensen to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) in June 2015. Jensen staunchly defended her choice of Meyer, who also happened to be the first woman to ever lead SSB. “Christine Meyer has a broad economic, academic and professional background. I’m confident she’s qualified to carry out the assignments that the chief executive position at SSB demands.”
Two years later, Jensen and Meyer were at odds themselves, and Meyer ended up resigning after months of internal conflict at SSB. At the height of an initial battle between Meyer and SSB’s immigration researcher Erling Holmøy, which erupted when she tried to transfer him out of the research department, opposition politicians in Parliament were demanding that Finance Minister Jensen “do something” to calm an uproar over Meyer’s reorganization of the venerable state agency. When Jensen called in Meyer for an explanation, Jensen wound up catching flak, too. Holmøy’s best-known specialty of calculating an account of what immigration costs Norway was welcomed by Jensen, whose party has always had restrictive immigration policy. Meyer, who supports immigration, found Holmøy’s immigration account questionable, claimed she had learned to live with it, but ultimately made it expendable by attempting to transfer Holmøy over his loud objections. The transfer was later put on hold as the dispute between Meyer and Jensen reached fever pitch.
Now former research director Kjetil Telle and top administrator Amund Holmsen have also been “invited” to answer questions at the parliamentary hearing over the trauma at SSB. News bureau NTB reported that Holmøy, however, was not on the list of those also asked to share their versions of what went wrong.
The parliamentary committee that’s called for the hearing, now led by former government minister Dag Terje Andersen of the Labour Party, seems mostly keen to sort out conflicting claims made by Jensen and Meyer. The two women’s various versions of how Jensen came to announce that she’d lost confidence in Meyer, and how Meyer refutes Jensen’s version of how the conflict between them developed, have confused many.
“The only way we can get to the bottom of this is through a hearing,” Andersen told reporters. “At a hearing we can collect all the versions.” And try to make sense of them, he added. Meyer has also complained that she was under undue pressure from both LO and the employers’ organization NHO, which is also holding its annual conference this week. Newspaper DN has reported that both LO and NHO fully supported Jensen in calling Meyer in on the carpet, while Meyer links Jensen’s change of heart about her to Jensen’s political interest for immigration statistics.
Internal conflicts still simmering
One thing is clear: The conflict over a long-planned reorganization of SSB did not end with Meyer’s resignation in November. She continued to publicly complain about Jensen’s alleged meddling and defend the need to reorganize and modernize SSB. She did not leave quietly, and is likely to come with more claims about SSB at the hearing. SSB’s own board of directors, meanwhile, has been harshly criticized for being far too passive during the conflict, and not backing Meyer when she needed them most.
Newspaper Aftenposten commented on Tuesday that “too many people want to manage SSB,” and suggested LO’s and NHO’s relatively new chief economists (Roger Bjørnstad and Øystein Dørum respectively) will be allowed to “set the scene” on Wednesday by being the first to testify. Meyer, meanwhile, was optimistic heading into the hearing, telling news bureau NTB that she looked forward to being able “to clarify my views” before the parliamentary committee. She’s expected to be asked whether she had reason to feel support for a restructuring of SSB that many others viewed as dramatic, or whether Jensen and her finance ministry actually had been skeptical towards the process all along. Committee leader Andersen told NTB this week that right now, it’s Meyer’s word against Jensen’s.
Caretaker management now
SSB remains, meanwhile, under caretaker management, with newspaper Aftenposten reporting that acting director Birger Vikøren is now trying “to maneuver in the storm between politics and research.” At the core of the conflict over SSB’s role and direction is internal disagreement within the research department over what kind of research or surveys should be carried out, how research should be conducted and who are the target groups for the research. There are many recipients involved, from the finance ministry to many other ministries, parliamentary groups, organizations tied to the labour force in Norway, the media and international organizations. All have a vested interest in how SSB is run and in the quality of the information it delivers.
So does the EU’s European Statistical Governance Advisory Board (ESGAB), which monitors statistical agencies in Europe. Aftenposten reported that ESGAB plans to review the situation at SSB at a meeting next week, after Meyer sent it a letter containing her views on the process that led to her resignation.
Many feel SSB’s so-called samfunnsoppdrag (social mission) needs to be better defined. Lots of political interests dole out assignments to SSB. Many feared Meyer wouldn’t deliver them. Aftenposten reported that also now, some researchers cheer for Jensen while other cheer for Meyer and want her back. SSB employees have been in conflict with each other, in addition to their leadership.
Vikøren, meanwhile, has frozen all changes already launched until a commission’s report on SSB has been out to hearing itself. “My hope,” he told Aftenposten, “is that things will calm down eventually.”