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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Confidence wanes in the public sector

Another opposition party in Parliament called on Monday for the resignation of the government minister in charge of embattled state welfare agency NAV. It’s the latest example of how Norway’s important reliance on mutual confidence between the people and the public sector is increasingly under pressure.

Norway’s government and parliament face a decline in public confidence, following a wave of recent scandals involving both politicians and public institutions. PHOTO: Stortinget/Hans Kristian Thorbjørnsen

Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left party (SV), voted in favour of a lack of confidence proposal against Anniken Hauglie of the Conservative Party. The move was based on how Hauglie has responded to one of the biggest public sector scandals to ever hit Norway, involving NAV’s wrongful prosecutions of Norwegians for welfare fraud.

Lybakken’s declaration that SV’s delegation in Parliament no longer has confidence in Hauglie follows a similar declaration by the Reds party. She “couldn’t offer good answers” at last week’s parliamentary hearing into the NAV scandal, Lysbakken told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Monday morning. “It’s now clear that (Hauglie’s ministry) could and should have notified the state prosecutor’s office earlier,” Lysbakken said, “and if they’d done that, a string of travesties of justice could have been avoided.”

Both SV’s and the Reds’ lack of confidence in Hauglie could be viewed simply as political reaction by opposition parties eager to bring down the government. In this case, however, they point to a bigger problem: Norway has been hit by an unprecedented number of political and administrative scandals over the past few years that collectively threaten to undermine public confidence in the country’s politicians, the public sector in general and not least its exalted welfare state.

Government minister Anniken Hauglie, who has political responsibility for the NAV scandal, faces a lack of confidence vote in Parliament. She’s likely to survive it, however, since the government holds a majority in the national assembly. PHOTO: Arbeids- og sosialdepartementet

In addition to the scandal at NAV, Norwegians have also been shaken by how their child welfare authorities at Barnevernet have lost cases in international courts, and not least by fraud and sexual misconduct among elected officials from a wide range of parties. MPs have been charged and even convicted for cheating on their travel expenses, hiring family members to serve them at public expense and sexually harrassing both staff and party fellows.

There have also been other cases of abuse of power at the state and local levels, with one former county governor convicted and sentenced to jail for soliciting sexual favours from young refugees. An alleged lack of competence led not only to the NAV scandal but also, at the defense ministry, to the scrapping of one of Norway’s five frigates following its collision with an oil tanker. Another branch of the defense department was embarrassed by a spying scandal that required an international effort to get a retired border inspector released from a Moscow jail.

A lack of maintenance by local authorities led to drinking water contamination not far from Bergen, while air ambulances all over Northern Norway were grounded late last year after a private operator failed to deliver on the public contract it had won. In the autumn it emerged that Norwegian consumers have been “cheated for years” to pay high grocery prices because of the state’s failure to regulate dominant wholesalers and retailers.

King Harald cited the importance of tillit (confidence) in his annual address to the nation on New Year’s Eve. Both he and the prime minister acknowledged that public confidence in Norwegian officials and institutions  is at risk. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The list goes on, prompting both King Harald and Prime Minister Erna Solberg to stress how important it is to maintain Norwegians’ historic tillit (confidence) in their public officials and institutions, and vice versa. “Norwegian society is built on confidence,” King Harald said during his traditional address to the nation on New Year’s Eve. “We have created a public system in which everyone contributes in line with their abilities to a fellowship that shall best serve the country’s and the people’s interests, in which we share burdens and benefits … and carry each other through various phases of life. It’s all about how we rely on one another and wish one another well. We need to take good care of this.”

Prime Minister Erna Solberg was among those called in for questioning at the parliament’s hearings on the NAV scandal. She has said she can understand why public confidence is under pressure. PHOTO: Stortinget

While the monarch warned that public confidence can be fragile, Solberg also stressed the importance of “the confidence we have in one another.” She acknowledged how the trouble at NAV “makes many raise questions about the confidence we have in the public sector. I understand that. It’s difficult to understand how such serious mistakes could be made over such a long period and affect so many people.”

Solberg apologized once again on behalf of her government, claimed she and her fellow ministers are now “doing everything we can to correct the injustices that have occurred … to learn from this … to avoid this ever happening again.” She stressed that “confidence in the public sector and in the courts, that laws and regulations must be intepreted correctly, is fundamental for our society.” She claimed and public officials “must work hard” to regain public confidence, and deserve it.

Yet minister likely to survive
There’s little indication, however, that Solberg will replace Hauglie as her government’s minister in charge of NAV. Solberg and other members of her Conservative Party all back Hauglie and claim she should remain in her post to “clean up” after the scandal. “Taking responsibility doesn’t mean you should just quit,” Svein Harberg, the party’s representative on the Parliament’s disciplinary committee told NRK on Monday. “I think she (Hauglie) is now so much on the offensive that it’s important she stays on.”

Solberg’s government partners from the Progress, Liberal and Christian Democrats parties all seem to support Hauglie as well, at least for now. And since they collectively hold a majority in Parliament, even a united opposition couldn’t force Hauglie’s resignation.

All, however, are aware of the public’s waning confidence that was documented in a recent survey by state agency Difi that measures the public’s perception of MPs. Compared to other countries, confidence remains relatively high overall, but slipped during the past year.

“I have lost my strong faith in Norwegian public management,” noted commentator Andreas Slettholm in newspaper Aftenposten recently, and a string of NAV victims have said the same. Slettholm also cited unusually “high conflict levels” among the government parties as well, and a study that fundamental competence in many areas “is not good enough.” Public confidence “is fragile capital,” Slettholm wrote, also in Norway. Berglund



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