NEWS ANALYSIS: Nine months after Norway was clobbered by its biggest welfare scandal of all time, not a single top bureaucrat or politician is being held accountable. Labour Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen is promising improvements and even declaring that it’s now his responsibility to “clean up,” but that doesn’t satisfy legal experts or victims who were wrongly branded as welfare cheats.
Isaksen detailed this week how his ministry, in charge of labour and social welfare issues, will follow up the damning conclusions of a state-commissioned investigation into the NAV scandal. The commission put most of the blame on an utter breakdown of many aspects of the benefits system. Isaksen noted how the illegal restrictions on the export of welfare benefits date back to 1994, or at least to 2012, “but it’s regardless my responsibility as minister now to clean up.” He’s only held the post since January and thus can’t be held accountable for the actual mistakes made over many years.
“The formulation of a systemic breakdown (in how welfare rules were intepreted) creates an undeniable feeling that accountability is all but being pulverized,” wrote lawyer and legal director for the Oslo-based think tank Civita, Torstein Ulserød, in a commentary in newspaper Aftenposten this week. He and many others think lots of officials at state welfare agency NAV, at the ministry overseeing it and within the public prosecution- and courts system are getting off much too easily.
‘The Blind Zone’
Ulserød was referring to the main conclusion of a government-appointed commission charged with investigating NAV scandal. Its recently revealed report, entitled Blindsonen (The Blind Zone), blamed systemsvikt (literally, systemic weakness) over the past 26 years within the government ministry in charge of labour and welfare issues, within the judicial system and, not least, within NAV itself.
Isaksen himself acknowledged this week how “everyone” who was supposed to know how welfare benefits can be dispensed made mistakes. “No one asked the necessary questions,” Isaksen wrote in a commentary of his own. Raising questions and getting answers would have revealed long ago how rules applying to receipt of benefits abroad were being misinterpreted and misapplied. Since Norway is part of the EU’s European Economic Area (EEA), Norwegians are allowed to travel to other EEA countries and still receive sick pay or some unemployment benefits. NAV didn’t realize, or want to realize, that, and prosecuted those who collected NAV-administered payments while physically present in another EEA-member country.
No consequences for those in charge
At least 4,100 NAV “clients” were denied such benefits after they’d traveled to another EEA country. Many were ordered to repay benefits they were alleged to have illegally received, plunging them into debt. Others were also fined and even prosecuted and jailed for having received benefits while physically present in a fellow EEA-member country.
While all now agree that they’ve suffered dramatically for all the bureaucratic errors over the years, no one responsible or in a top position of authority is suffering any punitive consequences. Ulserød noted that only one person, NAV’s former director of benefits Kjersti Monland, resigned shortly after the scandal hit the headlines last fall. Her head was widely expected to be the first to roll at NAV, but Monland wasn’t saddled with responsibility for NAV’s mistakes and she was merely transferred to another job within NAV.
NAV’s chief at the time, Sigrun Vågeng, even publicly claimed she was glad Monland would “continue to use her competence and capacity” to help “develop the organization.” Today, Ulserød noted, Monland has the title of “senior adviser” at roughly the same pay she had before the NAV scandal broke.
Vågeng herself, meanwhile, retired two months early and left NAV just before the summer holidays began. Prime Minister Erna Solberg replaced her labour minister in charge at the time, Anniken Hauglie, with Isaksen in January, just before Parliament threatened a vote of lack of confidence in Hauglie. That saved Hauglie, who now leads Norway’s oil and gas lobbying organization, from further public embarrassment. Neither Vågeng nor Hauglie were thus present when results of the investigation about what went wrong on their watch were presented earlier this month.
Even Norway’s riksadvokat (Director General of Public Prosecutions), Tor-Aksel Busch, retired just as the NAV scandal was breaking last fall. The leader of the investigatory commission, law professor Finn Arnesen, also claimed it was “unimportant what single individuals did or didn’t do at any given time” during their years of wrongful practice dating back to 1994, when Norway first became a member of the EEA. Newspaper Klassekampen reported how Arnesen claimed the question of who was ultimately responsible was “not part part of our mandate. We haven’t even evaluated it.”
Long list of mistakes
The commission instead concentrated on what went wrong, and its list was long. “What we found was a worrisome lack of communication both about the regulations and what they meant, and how the regulations were carried out,” Arnesen said at the press conference held when the commission’s report was released.
Isaksen is now promising to “clean up” by refunding benefits owed to victims of the scandal (around NOK 56 million has already been paid out, he noted) and improving communication with victims. He also vows to boost “judicial competence” within NAV and the ministry, clarify regulations and how they apply, improve competence about how EEA rules apply in Norway, and nurture a new “culture” within NAV “to better understand the link between Norwegian and international law.” The ministry and NAV also need to better communicate with each other, he said. “These mistakes must not be made again,” Isaksen stated this week.
Many still aren’t satisfied and don’t feel justice is being served. Not only are all former labour ministers from various political parties being let off the hook, so is everyone within NAV and the judicial system that “blindly” allowed the mis-interpretation of regulations to carry on until 2017, when some new rulings were handed down that ultimately raised questions. There was no willingness to question standard, if illegal, practice earlier, suggests commentator Lars West Johnsen in newspaper Dagsavisen: “At one point along the way, there must have developed a desire to close their eyes to the law, and a culture to allow that.” That prompts questions over whether such a culture has developed in other areas of NAV also.
Researcher Hilde Fiva Buzungu of Oslo Metropolitan University already has seen examples involving NAV’s erratic use of interpreters involving clients who haven’t mastered the Norwegian language. A state agency in charge of promoting integration and diversity in Norway, IMDi, revealed inadequate use of interpreters in addressing NAV clients’ rights to information despite language barriers. That led to NAV formulating guidelines calling for intepreters to be part of the benefits system, but Buzungu and her colleagues have found that none of her “informants” within NAV knew whether the rules were followed. “There was no systematic evaluations for the use of interpreters … or routines for checking an interpreter’s qualifications,” she wrote in Dagsavisen last week.
‘Sticking their heads in the sand’
Morten Wetland, a former state secretary who worked for 12 years in the prime minister’s office, wrote in Aftenposten on Wednesday that he simply can’t believe the leadership at NAV was utterly unaware of how EEA rules apply in Norway. He cited the investigation’s “absence of discussion” within NAV and “poor communication” with the ministry. He claims there isn’t such “great distance” between leaders and employees in the public sector “that it takes weeks, months and years to get an issue on the table and examine it.” Wetland suggests the NAV scandal involves “a few at the top sticking their heads in the sand and hoping it would all blow over.”
It’s also been suggested that NAV officials consciously or unconsciously wanted to follow politicians’ welfare policy, which has long opposed letting NAV clients collect benefits while sitting on a beach in Spain. Regulations were followed in accordance with political signals and what had become standard practice, instead of what the law actually demanded. Fears have also been expressed that public servants will continue to keep quiet about other potential scandals, because of “a lack of a whistle-blowing culture, pulverization of responsibility and an unacceptable lack of proactivity,” wrote the former head of Innovation Norway, Anita Krohn Traaseth, in Aftenposten over the weekend. The price of silence, however, can be high, she warned.
The absence of any more heads rolling, or any leaders being publicly scolded, however, remains the lingering problem. It’s fine, Ulserød of Civita suggests, that “lessons have been learned” and that both Minister Isaksen and NAV’s new leader, former tax director Hans Christian Holte, are vowing to make things right. “That may well be the most important,” he wrote, “but we can also ask whether that means those responsible are getting off easily. Perhaps it’s time for a general debate about responsibility in the public sector,” and not just when mistakes are made.
“The NAV scandal threatens to firm up an impression,” Ulserød warns, that relatively small mistakes can set off harsh reaction, “but when the scandal is big enough, it looks like leadership responsibility in the public sector generally has no consequences.” He drew parallels to Norway’s lack of preparedness when subjected to terrorist attack on July 22, 2011. No specific blame was attached to the deficiency after that, either, despite indications that security was so poor it had to be hidden.
For NAV victims like 70-year-old Susanne Lindberg Bock, who was wrongly convicted of welfare fraud and served eight months in jail, it’s tough to understand how such a scandal could occur. She was also ordered to refund NOK 900,000 and NAV placed claims on her pension payments.
“I hope I get my money back in my lifetime,” she told Aftenposten just before the investigation results were released. She still hadn’t heard from anyone at NAV or been paid any of the money owed, plus expected compensation.
Elisabeth Thoresen, who leads a benefits rights group, remains dissatisfied as well. “It’s fine with a crushing verdict of NAV and the ministry, but someone should be held responsible,” Thoresen told newspaper Klassekampen. “They’ve said they’re sorry, but an apology can never make up for a ruined life.”