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Norway's new NAV Director: Sigrun Vågeng wants less central control and better leadership

Norway's new NAV Director: Sigrun Vågeng wants less central control and better leadership

| Text: Berit Kvam, photo: Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs

“I have clear instructions to increase the focus on labour within NAV (the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration). That is my mission,” says Labour and Welfare Director Sigrun Vågeng. She believes less centralised control and more leadership will help her in that mission.

She has been in the job for less than two weeks and we have been granted 30 minutes with her in her office. Norway is experiencing rising unemployment. There is also a debate over whether refugees who are arriving in increasing numbers should be helped to find work rather than remain passive in refugee centres.

There are plenty of challenges when you head an administration run as a partnership between municipalities and central authorities, with responsibility for all social security functions and for maintaining the social safety net while helping unemployed people find work. Some call it a poisoned chalice, but Sigrun Vågeng disagrees.

“I think we should be careful not to label major leadership positions. I am humbled in the face of us being responsible for managing a third of the budget, employing 19,000 people and paying out 14,000 kroner (€1,500) per second. This is a major social mission which we have to perform.”

Lots of competence

Sigrun Vågeng is focused when she gets going. She has been responsible for big tasks before, and she comes to this job from being the Director for Norway’s National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO). She has been Director for the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (KS), Executive Director for labour market and social affairs at the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO) and has held a range of other directorships in Norwegian business. This is, in other words, a woman with a lot of experience and not least knowledge about the authority she now heads. Sigrun Vågeng also chaired the NAV expert commission created by the Robert Eriksson, the Minister of Labour and Social Inclusion, in March 2014.

The NAV commission, or Vågeng commission as it also know, has considered ways to get more people into employment and how to create a simpler and more efficient and user friendly labour and welfare management in line with the reform’s original intention. The commission’s report “A NAV with possibilities” highlighted the need for improvements to client meetings, more autonomy for individual NAV offices and closer cooperation with the labour market. As she is now getting ready to handle these issues, she identifies three main priority areas.

“Work is one big area, because we have rising unemployment and need to be fully focused on this. For that I bring with me experience from my work with the expert commission, not least when it comes to contact with employers.

“The other area is our clients. We have 2.8 million of them right now, so we need to take a closer look at that.

“The final area is expertise. We have nearly 1,500 leaders in NAV and if we want to move NAV in a new direction the leaders are key. In 2016 we will start a leadership development program. We also generally need more labour expertise and labour market expertise.”

New centre of excellence

On the same day as Sigrun Vågeng started her new job, the Oslo and Akershus University College opened a centre of excellence for workplace inclusion.

“I think it is really good that NAV now improves its contact with major knowledge centres, which can be of benefit to us in the big work we are undertaking.”

She is keen to underline that she is focused on the task at hand, the social mission. To create change you need better leadership. Does she follow a leadership philosophy?

“Yes, I do. First of all it is important to be seen as a leader by the people I work with, and for me to see them. You can accomplish so much simply by acknowledging people. Secondly you must create challenges. I think we like being challenged. It falls into the same category as being seen. Thirdly it is important to feel included. We have a large system of workers’ representatives at NAV. Together with our staff we share a joint declaration which also creates a basis for our leadership. In all the jobs I have had I have valued the cooperation with workers’ representatives.”

Too much central control?

But leadership is different from central control, and NAV has been subject to excessive control and not enough leadership.

“I believe NAV as an organisation has been and remains subject to excessive control. Someone told me there are 420 points written about what NAV should be doing. This is very controlling, but it is not leadership. Leadership is making sure you have staff who can handle the situation they’re in and make decisions. That is why I talk a lot about this.”

How will you secure more leadership and less central control?

“NAV’s own internal surveys show that we are good at ticking boxes to reach key performance targets and say that we have had X number of meetings and so on, while we are not good at learning from each other, bad when it comes to innovation and new thinking and many managers feel they could have been better prepared to provide the kind of leadership we are talking about now.”

She pauses, and underlines: NAV must be controlled, but there needs to be freedom to lead within that framework.

Her leadership group includes the leaders who are responsible for the organisation which has not achieved the desired results. Is she planning to reorganise and make changes to the leadership group? That is not a discussion she is ready to have.

“To be fair, I think we have to say a lot of good work has been done in NAV. People get the money they are due. We pay out 14,000 kroner per second. Online banking is out of service more often than NAV is. I am aware that we have had issues with ICT, but there really is a lot of good work going on here.

“But it is not good enough. There is a lot of good work, and it must become better. For me the most important thing is to have leaders around me who dare to stay the course with me, and who are good at that task. But I have told my leadership group that I need a little bit longer than ten days before I consider making any changes.”

Are you a bit rough?

“Perhaps I am. You cannot take on a job like this without being able to speak plainly and daring to take action. In that case I would have had to choose something else.”

You have been the Director for the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (KS). NAV is a partnership between central authorities and municipalities and provides both state and municipal services in order to offer clients a way to access welfare services. How do you use your experiences from KS in your current position?

“It is so important to bring that with you,” she answers eagerly. The question hits the nail on the head.

“Because during my four years in the municipal sector I met thousands of wonderful workers in that sector. I saw NAV from the point of view of the municipalities, and I can promise you that we sometimes raised our eyebrows. As a result, on day two of my new job at NAV I met with the KS board, because we need to figure out a way forward together. So my KS background is invaluable. I also believe many in the municipal sector are glad that the new NAV director also has a municipal background. I can certainly promise you I will continue to work on that.”

How do you want to develop the partnership?

“By taking it seriously. You know the 5,000 municipal employees are really employed by the municipal councils, which means 428 municipalities have employer’s responsibility for them. The municipalities need to take that seriously. The political leadership in the municipalities must take it seriously. And when you sign a partnership agreement, both parties have rights and obligations. I need to safeguard this, and do my best to make sure this works in practical terms.”

 We are experiencing the largest migration flows since World War 2. The discussion now is how to get refugees into work straight away. How do you see that challenge?“I don’t believe anyone in any directorate fails to think about refugees. It is an issue which is being dealt with by the government and which will be presented for parliament, but we have done a fair bit of thinking on this.

 “NAV is not the first public body the refugees will meet. Once settled, they join the municipal introductory programme. Norwegian language lessons form an important part of that. When the new arrivals have been settled and have started their introductory programme and Norwegian lessons, NAV and the introductory programme consider whether NAV should introduce measures aimed at finding them work, in combination with the language training. We are still at an early phase in this process when it comes to this group.

“However, NAV is in close and constant contact with relevant authorities in this area, and we will help those who come to us just like we help anyone who approaches NAV.”

The large number of refugees coincides with rapidly rising unemployment, as a result of a shrinking petroleum sector and a changing Norwegian labour market. As the new NAV leader, what is your vision?“First of all, I think that the unemployment we have now is different from what we had during the financial crisis, because then it was bad news nationwide. Today the coastal areas from Agder to Trøndelag that are facing the biggest challenges. Meanwhile unemployment is falling in other parts of the country. There are even engineering jobs going, so the opportunities are there,” says Sigrun Vågeng.

“Then there is the issue of refugees, and whether NAV is prepared for that challenge. It becomes a social mission and we will have to look at ways of how we can solve it. That is the essence of NAV, it is a social mission. If we are given a mission, we must help fulfil it.” 

One minute interview

Which book are you currently reading?

Can I answer two? Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants. This is the history of our century. It is thick and I love thick books. I also enjoy reading history and documentary books. The other one I’m reading is The 60s by Ketil Bjørnstad. That is also thick.

What is your hidden talent?

I once crocheted a christening gown for my daughter, which my first grandchild will be christened in on 6 December. Proud moment. Perhaps not that many NAV directors before me have been crocheting. 

What is your favourite tool in the office?

My PC.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to become a doctor. I did work a bit in a hospital. And became less keen. I was not very good at science in school either. All the girls did languages, and so did I.


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