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The Norwegian civil servant working for Sweden

The Norwegian civil servant working for Sweden

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: Marcus Gustafsson

In January, Norwegian Finn Ola Jølstad swapped his day job as a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Labour and Social Inclusion in Oslo for a job at the Swedish Ministry of Employment. His job exchange lasts six months and falls right in the middle of Sweden’s EU Presidency.

“So far, I have been given very varied tasks. I knew the ministry could not take me on as a probationer during the Swedish Presidency, but figured perhaps I could be an extra resource,” says Finn Ola Jølstad.

He welcomes us in the airy entrance hall of Stockholm’s Ministry of Employment, right inside the main door. We have signed in at reception according to all the rules and everything is going swimmingly. That might seem self-evident, but for a newcomer, things take time – figuring out routines and systems and not least who does what. 

Foto: Marcus Gustafsson

“The public administration structure is fairly similar between the Nordic countries, but there are also different processes and tools. You have to get to know a new organisation, and like everywhere there is a certain lingo to get to grips with,” says Finn Ola Jølstad.

Grant for Nordic work exchange

The idea to go to Sweden on a work exchange grew out of Norway’s 2022 Nordic Council of Ministers Presidency. Finn Ola Jølstad had been working with the Norwegian Presidency and saw an upcoming window in his calendar which allowed him to do something different.  

In his day-to-day work there are plenty of opportunities to swap between different government ministries and learn new skills, but being internationally minded, Jølstad wanted something new.

“I had quite a bit of international experience and had worked both with Nordic issues and within the EU. That is how I got the idea it might be interesting to work in Sweden for six months, both for the Nordic and Swedish Presidency. It’s a fantastic combination, and both I and my dream were met with open doors,” says Finn Ola Jølstad.

Foto: Marcus Gustafsson

Applying to work in a government ministry in a foreign country in order to learn new things is unusual, but not impossible. The home country pays the salary as usual and the Nordic Council of Ministers has a grant for work exchange between the Nordic countries, NORUT. This helps Finn Ola Jølstad cover the costs of living in Stockholm. 

He now lives in a flat near Stockholm’s Mariatorget and is delighted to describe his morning stroll to work down the hills of Södermalms and through Gamla stan. He also points out that hiring a flat in trendy Södermalm is far from free, so the Nordic grant is very welcome. Since his stay is no longer than for six months, he has not had to officially emigrate from Norway nor quarrel with Swedish authorities to get the crucial personal number.

“But I have managed to become a regular at the ICA supermarket,” he jokes.

Extra pair of hands 

He has now spent a few months at the Ministry of Employment’s international department and takes on tasks where he is needed. 

“I am a resource for the international department and they can use me where they want as an extra pair of hands. They definitely do, and I have been given many interesting tasks. Much of what I write must be in English, and this has made it easier for me to contribute. Besides working with EU Presidency issues, I have participated in gathering information and executing processes within the Nordic and European cooperation.  

Foto: Marcus Gustafsson

"I have been preparing political leaders at the ministry ahead of meetings and seminars with the social partners, and have enjoyed good cooperation with the partners. Holding the EU Presidency, Sweden also plays a role representing the EU at the ILO, and I will be linked to that work,” he says.

Do you draw attention as a Norwegian walking around in the Swedish corridors?

“Some are perhaps a bit surprised, but I did something similar as a Norwegian working in the European Commission." 

Finn Ola Jølstad has a lot of experience as a civil servant, working both with Nordic cooperation and within the EU. His first state job was for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he worked on EU and EEA issues.

A few years later, in 1999, he began working at the Ministry of Labour and Social Inclusion in Oslo, where he now is working on the coordination of Nordic and international issues. Lately, he has been working with Norway’s Nordic Council of Ministers Presidency, which passed to Finland at the start of this year. 

Finn Ola Jølstad has also been a national expert at the European Commission and worked as an advisor on labour and social affairs at Norway’s EU delegation in Brussels for a total of eight years. He is also a member of the Nordic Council of Ministers for Health and Social Affairs, which is tasked with preparing labour ministers’ meetings. When he talks he is engaged, but with the caution of a civil servant who does not want to step into the realm of politicians. 

His task both in the Nordic cooperation and within the EU is to create a knowledge base for politicians, combining professional knowledge with an understanding of institutions and processes. During our interview, we meet an international person who constantly wants to learn more about the Nordics, the EU and the world. So where does this interest in international affairs come from?

A childhood with Nordic contacts

Finn Ola Jølstad takes us back in time to a farm by lake Mjøsa in Stange municipality, where he was born in 1968. There are allodial rights to the farm, which means the oldest son takes over when the time comes. Finn Ola Jølstad took an early interest in society and read all the newspapers he could find from a young age. 

“The Nordic aspect has literally been with me since birth. My mother is Danish and I spent many holidays in Denmark. So I got used to the Scandinavian languages from an early age I don’t speak Danish, but I understand the language,” he says. 

His interest in the world around him grew and prepared the ground for a career which he describes as rather unusual for someone growing up on a farm in the countryside. During upper secondary school, he spent a year as an exchange student in Australia before going on to study political science and international political economy. He got his master’s degree in London and since then he has continued to live in different countries – now in Sweden. 

“You learn so much more from living in a country than from being a tourist,” he says. 

Labour markets in constant change

Finn Ola Jølstad has been following labour market issues for nearly 25 years and still finds it exciting. Working life touches on many policy areas and is relevant to everybody’s daily life. 

Foto: Marcus Gustafsson

“The big Nordic ‘Future of Work’ project describes major structural changes like demography and the green change. There is more focus on these issues now than ten years ago. Meanwhile, it is still the case that we need a flexible and adjustable labour market and must get more people into work, especially marginalised people. We talk about the future of work, but we are always in the middle of change,” says Finn Ola Jølstad.

Is it possible to compare the Nordic cooperation to the EU?

“No, they are fundamentally different. EU cooperation is far more obligatory for member states, and goes much further than the Nordic cooperation. But it is important both for cooperation within the EU and between the Nordics to work closely together and learn from each other.”

The work exchange is a way of making new contacts and learning more about Sweden, which might be a benefit to his continued work with Nordic labour market issues.

“There are so many different things that I can take home, but it is still a little too early to say exactly how I will be using them. Right now I am working for Sweden, but being able to grow is a benefit that goes two ways of course. We need knowledge on EU issues in Norway and I gain new skills by being here during the Presidency,” says Finn Ola Jølstad.


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