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A Monday in the service of the Nordics

A Monday in the service of the Nordics

| Text: Marie Preisler, photo: Kristian Septimus Krogh

Paula Lehtomäki heads the secretariat for the Nordic governments’ official body of cooperation. Yet she has no lifeguards, she cycles to work and gets on the train to open a conference.

It is Monday morning, and Paula Lehtomäki is on the train heading for the city of Vedbæk north of Copenhagen to take part in a conference on integration. It is hosted by the Nordic governments’ official cooperation body, the Nordic Council of Ministers. She is its Secretary General. 

She is the Nordic civil servant with the overall responsibility for securing the best possible framework for the cooperation between the eight Nordic governments. She regularly meets with Nordic Prime Ministers and other Government Ministers. But while a Nordic Minister would typically be taken to a conference in a ministerial chauffeur-driven car, Paula Lehtomäki takes the train.

Paula train

Paula Lehtomäki takes the train to the city of  Vedbæk. Photo: Marie Preisler 

“My job is to make sure the Nordic Prime Ministers and governments are well prepared for cooperation on policy areas where it makes sense to cooperate. This means the countries need to share knowledge with each other, and today I will be opening a conference which aims to share experiences on the integration of refugees and immigrants. I get the train, and spend the journey preparing my speech,” she explains.

Integration close to her heart 

When it comes to certain policy areas Nordic governments meet with the aim to learn from each other, and in other areas they have entered into binding agreements.  

The Nordic countries do not have any shared legislation on the integration of refugees and immigrants, but this is one of the policy areas where they have entered into an agreement to cooperate and share knowledge on integration and new solutions. This means that integration is one of the subjects Paula Lehtomäki regularly discusses with the Nordic Prime Ministers and Ministers for Co-operation.

This Monday she is not on her way to meet Nordic Ministers, however. Most of the participants at the conference on integration in the Nordic region, where she will give the opening address, work with the practical implementation of integration in the Nordic countries. The conference is their chance to present concrete integration initiatives from around the Nordics, and researchers will present results from new reports on integration, commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Seeing the Nordic countries learn from each other in order to secure better integration is something which is close to the Secretary General’s heart, she explains.

“It is perhaps more important than ever that we succeed with our integration policies. I was a state secretary at the Finnish Prime Minister’s office in 2015 and saw the problems arising from the fact that we were not ready to deal with the many people who were fleeing the war in Syria. We had no systems in place to start the integration process, and this led to a realisation in the Nordic countries that there was a need to exchange experiences and ideas in this area.”

Lunch with a Minister

Her job as Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers does not come with a private chauffeur or lifeguards. Paula Lehtomäki usually cycles to work, and when she participates in events outside of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Copenhagen headquarters, she will travel by taxi or train – or by plane if she needs to go to one of the other Nordic capitals or to Brussels. Today she gets off the train from Copenhagen at Vedbæk Station and walks the final stretch to the hotel where the integration conference will be held.   

Before she goes on stage to welcome the participants, she chats to colleagues from the secretariat who have already arrived. Before the official opening, she also has time to eat breakfast with Bart Somers, Vice Minister-President and Minister for Integration and Interior of the Flemish Government in Belgium.

Bart Somers

Bart Somers at the Nordic conference on integration. Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs, Flanders

He has been invited by the Nordic Council of Ministers to talk about integration in Belgium, and he is very happy to take part, he explains.

“Being Minister of Integration is new to me, and I want to learn from the Nordic countries’ approach and practice when it comes to integration. This conference allows me to do that,” he says.

A tricky Danish word

Paula Lehtomäki comes from Finland, and her mother tongue is Finnish. But her welcoming remarks to the conference are in Swedish – one of three working languages at the Nordic Council of Ministers’ secretariat, the two others being Norwegian and Danish. Her speech includes one single sentence in Danish, and it contains the word “beskæftigelse” (employment). It is a word she finds tricky to pronounce correctly.

“My family and I have all taken Danish lessons since we moved here, but some words are still a bit difficult to pronounce. For instance a word like ”beskæftigelse”, for which I needed help from a Danish participant at the conference to pronounce,” she says.

The position as the head of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ secretariat rotates between the Nordic countries. Paula Lehtomäki took over from Dagfinn Høybråten from Norway in March 2019. She and her family moved from the Finnish capital Helsinki to Copenhagen, where the headquarters of the Nordic Council of Ministers is situated just opposite the Danish parliament.

Closer cooperation

As Secretary General, she is the boss for some 150 staff at the Nordic Council of Ministers, and is present during all meetings of Nordic Ministers – of which there are at least 18 every year. The signal from the Ministers is clear, she says: there should be ever closer cooperation between the Nordic countries.

“I see increased engagement for Nordic cooperation from Nordic Prime Ministers, Ministers for Co-operation and other Ministers, and an even greater desire for and willingness to increase the ambitions for the content and results of the Nordic cooperation. They see the need for common Nordic answers to joint challenges, and they see the Nordic countries as a family that shares values which are worth protecting together.”

In the autumn of 2019, the Nordic Prime Ministers approved a vision for the Nordic cooperation going forward to 2030. By then, the Nordics should be the world’s most sustainable and integrated region. Paula Lehtomäki and her staff are busy helping the countries turn this vision into a concrete strategy, which will include development goals for each political area of cooperation. Many meetings between civil servants and Ministers will be needed to make this happen. 

Labour ministers meeting

Paula Lehtomäki participated at the Labour Ministers' meeting in Reykjavik in March 2019. Here she is next to the then Sweden's Minister for Employment Ylva Johansson, who later became an EU Commissioner, sharing a joke with the ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, who was also invited. Photo: Björn Lindahl

That is why nearly 40% of her working hours in 2019 were spent travelling – mostly to Iceland, which then held the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. In 2020 Denmark has taken the helm, which means Paula Lehtomäki’s travel calendar is more manageable. She now only has to walk across the street from the Nordic Council of Ministers to Slotsholmen, home to the offices of the Danish Prime Minister, when she for instance needs to attend a meeting with Nordic Prime Ministers. 

A team player

Paula Lehtomäki is a natural team player, which she says can be seen in her leadership style at the Nordic Council of Ministers. 

“As a leader, I am a team player and very collegial. As leader I have responsibilities, but I really appreciate the exchange of ideas and discussions. I have very competent colleagues, and they should not simply follow orders because I am their boss. They should speak their mind and ask if they have questions about anything I do.” 

As part of her role as leader, she also thinks it is important to create space for more cross-sectoral cooperation internally at the Nordic Council of Ministers. This is necessary when you want to support the Nordic countries’ cooperation in policy areas like climate and integration.

“There has been a tradition for working in silos. Some concentrated on the labour market, others on culture, but an increasing number of important issues for the Nordics demands an ability to work across sectors. To do this you need the culture change which we have already started, and I want to push for even more cross-sectoral cooperation – including inside our own organisation.”

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