Kristina Persson is a Swedish politician who has been a member of the Swedish and European parliaments and, from 2014 to 2016, the minister for Strategic development and Nordic cooperation. She spoke to The Boston Consulting Group’s chief economist, Christian Ketels, about the importance of being politically proactive and looking at government today, and in the future, holistically.
As Sweden’s minister for strategic development, Persson led Mission: the Future – the Government’s project for policy development to tackle the challenges of the future, which ended with the final report’s submission in 2016. “Every country should have a Ministry for the Future. Politicians tend to be reacting to things that are happening, but then it’s too late. You should look ahead.” If you have a minister for the future, she says, you have someone who takes part in cabinet meetings and has sufficient status to get things done. “They also need to have people around them who are able to meet the greatest challenges, such as AI and how it will affect the Swedish labour market, or strategic planning for Sweden’s transformation into a fossil-free economy.”
Every country should have a Ministry for the Future. Politicians tend to be reacting to things that are happening, but then it’s too late. You should look ahead.
She explains how she set about her role as minister. “What I did was to form a Council for the Future, and in that council were seven of my colleagues in government, plus the prime minister. You must have practical concrete backing from the top, and the prime minister must be actively involved and take responsibility for strategic thinking and planning.”
She recognised that in order to “represent the best interests of your people”, politicians need to absorb new information from the leading authorities. “I formed three working groups made up of the best brains from many different fields in Sweden. They were given three different tasks: the future of work, the transition into a fossil-free society, and the need for stronger multilateral global coordination. These groups presented the most important issues to the relevant ministers, and now it is the ministers’ task to implement them.”
Looking horizontally across government
When a government engages in strategic thinking, Persson argues, it should be ready to also realise new ideas and make a positive public impact. “For this to work, you need to have someone responsible for the task that is close to the head of government – you cannot give it to a vertical sector. You cannot look upon it as existing within a narrow field of politics. The horizontal, it’s everything.” This is one of the main lessons she has learned from her time in government. “If you want to do something important to attack unemployment, you have to use the means and instruments within maybe seven or eight different ministries, and then you need to have horizontal coordination and horizontal governance on many issues at the same time.”
But the existing structure of government does not always encourage this, she adds. “Government is organised in a very old-fashioned way. It’s so formalised and closed, and you’re not supposed to have much cross-sectoral contact or contact with the outside world.” She knows from her own experience of government that “you have rivalry between the ministries. You have infighting between them for resources or for power, and or for not being held or being responsible.” This siloed, territorial approach is self-defeating, “because you have to coordinate, and the solutions depend on one another”.
Government is organised in a very old-fashioned way. It’s so formalised and closed, and you’re not supposed to have much cross-sectoral contact or contact with the outside world.
The key to good governance
And it’s not enough for Sweden to have bold objectives, such as a fossil-free transport system or the world’s most ambitious climate legislation, if “we don´t implement them quickly enough. Today we are seeing increasing emissions of CO2, instead of decreasing it yearly by at least seven or eight per cent”. And government’s failure to act leaves their citizens exposed.
“I can see social catastrophes coming,” she says, “as a result of climate warming, and also from the increasing division and inequality in the world. It breeds a populist, nationalistic way of thinking, of going backwards instead of forwards and denying the necessity of change. We must fully accept the idea of working together in Europe to solve problems, because we know that democracy is in danger.”
This is why she is “deeply involved in a new initiative about a Swedish School of Governance”. It ties in with her holistic perspective on government. “If you don’t have a systemic view, you cannot address the right issue at the right time. Because you will always be fumbling, like the drunken man who’s looking for his key in the light of the street lamp”
Kristina Persson is quite the opposite – her forward-looking clearsightedness is based on her extensive experience of government. Now she needs other politicians and citizens to share her vision of the future.
The Future of Government
At the Centre for Public Impact, we’re exploring how government can be better equipped for the future.
Find out more about our Future of Government Project here.
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