TCS Daily

Sweden's Helplessness

By Waldemar Ingdahl - January 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Outside of Southeast Asia, Sweden is the country that has been hit hardest by the tsunami. The disaster has ignited a debate over the concentration of power and the policies and organization of government that hold some valuable lessons for the rest of the world.

Sweden is still in shock over the loss of life and the thousands of people still unaccounted for. Four out of 10 Swedes have been personally affected in some way, according to a recent survey made by Swedish public service television. The shock comes not just from the sheer scale of the disaster, but also from the stunning realization that the very high expectations Swedes have traditionally had for their cradle-to-grave government have been let down. There has been sharp criticism of how Prime Minister Göran Persson and Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds have handled the crisis. The government did not respond until 48 hours after the first news of the tsunami-disaster had arrived. Many of the government's responses have been deemed insufficient and slow, with even some government functionaries trying to downplay the magnitude of the disaster at first.

After all, the main priority of a government should be to protect the lives and safety of its own citizens. Responding to disasters of this size should be the task centralized government handles best. But could it be that the Swedish government's sheer size has led to a loss of focus in its activities and fostered an opaque, risk-adverse, organization culture?

Sweden often prides itself on having opened an EU bureaucracy that was shut tight. Meanwhile, at home, Sweden has a central public administration that, though more or less hermetically sealed, is old and familiar enough to be taken for granted by the majority. The power of appointment means it is closed to a level that is unique in Europe.

While Swedish politicians and civil servants managed to successfully lobby Brussels for a freedom of information act that goes further than corresponding acts in most member states, the government in Stockholm has continued to handpick bosses as it sees fit for the state authorities, choices often based on political loyalty instead of personal competence.

This centralization has led to subordinates that have responsibility without power, reducing them to waiting for decisions from the top. Persson, meanwhile, has responded by pushing the responsibility for the inadequate actions downwards, further breeding insecurity and inaction because of the fear of failure.

The complexity of many tasks today cannot be met by further concentrating power at the top of the hierarchy, as this creates an insurmountable information problem. One cannot avoid comparing the Swedish response to the tsunami disaster to the much more forceful action of the Italian government. Italy delegated the responsibility for taking action to a specific crisis unit with a clearly defined mission statement. Sweden lacks such an agency, both because it has not had much experience with disasters, but also because such an agency would have a degree of independence that is seldom seen in Swedish administration.

Different solutions are good at different levels, and the decentralized response of Swedish civil society was much more rapid and decisive (although often looked down upon both from the administration and the population itself). One of the reasons for this is that each organization has a much clearer focus for its activities, concentrating on a particular task and having the full responsibility for its actions it also has the certainty of having the full power of decision.

The tsunami disaster was not an isolated incident. Just this weekend, a terrible storm hit Sweden, resulting in four deaths, loss of power for 450,000 households, and the breakdown of communications and transports in the southern part of the country. Many of the above mentioned problems resurfaced, albeit on a smaller scale, since the problem is structural.

It is necessary to clarify and limit the role of politicians, even inside government itself, when it comes to the practical work -- reinforcing the concept of rule of law. The role of politicians should be to decide on the regulatory framework for the administration and civil society, not to involve themselves on the operational level.

The lessons from the Swedish tsunami disaster are all too relevant for many other organizations and situations. The risk of future disasters emphasizes the need for clarity, and focus on organizational main purposes -- objectives that cannot be achieved in centralized, top-down hierarchies.

Waldemar Ingdahl is the director of the Swedish think tank Eudoxa.


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