Sweden's Minister of the Future Explains How to Make Politicians Think Long-Term
"If politics wants to remain relevant and be useful to citizens, it needs to change its approach," says Kristina Persson
Persson. Image: News Øresund - Johan Wessman © News Øresund, (CC BY 3.0)
Kristina Persson's job is rather unique. Just over a year ago, Stefan Löfven, Sweden's current social democratic prime minister, decided the 70-year-old from Österstund would be the perfect figure to lead the country's new ministry of future issues, strategy and cooperation.
The idea behind the creation of such a ministry was a simple one: for Sweden to remain competitive tomorrow, it might, unfortunately, have to take unpopular steps today—and since politics and politicians, given elections and interests, tend to focus on the short-term, a watchdog for the long-term was needed.
It's easier said than done, as politics show us every day. Can you think of a politician willing to risk re-election for a better future they cannot benefit from? Most probably wouldn't. (Just look at American politicians' responses—or lack thereof—to climate change.) To understand a little more about how the new ministry works, how to plan the future, and why the Swedes always seems to be two steps in front of everybody else, I spoke with Persson.
Motherboard: Let's start with the basics. What does long-term mean for you and your ministry?
Kristina Persson: Well, it really depends on the issue we are taking into consideration. It can be 5, 10 or even 50 years. Climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed with policies that looks at a 50 years or longer time spa\n, while the expansion of international cooperation is something we are working on with much shorter-term objectives.
"If politics wants to remain relevant and be useful to citizens, it needs to change its approach"
Can you tell us what are the areas you are focusing on?
The ministry is organized in three strategic groups. The first is concerned with the future of work, the second with the green transition and competitiveness, while the third one is what we call "global cooperation." Each strategic group brings together people with different backgrounds. Some come from the business community, others from civil society, trade unions, and academia. This variety is of the uttermost importance as the questions we are trying to address are complex, and finding solutions needs the cooperation of all of society's stakeholders. No one [can be] excluded.
Can you give us an example of your work?
Let's take into consideration the "future of work" macro-area. There is no point trying to resist technological change and the expected automation of a great number of jobs in the coming years. Such an attitude would be shortsighted.
So the real question is not how we can try to delay the process. On the contrary, given the coming technological changes, how can we best prepare? And again, how can we guarantee that Sweden's unemployment rate remains low and the level of social welfare the same as today? You see, these are not easy questions and if we want to find answers, we better start working now.
Your ministry is a kind of odd one. You work across ministries rather than on your own agenda?
Yes, by its very nature the ministry of future issues overlaps with responsibilities of other ministries. For example, we work on issues that are the competence of the ministry of employment, the ministry of finance, as well as the foreign ministry. This makes our mission an extremely interesting one I believe. I think the best way to describe us is like a sort of internal government think tank whose role is to constantly remind others to include the long-term in the decision making process.
That sounds quite complex, how is it to work with others?
It's not always easy given the different perspectives of the different institutions involved. Yet ministries understand the importance of what we are doing and have always been quite cooperative.
We live in a world that is transforming at an unprecedented speed, a world that is constantly challenging and disrupting the old ways we are used to do things. Given the context, I believe that if politics wants to remain relevant and be useful to citizens, it needs to change its approach. It needs to experiment with new ways and new solutions. This is what we are doing at the ministry and it's quite ground breaking. A lot of colleagues from other countries have expressed interest in my work and I hope a similar institution will soon be developed in other parts of the world.
I have a bit of a provocative question: Is there something undemocratic underlining your Ministry? Is it not as if you were saying that people only look at the short-term, and are unable to think long-term, so let's create an unelected body to deal with that.
I can understand your point, but I disagree. If you think about it, most ministries have a top-down approach. By this I mean they decide on a specific policy and then, given they have a budget and political leverage, they have the power to implement it. This is a vertical approach, the opposite of the horizontal one we promote here at the ministry.
Rather than going top-down, we promote inter-ministerial collaboration and force decision makers to confront the long-term issues despite the fact this is harder to do sometimes. The product of our efforts are suggestions, never impositions, and I think this is very democratic. Also, whatever policy we might suggest has to be embraced other ministries in order to become a reality since we don't have a budget and the political capital to push it through parliament.
What's the biggest challenge you think that needs to be addressed other than climate change?
The demographic problem. Sweden, as well as the rest of Europe, has to cope with an increasingly ageing population. This raises questions about the present pension schemes and their sustainability. The issue is simple: who is going to pay for the pension benefits if in most European countries pensions will represent a higher percentage of GDP and fewer people will be part of the active labour force. We need to start thinking and acting now.
When you are working, does anyone say something like "Oh my god, it's Kristina nagging about the long-term again"?
[Laughs] No, it has not happened yet.