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Mikael Sjöberg: rebuilding trust in the Public Employment Service
Portrait

Mikael Sjöberg: rebuilding trust in the Public Employment Service

| Text and photo: Berit Kvam

Mikael Sjöberg again leads one of Sweden’s most important working life institutions. On 17 March the Reinfeldt government appointed him Director-General for the Swedish Public Employment Service. He came from the post of Director-General for the Swedish Work Environment Authority, and before that he led the National Institute for Working Life. His challenge now is to build trust in the Public Employment Service, which has come in for a lot of criticism.

“I have to go and pick up my son from nursery,” says Mikael Sjöberg to the Nordic Labour Journal, checking his watch.

It is nearly four in the afternoon. We have been sitting around the conference table for about an hour. Him on one side, on the other sits Refik Sener, his advisor, press contact and prompter when needed. What was that book he’s currently reading called again? Refik Sener helps: ‘The Time of the Hero’. 

He has been a stay-at-home dad with both children, he says. Three months with his daughter and nearly four with his son, the younger of the two. A typical Nordic father of small children in that respect: collecting them from nursery, taking parental leave, having a wife who works and sharing parental responsibilities with her. Still new in his job as leader for one of Sweden’s largest authorities with more than 12,000 employees, he confesses he doesn’t get to do the nursery run that often anymore.

“There is a lot to get to grips with, so I don’t do nursery pickup as often as I would have done normally.”

He has embarked on a long journey of change to improve the Public Employment Service.

“There has been a lot of criticism, and we are still facing a challenging situation. At the same time I come to this job with enthusiasm and engagement for creating a better employment service and proper change. But it is important to realise true change takes time.”

Mikael Sjöberg’s formal education was short, but he has had one of the country’s fastest moving careers after going from working for the Metall trade union to entering politics — first as an advisor to the Social Democrats after they won the 1994 elections, then 10 years as an undersecretary of state before Göran Persson’s government appointed him Director-General for the National Institute for Working Life in 2005. Soon after that, the Reinfeldt government came to power and the Moderate Party closed the National Institute for Working Life down. But Mikael Sjöberg continued his lightening career. He now has ten years’ experience as Director-General for Sweden’s most important working life authorities. The only top job missing from his CV now is leading the Swedish Social Insurance Agency. 

After five months at the helm of the Public Employment Service he has not yet finished developing a strategy for the future, but the method for progress is clear: the leadership group and employees will be involved before decisions on improvements are made.

About leadership

“I believe one important thing for modern leadership is the ability to create visions and to say ‘this is how a future employment service should look like’ and ‘this is the way we will be going’. This goes for the agency as a whole and for parts of it. In the leadership group we’re now working on creating a journey of change. This depends on us managing to create visions for how ‘the Public Employment Service 2021’ will look.”

«The Public Employment Service 2021»?

“Yes, because we are using a method which I have been using for many years. To achieve real change we spend around one year on preparations and three plus three years of development work. This first year we’ll create the basis for identifying goals, for visions and strategies. You then break this down into a strategic plan for the next three years for what you should achieve. When this is put into action you start ot see where you have succeeded and where you have not, and you start to create a new strategic plan. So a seven year period like this contains these three elements. One preparatory year and three plus three execution years.”

It is nearly six months since he started the job. So far he has initiated the internal restructuring. Two leadership groups have been reduced to one, with fewer top leaders and an increased focus on the core tasks. 

One of his strategies is focusing on digital channels and he has appointed a head of digital contacts. The process forward is to create visions together with the entire leadership group comprising 25 - 30 people. These visions can be for employer contracts, visions for the IT systems, for matching and skills improvement. The point is to make it clear for everyone which goals are being targeted. 

“The method is based on getting the leadership group to help me formulate the vision. We will then spend the autumn travelling to visit employees and discuss these issues before we finish this journey in February next year. We want to give employees the chance to reflect over the direction which the leadership is about to take, but also to open up to input from them so that they too can influence developments before I make a decision. So the idea is that the principal decision will be taken by next summer.”

How to turn criticism to trust?

“The Swedish Public Employment Service has long suffered from a lack of public trust. What’s important now is that we really get an idea of how conflicts arise and what creates conflicts and a lack of trust. We need to highlight the situations where jobseekers are disappointed with us, or when a person feels we’re not doing our job in a satisfactory manner. 

“To do this we need to dive deep into this issue in order to hit the target with our improvements. Earlier the Public Employment Service has tried to ask: were are we failing? This proves that there has been a lack of analysis of where the problems lie. You need to ask the customers, you need to ask the jobseekers and employers, not only yourself.”

Trust is a massive issue for Mikael Sjöberg and one of the things he himself highlighted as the most important when he was appointed to the position.

“Modern research has looked at what makes certain countries thrive. What is so incredibly interesting is that citizens’ trust in authorities is crucial when it comes to the position of trust elsewhere in society. If citizens’ confidence in the authorities is high, they also have high confidence in politicians and they trust each other. And this means that we who work in an authority have a particularly important role to play in running our affairs in a way which creates a high level of trust.”

How do you think people will react to this kind of slow journey towards improvement?

“A job like this is based on introducing improvements all the time. I’m fond of saying that many different steps must be taken. My dream is that the final step will be hardly noticeable. It will be just a small adjustment. All the improvements will happen as we go along over these six years. It means that we after a while will create a better functioning authority, but it is not until six, seven years from now that we can say that we are a fully functioning, efficient and modern authority.”

Matching employee to employer

Mikael Sjöberg is under no illusion that he will be able to solve Sweden’s high unemployment singlehandedly. Politicians need to act. Youth unemployment, for instance, needs to be tackled by politicians creating a well-functioning school system. 

“When it comes to the matching moment, everything will be easier if we have a high level of trust, good employer contacts, and job centres know and are in contact with their surroundings. This can be complemented with good evaluation tools. Being good at assessing a person is important for all of our workings.”

Mikael Sjöberg thinks politicians both recognise the Public Employment Service’s importance and that they expect it to succeed.

“I’m very much under the impression that the government is trying to create conditions for me to allow us to succeed. It wants the Public Employment Service to become a better authority and it demands change, and it is very keen to listen to me. We have a good dialogue about our resources and about what we need going forward.”

Sweden’s general elections are just around the corner. Mikael Sjöberg has ten years’ experience as undersecretary of state in a Social Democrat government.

Given the choice, would you prefer being Minister for Employment or Director-General for the Public Employment Service?

“This job suits me far better.”

Which experiences from your job as Director-General at the Work Environment Authority are coming in handy now?

“A basic understanding of leadership and for authorities’ roles in public administration. We had a very aggressive development programme at the Work Environment Authority. It was almost too much. When I arrived we had been asked to shave 35 percent off our total budget.”

He explains how he went through the budget, removed ineffective services and returned to these a few years later when they had identified better methods for instance for school inspections.

At the Public Employment Service it is only the labour market training which is having a “far too low effect”, he says.

“So we need to ask ourselves what we do about this, and start development work. How much should we have, which services should we have, how do we follow this up. My approach is to allow the bosses to answer these questions and then we’ll see what they suggest.”

Leadership through trust

Mikael Sjöberg is soon off to travel around Sweden to meet his employees; 12 stops with around 1,000 employees at each stop. Is it possible to create engagement with 12,000 employees?

“Yes, but not on an individual level. However, management can communicate with many employees if it has clear goals and visions, and if the leadership has a shared strategy. For an organisation it is important not to be dependent on the top boss. My leadership philosophy is very much built on each leadership level knowing their responsibility and that they are in dialogue with and support the next level.” 

How do you explain the extreme trajectory of your career?

“There’s an old Swedish saying: Do your duty, demand your rights. I think that is quite nice. It means you should always do your best and be prepared to take your turn. If you have important tasks, doing your duty feels like a very important thing. I believe this has made a mark on me. The idea that you should leave your post in a better condition than you found it. This goes for any job. It is a driving force. You must change to be better to meet the future. These things didn’t exist seven years ago,” he says and points to his smartphone. 

“My dream is that we should be so well-functioning all of the time that we decide ourselves when and how we should change, that the Public Employment Agency itself decides both the goal and the process.”

Mikael Sjöberg has also attended his first meeting at the international organisation the Public Employment Service, PES. 

“That was very interesting. It was inspiring even though it was just a first meeting. It is no secret that we feel Germany has a well-functioning employment service. So of course I want to talk to my German colleague to hear what they have been doing, and I spoke to my Danish colleague who also is quite new. The Nordic family has much to learn from each other.”

“It’s a shared culture,” says Refik Sener, who has been quiet for a long time.

“The Nordic cooperation is always something I want to prioritise,” says Mikael Sjöberg. 

Then he is off to the nursery. His son is waiting. 

1 minute interview

What book are you currently reading?

The Time of the Hero (La ciudad y los perros) by Peruvian author and 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa. The book is Mario Vargas Llosa’s debut novel, published in Spain in 1963.

Which work tool do you appreciate the most in your office?

The meeting room table. It is in the meeting with other people that you create change.

What is your hidden talent?

I am good at predicting the final Premier League results… but this year?

As a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?

A pilot. My boyhood dream was to be a fighter pilot.

 
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