“This must be the most demanding and exciting group of the decade. I am proud to have been part of it,” says Ingrid Ihme, head of Telenor Open Mind, and one of the seven people chosen to sit in the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs’ Expert group which has been assessing possible changes to Norway’s Labour and Welfare Administration, NAV.
The work has been delivered: A NAV with new possibilities, better users meetings, increased scope for action and closer to the labour market. That is the title of the Expert group’s final report dated April 2015.
The title goes to the core of what Ingrid Ihme identifies as the Expert group’s main message: NAV needs to be better aimed at the labour market, NAV offices need more authority and users need better help.
I visit her at home. As I ring the bell for the second time, the front door opens and there she is. Only just home from work she leads me smilingly into her private rooms, a warm and cosy place in the middle of a modern block of flats in the centre of Oslo. We sit down at the dining table in a big, open space kitchen and living room, she serves coffee and chocolate and I turn on my tape recorder.
“I won’t forget when the telephone rang.” I can almost see how her heart skips a beat as she tells me:
“Luckily I had just been reading about the group when the telephone rang and a man saying he was a state secretary at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs asked me if I would like to be a member of the Expert group.
“I just answered yes immediately. I just felt I could not turn this assignment down.”
This is how she became one of six members in what the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Robert Eriksson now calls the Vågeng commission — named after the group’s leader, Sigrun Vågeng, the Director General of Norway’s National Institute for Consumer Research. After one year of hard work, Ingrid Ihme is overwhelmed not only by her own contribution, “it has been like having to full-time jobs”, but the entire group’s work capacity. Not least is she impressed by Sigrun Vågeng who she calls a clear and competent leader.
Ingrid Ihme was not asked to participate by coincidence, of course. Telenor Open Mind, where she is the director, is a successful work training programme for people with impaired work abilities. In 2006 Ihme asked researchers from SINTEF Health to evaluate the programme, and the conclusion was that it had succeeded in reaching its main goal of being a launch pad into society for people with impaired work abilities. Since then the programme has developed to include Telenor Integration, which provides internships for job seekers with immigrant backgrounds with high relevant skills.
“I was no expert, but now I should be able to get a master’s degree in NAV,” says Ingrid Ihme. She does not try to downplay her own competence as a NAV user, that she used to receive NAV support, and that Open Mind is also supported by NAV and cooperates with NAV Working Life Centre.
Ingrid Ihme was herself a participant at Telenor Open Mind’s first programme in 1996. When she finished her two year education she was made director for the programme. Open Mind has 25 participants at any one time. Five new ones are accepted each semester. Initially the programme helped people with physical impairments, now it involves more people with psychological problems. Telenor Integration has the same number of participants. The programme has been exported to several countries; Telenor Open Mind can now be found in Bulgaria, India, Pakistan and Sweden. There is also a branch in Kristiansand in Norway.
“It has been so much work, so much to read up on, and so challenging,” says Ingrid Ihme about the work in the Expert group.
“The mandate was so broad that it took a lot of time to find out about things and to understand the NAV system. Luckily the Expert group had a broad composition with people with completely different skills sets.”
You don’t have to walk to work, as long as you come… is Ingrid Ihme’s slogan. She is physically handicapped, a wheelchair user, she needs a lot of personal assistance and adaptation. But in the group she represented employers and a different member represented the users. The group also had two researchers, a pensioner with NAV office experience, a welfare director at the County Governor’s office and the leader herself whose experience includes being Director General at the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities and at the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise.
“Those who put this group together have been incredibly clever, everyone brought different skills sets into the group. I have learnt so much from the others.”
The Expert group also spread these skills over two reference groups, it had an administration at the ministry and it held meetings with researchers and others who could share from their own experience.
“We had two meetings with the reference groups where we got input from the social partners and from the organisations. They have been very constructive and have contributed with much useful input which we have listened carefully to,” says Ingrid Ihme.
“We have also used the reference group meetings to check that we are focused on the right issues. Very often it turned out that we were in agreement on many things. When you look at NAV, some things are fairly obvious. We have seen this, and many of the organisations have seen this.”
It has been a journey — metaphorically and literally. The group has visited eight NAV offices from Kristiansand in the south to Trondheim in the north. She has been struck by the differences in how things are being done.
“Everybody works in different ways. Some are focused on work but there are different priorities,” says Ingrid Ihme.
The Expert group’s core message is that NAV must become more focused on the labour market.
“Each NAV office must be given more local freedom and get more knowledge about the local labour market. It is all about creating a more authoritative NAV office which is less tied up with fulfilling state-imposed targets.
“The NAV office must be given a better local leadership which must be given the freedom to make decisions and to put users and user meetings first. They must be given space to take action. Those who are closest to the users know what is needed. This requires good leadership and good procedures.
“Consecutive government ministers have simply increased the number of spaces provided through labour market measures from private providers and made NAV into a commissioner of services.”
The group is now proposing to change this.
“NAV must be given its core competence back, which is to make sure people find jobs. This means the Working Life Centres which have been the link between NAV and the labour market, and which is where the labour market knowledge sits, must be integrated into NAV.
“People working for NAV are doing a fantastic job. All our criticism is directed at the system. In the group we are focused on giving those who work in NAV their authority back, making sure that they are able to do their job and use their own judgement.
“This has been a great honour. I feel that I have been listened to. I am now an expert,” smiles Ingrid Ihme, Director at Telenor Open Mind.
Which book are you currently reading?
Et norsk hus (A Norwegian House) by Vigdis Hjort.
What is your favourite tool at work?
My coffee cup.
Do you have a hidden talent?
No, I am very good at showing off my talents, so there are no hidden ones.
As a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?
Aged five I wanted to be a nurse, because my aunt was one. Later I wanted to become a lawyer. I started studying law in 1992, but found it boring and switched to the history of ideas instead.
Read the Expert group’s report from April 2015 (in Norwegian)