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Moving public services to fight social marginalisation

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

The Swedish Equality Ombudsman, DO, has been asked by the government to prepare a move from Stockholm city centre to the suburbs of Tensta/Rinkeby – the areas which only weeks ago were shaken by riots. The Stockholm city council has also just decided to move its education department with 400 staff there.

Behind the DO move is a political desire to strengthen vulnerable parts of the city. “It is important to show that society’s institutions can be found close to where people feel the most removed from society,” wrote the Minister for Integration, Erik Ullenhag, in a comment published in Dagens Nyheter on 10 June - the same day the move was made public. 

“Moving public bodies is not unique, but this is the first time we have moved a public service to a vulnerable district and in that sense it is unique,” Erik Ullenhag told the press.

He began by painting a general picture of the government’s integration policy for areas with a low employment rate, high benefit dependency and low levels of education, compared to other parts of the city. Many businesses have left vulnerable districts and it is this development the government now wants to turn by moving DO to Tensta or Rinkeby. 

Wide-ranging measures for vulnerable areas

Moving DO is one of several measures aimed at strengthening vulnerable districts. Efforts will also be put into creating jobs, strengthen education and lower benefit dependency. The government is planning so-called new start zones with lower payroll tax for employers who hire new people and a chance for workers to keep parts of their benefits even when they start work. It also wants to reassess parental allowances to avoid women becoming trapped at home. Special support will also be given to ten schools. The government has set aside 200 million kronor (€23m) over two years to reward the fifteen vulnerable districts that do best in terms of jobs, education and reduced benefit dependency. 

Apart from the signal sent by moving DO – showing a state presence also in vulnerable areas – Erik Ullenhag says the move will also help the growth of local infrastructure like lunch bars, which again will create new jobs.

“DO’s move does not solve the challenges of an entire district, but it is part of our desire to create positive development in the area, and if you talk to people who live there they often say that many businesses have moved out. That’s why moving a public service gives hope for the future and and a feeling of belonging,” said Erik Ullenhag.

A surprising decision

The reason why DO in particular were asked to plan and present the consequences of a move by 31 October has to do with their rental agreement in central Stockholm ending at the end of 2014, says Erik Ullenhag. There is also a general desire to move public services from the city centre in order to cut costs. 

The decision came as a surprise for people working at DO, and many of the 100 staff might have choked on their morning coffee when opening the newspaper which carried  the news of a move to Tensta. A preliminary decision had been communicated to the ombudsman Agneta Broberg and the heads of the trade unions, but it was shrouded in secrecy. News of the decision did not reach the Union of Civil Servants, says Anders Levin, head of the union chapter at DO.    

“It’s a political decision and not something you can do much about, but it is unfortunate that is comes now, just as we are about to get a functioning organisation both externally and internally. The way in which it was presented, in a comment piece in Dagens Nyheter, is not ideal either. Many were literally caught unawares,” says Anders Levin. 

Increased pressure on administrators

DO was founded in 2009 after the merger of four ombudsman posts, and now works to fight discrimination and to promote equal rights and opportunities - mainly by making sure the law on discrimination is being followed. DO, which now has offices in central Stockholm, had been criticised for being inefficient since the beginning. The previous ombudsman, Katri Linna, had to step down in 2011 and was followed by today’s head,  Agneta Broberg. 

Anders Levin says the reactions reaching him were what could be expected from such a quick decision. Those who know the Tensta/Rinkeby districts are struggling to see where exactly the new offices could be situated. Others say they want to be allowed to work efficiently without having to deal with a move after all the criticism which has been levied on the authority. It is still unclear how many staff will agree to the move.  

“All change is difficult if you are subjected to it all of the time. You loose your footing and inner stability. Possibly adding another hour to your daily commute can be tough. But it is a political decision and we have to make the best of it,” says Anders Levin. 

Lack of experience

So what is known about moving public services out to vulnerable districts? Does it create hope for the future and increase people’s sense of belonging? Nils Hertting at the Institute for Housing and Urban Research at the Uppsala University has his doubts. He has spent many years researching on attempts to mobilise people living in vulnerable suburbs through various cooperation and dialogue projects, but does not know of any research looking at what happens when a public office moves out in this way.

“I can understand the political logic, the idea of bringing together different parts of society, but we have no experience of what effects such a measure might have. We have not seen anything like this before,” says Nils Hertting.

There is no doubt something needs to be done for the most vulnerable suburbs. That became clear during the riots a few weeks ago, which spread from suburb to suburb. At the same time it is genuinely difficult to find measures which either work politically or are based on knowledge.

“Politicians sometimes are forced into implementing measures without knowing whether they will work, and integration politics are often experimental. It becomes a bit of a risk, but it is important that the policy does not backfire in just this district and in this integration policy context. Failure would be highly symbolic - that public services in suburbs don’t work,” says Nils Hertting.

Facts

On 10 June the government asked the Swedish Equality Ombudsman, DO, to spend until 31 October to prepare a move from Stockholm city centre to the vulnerable suburbs of Tensta/Rinkeby. The plan is for the authority to be in place by the end of 2014. Two weeks ago Tensta/Rinkeby was shaken by riots, along with many other suburbs. The government views the move as part of its integration policy and wants to use it to break a negative trend of businesses moving out of the suburbs, while also using the authority’s presence to create hope for the future.

The Swedish Equality Ombudsman, DO, fights discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual identity or expression, ethnicity, religion or other belief systems, physical handicaps, sexuality and age. DO employs around 100 people. 

 
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