Kristina Persson’s job is quite an uncommon one. A life between banks, politics and think tanks, about a year ago she was nominated as Sweden’s Minister for Future Issues, Strategy and Cooperation. The position was created with the explicit objective of forcing the Swedish government to think more about the long-term, to understand that in order for the country to grow and be competitive tomorrow, it might, unfortunately, have to take unpopular steps today
Easier said than done. Most people might claim they are well aware of the importance of future planing, but the gap between knowing something and actually implementing that something is a wide one. For example, most people know that setting goals for one self is something positive that brigs benefits, but very few do, just about 14% of the population according to research. Without going into statistics, our everyday political landscape stands as a demonstration of how a ministry resembling the Swedish one could be used in other countries. Can you think of many politicians willing to risk re-election for a future good they cannot benefit? Not so much. Can you imagine a Republican admitting that trumping some short -term business interests might in some cases actually be a good idea when it comes to the long-term effect of carbon emissions? Same answer as before. To understand a little more about how the ministry works Motherboard got in contact with the minister.
MB: Let’s start with the basics. What does long-term mean for you and your ministry?
Well, it really depends on the issue we are taking into consideration. It can be 5, 10 and even 50 years. Climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed with policy that looks at a 50 years or longer time spam, while the expansion of international cooperation is something we are working on with much shorter-term objectives.
MB: Ok, so 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 on what we call ‘global cooperation’. Each ‘strategic group’ brings together people different backgrounds: the business sector, the civil society, the trade unions as well as academics and researchers. This variety is of the uttermost importance as the questions we are trying to address are complex and finding a solution needs the cooperation of all of society’s stakeholders.
MB: can you give us an example of your work?
Let’s take the “future of work” macro-area as an example. There is no point trying to resist technological change and the coming automation of many jobs. Such an attitude might be short sited. So the question is not how we can patch things up and make the impact of the coming changes as limited as possible, its ‘given the coming changes how can we best prepare?’ or ‘how can we assure the Sweden’s unemployment level remains as low as it is now?’ and even ‘how will we be able to assure the current level of welfare 50 years from now?’ You see, there is no easy answer and if we want to try and find one we better start now.
MB: So 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 planning overlaps with a lot of fields other ministries are working on. For example, we work on issues that are the competence of the ministry of work, the ministry of economic planning as well as the foreign Ministry. This makes our mission an extremely interesting one I believe. I think the best way to describe it is a sort of internal government think tank that has the role of been a watch dog for the future.
MB: that sound quite complex, how is it to work with others?
It’s not always easy given the different perspectives we are coming from, but other ministries understand the importance of what we are doing and are in most cases quite cooperative. We live in a world transforming at an unprecedented speed, where old ways of doing things are constantly being disrupted and I think that if politics wants to remain relevant and be useful to its citizens it needs to change its approach to decision making. It needs to experiment with new ways to find solutions if it wants to remain relevant. I think what we are doing here at the ministry is quite innovative. A lot of colleagues have expressed interest in my work and I hope other countries will develop similar institutions.
MB: I have a bit of a provocative question: is there something undemocratic about your Ministry? Is it not as if you were saying ‘people only look at the short-term’ and are unable to think long-term so let’s create a non-elected 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 policy and then, given they have the budget and the political leverage, they implement it. This is a vertical approach, the opposite of the horizontal one we take here at the ministry. Rather than going top-down, we promote inter-ministerial collaboration and force decision makers to confront the long-term despite the fact this is harder to do sometime. Ours are always suggestions, never impositions and I think this is very democratic approach. Also, whatever policy we might suggest has to be embraced by some other ministry since we don’t have a budget and the political capital to implement it.
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, much less in the United States, has an ageing population. This raises questions about pension schemes and their sustainability. The question is simple: who is going to pay for them if in most European countries pensions represent an increasing expense in terms of percentage of GDP and there is less people working for them. We need to start thinking now.
When you are working does anyone say something like ‘oh my god its Christina nagging about the long-term again’?
Haha. No, has not happened yet.