Podcast: The inner life of the government: Marked by collegiality

March 19, 2024

A new study reveals a high degree of collegiality within various governments. However, we know little about the inner workings of various governments. Prime Ministers, ministers, and governments come and go. Much is classified: "We know little about what happens behind closed doors in various governments," say Jostein Askim and Marte Mangset, who are now researching the matter. Political scientist Jostein Askim and sociologist Marte Mangset share their findings from the inner life of various Norwegian governments.

Who among us becomes ministers? And what happens behind closed doors when decisions are made? A new study reveals a high degree of collegiality within various governments. The researchers also uncover that decision-making processes function well and continue apace – despite the coming and going of governments, prime ministers, and ministers.

Governments come and go, and ministers are regularly replaced. This applies to both the Solberg administration (pictured here at the Palace Square) and the Støre administration. However, we know little about the inner workings of various governments. Now, researchers are shining a spotlight precisely on this. (Photo: NTB/Scanpix)

This article is translated by UiO:GPT Version 4

"The inner life of a government is a bit like any other workplace. You are colleagues and maintain a good rapport. As a minister, you spend a lot of time in the department, then you're out visiting the sector and in the Parliament arguing for your cases. And there are the government lunches and conferences, where you discuss as a collegiate body. In the evening, we might even have a glass of wine together. It was jovial and pleasant."

We meet Henrik Asheim of the Conservative Party at the Parliament. He served as Minister of Education and Research in Erna Solberg's government. Asheim is one of many former ministers sharing their experiences in a new book, "Regjeringen: Historien, makten og hverdagen" ("The Government: History, Power, and Everyday Life.")

"One of the great secrets about different governments is that 90 percent of the disagreements have nothing to do with party disagreements in a coalition government, but rather substantive differences between various portfolio holders or departments," says Jostein Askim. He is a professor of political science and research director for the POLITEX research project, which has contributed its findings to the book "Regjeringen" ("The Government)."

The researchers have examined Norwegian governments throughout the post-war period and interviewed a host of former ministers; many from Erna Solberg's government. Jonas Gahr Støre's government is not covered by the study.

"We have been keen to talk to those who are no longer in power. The ministers who are involved in current issues have good reasons not to speak so freely. It's easier for those who have stepped down to tell," says Marte Mangset.

She is an associate professor of sociology and the researcher in the study who conducted most of the interviews with former ministers.

Surprisingly well-oiled machinery

"There are many different actors who hold power in Norway, but the government is obviously central. Yet, the government is a political actor about which we know surprisingly little. Much is classified and somewhat mysterious. So we believe it is democratically important to learn more about what governments actually do, how they make decisions, and how ministers spend their time," says Mangset.

"What has surprised you the most?"

Prime Ministers, ministers, and governments come and go. They stay for one year, three years, five years, or eight years. Yet the central decision-making processes function quite well - undisturbed by these changes. I think it is surprising how smoothly the machinery operates and how independent it is of the individual or party, says Jostein Askim.

"What's the short answer to why it works so well?"

"The civil service is at least one answer. They are not supposed to tell a new government what the predecessor did, but there is a kind of code language. When new governments ask for suggestions on how to solve something, the civil service tends to come up with an answer. And that answer coincidentally might be something that the previous government did or what the civil service thought they should have done," says Askim.

"All the ministers we have spoken to say that the key to success lies in good cooperation with the civil service", Mangset emphasizes.

Then it's about not falling into any of the two ditches that many informants in the study speak of: One is having no direction and becoming a sort of hostage to the civil service. The other is not listening and becoming a kind of dictator. Neither of these roles is a recipe for success, according to the study. It's about finding the right balance.

Most ministers in the study praise the civil service to the skies to a degree that surprised the researchers.

Much is classified: "We know little about what happens behind closed doors in various governments," say Jostein Askim and Marte Mangset, who are now researching the matter. (Photo: Amund Aasbrenn/ UiO).

This text is based on an episode of Universitetsplassen - a research-based podcast in Norwegian from the University of Oslo. Political scientist Jostein Askim and sociologist Marte Mangset share their findings from the inner life of various Norwegian governments. And former minister, deputy leader of the Conservative Party Henrik Asheim talks about how he experienced being thrust into the role of minister and how he navigated it.

"Being asked to become a minister is in itself something that can take you aback. When you have said yes to that, you arrive in a department and then you don't really have time to sit down at your desk and think about what am I going to do now? Because that meeting is already underway. There are five or six cases on the table that will need to be settled within a week. Thus, you avoid the difficult part of a job, which is finding out what to do. It's accounted for in the department, I assure you," says Henrik Asheim when we ask him what it's like to be thrown into the job of a minister." (From an interview with Henrik Asheim at the parliament)

Marte Mangset confirms that Asheim's experience is shared by many former ministers - whether they have long or short political careers.

"They describe a feeling of being thrown into deep water. There is a lot of new stuff that they must deal with.

What kind of training do they get?

It’s kind of important that they don't know they’re appointed ministers until very shortly before, in part because the king should know first. So, they can't be trained weeks or months in advance. In practice there is a half-to-a-full-day crash course organised by the Prime Minister's office. It's largely about confidentiality, impartiality, and security, stuff that's new for a department. But lately, we've seen that the training hasn’t been functioning as well as it should," says Mangset.

She cites, among other things, impartiality cases - and also the cases of degree fraud, which have surfaced over the past year.

"Impartiality will probably be an even stronger part of the education hereafter," Askim remarks.

However, both he and Mangset stress that it's quite impossible to cover "everything that can go wrong". Spouses' "day-trading" or degree fraud would not necessarily be at the top of a training program for new ministers - if not for these very issues having come under media scrutiny. There could also be other problems that could emerge in the future - that no one has contemplated.

Strong community

The researchers also confirm Asheim's experience of collegiality in the government.

"It's quite fascinating how harmonious the collaboration appears in the narratives of the ministers we have spoken with. That doesn't necessarily mean that there haven't been intense debates. But I find it interesting how unanimously there is a need to present the collective; to show that the government is a unit, that they are loyal and that they work together. This is very strong in many of the interviews," says Mangset.

"When I am at the theater, I'm always a bit disappointed when the actors break character and come forward on stage afterwards to take a bow. It breaks the illusion. And it's a bit like that in politics as well. The sharp tone and near enmity are just for playing up to the media. Politicians are actually very civilized and well reconciled," says Askim.

He emphasizes that this is an art one learns in politics. One is obligated by the party program to disagree on issue after issue. But then they have to get along.

"So these are people who can be both civilized and disagree at the same time," says Askim.

In the interviews concerning the study of various governments, former ministers – across party lines – say that they give each other advice. Siv Jensen from the Progress Party had conversations with Kristin Halvorsen from the Socialist Left Party about what it's like to be a finance minister, about handling work pressure, and about life after being in the cabinet. Henrik Asheim confirms the same to us.

Closed to scrutiny

The most important government decisions are made during the weekly government conferences, in addition to the government lunches beforehand. These meetings are completely closed to scrutiny. Marte Mangset explains why:

"One reason is that they could involve stock market-sensitive or security policy-important issues. The other is that the ministers and the prime minister should feel free to air ideas and thoughts without having to be accountable for them in public afterwards. If the public were allowed in at all times, one would have to be careful about what they say. In a closed room, there's the opportunity to discuss through various possible solutions," says Mangset.

Henrik Asheim speaks about a hierarchy within the government:

Manipulator? As a minister, it's essential to gain allies, according to former minister Henrik Asheim. (Photo: Susanne Njølstad/UiO)

"Of course, there's the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister; those two speak a lot together before the government conferences. And when there are multiple parties in the government, the party leaders—regardless of their departments—are extra significant. They can also have pre-meetings and put in stakes for what's important for their party.

"When I was responsible for higher education, I shared department with Guri Melby, who was the leader of the Liberal Party, and that was a huge plus for me because I could influence her during our departmental lunches, before she then went and had meetings with the Prime Minister," he chuckles.

"One could indeed call it manipulation, and sometimes it certainly is, but this is what political craftsmanship is all about," says Marte Mangset.

"Their job is to prepare, gather information in advance, be aware of what is politically possible, who supports what, and build up support for a project they have. This is their area of expertise and professional practice. This is necessary if you want to get anything accomplished," she emphasizes.

"There can be over a hundred cases to be brought up in a government conference. Then you need to have suggestions for agreement beforehand. If all cases were presented without any kind of preliminary discussion, it wouldn't be possible to make the sausage factory that is the government conference work," says Askim.

What does the perfect minister look like?

"Many say that experience from the Parliament is the most important, although you can also benefit from experience as a city council member, bureaucrat, or organizational experience. But parliamentary experience is probably most important," says Mangset.

Who is the typical minister?

"The typical minister is a male, 45 years old with two terms in the Parliament behind him," tells Jostein Askim. However, he finds it more interesting to talk about the typical or perfect government:

"It's important to have different types: some women and some men, some older and some younger, some with professional experience and some with a lot of political experience, some from the countryside and some from the cities. That way you get a discussion that is enriched, with multiple perspectives," he says.

And how should a Prime Minister be?

"Well, there are also different types according to what the interviewees describe. We've spoken with many from the Solberg government. Many talk about Erna Solberg's consensus orientation, that she was very collectively oriented, that everyone should participate in discussion. Many point to that as a benefit. But there are some who say that there's also too much talk - from all this consensus orientation," says Marte Mangset.

How demanding is it to stand in a job as a minister?

"This is people who are often in their 40s and tend to have young children. Balancing this professional life in a family situation is something that most find difficult. Not only must you lead a department and participate in government arenas. You also have to attend party events on evenings and weekends. So this is something they can endure for a few years. Very few at that age can withstand this over time," emphasizes Askim.

"Some of those we talked to say that it's important to have a constitution for the job. One must not let things affect them too much. One must handle living with the pressure. But they also say that there are advantages to coming in and becoming the minister in the department. They have a civil service that works for them. They have speech writers and political advisors. So, they have a lot of people to "serve" them around. That's also important to make everyday life manageable," says Mangset.

In and out just as suddenly

Suddenly, the day is over. That day can come very abruptly for an individual. One day you are in one of Norway's most important positions, and then it's over. Henrik Asheim describes it this way:

"Entering the government and leaving it again is a bit like jumping into a tumble dryer, and then suddenly falling out of it. Because you come in, become a minister, suddenly you find that everyone refers to you at work as 'the minister,' you sit at the end of every table, everyone looks at you when you speak. You can become blase and self-absorbed by such things. Then, eventually, it comes to an end. Either you have to step down due to a reshuffle, or you lose an election, as we did. And then it becomes very quiet, very quickly. It's a transition where you have to give your key card to your successor, then the department takes your key card, you're no longer in the cabinet, they take your computer, they take your phone, they escort you out of the department because you're actually not allowed to be there anymore. And then the door closes, and then it's completely silent. You're just an ordinary person on the street. I believe at the same time it's very healthy for many to experience that."

Is it healthy to be so suddenly out of the limelight?

"The ones we've talked to don't complain much about it, but several of those we've interviewed bring this up as something they very much relate to. Suddenly they are out of the dance - and they often don't have time to think ahead about what they're going to do afterwards," says Mangset.

"For the individual, it can certainly be a brutal encounter with a working life that may not know exactly what to do with a former politician and minister. But for society, I think we should be very grateful for the way it is. We can imagine a model where the government at any time offers its colleagues retreat positions; as attractive positions in the state administration here and there. We have a small tradition with county governors or state administrators, but otherwise, there is very little of that in Norway, and I think we should be very happy about that," says Askim.

The source of this news is from University of Oslo