How can 300 government officials earn more than the Prime Minister of Norway?

Kroner currencyPhoto: Gorm Kallestad / NTB
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A new study has found that managers and leading officials in the public sector in Norway have seen unprecedented levels of wages growth over a 20 year period. These senior civil servants saw their wages grow by 64% from 1997 to 2020. Not only did this wage growth dwarf anything similar in the private sector but those lower on the job ladder missed out on the same levels of wage growth over the same period. Does this study cast new light on a seemingly ever-expanding and costly bureaucracy? How can 300 government officials make more than the Prime Minister of Norway and, more importantly, is this right?

Public sector has endured “duos annos horribilis”

The last thing that the public sector needs is any bad publicity. The past two years have seen a series of blunders and scandals rock the public’s trust in civil and government institutions which are supposed to be run for the benefit of society.

The front of many newspapers was awash with the details, in late 2019, of the human fallout from the NAV scandal. The largest social welfare scandal in modern Norwegian history was committed and continued by government officials, civil servants, and public officials from all political persuasions. A Criminal Cases Commission has reopened 36 cases this September connected to the NAV scandal.

Next came the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us who dealt little, on a daily basis, with the public sector had to learn how best to deal, on a daily basis, with the public sector. Though many government and public institutions delivered services throughout the pandemic, wait times were often long as a system dealt with unprecedented demand due to economic, financial, and health-related repercussions of the pandemic. Frustration with a slow system was as rampant as the coronavirus itself. Norway survived the pandemic but the Conservative-led government did not.

The tragic murder of a NAV case handler, in Bergen, this September, saw a spate of admissions about civil servants coping bucketloads of abuse whilst fearing for their safety, security, or even their lives simply doing their job every day. These past two years have not been good for the public sector and a new study on public sector wage growth will no doubt cause more angst.

Study finds 64% wage growth for senior civil servants

When the finer points about the survey in Jørgen Tveit Sandberg’s Master Thesis, for the Department of Economics at the University of Oslo (UiO) emerged, many public sector spin doctors were probably less than thrilled. Mr. Sandberg found that for the period 1997 to 2020, senior public sector officials and managers saw a 64% growth in their wages. 64%. This wage growth was significantly more than both the private sector and those lower on the job ladder in the public sector. As Mel Brooks once quipped “It’s good to be the king.”

It should be no surprise that a study has found the public sector in Norway is well paid. A relatively high cost of living coupled with a very strong union movement has laid the foundation of a high standard of living that many of us enjoy in Norway. What is alarming about the findings in Mr. Sandberg’s Master’s Thesis is the exponential growth of wage increases only for senior-level management in the public sector. Those at the top of the public sector pyramid went about increasing their wages whilst not ensuring they did the same for the very people they manage or boss around.

Want a new competition over the government quarter
Part of the government quarters in Oslo – where the money is…for some. / Photo: Stian Lysberg Solum / NTB

Already high wages just get higher…

Employees in the public sector are already amongst the best paid in the country. As part of annual labor negotiations, the Technical Calculation Committee (Teknisk beregningsutvalg, TBU) compiles figures on wages in the public sector every year. For the latest figures available, the year 2019, the TBU found a 3.8% average annual growth in wages.

With figures gathered by Statistics Norway (SSB), for 2019-20, the average monthly earnings of senior government officials was almost NOK 100.000 whilst legislators (sometimes accused of enriching themselves first and foremost) were paid 30% less!

Yet not everyone in the public sector was cashing in. Those lower down on the rung saw minuscule pay rises. Government tax and excises officials only saw a 2% pay rise in 2019-20 (almost half of the supposed 3.8% average wage growth for the public sector) whilst government social benefit officials (think the NAV employees that helped many Norwegians with dagpenger, permittering, and other coronavirus related employment issues over the past 18 months) saw their wages increase, in the same period, only 2.1%.

300 officials who earn more than the PM

Aside from the fact that wage growth is clearly not shared equally in the public sector, there is also an inconvenient truth lurking in Mr. Sandberg’s research. He found that there are, today, more than 300 officials, in the public sector, who earn more than the Prime Minister himself. These are the sort of top management and senior civil servants who have ensured the 64% wage growth over the two-decade period of Mr. Sandberg’s study.

Being the head of a government department, agency, or institution, in charge of a horde of public servants, responsible for the daily operations of huge parts or sectors of Norway, is a big responsibility and no doubt should be compensated adequately. However, are there really 300 people whose job should be compensated more than the man who helps govern and run Norway itself?

For many of these 300 officials, there is little public knowledge or feedback available for how they conduct their jobs. The Prime Minister, of course, we can hire and fire every 4 years, yet the same cannot be said for many in the government bureaucracy. A classic example of this is Sigurn Vågeng, the former Director of NAV, who stood down after the NAV scandal broke (though she was not solely responsible for the scandal it did happen on her watch) but is still employed by the agency.

1000 NOK money
Some top public sector employees receive 100 of these a month. / Photo: Norges Bank

More accountability and transparency needed

Since September last year, the official inflation rate has been 4.1%. Many of us have experienced a change in employment status, economic or financial uncertainty or simply seen have less purchasing power as prices have risen. Though the economy of Norway has emerged relatively unscathed from COVID-19, thanks, in part, to many in the public sector, the timing of Mr. Sandberg’s research could not be better. With a new government in power, now is the time to look at not only how much these officials and top-level management get but also to assess the job they’re doing in a more transparent and holistic approach. A simple question should be asked: is what they are doing really worth the amount of money they receive?

If the average wage increase, for the public sector, was 3.8% in pre-pandemic times, how much will the next pay increase be? Will the top management and senior officials, in the public sector, finally recognize and reward the hard work of those, lower down, that helped keep the economy, indeed society, ticking over during the pandemic?

Mr. Sandberg’s figures highlight how some, over the past two decades, have secured ever-increasing wages paid for by the taxpayers of Norway. Surely more accountability is needed before the public grows even wearier of these public sector shenanigans.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Norway Today unless specifically stated.

About the author:

Jonathan is a lover of the written word. He believes the best way to combat this polarization of news and politics, in our time, is by having a balanced view. Both sides of the story are equally important. He also enjoys traveling and live music.

Source: #Norway Today / #NorwayTodayNews

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