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Government agencies’ work to promote a good administrative culture

The Swedish Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret) has investigated how government agencies work to achieve a good administrative culture and what challenges and opportunities they face in this work. The starting point is that a good administrative culture is the institutionalisation of central government’s basic values.

The study is part of Statskontoret's remit to promote a good central government administrative culture and contribute knowledge to develop administrative policy. The aim is to gather experiences, learn lessons and spread knowledge about how agency managements can work for a good administrative culture.

In the study, we examined the agencies’ work based on four factors that, according to our collective experience, are central to promoting a good administrative culture. The factors are consensus on the mission, internal control, leadership and employeeship as well as education and continuing training.

The agencies’ work to create consensus is broad and varied

 The agency management, managers and co-workers must have a common understanding of the agency’s mission. Our study shows that the agencies use discussions between management and co-workers to create consensus on the mission. They also use the organisation of operations as a tool to increase operational consistency. Some agencies also see the development of their own values as a way of creating consensus on the mission. But the lesson we learned is that there are several risks associated with own values, such as the displacement of the principles of central government basic values.

The agencies use internal policy documents to create a sound administrative culture

 The agency management is ultimately responsible for the internal policy documents, including ensuring that the operations are conducted efficiently and effectively in accordance with applicable law. Our study shows that some agencies concretise activities for a good administrative culture in their operational plans. But there is a risk that such activities will become one-off occurrences. Another lesson learned is that guidelines on, for example, conflicts of interest, secondary employment and how managers and co-workers should handle suspicions of corruption and fraud can counteract conflicts of interest and promote a good administrative culture. However, in order for such internal policy documents to contribute to a good administrative culture, they must also be well-known, easily accessible, easy to understand and adapted to the specific operations.

Leadership and committed co-workers are needed to create a good administrative culture

The agency’s management and managers have great potential to influence the administrative culture. Our study shows that a good administrative culture must be an integral part of the leadership. Managers that are present who can support co-workers in their efforts also have better prospects of counteracting corruption. One of our lessons learned is that managers need time and knowledge to be present. Some managers also believe that they do not have sufficient resources to work for a good administrative culture, for example to discuss the central government basic values with co-workers.

We learned that management can promote this, for example by being open about important decisions. At the same time, openness must not inhibit the management’s decision-making capacity, as this risks reducing co-workers’ commitment.

Introductory training is common, but continuing training rare

It is important that all co-workers have an understanding of the statutory requirements of a government agency and the role of a government employee.

Two tools to achieve this are education and continuing training. Most agencies have introductory training programmes. Almost all of these include the central government basic values. But our study shows that the quality of introductory training does not always meet the needs of employees. Consequently, what we have learned is that agencies must ensure that introductory training gives co-workers the knowledge and tools they need to be secure in the role of government employee. We also see that relatively few agencies offer continuing training in the role of government employee, despite the fact that it is possible to include the central government basic values in other training programmes where co-workers can deepen their knowledge.

All government employees can be faced with situations where the principles of the central government basic values are in opposition. Our study shows that some agencies regularly use dilemma exercises as a tool to prepare for such situations. But the lesson we drew is that to be meaningful, the exercises must be adapted to the operations and the specific situations the co-workers may be faced with.