Barack Obama, Changing University Mission, Charlotte Sahl-Madsen, Competency, Danish Election 2011, Elite and Mass institution, gender issues, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Humboldt's university idea, Jens Oddershede, Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen., Leadership, Magrethe Vestager, Manipulation, MInistry of Science and Innovation, Populism, Red-Green Alliance, Renaissance, Science Policy, Smoke and mirrors, Social Democrats, Social Liberals, Socialists, Society, University Governance, women in politics, Women of power in Denmark
Denmark got a new government this week.
The government will likely consist of some coalition between the Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterene, 20% of votes and the largest party in the block), the Social Liberals (Radikale Venstre, 9.5%), the Socialists (Socialistisk Folkeparti, 9.2%) and the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten, 6.7%). The election was very close with 89 out of the 179 seats to the “Red Block” (social democrats, social liberals and socialists) and 86 seats to the “Blue Block” (liberals, conservatives and right wing).
Now, after the election, I realize that three of these four parties have female leaders and that this gender issue apparently is a big deal, judging by the local media coverage as well as many of the local blogs. So first a big welcome to our three new Danish female political leaders:
As I’m reflecting on this election, it of course marks a historic event, and it is certainly very good that Danish girls all ages can now directly see that women can also lead the country, although I suspect most Danish girls already is well aware of that. However, gender roles only change slowly, and it actually took 93 years, between the time the Danish women obtained the right to vote, till they were voted into public office and were asked to lead the country. Yes, that is a very long time.
As I reflect more on this gender issue, it’s obvious to me that some of the smartest and most competent people I have ever known are women, which is probably why the gender issue never occurred to me in connection to this election. Also Denmark is one of the countries in the world with the highest degree of imbedded traditional female values into the culture and the laws, so the gender distribution in the election is no surprise to me. I rather see it as a coincidence that it happened now. As a comparison, I do not feel the first Danish female Prime Minister has the same cultural significance as the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States.
The key question about the new Danish government is, however, neither about gender nor about Red, Blue or Green, it is:
Will this new government break with the last 10+ years of increasingly populistic policies?
Will the new Danish government be able to switch away from promoting manipulation, spin and incompetent shortsighted policies towards valuing competency and policies based on insight and what is good for the citizens and the country in the long run?
This issue is of course of imminent importance for the ongoing negotiations and selection of all the new Ministers going into Office.
I have some domain knowledge and insight about the area currently under the Ministry of Science and Innovation.
The last two Danish Ministers of Science and Innovation did not themselves have domain competencies. A leader without domain competency in this position might work, if the leadership includes a strong team with domain expertise, and if the advice from the team becomes an integral part of all policies going out of the Ministry.
Unfortunately, that was not generally the case, despite, I believe, the best of intentions by both of our previous Ministers. I had the opportunity to shortly discuss science policy with our latest Minister, Charlotte Sahl-Madsen, mainly before she became a Minister. She was energetic and she certainly seemed to have the heart at the right place. I also clearly felt that she sincerely wanted to do what was best for the country. Thus, I believe there were larger systemic issues blocking good policies as I’ll discuss below. Also to support this suspicion, there has been very little long-term vision and substance in the policies coming out of any of the Danish Ministries in recent years.
This poor governmental performance in recent years is mainly due to an avoidance of most major societal issues. For years our critical societal issues were left untouched as potatoes too hot to touch. The populist government was too scared about dealing with issues that potentially could cause a loss of votes: “How can we continue to pay for the famous Danish social welfare system?” “How can we reduce the world’s highest tax rates?” “And most importantly: can we do both?” “How can the nation re-organize to become a knowledge-based society – perhaps spearheading the development of green technology to the world?” “How do we mitigate the consequences of more than a generation of incompetent immigration policies and embrace globalization?”
These are all very complex issues, which are completely impossible to address properly in a populistic context. You cannot manipulate or spin yourself out of any of these issues, so the political spin-doctors all wisely advised the previous governments to stay clear of any such issues.
However, as we all know, in the long run, you cannot govern a country on spin and manipulation. Eventually you have to face the music.
It may not be culturally fashionable in Denmark right now, but I firmly believe that what we do as an individual really matters. And we do far better as individuals the more we know about the matters at stake. Wise decisions carry everybody further, they benefit all of us more and they cause us and our environment less damage. It is also individual decisions that create the institutions that unintentionally may limit our freedoms and create systemic problems and overall bad organizational performance. Striving to make wise decisions must, in my opinion, be at the beginning and at the end of all public policy. This has clearly not been the case in Danish public policy the last 10+ years.
Therefore, I believe the best place to demonstrate a new course and real leadership for the new government is to put into place competent leadership in all of the Ministries. This would be an excellent place to start breaking the neck on the malicious populism we are currently suffering under.
Getting back to my backyard, one obvious candidate for the head of the Ministry of Science and Innovation would be Jens Oddershede our current Chairman of the Council of University Presidents (Universities Denmark). He has many years of experience with national science policy, he has deep domain knowledge about the ins and outs of the Danish Universities as well as their role in society, and he has many years of experience as a great scientist. Once a competent leadership is in place, two very challenging issues are at hand:
First of all, Denmark is long overdue for a broad, both internal and public, discussion about the new role of the Danish Universities. The Danish Universities has neither externally nor internally transformed from the former small elite organizations to large mass organizations. A generation ago only a few % of a Danish generation went through the universities while the current target is 40% of a generation.
This scale change is driven from the outside of the universities and an unfinished transformation of the universities as organizations is the underlying cause for many of the current institutional problems. For institutions of the age and the complexity as our universities such a massive adjustment is both complicated and time consuming, and it is therefore not a welcomed issue to deal with in a populistic environment.
The issue of expanded university missions is not just a Danish issue. I see many other European countries also currently confronted with this issue.
Secondly, the Danish Universities urgently need new governance rules. We currently have a governance form that is quite similar to that of e.g. General Motors. Most Danes are not aware that our current university governance is significantly more top-down and corporate in nature than any university governance I have seen at US universities. It is, however, clear to most people associated with the Danish Universities that it is causing all kinds of problems trying to govern the universities as if they were large corporations.
In all fairness the previous Danish University Governance did not function appropriately, so the previous governments had to change things. The previous university governance was implemented as a result of the dramatic social changes in the 60s, and it had a unique Danish implementation, which made decision-making very difficult, some would say, next to impossible. However, replacing the previous too flat university governance with a too vertical governance was … well … not a wise decision. However, the decision was well in line with the previous populistic governments and it is actually an excellent example of our unfortunate Danish Signal Policy. (Signal Policy has become the name for a fast and decisive policy change, which is mainly implemented to send a strong signal about change, rather than intended to function in the long term).
Universities as institutions are ancient. They postdate the industrial revolution by hundreds of years. Since the Renaissance the main university mission has been to create and to sort “good knowledge” from “bad knowledge” and this process has accelerated in particular after Humboldt’s ideas was implemented in the mid to late 1800s. Since then, the mission of the few, small, elite universities was to generate new insights based on the scientific methods and mainly to do it for the sake of knowledge generation itself as well as a basis for possible new technologies. Training of students in the classical as well as the new “best knowledge” was an integral part of the process.
To keep this basic university mission intact and at the same time expand the university mission to directly boost societal productivity and wealth production is not an easy task. It certainly warrens the development of new organizations and new governance rules. Further, as the universities have grown dramatically in volume over the last generation, financially responsible governance has become even more important, which, however, still does not warren a switch to our current university governance form basically copied and pasted from large for profit corporations.
How to assemble functional university organizations and policies for this new expended mission is a complex process (as is the design of all public governance). It will require hard work, many different competencies as well patience and time to implement and test.
In any event, I firmly believe the chances for a successful future of the Danish Universities increase significantly if the people responsible for this re-organisation process truly understand what they are dealing with.
Therefore to the new Women of Power in Denmark:
Break with current praxis.
When assembling the new Parliament, value competency, experience and insight.
Do not continue to rule by smoke and mirrors. We’ve see that it doesn’t work in the long run, and we all have too much at stake.