Union participation in Norwegian municipal reform rollouts works best

Article by Nina Monsen, Fagforbundet

In 2017, PSI affiliate Fagforbundet (the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees) together with other municipal sector unions Akademikerne, YS and Unio the Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation and the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities[1], signed a social dialogue agreement to shape inclusive strategy for trade union and local government stakeholder participation in local government transformation.

The agreement was piloted with two projects tackling different subjects: the first aimed to develop shared strategies for the rollout of new digitalisation processes in local public administration services. The second aimed to pilot a similar participative approach, but within the context of institutional local government reform agreed by the Norwegian Parliament in 2017.

Assessment of participatory processes in digitalisation rollouts in 70 Norwegian municipalities

The first national project “Digitalisation and capacity building in municipalities” was launched in 2017. Funded with about 300 000 EUR (NOK 3 million) by the Norwegian Ministry of Local Government, it involved almost 70 municipalities and was due to last till the end of 2019.

Following an in-depth assessment, the advantages of tripartite dialogue and social partners cooperation among public service unions, local and central government authorities when rolling out digitalisation technologies in the municipal sector and dealing with related restructuring processes were clear and confirmed by all parties.

“The projects raised awareness in many municipalities about the positive results municipal tripartite dialogue and cooperation among the local administration, the shop stewards and the local politicians can yield,” said Sissel M. Skoghaug, Fagforbundet’s Vice President on the official closing of the pilot projects in December 2019 at the Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation.

Fagforbundet played a key role in the two projects, both carried out in cooperation with other municipal sector unions Akademikerne, YS and Unio; the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation; and the employer organisation the Norwegian Association of Regional and Local Authorities (KS).

Participation and dialogue among unions, local government and politicians pays off

The regular, systematic exchange of experience among the over 70 participating municipalities has been central to the digitalisation project. “Social dialogue and collective bargaining are a requirement to ensure a good digital transformation in municipal government services and institutions”, says Skoghaug. “The programmes have clearly highlighted the importance of involving municipal service workers and shop stewards in digitalisation processes from the very onset,” she said.

The feedback collected from project participants showed that many had become more aware of the useful role played by the active participation of union shop stewards, local politicians and the municipal administration in the launch of digitalisation processes within municipalities and their services. The opportunity to proactively participate and contribute to the process, as well as to collectively bargain issues related to the rollout of digital technologies translated into a better foundation and common understanding and goals of the digitalisation processes in different municipal services and workplaces. Some municipalities reported that the management had changed or improved the way they involved and cooperated with shop stewards. The importance of peer learning and inter-municipal cooperation within the same region was also emphasized as a factor of success in the introduction of new digitalisation technologies.

Building a shared strategy is key

"To develop a strong shared ownership of incoming digitalisation processes, shop stewards, management and the local politicians must cooperate on the strategy-building process," said Renate Fagerness Sjøenden Fagforbundet’s shop steward, and Kjell Rasmussen, Head of Development in the Porsanger Municipality, one of the municipalities participating in the “Digitalisation and capacity building” project.

“Although inclusive processes are time-consuming, they are well worth pursuing as they lead to superior outcomes delivering stronger, more cohesive strategies that are better set to succeed,” added Sjøenden and Rasmussen.

“On the management level, we have been used to aiming for the finish line as quickly as possible to deliver results. Now, the most important focus is to get to the finish line together,” Rasmussen said.

The shop steward agrees. “Getting the process right is actually as important the result. When all parties work together on the strategy, we have joint ownership. This means that once changes are implemented, the strategy will not just be put in a drawer and forgotten, but it will be used effectively in the organisation,” Sjøenden says.

Rasmussen admits that at first it was not easy to invite the shop stewards into the municipality’s digital strategy work. “We were worried we might lose control of the strategy. The shop stewards are highly knowledgeable and ask many questions that we had not thought of,” he says.

With this social dialogue approach, the municipality involved unions in discussions about digitalisation strategies both in institutional and in informal meeting.

“Involving the shop stewards reduced the scepticism towards municipal service digitalisation and encouraged employees to actively contribute to the processes. We could express our opinion on the strategy. Although not everything we said is included, it is important that our concerns could be heard,” Sjøenden says.

To involve the local politicians, the municipal digitalisation strategy was discussed in local government councils and committees.

Trade union participation is an asset at times of institutional local government reforms

The second national project encouraged social dialogue and union participation of Norwegian municipalities and counties touched by the local government merger structural reform. In 2014, Norway passed a law that mandated the merger of 119 municipalities into 47 and of 19 county councils into 11. The reform foresaw completion in 2020, when Norway would have 356 municipalities and 11 regions.

This institutional reform has been highly demanding on Fagforbundet’s shop stewards, as they had to ensure the merger did not negatively affect local government working conditions, while at the same time having to keeping up with their usual tasks and workload as workers’ representatives.

Through the “New municipalitiesproject, shop stewards, local administration representatives and politicians all received training on the legal and formal processes municipalities had to go through for the merger process. The aim was to ensure that the three parties would then collaborate on the merger process, and the project promoted involvement and participation.

“One of the results of this joint training approach was that shop stewards obtained additional paid time allowances to work on union issues in the municipalities. Mayors and the administrative managers grasped themselves the importance of providing shop stewards enough time to work on the local government structural reform to ensure a good process,” added Skoghaug, who took part in several of the project trainings herself.

At the official closing of the two national reform projects, all parties confirmed their willingness to continue their cooperation on similar municipal projects in the future.

[1] The national association of Norwegian municipal and local government employers.

Originally published by Fagforbundet on 16 December 2019 and 1 April 2019.