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Sigge Winther wants a revolution within the Danish state — and it all starts with the universities

New book — A new class of entrepreneurial officials is to save the state from inertia and system failure. It requires a completely new university to educate these people — a kind of über-officials.

The rooms at the Djøf trade union offices in the city centre near Nørreport station are closed and shut off. The staff of this trade union — which is for people who have a higher education degree in the social science — have been sent home from their height-adjustable desks for the duration of the pandemic, just like the other thousands in the height-adjustable-desk-segment that they represent.

But Sigge Winther is still here. Speed chatting in wireless earphones, cell phone in hand, it as if he dances down the stairs.

Winther is on the way. The 39-year-old deputy director for Djøf did a PhD In political science with sojourns in the US at elite universities Berkeley and Columbia, has been a civil servant in the Ministry of Finance, a policy analyst at Politiken and a TV host on the DR2 news flagship Deadline. His next project: A revolution within the state itself.

It has taken him several years to put down his thoughts in the book Entreprenørstaten — on the entrepreneurial state. Its subtitle, on ‘why voters’ wishes vanish into thin air – and how we can fix it’, hints at how, according to Sigge Winther, it is necessary to radically change the state we know.

Because the Danish political machine is stagnating, argues Winther. The Danish state and its 700,000 employees have lost the ability to drive political changes. Politicians, journalists and government officials have become helpless spirits forever running faster without getting anything out of the spectacle than pseudo politics that make absolutely zero difference to the citizens of this country.

The state has degenerated

Winther offers a Kafkaesque example of government regulation.

»I bought a holiday home on [the Danish island of, ed.] Møn,« he says. »I’m really happy about it – but there’s this huge oil burner in the house that has to be removed. It’s a major operation. Even though there are all sorts of schemes and structures and incentives to encourage people to remove their oil burners, it just doesn’t happen very quickly. Partly because nutcases like me just don’t pull ourselves together. This is a classic way in which government conceives of problem solving: You make some regulations and some incentives, and expect it to work. It just does not always do this.«

SIGGE WINTHER

Sigge Winther Nielsen (born 1982) has a MSc and PhD In political science from the University of Copenhagen. He has lived in the USA for several years as a visiting researcher at Berkeley, University of California and as a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York.

He has been a political analyst at the daily newspaper Politiken and TV host for the DR2 programme deadline and an official at the Ministry of Finance. Today, he is deputy director of the trade union Djøf and a board member in Planetary Impact Ventures.

Sigge Winther has written a number of research articles on politics and election behaviour and is co-author of a number of books, most recently Entreprenørstaten from 2021.

 

To describe the problems in democracy Sigge Winther uses the metaphor of a house. The house has a front door and a back door. The front door of democracy is the public conversation where political initiatives are presented and opinions are shaped. The back door to democracy is the policies that are adopted in parliament at Christiansborg and implemented in practice, so that citizens actually feel a difference. The link between the front door, and the back door, is no longer there however. This is the problem, according to Sigge Winther:

»The political system that we have built up over the past 20 years has become more and more perverted with the advent of political communication. This has resulted in a system failure, which means that the present type of governing has difficulty solving the biggest problems.«

The entrepreneurial state, the title of his book, is the solution, according to Sigge Winther.

»The entrepreneurial state puts the biggest problems aside, and zooms in on solving a handful of severe problems,« he says.

»In other words, some problems that we have been attempting to solve for decades, and which we have not been able to solve. Whether this is on learning difficulties for the weakest in primary and lower secondary schools, homelessness, or the climate crisis. Unlike previous problems, these problems are very, very difficult – and this is also why they continue.«

Because it is not difficult to build a primary school. Or get some teachers to teach in it. The hard thing is to finetune this to perfection. To reach where we get the last 20 per cent, which for all sorts of reasons find it difficulty to learn and thrive.

»Here it gets really complex because the problems are tangled up with a lot of other problems,« says Sigge Winther.

The existing state, with its cold competitive logic, overzealous performance management, ranking benchmarks and utility maximisation – the competition state, which the Danish social scientist Ove Kaj Pedersen called it – may have eked out a little bit extra from social workers and government officials. But this model of the state often comes up short when the problems are so complex that it is not possible to solve them by doing what we normally do – just faster and better. No, the major problems that remain, they need to be conceived more »holistically« according to Sigge Winther.

The brightest and the best

The entrepreneurial state needs to come from the universities.

»The university is the state’s food chain. In the end, it is the university that determines what face the state puts on,« says Sigge Winther.

»Whenever a state has been transformed historically, it has been because the people who were inside the state were given new skills and a new outlook,« he says, and invites us to look back to Germany 200 years ago.

»When the Stein-Hardenberg reforms built up the German rule of law, this could happen because they created a completely new university – with Wilhelm von Humboldt as the driving force. A university that had a quite different way of looking at the world, which meant that the people who came out of there – the brightest and the best – went into state employment and helped build up the rule of law. This would not have happened without the university.«

You cannot change this by setting up some kind of new master's degree programme. It needs Humboldt-like reforms.
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That is why Sigge Winther says that the university has a huge role to play. It needs to listen to what politicians and democracy says — that we need the skills, »but then to stand up tall and say: We believe that if we are to solve the very complex problems we face, we need to think about the world in a new way.«

In fact, according to Sigge Winther, a brand new university is needed, just like when the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin was founded in 1810, a university that is to educate the »political entrepreneurs of the future«. The super-officials, if you want to call them that.

Because even though Sigge Winther says that the university world is moving forward and would like to be a part of the problem-solving process, the current universities are hardly up to the task.

»Loads of centres are being set up with interdisciplinarity and with ideas about how we can solve all the world’s problems. But if you ask me whether this is enough, I would say: Not necessarily. I think that if you really want to move things, it requires something bigger. It needs a new space. Not necessarily the kind of new space like outside Roskilde [in Denmark where the university there was set up in 1972, ed.], but it needs a new, open space.«

Cold War university, yes please

Sigge Winther does not just want a new Roskilde University, or an extra University of Copenhagen. Or a counterpart to the University of Southern Denmark, this time in Horsens. No, the university needs to be thought out in a completely new way. The inspiration? It comes from the Cold War space race between the USA and the Soviet Union.

In 1957, when the Russians sent the world’s first satellite into orbit around the Earth, the US President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded promptly: Less than six months later, he set up the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA.

»There were some quick fixes that I think would be extremely effective today. They put a lot of money into it, and then they make it long-term, and said that nothing necessarily should come out of it for the next five or ten years – it can take 20 years. And most importantly, they pooled some of the best researchers with the private sector and bureaucrats from the public sector and told them: Get us to the moon. Make it happen.«

»The new university must have a 100 per cent focus on problem-solving and be built up over the DARPA model, where you bring stakeholders together from the private sector, civil society, the public sector and the world of research. I think that you have to fundamentally think about it like that. Because the state cannot solve fundamental problems itself today.«

I think if you really want to move things, it requires something bigger. It needs a new space.
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The corona crisis has given us a taste of what the future über-officials from Sigge Winther’s Cold-War-university should be able to do. It has moved government officials in the central government administration out of their usual setting and focused energies on the pandemic.

THIS IS WHat THE government official OF THE FUTURE WILL LEARN AT A NEW UNIVERSITY:

1) Understanding and collaboration with other professional groups and stakeholders

2) Insight into problem solving of severe problems through partnerships and design thinking

3) The ability to devise new policy ideas

4) The ability to make sense of, and build confidence in, political decisions

5) Insight into the collaborative implementation of political reforms.

 

People who have been in the Danish Ministry of Culture or Ministry of Education have been moved to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Social Affairs, because they were really needed there. The Danish government officials and political entrepreneurs of the future have to be able to do this. And they have to learn it at the university.

Because when corona crisis is over and the entrepreneurial state has been built up, we need to get used to focusing on other problems just like we focused on corona: With full speed ahead and no more silo mentality.

»Try and imagine if you could say: For the next two years, we need to solve these four problems. That is the task. Generally speaking, it may well be that 500 out of the 1,000 who work at the Ministry of Social Affairs will have to go over and work on behavioural changes in the Ministry of Climate Change, so that I can get rid of my oil burner. This matrix type of organisation can revolutionise the state,« says Sigge Winther.

But this needs a new space:

»I once talked to a senior manager at a university who said that moving a university is like moving a cemetery – you don’t get much help from down below,« says Sigge Winther and laughs a little.

»Most people who have been in organisations know how difficult it is to build up something on top of all the structures that already exist. A university is something – in this world – where there is so much embedded culture and structure. You cannot change this by setting up some kind of new master’s degree programme. It calls for Humboldt-like reforms.«

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