How breaking the law becomes OK for a Director General

If someone would have asked the Director General of the Swedish Transport Agency Maria Ågren at the time of her appointment if she would consider committing an offense in order to do her job, one can be quite sure of what the answer would have been. Yet, this is exactly what happened.

The Director General is not alone in similar situations. Everyone – in private as well as public sector - who is held to deliver on time, keep budget, reach set goals, etc., must sometimes choose between failure and a path near or crossing that which is morally or legally acceptable.  

This dilemma is exactly what lies behind many of the transgressions and corrupt deals that have been revealed in recent years. Imagine the IT-manager who needs to quickly resolve am malfunction in the municipality's IT-system. Instead of following the proper procurement process, divides the project into smaller parts, which is OK to order directly from the municipality's normal IT-provider. The cost will be higher, but the job will be completed on time.

It is not always time that is the decisive parameter; often it is cost. Regardless, research has shown that a deviant behavior over time is "rationalized". The deviant and doubtful will gradually become the normal.

Naturally, the decision makers have the best interests of the organisation, it is inherently in their interest that the business works. There is nothing pointing to that Ågren acted in anything other than the Transport Agency's best interests. But to commit a formal error in pursuit of efficiency, is that ok or not? The answer obviously depends on many factors - the moral compass of the involved persons, the core norms nd values f the organization, the management's own behavior, etc.

The culture of an organization, and the attitude of individuals towards irregularities, is not static. The several years long incident at the Transport Agency clearly shows how decision-making processes slowly but surely degenerate to the extent that both morals and laws were ignored.

The solution lies partly in establishing an understanding of the organization's code of conduct and what is considered irregularities. To create the right attitude so that the person who is alerting any deviations is legitimised, respected and appreciated.

It is not enough to have a well formulated policy document that collects dust in the organisation's intranet. Working towards a well-functioning and efficient business that maintains both moral and legal values s an ongoing work - it applies to all organizations. The Swedish government is no exception.


This is a translation of the article "Så blir lagbrott ok för en generaldirektör"originally published in Aftonbladet Debatt.