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Lessons learned from the Strategic Government Programme

Juha Sipilä's government was the first to introduce the Strategic Government Programme. Before the government's mid-term review, it is a good idea to evaluate how well the new operating model has succeeded in improving the government's functional ability – and what areas still require improvement and development.


Mikko Kosonen


The implementation of the Strategic Government Programme was the most visible change after the parliamentary elections of 2015. All of the main parties prepared for the parliamentary elections with their individual strategic government programmes, which the new Government of Finland used as the basis for preparing a shared vision for Finland (20-year time span), strategic objectives (10 years) and objectives for the government term (four years). Subsequently, the government determined its key projects, which aim to put the practical measures for implementing the strategy in a concrete form.

The goal of this new approach was to clarify the direction of the government and prioritise central themes and projects. Indeed, the government was quick to launch bold experiments with the new approaches and succeeded quite well in outlining the difficult health and social services reform. For their part, the reference areas promoting sustainable growth and platform economy solutions provide examples of a new kind of innovation and industrial policy.

The government has also stumbled in a number of areas and it has been forced to clarify its position more frequently than should be necessary because of incomplete preparations. At other times, the clarification has been for justifiable reasons, as a result of the operating environment changing or new information coming up.

The Strategic Government Programme has improved the sustainability and focus of the government and at the same time enhanced the work between ministers across sectors. On the other hand, thus far, the strategic objectives have failed to sufficiently guide the preparations and implementation taking place in the ministries. For example, the report on the development of a transport network published in January would have benefited from more intense cross-administrative preparations and the engaging of stakeholders in planning the reform.

Indeed, the first development area in the next government programme is related to the connection between strategic objectives and what are known as the spearhead projects. The spearhead projects should be cross-administrative and directly derived from the strategic objectives instead of from previously existing development projects of the ministries.

At the mid-term sessions to be held in April, the government must evaluate which of the current key projects carry the most strategic importance; whether they are taking Finland in the desired direction at a sufficient pace, and what new initiatives and projects are still needed.

The management resources of the Prime Minister’s Office must be strengthened

The biggest shortcoming of the implementation of the Strategic Government Programme concerns the insufficiency of management resources at the Prime Minister’s Office. Sufficient resources should be guaranteed for the office, and it should be at least on an equal footing with other ministries.

Reinforcing central government would probably require the appointment of a permanent state secretary, which is a common practice in a number of countries, including Sweden. The job of the permanent state secretary would include developing the approaches and management system of central government in the long term.

In order to promote the integrity of the state administration, it would be advisable for the ministries and senior civil servants to primarily prepare issues from the perspective of the entire Finnish Government, even though the current legislation does not oblige them to do so. The budget process should also be more closely integrated in the preparation of the Government Programme and its annual monitoring.

Over the long term, Finland should aim for the model of one governing body, which is already in use in Sweden. The model would enable flexible allocation and use of resources throughout the government term.

Why do we need a new operating model?

There are many reasons for moving onto a more holistic and integrated management model. Filling the current democracy deficit is the most important one. A government that gets to enjoy the confidence of the public and the parliament must be equipped with the necessary framework and sufficiently strong tools to implement its programme.

Another important reason is the need for integration in the face of complex and interdependent problems: Finland’s challenges related to growth, employment, preventing climate change, let alone the challenges related to well-being, cannot be solved in separate silos; instead, we need close and smooth co-operation.

The introduction of the new regional management model is another argument in favour of developing a more integrated operating model. After all, the regional government reform does not just transform the duties of municipalities, but also affects the tasks and roles at the state level. In order to manage their operations, the new regions need common ground rules and guidelines established at the state level, for instance.

Gap between management and demands of the environment is growing

In summary, it can be said that the underlying cause for Finland’s current problems is the constantly growing gap between management capacity and the demands of the environment. We continue to attempt to lead Finland with the structures, management systems and competence of the industrial era, even though these no longer work.

In addition to the state administration structures, strategic management in the public sector is also in need of development. Paradoxically, even though managing a state is far more complex and difficult than managing a company, firms tend to invest a lot more in the systematic training of their leaders than the public sector does.

A small society with a highly educated population, Finland has excellent opportunities to also become a pioneer in developing and applying new operating models for state administration. We have already introduced the Strategic Government Programme which serves as a good starting point for the long-term management of our country towards sustainable well-being. That now needs to be accompanied by a cohesive way of operating that allows us to implement the strategy with even greater results.

This is a summary of an article published in Finnish in the Kanava magazine on 3 March 2017.

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