Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg unfazed by inconvenient truths


15 November 2021

Portrait of Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg

As a social scientist specialising in administrative research, Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg has had a clear part to play in the Commission.

Like heading a large research programme. That is how Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg describes her role in Sweden’s Corona Commission. As one of eight members, she has been investigating Sweden’s management of the pandemic – and has no hesitation in voicing criticism, as long as it is based on research.

Recently, the Corona Commission directed scathing criticism at Sweden’s way of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, mass testing got started far too late, and there was a delay before protective equipment was put in place in care homes for the elderly. In addition, the Commission has been able to show that the spread of infection in Sweden accelerated sharply as early as in March 2020.

“We’re critical, but we have solid grounds for our criticism. Several of us are active researchers, and we’re totally unanimous about making sure we generate proper decision support. It’s like running a big research programme,” Ahlbäck Öberg says.

Through Stockholm University, the Commission has gained access to statistics from both the National Board of Health and Welfare and Statistics Sweden (SCB), and can perform data runs of many different types, from both medical and social-science angles.

The latest interim report is 800 pages long, with 11 background reports written by researchers engaged by the Commission.

Does it say anything in particular that surprises you?
“Specific aspects I’d highlight are, first, that the spread of infection was so rapid in early March 2020. And, second, Sweden’s infection control law is rather soft compared with, for instance, Norway’s. It provides few tools that a government’s been able to use.”

Alongside her job at the University, this assignment has taken up much of her energy and thinking power since August 2020, when the work started.

“What drives me is that this, collaborating with the wider community, is one of my key social tasks. I said yes with some trepidation, but it felt self-evident precisely because it was so socially important.”

As a social scientist specialising in administrative research, she has had a clear part to play in the Commission. The whole of her research field pivots on the relationship between the government and its agencies, and between the power of the state and local government autonomy in the municipalities and regions.

“It involves everything from financing and staff to organisation. These are issues that I keep thinking about, but here it’s truly real. I’ve learnt a lot about how infection control is organised, and broadened my horizons.”

The delay in initiating large-scale testing in spring 2020, a “fiasco” according to the Corona Commission, was partly due to the creaky relationship between the central government and the regions. The Commission’s final report is due in February 2022 and those responsible will then also be singled out.

“There are several things that should have been handled better. But what happens next is completely out of our hands, and I am quite pleased about that.”

For several years, Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg has been researching New Public Management (NPM), a management philosophy from the business sector that has increasingly permeated Sweden’s public sector.

Her current research is on how NPM has affected various occupational groups in the armed forces and the police. Do the people who work there have scope for independent, professional judgement?

In collaboration with researchers at the Swedish Defence University, she has studied how headquarters have been organised over time. She has seen that personnel with no military background have become ever more important.

“That indicates that knowledge of the work isn’t what is seen as paramount, but leadership.”

Another project, “Is there a Swedish management model?”, was started by Ahlbäck Öberg and Helena Wockelberg jointly back in 2017, but the question has now become unexpectedly relevant.

“It’s a question Helena and I are immensely involved in, but one that perhaps hasn’t been regarded as central. But now, during the corona pandemic, when Sweden has acted differently from other countries, some people believe it’s because of the Swedish model of public administration.”

The two researchers are studying the nature of the relationship between the government and its agencies over the past 15 years, by reading appropriation directions and seeing how the style of governance has changed. It is a matter of where the line between government and administration is drawn, and how practice differs from theory.

“It’s vital to distinguish between what’s formally prescribed and what actually happens,” Ahlbäck Öberg states. She expects to complete the project before year-end 2021.

Soon to be inaugurated as professor, after many years at Uppsala University, she started off as a doctoral student in political science at the University in 1991 and her career proceeded from there. She obviously thrives in her study in Atterbomska building, part of the old Skytteanum estate in central Uppsala. The courtyard house from 1782 is cosy, with a low ceiling and beautiful period wallpapers.

Choosing political science was actually somewhat self-evident.

“I did the Natural Sciences line at upper secondary school, but social sciences were what I found fun and easy. On leaving school I went to the United States as a volunteer and worked with disabled children. There, I grasped the huge importance of how society is organised.”

Political science was her first subject at the University. But there was no clear progression towards her professorship. She found time, for example, to work in the Riksdag alongside her doctoral studies.

“I’ve always taken care to ensure I get a sense of well-being from what I choose to do – that it gives me a good gut feeling – and that’s the way it’s been.”

This has led her to combine research and teaching with board and management assignments at Uppsala University.

“For six years, I was a member of the faculty management, which made me slow down the pace of my research. I found it interesting, and learnt more about governing higher education institutions.”

The assignment in the Corona Commission has also suited her well, since it is all about producing knowledge and presenting it to those in power.

“Speaking truth to power – that’s our mission. I’m not that worried about it, since it’s how we’re trained in research. We get some unwelcome findings, but we present them and defend them until other data emerges that contradict them,” Ahlbäck Öberg says.

Facts: Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg

Current: Member of the Corona Commission. To be inaugurated as professor at Uppsala University on 19 November 2021.

Career: PhD 1999, Associate Professor (docent status) 2007. Member of the Social Sciences Faculty Board (2008–11). Vice-Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences (2011–17). Board Chair of the Uppsala Centre for Labour Studies, UCLS (2011–17). Chair of the Uppsala Forum on Democracy, Peace and Justice steering group (2014–17). From 2021, Chair of the Centre for Social Work (CESAR).

Leisure interests: Reading books, cooking food and drinking bubbly.

Now reading: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Likes to cook: Persian casseroles. My mother is from Iran, so I like Middle Eastern food.

Hidden talent: I’m good at rigging up wireless networks and fixing computers.

Driving force: Curiosity, and not being bothered by inconvenient truths.

Inspired by: Discussing things with my husband – that’s my sanity check – and gardening at our holiday home.