• Sweden edition
 

'Every wasted krona amounts to theft'

Published: 18 Mar 2010 16:49 GMT+01:00
Updated: 18 Mar 2010 16:49 GMT+01:00

It’s hardly a well-guarded secret that Sweden’s heavily taxed electorate is fed up over government waste – both in terms of the staggering volume and hamfisted management. Recognizing this pent-up frustration, the Swedish Taxpayers Association has joined hands with the free-market think tank Timbro to appoint a special ombudsman to which citizens can report wasteful government spending. Inaugural Taxpayer Ombudsman Johan Ingerö lays out the case for SlösO (WasteO).

"Every wasted krona should be regarded as a theft from the people," Gustav Möller, the legendary Social Democrat and minister of social affairs, famously quipped. This quote has been regularly dusted off by politicians from across the political spectrum. While politically efficacious, the central message of the quote seems to have been lost on the political class, as evidenced by the vast sums of hard-earned taxpayer income wasted each and every year. Before examining some particularly egregious examples, let us dwell for a moment on the concept of waste. What constitutes a wasted krona?

Several definitions spring to mind. Purchasing goods or services one cannot realistically afford is perhaps the one closest to hand. Yet it can also relate to paying far too high a price for items one genuinely requires, likely due to poorly managed procurement. And let us not forget projects that inevitably run over budget, as well as the myriad minor items that live an anonymous existence on the state’s ledger, never to rear their ugly heads during a campaign debate.

While I have neither the time nor resources to shed light on every instance of government waste in Sweden, my initial inquiry has revealed some astonishing and flagrant examples. Indeed, waste is rampant across all of Sweden’s municipalities as well as its county councils and state agencies – not to mention that monstrous machinery of the European Union.

Sweden, like most countries, has been rocked by the current financial crisis. Banks and automakers have taken a beating, and several times the government has stepped in to ease the pain by issuing guarantees or emergency loans. This year alone Sweden's municipalities and county councils may receive an additional 17 billion Swedish kronor to avoid making cuts in core welfare services. Despite this fiscal stimulus, though, many local governments are running massive deficits. Extraordinarily, this hasn’t stopped them from pumping taxpayer money into local pork projects.

Roughly 170 million of the 17 additional billion kronor will be funneled to Norrköping, a municipality that, during the last boom, plunked down 300 million kronor for a football arena that now buckles under the weight of 20 million kronor in annual operating costs. Indeed, sports arenas play in a division of their own when it comes to wasteful government spending. The local youth and children’s board in Vänersborg, for instance, received 90 million kronor for an indoor arena. The budget for the arena was soon revised to first 140 and then 176 million kronor. And the costs continue to climb. The most recent forecast projects a final cost of 270 million kronor. Värmdö, a community with a total annual budget of around 1.5 billion kronor, spent 130 million kronor of the taxpayers’ money on a water park. According to the municipality's calculations, 100,000 paying customers per year would cover costs. Despite over 160,000 paying customers in 2009, however, the water park hemorrhages about one million kronor a month.

In municipality after municipality one discovers frivolous and ill-conceived projects whose underlying budgets are, to put it diplomatically, unrealistic. But waste is not confined to million-krona boondoggles. In fact, one can find pesky and unjustifiable expenses in almost all of Sweden’s municipalities.

Instances of small-scale waste are, in some ways, far more egregious than any singular mammoth endeavor because they concern sums whose relative insignificance defies scrutiny. As such they are rarely if ever the subject of debate. But what they lack in size they make up for in number.

The virtual world Second Life, a passing Internet fad, initially attracted keen interest from the public sector. The municipality of Malmö, for instance, spent 1.2 million kronor creating a presence in Second Life. The Umeå Live project, funded by the municipality of Umeå, Västerbotten County Administration, and Umeå University, has also invested in Second Life. The Swedish Research Council granted researchers in Umeå three million kronor to study "religiosity in virtual worlds."

One would be forgiven for finding these initiatives laudable and interesting. But given each community’s finite resources, it will sooner or later become a matter of priorities. Vänersborg, which you will recall ploughed over 250 million kronor into an indoor sports arena, has at the same time jettisoned 162 school employees. But waste can have other adverse effects, as well. Värmdö’s loss-making water park, for example, has forced a local fitness club out of business. In other words, taxpayer money has funded activities leading to the unemployment of local residents.

In a radio debate last year, the Minister for Local Government and Financial Markets, Christian Democrat Mats Odell, said that politicians who buy hot tubs at the expense of senior care will be thrown out of office. Though in agreement on principle, Social Democrat Sven-Erik Österberg countered that all this talk of waste was pure "nonsense" based on "myths." My research has shown, however, that politicians of every hue have a hard time distinguishing between important and unimportant expenses and between necessity and frivolity.

To be sure, wasteful government spending is a hot-button issue for many voters. In recognition of this frustration, the Swedish Taxpayers Association and Timbro, a free-market think tank, have created a taxpayer ombudsman. Now citizens have someone to whom they can report wasteful government spending.

In the coming year, I as the serving ombudsman will review complaints, bringing them to public attention and acting to stem the tide. I will not scrutinize the level of taxation, but rather how the money is spent. I am confident that all political parties are keen to pare down wasteful spending in these trying financial times. After all, every wasted krona constitutes a theft from the people.

Johan Ingerö

Sweden’s Taxpayer Ombudsman

Related links:

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

20:23 March 18, 2010 by krigeren
This is a good thing. Sweden has a highly inefficient bureaucracy, the real problem is getting anything through with teeth that will counter the poor spending habits.

Government should stop creating jobs that are not needed to begin with......
06:02 March 19, 2010 by Heni
The tree major cities of Sweden made a "profit" 2009. What this article is telling people is that, if you dont live in a city you shouldnt be living at all.

They further managed to spin something like a 1.2 million SKR (please someone check those numbers, might be a fraction of that) investment in new technology into something that could bankrupt the country.

What about the millions of bailout money that is guarantied all major banks in Sweden? What about the pension funds that are being speculated into oblivion, according to Kalla Fakta, they lost 40 billion SKR (40 miljarder SKR, någon som kommer ihåg det avsnittet kan ju fylla i det exakta beloppet) during 2008.

Maybe the biggest problem isnt when a politician takes a taxi to work, which they shouldnt, they should use a bike, but instead all the tax-brakes and bailouts/guaranties the corporations are getting. For me that is who steals the money from me the citizen.
07:37 March 19, 2010 by karex
I think they should start with the "educational trips" to Disneyland.
16:24 March 19, 2010 by DamnImmigrant
There definitely are things that the government is wasting money on but there can be problems with this kind of knee jerk reaction to government spending.

An example would be projects which people feel the government is wasting money on but history will prove it was money well spent.

Then there are also those things that some people feel are wrong and other people feel are right.

Paying too much is never correct but then again getting poor quality products because you had to pay too little is also wrong.
21:48 March 20, 2010 by stoffer
@DamnImmigrant - you are so damn right. It is not easy to see what it waste and what is not.

The free market also wastes a lot of money, but the neolibtrads do not want to acknowledge that. Also, there are market failures and problems of externalities (for refence: DeMartino, George (2000). Global Economy, Global Justice. Routledge. p. 70, ISBN 0415224012, Pigou, A.C. (1920). Economics of Welfare, Feldman, Allan M., and Roberto Serrano, [1980] 2006. Welfare Economics and Social Choice Theory)

In short, neoliberals oversimplify problems of economy and society.
16:07 March 22, 2010 by Åskar
And the general sentiment of Skattebetalarns förening is that every tax crown spent is a tax crown wasted.

By the way, how can a representative for a private organisation call himself "Sweden's Taxpayer Ombudsman"? Isn't that trying to make people believe he has an official position, "föregivande av allmän ställning" in Swedish, which is a punishable offense?
23:14 March 23, 2010 by kzjh72
A practice that I personally have come across in Sweden (as well as in Australia by the way) that actually encourage and rewards waste of tax money is the practice to automatically reduce funding for next year for an institution of any sort (such as hospitals, defence, community services) which have not spent all of their funding for this year. This often leads to very questionable spending by the end of the financial year. Surely an allowance to instead let such funds (or at least part of them) to be carried over to next financial year without any automatic reduction of next years funding would be to prefer. If it over a period of time is concluded that less funding is required going forward, then this could be decided/agreed in a controlled manner.
14:24 March 26, 2010 by RoyceD
Well I would have to say that if there was any real incentive not to waste tax payers money then politicians would look into every krona they approve. But from what I can see even the Tax minister who got caught cheating on his taxes got no punishment. Nothing.

Surely wasting tax payers money should come at some sort of risk?

Sweden could be fantastic place. It is financially stable, has a great tax system and lots of smart citizens who keep coming up with world leading ideas that generate interest in sweden and generates money. But it seems that the people who get put into positions of power are complete monkeys. As a group there seems to be no leadership, and the politicians resemble a bunch of kids who were playing football inside a classroom and are arguing over whose fault it is that a window got broken, when they were all playing.
09:20 March 27, 2010 by Elton John
stoffer: The free market wastes a lot of money, you say. Who is the free market? Whos money is wasted and in what way? According to whom is the money "wasted"?
12:20 March 28, 2010 by cbeynch
Why do I have a sneaky feeling that the Social Democrats will very much oppose the appointment of this Ombudsman? Perhaps the U.S. should appont one also now that two-bit dictator Oblahblah has embarked on the Swedish societal model.
15:28 March 29, 2010 by Åskar
@cbeynch, Had you read comment #6 you would have known that this is a private person who has assumed a title which might lead people to think that he is some sort of officially appointed public servant, which he isn't.
10:43 March 30, 2010 by livinginsweden
Stop paying the politicians and stop subsidizing The Local!!!

ha ha ha
09:30 April 5, 2010 by Nemesis
If this idea goes aahead, under no circumstances should anyone who is a eno-liberal be even allowed to step foot in the offices.

Sweden does need extra efficiency in some areas, but it does not need wholesale destruction of public services as occurred in the UK, following neo-liberal ideas.
11:25 April 6, 2010 by Åskar
And the latest thing is selling out the Stockholm Local Transport customer services.
12:47 April 6, 2010 by Audrian
This is "Animal Farm" story being played all over again.

The present recession, where trillion of dollars capital was destroyed and similar amount of human resources was wasted, is one of the testimonies that show free market system is the biggest waster …. The bureaucratic waste that is being discussed in this article is on the margin of mountains of waste squandered by monopoly capitalism and its corruption. The present discussion is taking our attention to something minor.

I also suggest bureaucratic waste of the type outlined in the article above is problems of democracy, openness and public oversight. It is unlikely to be solved by the creation of another bureaucracy.

I add one book to the list provided by soffer (# 5): "The Political Economy of Growth" by Paul Barren. It is an old book that does not go outdated. It focuses on wastes of the capitalist system. It is available in libraries only.
Today's headlines
Elections 2014
Most Swedes lack info ahead of EU vote
The Green Party is one of only two parties devoting their websites to the EU elections. Here campaign manager Emma Rung presents the party's posters. Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

Most Swedes lack info ahead of EU vote

The majority of Swedes feel the country's political parties are not doing enough to inform them about the upcoming European Parliament elections. Only two of the eight parties have dedicated their homepages to the May 25th polls. READ () »

Fatal Norrköping Brawl
Local church tried to stop Norrköping murders
Swedish police on the scene following Monday's fatal brawl. File: TT

Local church tried to stop Norrköping murders

The Syrian-Orthodox Church in Ektorp had tried to quell tensions between two rival families just hours before bad blood spilled into a massive brawl and two brothers lost their lives. READ () »

JobTalk Sweden
'Foreigners don't need to show banks Swedish ID'
The bridge that connects Sweden to the European continent. File: L.E. Daniel Larsson/Flickr

'Foreigners don't need to show banks Swedish ID'

The Swedish agency that helps Europeans fight impediments to the EU principle of free movement has revealed an increase in complaints, including one from a foreign citizen unable to open a bank account in Sweden. READ () »

Eurovision 2014
Pig heart shatters in Sweden's Eurovision clip
Sanna Nielsen in the new clip. Photo: YouTube (screenshot)

Pig heart shatters in Sweden's Eurovision clip

Sweden's Eurovision hopeful Sanna Nielsen released the official video for the song Undo on Wednesday, a clip featuring leather, slow motion destruction, and a frozen pig's heart and some violence. READ () »

Software robot pinches Swedish flats in seconds
Swedish apartments. File: The Local

Software robot pinches Swedish flats in seconds

A Swedish landlord suspects that a property fixer has set up a software robot to sign up for new flats on the market within seconds, and is charging house hunters to use the service. READ () »

Swedish zoo fire 'kills only the spiders'
Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Swedish zoo fire 'kills only the spiders'

Twenty-five fire fighters were on hand on Wednesday night when a fire broke out in a southern Sweden animal park. The vast majority of the animals were unharmed, but the cluster of spiders wasn't so lucky. READ () »

Sweden Investor group posts sharp profit drop
File photo: Simon Cunningham/Flickr

Sweden Investor group posts sharp profit drop

Swedish investment giant Investor on Wednesday said its first-quarter profits slumped by a quarter, underlining Sweden's vulnerability to international instability. READ () »

Florida 'mystery knight' dies in Sweden
Michael Boatwright (R) and Medieval knight re-enactors.

Florida 'mystery knight' dies in Sweden

The "motel mystery" American who baffled US authorities by only speaking Swedish when he woke up from a coma last year has passed away, Swedish media reported on Wednesday. READ () »

Swedes open coffin of 850-year-old king
Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT

Swedes open coffin of 850-year-old king

UPDATED: Scientists pried open the 850-year-old casket of King Erik the Holy on Wednesday, hoping to find out more about the king, his crown, and his eating habits. READ () »

TeliaSonera announces first-quarter profit drop
TeliaSonera CEO Johan Dennelind. File photo: TT

TeliaSonera announces first-quarter profit drop

Stockholm-listed telecom operator TeliaSonera on Wednesday said profits had fallen in the first quarter, but hoped offering customers more data solutions in the future would turn things around. READ () »

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
finest.se
Gallery
People-watching April 23
TT
Gallery
Inside the 850-year-old king's coffin
Features
Sponsored: South-eastern Sweden offers Öland beaches and more
Gallery
Swedish underwear shop puts staff in front of the camera
Gallery
IN PICTURES: The Local's Property of the Week - Täby
Sponsored: India+Sweden Week - India Unlimited
Features
Sponsored: India+Sweden Week - A film, food, and finance feast
National
University applications rocket to record high
finest.se
Gallery
People-watching April 18-20
TT
Society
Kids in Victorian garb mark Swedish Easter
Shutterstock
National
Swedish MP ordered chemtrail probe
Society
Swedish supermarket Ica pulls contested Easter commercial off air
Kungahuset
Society
Swedish royals set baptism date for princess
Advertisement:
finest.se
Gallery
People-watching April 16
Politics
Who's the prime minister's heir?
Alfie Atkins
Society
Are children's books the key to families integrating in Sweden?
National
'Sweden Dem protests cater to party's martyr image'
National
'Swedish research grants were fantastic, but now it's like Australia'
Society
Only in Sweden: The ten problems you'd never encounter elsewhere
National
Swedes stopped to take my picture, but didn't look me in the eyes
Business & Money
A swipe of the hand replaced cash and cards in Lund
YouTube
Features
Video: Oliver Gee finds out how to embrace The Swedish Hug
TT
National
Abba duo hints at reunion
Private
National
Flash mobs hug it out across Sweden
Stockholm School of Economics
Sponsored Article
Why a bachelor's degree is no longer enough
Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Blog Update: The Diplomatic Dispatch

28 October 15:16

The Green Growth Group Summit »

"Today on the 28 October in Brussels, a large group of key EU Ministers and business people, including UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Edward Davey, and Swedish Environment Minister Lena Ek, will meet to discuss green growth. They all have a stake in resolving a challenge which, although it is crucial..." READ »

720
jobs available
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions is an innovative business company which provides valuable assistance with the Swedish Authorities, Swedish language practice and general communications. Call 073-100 47 81 or visit:
www.swedishdowntown.com