Volume 4 Number 2
No, Minister
01 February 1991

Bureaucrats faced with problems like job creation in the developing world need lots of creative imagination, says Pauli Snellman. And he tells Kenneth Rundell that they also sometimes have to say: No, Minister!

As Chief Inspector in the International Affairs Division of the Finnish Ministry of Labour, Pauli Snellman had to OK all the senior officials' foreign travel expenses. When his minister asked him to initial a second ticket so that his wife could travel with him on an overseas trip, Snellman said `No'. `At the time, I felt pretty awful,' he says, `because I had just applied for a higher post, which the minister would have to present to the cabinet.' He laughs, and adds, `Needless to say, I didn't get the job.'

A late-comer to government service, Snellman had decided to say what he honestly thought when an issue came up, or when he felt he had an idea worth putting forward. Serving under nine ministers, including three communists in coalition governments between 1975 and 1983, that has not always been easy. `I have had to decide again and again not to care a damn what happens to me,' he says. `Then you become free of fear and are able to think clearly.'

Snellman was until recently chairman of -a committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (a Paris-based grouping of the developed nations), on local initiatives for employment creation. At his urging, the committee extended its concerns to Eastern and Central Europe, and to development policies in the Third World. `Instead of expecting all the answers to unemployment to come from above,' he says, `we ask what initiatives can emerge from below.' This approach has led to local policy measures in most of the OECD and EEC countries. For example, in Finland each year, 2,500 unemployed start their own businesses, with the help of an allowance equivalent to their unemployment benefit.

Experts now agree, says Snellman, that employment programmes in developing countries have failed. So they are interested in his committee's 'bottom-up' approach to job creation through self-employment. It is cost-effective, and speeds up adjustment to essential structural changes. Snellman was invited last year to India to put this point of view at a Commonwealth seminar, and visited East Africa on a fact-finding mission which is to lead to a training programme on job creation.

Finnish songs
From Snellman's sitting-room window, you look out to the Gulf of Finland where the fortress of Suomenlinna guards the entrance to Helsinki harbour. On the window-sill stands a bust of his great-grandfather, Johan Wilhelm Snellman, the cultural and political leader of the Finnish national movement of the mid-nineteenth century. There is a strong family likeness: the long, thin face and high forehead, the deep-set eyes of the philosopher.

There is a statue of this ancestor in front of the Bank of Finland, a tribute to his success in establishing a national currency during the period of autonomy under Tsarist Russia. But his greatest achievement was to make Finnish the official language of government, education and culture. During the 700 years of Swedish rule, Swedish had been the language of the Establishment. Snellman's great-grandfather's reforms gave direction to the growing sense of national awareness, which found expression in his generation's motto: `We are not Swedes. We cannot become Russians. Let us then be Finns.' Finland finally achieved its independence in 1917, 35 years after the senior Snellman's death.

Great-grandson Pauli's first memories are of independent Estonia, where his father was a diplomat. At the age of six, he spoke Estonian and German, as well as his native Finnish. A Finnish maid taught him and his brothers Finnish songs which they sang when they went with their father to the harbour to welcome important official guests. Then, when Snellman's father moved to the embassy in Stockholm, the boys learned Swedish. Today he speaks four languages fluently, and has a working knowledge of three more.

At the age of 14, Snellman stood alone, armed with only a rifle, guarding a railway bridge against the Russians. It was the Winter War of 1940, when Finland was resisting a Russian invasion. Dressed in an army greatcoat several sizes too large, with toes frozen in temperatures that dropped to minus 40 degrees, he was two hours on, four hours off, night and day, with two kilometres to ski back to camp. `It was humanly hopeless,' he recalls. The Finns were alone against a population 40 times theirs. `But the nation fought with a skill and determination that astonished the world, and our freedom was saved.'

Finland, he believes, also owes its survival, and the remarkable success of its economy, to its Lutheran heritage: hard, conscientious work, and honesty. Its administration was a model f incorruptibility and efficiency during the century of Tsarist rule, when corruption in Russia itself was rampant. His grandfather, the Director of the National Board of Road and Waterway Construction, was typical. When he was leaving on a tour of inspection, his wife and daughter could accompany him to the station in the official car, but they had to walk home as he would never allow private use of public privileges.

These qualities of honesty and hard work are much in demand in Eastern Europe and in the Third World, Snellman believes. `It would be tragic if we in Finland, and in the West in general, allowed our moral and spiritual foundations to erode at a time when so much of the world thinks we have the answer they are looking for: democracy, and a functioning market economy,' he says.

It is a dangerous trap, he believes, for a small country to feel that it can only protect its own interests. `In my experience, if you show concern for other countries as well as your own, people listen differently to your own ideas and proposals. Small countries have had enormous influence - think of ancient Greece. It is the scale of the spirit and ideas of a nation that determines its influence, not just its economy and its military strength.'

Nothing about Snellman's career fits the stereotype of a civil servant bureaucrat. After interrupting his university studies, he spent 25 years doing voluntary work with Moral Re-Armament. He took part in campaigns with plays and musicals, touring in Europe, North America and Asia, he lectured in teachers' training colleges in the Middle East. Then, when he was 45, he returned to university and took a first-class masters degree in political science, in record time. He was 47 when he joined the International Affairs division of the Ministry of Labour. `Taking on my job in government,' he says, `did not mean giving up my basic mission in life. I have never been able to believe that Christianity could involve anything less than working to bring a change to the whole human race. In trying to do this, I found a deep faith which keeps renewing my inner resources and sense of direction.'

Ifs and Buts
Snellman gives his civil servant's credo: `Don't let ideas go to waste. Then follow inspired initiatives - your own or someone else's. Don't give up too easily when doubts or opposition appear. Stop only when you are clearly on the wrong track. Never let your rank or somebody else's inhibit you from taking an initiative. A civil servant should not just wait to be told by a superior what to do. If you use your own creative imagination, you may not always win your boss's approval, but if your motives are unselfish, you may see surprising results.'

He once flew to Paris against the express orders of his permanent secretary on a`hunch' he had to see senior officials in the OECD. He risked a carpeting, but his action contributed to the opening of OECD cooperation with Eastern Europe and his minister being invited to make the keynote speech at one of their first joint seminars.

`It is amazing how many ifs and buts you get when you come up with a new idea,' Snellman sighs, citing his own work with the OECD job creation committee. But he is encouraged by the Spanish government's recent initiative, organizing at their own expense an exchange of experiences of job-creation between the OECD and Latin America.

Snellman's family means everything to him. His first wife was killed in a rail accident when he was 50, leaving him with two children of five and eight. He cut out all extra activities which might have promoted his career in order to care for them. His daughter Anja, now 24, studies architecture, and 21year-old son Tapio has just finished his military service and is preparing to start studies. Snellman's second wife, Paula, is an energetic career woman, with three degrees. She is a development consultant, who has worked in Africa and Asia for the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and the Population Council. Now she and Pauli bubble over with delight: they have just become the proud parents of a baby son.

When asked about her husband's weaknesses, she instantly replies, `Absentmindedness.' She remembers a trip to their summer cottage for the weekend when they discovered that he had dumped the bag with the food in the garbage can. On another occasion, he took a garbage bag with him to the ministry, to the amusement and consternation of family and colleagues.

We parted outside the Labour Ministry. I watched him start running up to his fifth-floor office, two steps at a time. `I always do that,' he said. `It keeps me up to the mark.'

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