North Star

Why I went to work for the Swedish government

Gamla Stan, the old part of Stockholm, Sweden, on a summer day.

"But … how could you give up your freedom?"

That was a surprisingly common question from professional friends and colleagues when they learned about my new job, as director for partnership and innovation at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, known as Sida.

Yes, it’s true: after 26 years running my own company, working as a strategic consultant, author and speaker, I have become a Swedish civil servant. Some people apparently saw this move as a kind of sacrifice — a surrender of the liberties one enjoys as a business owner.

And their repeated questioning has caused me to reflect on what sustainability work is, and why we do it.

Let’s leave aside the fact that as the owner of a consulting company, you’re not actually "free." You work for your company, which works for other companies. It’s a job like any other, though with more variety than most.

And there is no doubt that I had a wonderful job, which I enjoyed tremendously for many years. So here is the question my colleagues should have been asking: What motivated me to apply for a government position?

I applied to Sida for the same reasons I started my business 26 years ago. My goal then was to help move sustainability thinking and sustainable development practice into the mainstream, around the world. That is also my goal now.

It also happens to be the goal of the Swedish government.

When I started my consulting business in the early 1990s, integrated, systemic sustainable development was in its infancy. No government or company knew how to do it, and few cared to try. Operating as a consultant gave me the chance to find and help develop sustainability pioneers. At first, most of these pioneers were in forward-looking cities (such as Seattle, where I started). Next came foundations and big NGOs (I worked with many of those). Large companies joined in more seriously around the year 2000 (my first corporate client was Nike), which is also the year I got my first national government client — in Sweden.

By 2009, I was consulting to the United Nations, and by 2014 I was helping the U.N. work with country governments who wanted to rewrite their national development plans to reflect this more integrated and systemic approach, where economy, environment, social and human wellbeing issues were strategically woven together. Sustainable development, previously housed in environment ministries and CSR departments, had been upgraded up to the offices of prime ministers and CEOs.

Working as a consultant allowed me to follow that evolution. It also allowed me to write books, innovate and test tools, work broadly across sectors, travel the world, and push the envelope as a "sustainability change agent" — and most importantly, to train and develop other change agents.

Small start, global movement

It took a few decades, but ultimately we — and I strongly emphasize we, because sustainable development started as a small we that swelled into a huge global movement — succeeded. Sustainable development is the mainstream now. Variations from the global consensus on the need to fight climate change, end poverty, take care of ecosystems and advance the rights and equality of all people everywhere are widely seen as aberrations.

Unfortunately, there are still lots of aberrations. But they are no longer considered the "norm." The global adoption of the 2030 Agenda and 17 Sustainable Development Goals at the U.N., in 2015, achieved that decisively.

Sustainability is especially mainstream in Sweden, which long has maintained a strong national political consensus on the goals I named above. Of course, we have plenty of worrying aberrations here too, but nearly every Swedish city, company, agency and school has made sustainable development part of its goal set, and often an integrated part of core strategy.

Sida is the agency that manages most of Sweden’s international development cooperation budget — that is, money that used to be called "foreign aid." At Sida, the Swedish consensus on the goals of sustainable development gets put to work out in the world, in strategic and financial terms. Sida’s focus is on helping to improve the lives of people living in poverty and oppression. It turns out that sustainable development is also the best way to achieve that aim.

On a per-capita basis, Sweden is the world’s most generous provider of international development support. This little Scandinavian country spends 1 percent of its gross national income on aid and programming to help people in low-income nations improve their chances for a better life. By comparison, the United States spends less than 0.2 percent. The U.S. remains the world’s largest donor country in absolute monetary terms, at around $35 billion per year, but little Sweden — with a population of less than 10 million people, just 3 percent the size of the U.S. — is No. 8, at $5.3 billion (via OECD data. Note that Sweden is by far the smallest country in the top-10 list of givers).

Sweden also invests its relatively large humanitarian and development aid with some special conditions attached to it. For example, money for energy development cannot be used to build fossil fuel infrastructure, only renewables. Gender equality always must be considered, as must climate and environment and the rights of the poor. And Sweden  operates innovatively, for example, by making use of loan guarantees to mobilize private capital that otherwise would stay away from markets perceived as too risky.

Pursuing the opportunity to be part of forward-thinking sustainable development work such as Sida’s certainly did not seem like a sacrifice. It felt like a way to honor the sustainable development movement’s arrival as the new mainstream; to change roles in a way that reflects the evolution of that movement; and to move closer to the new center of action in the growing effort to build a sustainable and fair world, free from poverty and oppression.

To my extreme gratitude, Sida’s leadership believed I could handle the job to which I applied, which involves leading a department of over 100 highly skilled and experienced professionals, working in such diverse fields as research, civil society, innovation, professional training, institutional capacity development, private sector collaboration, loan guarantees, sustainable investment, and more. I started work May 21 — which explains the long pause in my production of these columns. They will continue more regularly now, although I underscore that my writing here represents my views only and not those of the agency where I work.

So Sida, based in Stockholm, is where you’ll find me in the coming years. While I will continue to be active as a writer, speaker and occasional musician, my own consulting company has closed its doors — although my international partners in the AtKisson Group (the network that grew up around the tools I developed) have very much continued, renamed the Sustainability Accelerator Network. I no longer have any economic interest in that network, or even in my own "Accelerator" tools: sales of those tools will benefit a volunteer-driven, non-profit organization that spun out of my firm years ago and that works with schools and young people, Compass Education.

I’ve been working in sustainable development for 30 years. I remain very passionate about it, and there is so much to learn in this new era of mainstreaming and large-scale, global implementation. These days, I’m up to my neck in everything from the latest financial innovations in development support, to problems such as the "shrinking space" for democratic action experienced by civil society organizations in many countries, to mastering the rules around hiring, contracting and invoicing in a Swedish government agency. And I’m getting to know hundreds of wonderful new people, both in Sida and in the organizations we support, all of whom seem profoundly dedicated to the goals and values of sustainable development.

So, to answer the question that started (and triggered) this column: No, moving from the private to the public sector, from consultant to civil servant, was not a "sacrifice." It’s a daily reminder to me that what used to be marginal is now deeply mainstream. It’s also a joy, a pleasure, an honor and an exciting challenge.

Which is exactly what working in sustainable development always has been, and will continue to be, for many years to come.

Alan AtKisson is director of partnership and innovation and assistant director-general at Sida, in Stockholm, Sweden. His views and opinions are his own.