Notes from the Field: Tryggare och Mänskligare Göteborg: An Interview with Borghild Håkansson

Jonathan Reams

Goteberg Sweden

Tryggare och Mänskligare Göteborg—A safer and more humane Göteborg—is an innovative approach to urban crime prevention and safety promotion. The authorities in the city of Göteborg established a council for this project in 2001, designed to govern and support the activities of the secretariat, an office of seven staff members with different types of expertise. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and interview the executive director of the secretariat, Borghild Håkansson, in her office in Göteborg. With the aid of an interpreter, I asked her about her role as the leader of this project, resulting in the transcript below.

Before getting to the interview itself, I feel it would be beneficial to provide some background and context of her work. My interest in doing this interview arose after reading Thomas Jordan’s report on her work that was done in 2006. (You can find this report in English here – Tryggare och mänskligare Göteborg). The opening summary describes this report in the following way:

 Göteborg’s crime prevention council, Tryggare och Mänskligare Göteborg, has developed a— in some respects—unique method of working on crime prevention and safety promotion at a local level. The aims of this monograph are to describe how Tryggare och Mänskligare Göteborg works, primarily as regards the work of the secretariat; to explain why it works in these ways; and to discuss the challenges facing the work of crime prevention and safety promotion. The aim is to contribute to a greater understanding of how we can view local strategies for the work of crime prevention and safety promotion .”

The report begins by describing the problems being faced, and identifies the differences in orientation between a focus on crime prevention and promoting safety. It then examines various approaches to the subject, and introduces the question of how well different levels of complexity in our thinking on the subject address the complexity of the issues. The report also describes how a number of factors in the structure of the formal systems in operation within the city limit the capacity to approach these issues in a comprehensive manner and how this contributes to tensions among various actors involved.

With this background, the function of the secretariat is outlined as covering four main areas:

  • To have a strategic overview.
  • To be a knowledge-carrier and to disseminate information and ideas.
  • To promote contacts and initiate networks.
  • To inspire, encourage and create commitment.

It is also notable that the secretariat’s position is intentionally designed to have responsibility for these functions, but also does not have any kind of directive powers. The leadership Borghild is called to function with is one of influence and persuasion, to operate informally in the spaces in-between formal entities that have well defined and limited mandates and facilitate conversations between differing perspectives to enable the various players in the city to come up with strategies for action that would not be possible without this leadership.

The following text comes from the organizations’ web site, and further explains their mandate –

 The City of Göteborg’s central crime prevention council, entitled Tryggare och Mänskligare Göteborg (“A More Secure and More Human Göteborg”), works with four overarching goals:

  • That everyone should feel safe to move about, when they wish, where they wish in Göteborg.
  • That those of us who live and work in the town cooperate with the aim of promoting safety and security.
  • Confidence and trust – the most important factors in well-being and security.
  • The rights of all to relevant support when problems arise.

The task of Tryggare och Mänskligare Göteborg is to be a motivator for, and provide support to, well-founded initiatives in the work of creating a secure environment in the city.

The council’s working methods are to operate without being noticed and to focus on and bring to public attention ongoing crime prevention projects.

By promoting new ideas and creating networks for a wider and deeper cooperation between people we want to pave the way for a more secure city with a deeper knowledge and understanding of each other’s needs and differences. 

Reading over this, as well as some reports from Tryggare och Mänskligare Göteborg, I could get a feel for the unique and innovative nature of the work they are doing. These reports provided descriptions of how transformations occurred in different neighborhoods and how various processes were woven together all contributed to recognition of the high leverage impact that this kind of leadership could have on a large and complex system.

What is also clear reading over these materials and from Thomas Jordan’s report is that an integral or vision-logic level of complexity of thinking is necessary for Borghild Håkansson to fulfill the mandate that she has been given. This is what drew me to want to interview her, to hear how someone operating with vision-logic would perceive the work that they do. I should also be clear that while her descriptions of the complexities, subtleties and interrelationships of her work and how she approaches it illustrate this capacity very well, she herself is not familiar with the theoretical frameworks of integral or developmental theory.

Finally, I want to thank Borghild for taking the time to sit and talk with me and for providing an interpreter to smooth the language barrier. I would also like to thank Thomas Jordan for making the interview possible, and for his insightful comments and edits on this text. I would also like to thank Andrea Gardner, my wife, for doing the transcription.

Q: What I would like first is if you could briefly describe in your own words how you would explain to someone on the street what your role is.

A: My assignment, the way I see it and the way I do it, is to get different sectors of Göteborg council and municipal administrations to talk to each other.

Q: That’s simple. It sounds easy.

A: I believe that’s our assignment and that’s what we are trying to achieve.

Q: For the purpose of creating a safer and more humane city.

A: Yes with the purpose of the more angles or the more ways of looking at things that are included the better the basis for making decisions. And working on constructing informal networks that, when required, can become more formal.

In a sentence, I believe that what we have done with this group in Göteborg is that we have created a kind of a joker in the deck. Really, I believe that all systems need a joker. And the only reason that this functions is because we have a council with eight members with important positions in the Göteborg region. That means that we are taken seriously and we are allowed to get a foot in. That means also that we have to handle this with real sensitivity, otherwise it means that we get no more than just a foot in. The dialogue is with ourselves.

Q: That’s a good place for the first question that I had in mind. When I read through the report that Thomas did, one of the things that struck me was that the kind of position you have is one that most people would avoid. Some people would say that it is the worst kind of position for a leader, because you have responsibility for things, but not authority. And from what I read it appears that you are able to use that kind of position very successfully, because you cannot tell people what to do, you cannot direct them, you have to encourage them or invite them to look at things differently. So the question is, because most leaders would avoid that, they would want the power to tell people what to do, and yet you seem to be very successful without any power, how does that work for you?

A: I believe that with my background as a social case worker this is not a problem for me. This is the way I am accustomed to working. Because what it is about is making other people choose alternative paths. Sometimes I describe this job like a white box, and our task, is to make other people, other organizations, project on this white box what we want them to perceive.

Q: And how do you do that?

A: That is the actual job. To make them believe that they are creating it themselves, because we do not own any issues. Because then we would become a new administration, a new authority, a new drainpipe. But of course this is based on an idea of perception of what safety is built on, and very often you need to make a diversion, to go around the issues.

For example, one small part of what I work with is the elderly and safety. We have had a working group with people who are from different parts of organizations for the elderly (including the pensioners themselves) as well as representatives from different parts of the city council and from the police, in order to produce something on the elderly and safety. But the actual working material in itself I could put have put together myself in two weeks. But we worked on it for two years since it was a question of the processes.

One of the big problems in Göteborg is of course the segregated city. We also have a part of the population which is getting older and older and who were born outside Sweden. The older you get the more you fall back on your own mother tongue and this also has to do with safety. This work group has decided they are going to make a film about the elderly and safety issues since film is visual and you don’t have to use language. It is very expensive to make films. It costs money and we need to involve the rescue services, the police, the city council; we need to involve lots of different sectors. We are going to cooperate with the university with the film college, film academy, so we will form reference groups and work groups around this. The point is not the film itself, the film is just a tool, and it is an excuse for getting people to talk with each other about these issues and thereby create more awareness.

Q: It sounds to me that what you are saying is that helping people go on a journey of their own inquiry and process is more important than the outcome.

A: That is how I understand my assignment, to start these processes.

Q: Beyond just the specific or concrete outcomes that everybody’s attention is on, what other outcomes do you see from the process? Or maybe another way to ask this; is this what you mean by distractions?

A: What I mean is that it is a tool for raising awareness and insights by the organizations, people, authorities who otherwise might not be aware of how segregated Göteborg is. And really that is according to the directive of the city council; that’s what everybody’s assignment is.

Q: But you have a different way of going about achieving your assignment.

A: Yes.

Q: It seems that what you do is distinctly designed to be different than the way the drain pipe system works. [ The “drain pipe” system referred to here is a term used for hierarchical bureaucracies that do not interact.] Do you feel that with your attitude and ability to take different perspectives you become a role model?

It is interesting to note how the complexities of both language and implicit meanings of our terms create a need to negotiate meaning as we go along in the interview. My questions have been edited in places to avoid readers having to wade through some of this work.]

A: No I don’t see it that way. I am much more pragmatic. This started in 2001 and that was the situation then. They could see that you need to cooperate more and there’s this issue of safety. Safety is perfect as a tool because the question of safety is extremely complicated; so it could be used for the purpose. At this stage it is the question of safety which is current. In a few years time it might be something else. But I think that the function of constructing networks in this way is fairly cunning.

I had a discussion just this last week with the chairman of the city council about the creation of a knowledge center on blackmailing issues and disruption of justice through threats from criminals, which is a little bit difficult to describe. The angle is that some people must develop a detailed plan during the coming year. The question was if this year’s project planning was going to be carried out at our secretariat or not, because this is a bit of a gray area. We don’t receive any referrals; we don’t have any investigative assignments; we don’t write any expert opinions, because then we would get stuck in the bureaucracy. So we don’t do anything like that at all. But we work closely together with the people who do and we provide basic materials from different directions.

But this is a gray area, whether or not it should be here with us or not. And I kept saying no, no, no up until a month ago and then I changed my mind. This was to be presented to the city council in an official opinion. But in order to be able to do that we had to discuss the matter with the chairman of our advisory board. I had to make sure that people in different places in the political system spoke to each other first, and then the question arose when the chair of the city council telephoned me to discuss how to go about this. We had a long discussion, because this is actually not self-evident. But I changed my mind back again. And he said if you do work on it and you make a proposal, who will be the person putting forward the proposal? And it shouldn’t be us. So it ends up that it would probably be done by the city council administrative office. But we should be in the steering group, provide the knowledge and assist in appointing the people, the informal steering. The important thing here is that it will work as long as there is mutual trust, but that trust could disappear in a week.

Q: So it sounds clear that your job is really to make sure that the right conversations happen between the right people.

A: To the extent that you can do that.

Q: And that those conversations happen in a way that people take many perspectives.

A: It is quite clear that our role is totally unique, because in Sweden there are extremely rigid hierarchies and it is only the bosses who control politics. So what we can be is some kind of grease in the machinery. For example, tomorrow we have a meeting of our board and this proposal for the knowledge centre has full support both from the conservatives and the social democrats. We have a steering group which meets 2 or 3 times every 6 months, but we have the right to make contact with them when we need to.

For example, the county police commissioner is very deeply involved in the idea of a knowledge center. But I have to call him today and tell him “now you don’t mention the knowledge center tomorrow!” We can talk freely today, but then it must go through the political system to receive political approval. But obviously there are a lot of issues that we have no idea about. But the issues of the questions that we have tracked here we can control them in that way.

I can give you another example and then you can ask me more questions. Victims of crime have become more and more visible over the last 10 years. For example if you want to work with the prevention of crime in young people, then the most strategic thing to do would be to take good care of those young people, who have themselves been victims of crime, to avoid retribution and racial hatred. Very often it is one and the same person‑all of us are victims and perpetrators in one and the same person. So it’s not that simple. What we’ve done is to create a support centre for young victims of crime.

But the example I want to tell you about: A little more than a year ago in April a conservative politician telephoned me. They often call to discuss things if they want to put forward a motion. This motion was to put forward the issue, the support for, in actual fact I think it was women who suffer domestic violence, women refugees. So they asked us and what we could do was partly we could ask them to expand the focus like this, because the issue is much bigger.

At the same time we have very good contact with the university. So I call Ingrid Sahlin, who is a professor of sociology who has participated in and been a tutor for several theses regarding victims of crime. I told her what was going on and asked about her opinion. At the same time we have very good contact with a non-profit organization called ‘The Victims of CrimeTtrust.’ One of the very active members there is a politician, a Christian Democrat and he is a member of the city council. We discussed it, the motion was compiled and then it was sent for preparation to the city administrative office. They called us and we discussed a little about how they were to handle it. It came back and then it was slightly expanded.

What happened then was that the people handling it at the city administrative office and us, we met. It was the person dealing with it who was supposed to write the official report, Ingrid Sahlin at the Department of Sociology, a representative of the non-profit organization ‘Victims of Crime’ and one of my colleagues and myself; there were two of us from here. So what we discussed was, how are we going to get as good of material as possible to form the basis of the report that was going to be written? Then we decided that we would probably have time during the summer to get someone at the University to do a simple pre-study. Ingrid Sahlin knew postgraduate students at the department of sociology who had also worked quite a lot for the ‘Victims of Crime.’ And then we had a deadline of 1st October for application to the ‘National Victims of Crime Authority’ where we could apply for money on a national basis, in addition to municipal money.

If we look at this motion and the path it took from the original idea to evaluate the municipal women refugees, we have today arrived at a proposal that everybody is in total agreement with; to take an overall grip on Göteborg’s support to victims of crime and to understand it. There has also been a change in the social services law over the summer in one respect. The change that was made was in the legal language from “should” to “shall.” So the point is that from first of all being women refuges, they have now divided it up into different sectors. So what is going to happen is that the city council is going to provide money to evaluate their own municipal contribution and the nonprofit organizations are going to be provided with municipal money. That’s two sectors, then we have a further sector, which is the victims of crimes support, it’s the concealed area from the victims’ point of view where the support for victims of crimes is either nonexistent or very, very insignificant. But that is not in the city council’s remit efforts. That is the research subject. The research needs to be free. If there were four of us, some of them could work on the evaluation and some of them could apply for funds for the research. In that way we will get an overall grip on it and this from the very first question. So this is a long journey.

And we have very good contact with the National Council for Crime Prevention and also the Crime Victim Authority. But they don’t talk to each other very often. Now they’re interested in doing something together with regards to crime prevention and support to provide money, both of them to provide money. I am getting to the end now, and one of the main points is to investigate the cooperation between the municipal authorities and different parts of the legal system. The city council can’t decide how the prosecutors and the police are to investigate. But there are obviously points of contact and we can’t influence them. But what we can do, if we are successful, is to get them to look at and evaluate their own work.

Did you understand that?

Q: Quite well. It was a very good illustration of both the complexity of the work and how you and your organization have the freedom to grease the wheels.

A: It is a very current example because the applications to the crime prevention council have to be in by Monday.

Q: In America I did some volunteer work with an organization that operated in a similar way. Their mandate was around improving health in the community, and they did not do anything. The director of it described that their work was to be the grease for the wheels. It also seems clear from this example that in addition to getting people to talk to each other, it’s for your organization and you to understand which are the right people, and to have that network, and to have the trust of that network so that because people trust you and your organization, they will trust to talk to each other.

A: And of course this is very fragile. It could all go horribly wrong. But we try to stick to doing only what we can be responsible for qualitatively speaking. What comes from the heart. To put it simply, there is something that is really missing today to be listened to. Because it is really very simple; it is all about listening to people and giving them recognition. There are so many ideas which just have to be linked together, preferably in unexpected constellations because the more unalike you are, the less competitiveness.

Q: What you are describing is exactly what some of the best literature in leadership theory says.

A: I had no idea.

Q: But it is. If theory is good it reflects good practice in life, not the other way around.

A: I myself am a practical person. I am not an academic, which means that so many times I am surprised how isolated the people at the Göteborg University and the Chalmers University of Technology are. It is very easy to involve them to come outside.

Q: That is why they call it the ivory tower. It is my experience as well, as I am only recently in the academic world in some ways. I come from a farming background.

A: I myself come from a farm.

Q: I also had my own small trucking business and know how important it was to have the trust of the people who were my customers. So it sounds like trust is critical in your work. Could you say how you build that trust?

A: Just practice. I think that you have to arouse curiosity and make people realize that they have a contribution to make. For example, take this thing about safety. That is what we have been working with here. The Swedish word “trygghet” means both safety and trust. A lot of people work with safety issues without labeling it as such. And to make them see that even though they are not aware of it, and in that way contribute as part of a larger situation.

Q: So you help people to see the value of their contribution in a bigger perspective.

A: Hopefully. Here is another example. I was going to make a telephone call before we sat down here. On our board we have the big property owners, landlords, and next year they are going to hold a conference about safety in your living environment and the neighborhood. Everybody wants to do as well as possible, so there was some kind of confusion where they thought they were going to “do well” or be clever and hold a conference as soon as possible. They selected some people who were going to organize the conference and that was people both from the private property owning sector plus the municipal property sector, and tenant owned flats, like condominiums. They were the top bosses in town. But we attended the meeting and realized that all they were trying to do was to “do well” or be clever instead of using this conference as a tool to take an inventory and see what they were actually doing.

Part of the confusion was that there were four managing directors and one of them is a member of the board for a Safer and More Humane Göteborg. These have been the same people up until this summer. But now we have three new ones. That’s why the confusion. In the board meeting in June we brought up that we had already decided things behind the scenes. And Göran Johansson, who has the most authority in town, summoned the four of them at the end of August and he had some material from me and outlined for them the basic philosophy around a safer and more humane Göteborg. We should protect the open city and not create gated communities. That was the whole point of this.

After that I met each one of these four individually and continued this discussion. One of these people, the CEO of the municipally owned property, forty seven thousand apartments in Göteborg, began by saying “Originally we had intended this conference to be just for Göteborg” and he went on: “I think we should invite people from the rest of Sweden, and then I think it would be easier to get the representatives of the tenant owned apartments and condominiums to come, and we should not be in a hurry and maybe we should postpone the conference for a year or eighteen months and meanwhile work hard to take an inventory and discuss within each separate organization what we are doing and what is involved in this safety concept.” This is an attitude; this is a mind set and the people who were working with this without being aware they are working with it will now be included—to use this to reinforce the self-esteem of what we are doing in Göteborg. Part of the work here is like to put a brake on what’s going on, to try to reframe.

Q: I hear two things. One was that you had new people coming on and you needed to gain their trust. And the other is that part of the way you do that, that fits with your work, is to help them see their own values that connect with this, that maybe they normally may not pay attention to, that they would “do well” or be clever and do a conference first instead.

A: Maybe there is another point I should make which is my conviction. The Swedes are very obedient, but those who are the least obedient are those at the top level and the very bottom level. Because the ones at the bottom level are free, they have got nothing to lose and the ones at the top they are high enough that they can do almost anything. And we have to be economical with our energy. So it is better to direct our focus on those at the bottom and those at the top because the ones in the middle just do as they are told. The creativity exists at the bottom and at the top. That is why it was so important to speak to these new CEOs. At the same time we were in contact with the tenants association and we have contact people in every city district. We really make an effort to have local pilot projects in order to get nourishment, so to speak, from them.

Q: So that you have some success?

A: It takes time. The other thing is that the ones at the very bottom and the ones at the very top very rarely meet. So sometimes we arrange such meetings for discussion. And talking about differences, we were talking about the more unalike you are the less you compete with each other. For example with reference to your [ She is referring to my wife who was present as well] profession we bring artists into the city picture. We have done such work and now we have a couple of artists doing a pre-study in a couple of the city districts. Also a big issue here is how you are to plan renovations and new buildings, right from the start to bring in expertise to promote more meeting places where people can meet, and avoid an invitation to burglary and crime.

Then we have expertise from a direction that we have not previously used and that is the criminals themselves. We are testing this with one person and with very good results. He is around thirty-five years old; he has done time, heavy sentences over many years. On the last occasion he was convicted of aggravated robbery of a security van and was sentenced to nine years but was released after six. In the mean time while he was in prison he studied criminology and has been liberated from the system for the last two or three years very much because he was living in France with his sister.

He made contact, and a lot of people do, actually. Previously I worked within the care of drug addicts for quite a number of years. I can read whether or not this is seriously intended. But I became curious about this man so I asked him to come here. We met a few times with different constellations in the group. We tested him along two lines, partly the University which makes plays about this kind of thing so he could be a sounding board for them. But we also tested him on blueprints. We have an architect here named Gerd. We tested him and he could read the blueprints instantaneously. They went out walking in a city district and they discussed it and it was quite obvious that he could immediately point out improvements and had ideas both regarding the physical environment and about how social relationships could be promoted in a different way.

There is some big reconstruction going on to the north east of Göteborg so he has met the architect at the city planning office. First on one occasion, we were just testing it to see what would happen, and they were very happily surprised because he put forward issues that had never occurred to them and the whole time he wove in an overall picture of the social relationships, and he can see in his mind populations, how people move around, the overall picture. He has that in his head and sometimes he and I do some evaluations, well we discuss it. He says he started shoplifting when he was thirteen, first robbery when he was fifteen, and of course he says he is obliged to instantaneously memorize the physical environment otherwise you wouldn’t survive as a criminal. So it is quite simple. He has all this knowledge inside his head and they really became interested—the city planning council—and they want to continue this cooperation. The director of the city planning council is very pleased with himself because first of all we had to anchor this with him. The thing is that life is always full of humor and absurdity. This guy has been a really serious criminal and his father works in installing alarm systems.

Q: Very good. From what you describe you have an ability to figure out if a person is trustworthy?

A: I think so, but things can happen in life which completely overturns that.

Q: But also to find or attract people who have the kind of capacity to contribute to all the work that you are doing.

A: Tolerance exists in people that you would never believe. Each person has his own personality.

Q: So you can see past the surface of people, past the outward forms of their lives.

A: You make it sound so grandiose. We meet a lot of people. You meet people at meetings, and there are meetings all day. But I think that as a social case worker that I received a lot of practice in hearing people’s statements or questions even though they are presented very clumsily. Although there is an honest intention to reach into an authentic person, I think there is something there about meeting people as a professional and also meeting them as private person. In one and the same meeting you need to realize the outward clothing of the professional, and the person inside the clothing; to meet both of them because they are both necessary. You have to reach into the personality if you are going to reach into their involvement. But I think very many times you just meet each other with the outer garments on. But you can hear people, the way they ask questions or the way they describe things, whether there is an involvement there or not. This involvement is based not in the professional but in the private person and that is what you have to see.

Q: And I imagine that by doing this, you build trust with those people.

A: Now you have the answer to the question that you asked three times! It is not easy to answer.

Q: No it is not easy. So what have you learned for yourself from doing this work?

A: I have a very unique job which involves meeting very many new ideas. So it is a learning situation the whole time. But I have learned, or perhaps I should say I have understood, that people are very lonely inside their organizations, and actually there is very little that is required to help people become more involved. What we are doing is very basic, incredibly basic, and sometimes it is just taking a person’s hand and walking them to the next person and allowing them to shake hands. Sometimes you have to be a nanny in that way.

Q: It is always that the most profound things are the most simple and basic.

It is very clear from what you describe about the Swedish culture and the government system, that they follow rules, that there is a very formal structure, and somehow now it has been recognized that there is also a need for informal influence. Do you see that part of your work in another way is to help the leaders in the formal structures to learn how to work more informally as well?

A: That is double. What I am thinking is that we have built up a system based on democratic corner stones and in Sweden we find that the principle of public access to official records is so important, that you have the right to get access to official documents. So there are different aspects of this. That’s why an informal system is not good either. It is a complicated issue. My thought is that part of my job is to tear down prejudices regarding each other.

Q: It is clear that your work is both very complex and very subtle. So what kind of advice would you give for someone else who was going to take on a similar type of position where they had a lot of complexity and a lot of subtlety?

A: I think that you have to believe that change is possible and have experience that this is the case. You must have that experience in order to be credible. Then you have to realize that things take time. And you must be able to cope with other people taking the credit.

Q: So you have to be humble as well.

A: Very much so. I also think that in your own life, both your professional life and in your private life, that you need experience of many different arenas. And that in your own private life that you have contact with a lot of people on different rungs of the ladder, of the hierarchy and that you have your own network which is very colorful.

Q: Tusen takk. ( A thousand thanks)

Reflecting on the interview, I was struck by the almost visceral and visual way in which Borghild portrayed the networks, systems, relationships and nuances complexities involved in her work. The ease with which she could weave these narratives together, situate each aspect and go to the heart of the matter was quite impressive. She was able to identify and link principles central to multiple systems without losing the human element. In developmental language this is termed “meta-systematic” cognition. This makes for a great illustration of “integral” leadership in action!