Finland’s stats chief Markus Sovala: from challenging employee to change leader 

By on 24/06/2022 | Updated on 26/06/2022
Picture of Markus Sovala, Statistics Finland’s director general, taken at the 2022 Global Government Finance Summit

Dr Markus Sovala is one year into his five-year term as Statistics Finland’s director general. He tells Mia Hunt about his priorities for the agency – enabling its customers to produce tailormade statistics of their own – why junior civil servants should ‘think big’, and his past life as a punk

Sovala has by his own admission been a challenging employee. His tendency to express his strong opinions openly to his superiors, and at times in a testing manner, could have hampered his career. But he was lucky that rather than label him problematic, his bosses embraced his candour and recognised his potential.

“A person like me is a challenge to any boss who just gives out orders and micromanages. One needs to be self-confident, have a solid agenda and be able to communicate it – if not, in a junior position you could be a problem,” Sovala says.

Perhaps it is this very frankness, and the lessons learnt from a string of “high quality” bosses in his early career – whose approaches have influenced his own leadership style – that catapulted him into the upper ranks of the Finnish civil service.

Sovala is director general of Statistics Finland, having begun a five-year term in March 2021, and a vice president on the DigiFinland board of directors. His past roles include serving as economic policy coordinator at the Ministry of Finance, director general of the economics department, and deputy budget head. He was also economic policy advisor to the prime minister and Finland’s representative at the World Bank.

His decision to join the civil service came during his time studying economics at the University of Helsinki and Cambridge university in the 1980s and 1990s. He had become bored with the emphasis on writing theoretical essays that had no real connection to the economic policy challenges Finland had been experiencing.  

 “The Finnish economy boomed in the 1980s, partly due to the liberalisation of financial markets and consequently rapidly increasing household consumption and investment boom. There were signs of overheating in the economy, but no one could expect what was lurking around the corner,” Sovala explains.

At the start of the following decade, a home-grown banking crisis and the collapse of the Soviet Union, after which Finnish exports diminished suddenly, caused interest rates and unemployment to jump to double-digits and GDP to contract 13% over the following three years.

“I started to look at what I could do outside university. I felt strongly that I didn’t want to try to solve imaginary theoretical problems when there were real ones in the economy and society,” Sovala says.  

Securing a job at either the Bank of Finland or the Ministry of Finance most appealed to him. This was in 1995 when Finland had just joined the European Union and Sovala’s application to the finance ministry arrived on the very day that the first cadre of civil servants began moving to Brussels, leaving it in need of a new economist. Sovala got the job and was tasked with drafting Finland’s ‘convergence programme’, an application for joining the Economic and Monetary Union.  

Things worked out well, but his career path could have been very different. After graduating, he completed a short stint as research fellow at Helsinki University. Whilst there he got a phone call from then finance minister Erkki Liikanen who asked him to be his political adviser. The pair had met at an event comprising young economists, trade unionists, MPs, and businessmen organised by the Finnish Social Democratic Party’s Economic Policy Advisory Group.

“After a sleepless night, I decided to turn the offer down as I had a newborn baby girl at home,” Sovala explains. “A positive response could have changed my life as not long afterwards Liikanen became the Finnish Ambassador in Brussels, the first Finnish commissioner in the Commission and later governor of the Bank of Finland, and held senior positions in the European Central Bank decision-making structures.”

All change

Fast forward to now, and Sovala is undertaking a change management programme at Statistics Finland with vigour.

He says his strong will and focus on making a difference makes him a good fit for roles in which change management is a key element. “As the political and administrative system of Finland is relatively future- and change-oriented, there is room for my type of personality in the civil service,” he says, emphasising ‘relatively’ with a laugh. “It’s a great privilege that in addition to running the everyday business of Statistics Finland, I can lead change in our organisation.”

The institution’s mission, as well as continuing to provide official statistics as effectively as possible, is to enable other players in society to access data that will allow them to produce their own tailormade statistics.

“It is, of course, a huge legal, technical, administrative and economic challenge,” he says, not least because of tight data security protocols and the need to protect privacy, a cornerstone of the agency’s ethos which means that not only is personal and business information never shared externally but that it is heavily restricted internally as well.

Photo by Jani Laukkanen

Sovala says one great advantage of the Finnish system is its authorities’ high quality public registers, which are open to everyone. Although he says, as in any government statistics office, that questionnaires and interviews have a role to play, the agency collects the bulk of its information from tax, population, vehicle, land, education, health, and other similar registers.

“This is cost-efficient and gives a real-time picture of many phenomena. For example, every night we receive information on salaries, wages, and social transfers paid the day before. And as information is identifiable with universal personal or firm numbers, we are able to combine it all efficiently,” Sovala explains.

He describes this approach, gathering data that is a by-product of administrative processes, as “information recycling”.

And this is where the change agenda comes in. The aim is to enable the information collected and combined for the production of official statistics to be used by other players for other purposes.

As Sovala explains, the country’s research service has provided academic researchers with anonymised and pseudonymised data for almost 20 years. Statistics Finland’s ambition is to provide similar aggregate data not only to government ministries for the purposes of policy planning and evaluation but to help its customers create their own statistics for their own goals.

Progress made during the coronavirus pandemic will feed into this. Sovala describes the creation, two years ago, of the country’s so-called ‘situation room’, which fostered cooperation between academic researchers, government economists, and Statistics Finland. It helped to provide an almost real-time picture of what was happing in Finnish society and to the country’s economy after the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020.

“Now we’re trying to establish this kind of activity as a permanent function. The idea is to use the existing available data to produce timely, tailormade statistical information.”

His aim is to ensure Statistics Finland is organised in such a way as to make this possible before he retires at the end of his five-year tenure in 2026.

The balance of power

He can’t say now, of course, but it might be that he wishes he could stay on longer at the helm of Statistics Finland if he had the chance. Indeed, asked what government reform he would most like to make, he says it would be to change the maximum term for senior civil servants – who are nominated by Cabinet ministers – in any one department from five years to seven.

In addition, he would also rethink the number of state secretaries and political advisors. “The combination of rapidly increasing political staff and senior civil servants with relative short-term tenure has changed the balance of power in the ministries in the wrong direction over the last 20 years,” he says, adding that “independent civil servants are a crucial element in democracy and good administration”.

We will have to wait until his term ends – whether that be in five years or more – to see whether Sovala has achieved his goals at Statistics Finland. Whatever his work, past, present and future, there is one country in particular that he draws inspiration from: Estonia.

Though he concedes that as a country of 1.3 million people, government coordination is much easier there than in more traditional, bigger countries – even Finland where the population is relatively small at 5.5 million – he is impressed by what it has been able to achieve. “I like the Estonian approach very much. They started basically from scratch in the early 1990s and now they are very progressive, especially regarding digitalisation and ICT,” he says.

“I do not want to claim that Estonia is paradise as it is still catching up to European standards of living. I would personally put more emphasis on adequate social transfers, for example. But they have a problem-solving attitude and their general idea seems to be to get as much value as possible from each tax Euro, and that’s good.”

He adds that he “loves Estonian PR skills” which have contributed to the country’s reputation as the world’s leading nation in ICT.

“Very often we Finns are much better, but we are not used to marketing our achievements as well as our colleagues on the other side of Gulf of Finland,” he says jokingly.

Overall, Sovala says OECD’s influence on the Finnish administration has been the greatest. “We joined in the 1960s and it became our main source of new ideas, especially regarding economic and industrial policies.”

‘Thinking big’

As a longstanding civil service leader, Sovala has himself exerted influence on the departments and teams he has led. In his working life, he is most proud that his staff have always like him “or at least pretended to”.

“I have always spent a lot of time explaining to my staff what I want our organisation to achieve and let my people decide how to do that. Without exception, organisations I have led have been in better shape when I moved onto the next challenge than when I joined them.”

He puts this down, in part, to taking time to listen to his colleagues, though he admits for someone with his personality type, this can be a struggle. “Good advice but difficult to follow, at least for me!” he says.

As for his colleagues, he most values strong analytical and communication skills, and the ability to act strategically. “Logic is extremely important, but the majority of people don’t think logically and very few are capable of strategic thinking. Very seldom are all these qualities present in one person, and thus you need to have a team consisting of different people with different skills.”

To someone starting out in the civil service, Sovala advises “thinking big”.

“Do your work, but recognise that if you are only interested in your narrow tasks, you will not reach your full potential. Try to look at yourself and your work from your boss’s, your minister’s, your parliament’s, or your society’s point of view. Can you produce something more valuable than what has been requested of you? Can you propose new ‘products’ or more efficient ways to fulfill your current tasks?”

And he comes back to communication. “Talk to your colleagues, talk to those in other agencies and ministries, in other countries, but also with the press and public. One of the great strengths of the Finnish administration is that staff are encouraged to communicate directly to those outside of their organisation and without asking the permission of their bosses. Of course, there are persons in senior positions who have problems adapting to that, but in successful agencies and ministries they are less common than in the traditional ones.”

There can’t be many civil service leaders who were “keen punk-rockers back in the 1970s” but in many respects Sovala isn’t a typical civil service leader. A challenging employee he may once have been – but an ambitious change leader full to the brim of sage advice he has become.

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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