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Harassment and threats against central government employees are common

Harassment and threats against employees are a widespread problem at many government agencies, according to the Swedish National Audit Office’s audit. Incidents are usually handled well, but small agencies need expanded support.

Two people are conversing, one seen from behind and the other from the front.

Photo: Björn Dahlgren

The Swedish National Audit Office (Swedish NAO) has audited how common harassment, threats and violence are against central government employees, and how the government agencies prevent and deal with such situations.

The audit shows that harassment and threats are very common. At large government agencies with frequent citizen contacts, such as the Swedish Public Employment Service, the Swedish Tax Agency and the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, there are incidents every week. The courts, the National Board for Consumer Complaints, the Enforcement Authority, the Swedish Prison and Probation Service, the National Board of Forensic Medicine, the Swedish Accident Investigation Board, and the Swedish Prosecution Authority are other government agencies that are affected to a large extent, as are the county administrative boards.

“Combating harassment, threats and violence is important in order to reduce the risk of employees’ performance of their duties being affected and to maintain trust in central government activities,” says Auditor General Helena Lindberg.

Threatening or unpleasant statements are the most common form of harassment, often via email, telephone or in physical meetings. Harassment via social media is also common. The perpetrator is often a querulant or a person in a financially vulnerable or otherwise fragile situation.

In some cases, harassment is systematic and takes place over a long period of time, and sometimes evolves into outright persecution. The perpetrator may identify the employee’s family or visit their home. Sometimes they make unfounded reports to police and social services. Occasionally, harassment and threats are perpetrated by criminals in an attempt to influence an authority’s decisions.

The overall conclusion of the Swedish NAO is that the government agencies’ and the Government’s measures to prevent and deal with these incidents is effective in many respects. This applies, in particular, to agencies where employees run a high risk of exposure.

However, it is more challenging for small agencies and agencies that find themselves suddenly subjected to threats, harassment and violence following external changes. One example of this is the Public Health Agency of Sweden during the COVID-19 pandemic. Efforts are required in this area, according to the Swedish NAO.

“Government agencies that are not equipped for systematic prevention and that lack the resources to deal with urgent incidents need to have access to practical and tangible assistance. The available support is general and sweeping and has been difficult to apply,” says Johanna Köhlmark, Project Leader for the audit.

Recommendations in brief

The Swedish National Audit Office recommends that the Government tasks an appropriate government agency with the responsibility of establishing a function that can support agencies with practical advice and tools. The Government should consider whether the function should also offer support to municipalities and regions.

The Government should also consider changes to the legislation that enable agencies to reduce the vulnerability of individual decision-makers of administrators as needed, but without jeopardising citizens’ fundamental right to access information.

See the report for the full recommendations.

Press contact: Olle Castelius, phone: +46 8-5171 40 04.

Presskontakt: , telefon: 08-5171 42 06.

Updated: 07 March 2023

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