Even in paradise there are still (incompetent) bureaucrats

There has been much talk in the Danish media in recent years, and by Danish politicians, about how important it is to attract foreign talent into Denmark since there is a growing labour shortage. Particularly, but not exclusively, in the area of maths and sciences and especially those with PhD's.

Of course, it's one thing to toss around lofty rhetoric about how welcome foreigners are in Denmark and so forth (at least, the well educated fully westernised ones), it's another thing to bring your army of bureaucrats in line with this thinking. Which brings me to this story I am about to share - which I will do by sharing the email exchange that took place around it.

It's a series of email a good (non-Danish) friend was involved in, which he forwarded to me,
between himself and a hopeless bureaucrat at the Danish tax office, while trying to deal with some tax (skat, in Danish) problems that resulted from him going abroad to work. Apparently the memo that foreigners were now welcome in Denmark didn't quite reach this particular bureaucrat.

Incidentally (as he writes in his email) this work abroad, which my friend is doing, is actually funded by the Danish Research Council (who at least seem to understand the value a foreigner can be to the country)!

I should also add (not that it matters) that this friend of mine, who has been living in Denmark nearly as long as I have (he completed a PhD here, before becoming an Assistant Professor), genuinely loves the country - especially Copenhagen. He regularly refers to the city (in all seriousness) as 'his paradise'. In fact, I once wrote a post entitled 'Why Copenhagen is a happening place these days' that was somewhat inspired by his views, which I tend to share.
Unfortunately, his Danish has not advanced terribly far during this time here (as often happens when you're working full-time...).

Well, even in paradise there is bureaucracy. And where there is bureaucracy, there are bureaucrats. And sometimes this means dealing with a live person...and here the problems so often begin.

Read the exchange for yourself below, it's rather breathtaking. In fact, it could be straight out of a manual written by the highly xenophobic Dansk Folkparti entitled 'how to deal with pesky foreigners in Denmark asking questions'.

"Sometimes they can really piss me off in my paradise.....", wrote my friend in forwarding this set of emails. Indeed, indeed - as you read through this exchange, you can almost feel the emotional explosion as my dear friend loses it...


Fra: GP
Sendt: 18. februar 2008 14:30
Til: skat@skat.dk
Emne: VS: Problem Salary Abroad

My name is GP (CPR-nr. xxxxxx-xxxx), I am working at the Denmark Technical University for the past several years.
I am currently an assistant professor with a contract until November of 2009 and I have attached my contract. I am spending 12 months to Tokyo University (Japan) with a starting date 1/1/2008.
I visited the SKAT office before I leave for Tokyo because I was informed that I will be in a beneficial tax status since I will spend a period of more than 6 months abroad. I submitted the necessary documents and everything seemed to be fine. However when I received the salary of January this was very low. As you see in the email below the administration office of DTU reported to me that my allowance for 2008 is significant lower.
Allowance 2007 = 7.841 pr. month
Allowance 2008 = 3.685 pr. month
I don't see anything beneficial until now and my salary has decreased instead of increased, so could you please help me, what is wrong and how could we fix it? As you understand living in Tokyo makes difficult every other type of communication than email.
Thank you in advance for your help.
Best wishes


From: GP
Sent: 27. februar 2008 10:33:06
To: JP-Skat-hovedpostkasse
Subject: VS: Problem Salary Abroad

Dear skat
I keep taking no respond even though I have mail you several times. Please let me know if this problem is taking care from someone in your department.
Best wishes


Fra: xxxxxx@skat.dk [xxxxxxx@skat.dk]
Sendt: 3. marts 2008 11:52
Til: GP
Emne: FW: Problem Salery Abroad.

The official language in Denmark is Danish and that is why we write to you in Danish. However, you are of course welcome to come to the nearest SKAT Centre where we in English could explain the contents of your letter from SKAT.
Der er lavet et skattekort til dig for 2008, med et månedtligt fradag på xx.xxx. Dette skattekort skulle være sendt til DTU. Skattekortet er gældende fra 1. januar 2008. For at være helt sikker på at DTU får skattekortet, sendes skattekortet igen til DTU.
Med venlig hilsen
Helle June Frederiksen [Ed. note: name changed]
SKAT Kundecentret Tlf. 7222 1818


Fra: GP
Sendt: 3. marts 2008 12:31
Til: xxxxxx@toldskat.dk
Emne: SV: Problem Salery Abroad.

Dear Helle June Frederiksen
what do you mean ´welcome to come to the nearest SKAT Center´? I am in Tokyo, Japan where I will stay for 12 months because the Danish Research Council fund me to do so. And their letter with the decision of obtaining knowledge in Japan and bring it back to Denmark came to me in English. How come now that I am experiencing a problem abroad the best you can do is to send me an ironic email after 34 days informing me about the official language of Denmark? I know which is the official language because I am working and offering in your country from the very responsible position of the academic professor for 5 years now.
I feel sorry about you.
Med venlig hilsen since Best wishes maybe will not satisfy you.
Dr. GP

Ouch! That hurt!

6 Response to "Even in paradise there are still (incompetent) bureaucrats"

  1. That whole debacle is so awful I hardly know how to respond.. 'The official language of Denmark is Danish.'??? That is exceedingly offensive. Can you keep us posted on what transpires?

    One would think, given the drive to recruit skilled workers, skat would have some department set aside for those workers with people equipped to handle queries in English.

    Your friend should forward those emails to whatever government ministry handles the positive list, or at least the workindenmark site.

    Fuzzy says:

    Wow, that whole exchange sort of exemplifies the often sadistic mindset of people in quasi-powerful positions here. Hectoring, smug and alltogether unhelpful.

    I hope your friend gets some satisfactory answers. My advice is to keep plugging away, and if possible, to reopen the case with another employee. I've done that several times here at Immigration--come back and talked to another employee, if the first one is inflexible, rigid or incompetent. Often I receive entirely different outcomes!

    Tim says:

    Fuzzy and Notquitedanish - I totally agree with both of you. When I read the exchange a second and third time after I received it, I genuinely couldn't believe it. I think my friend got it about right in his response - there's not much you can say to that kind of ignorant, quasi-all-knowing arrogance from some lowly unsatisfied tax official. The only sort of sad satisfaction (which is not really satisfaction at all - who wants to see others behave in such an undignified way?) is knowing that this really is a person missing out on the big picture and surely creating their own suffering as a result - and likely leading a relatively pitiful life compared to what they could be. I know my friend will manage, that i'm not at all concerned about!

    Anonymous says:

    That's absolutely preposterous!

    I'm currently doing my MSc in London and have been awarded a a load of scholarships to fund my studies here. I wrote 3 emails to SKAT asking which documentation I would need to prove my status and have the scholarships tax exempted. No reply. Deciding to call them instead, I got on the phone with their first line of defense, explained my situation, and was then transferred to their resident expert. After about 15 minutes of trying to convince this guy that the law also applies to me, I simply insisted, quite strongly, that he would look into the matter while I waited. Less than 2 minutes later he came back on the phone, apologised and I could finally get my original question answered. It doesn't sound anywhere near as complicated as GP's situation, if nothing else because of the time difference, but my advice to him is to get up at 1 in the morning and call instead of writing emails (with Skype it should be affordable). It's much, much easier to have your case swept under the rug if you write an email, than if you call.

    As fuzzy said, the key is persistence. That's probably the one thing I've learnt in my short life about dealing with the grunts of the Danish bureaucracy. To be fair, most of them are actually quite helpful, but once in a while you are just unlucky.

    Emily says:

    I was actually supposed to go to Denmark as part of a graduate exchange program. Basically, I would have been given money to work on Danish geology research, as part of the PhD program at my home university.

    Unfortunately, the Danish government decided not to allow my husband to get a resident permit, which we found out only 3 weeks before we were supposed to leave. It was incredibly frustrating, and I decided not to study abroad there after all.

    (See http://emilyyspahn.blogspot.com/2007/09/no-denmark.html
    for more info/details.)

    So how did this all end up? Any news?

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