Surgeon of society in the eye of the storm

This year’s Alum of the Year is known for her passion for law, her strong work ethics and outstanding leadership skills. These traits have proven extremely useful to Barbara Bertelsen during her two years as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Justice.

For the past few weeks, an escalating gang-related conflict leading to several shootings in Copenhagen has turned the Ministry of Justice upside down, and politicians, the media and the public are demanding action and consequence.

In a sense, this sums up Barbara Bertelsen’s time as permanent secretary perfectly. Indeed, it is not the first time that serious events have overruled all other plans.

The powder keg

43-year-old Barbara Bertelsen was plunged headlong into her new job, which she was officially starting on Monday 16 February 2015. However, she was called in on the Saturday before when Copenhagen was hit by a terrorist attack which claimed the lives of two people.

Half an hour after the attack on the café Krudttønden (the powder keg), Barbara Bertelsen was in full swing as permanent secretary in a ministry which naturally assumes a key position in a situation as grave as this.

However, after the fateful day in February 2015, Barbara Bertelsen, in her capacity as the top civil servant in a ministry responsible for the overall Danish justice system, not only had to deal with the fact that terror had hit Denmark. Indeed, she had primarily been hired to rebuild the public’s trust in a ministry which the year before had been caught in a lie, albeit referred to as an “emergency lie” told in order to prevent a group of politicians from visiting Christiania.

This manoeuvre would cost the then Minister of Justice and later his permanent secretary their job.

Surgeon of society

Thus, Barbara Bertelsen had her work cut out for her from day one, and she actually enjoys being in the eye of the storm.

“It’s part of the game. We’re responsible for a number of very important tasks in society, and reality simply sets the agenda. After all, I’ve been in the game long enough to know that I have to be able to step in on very short notice and around the clock,” says Barbara Bertelsen.

She views the field of law as a tool for solving important societal problems. This has led her brother to dub her a “surgeon of society”. This title might also reflect that Barbara Bertelsen was in fact planning to study medicine when she first started at upper secondary school. Just like her parents and her brother. But instead, Barbara Bertelsen chose law.

Law in democracy’s service 

However, being a top civil servant was not in the cards 25 years ago when 19- year-old Barbara Bertelsen with a certain sense of awe entered the Department of Law at Aarhus University fresh from her upper secondary school Esbjerg Statsskole where she had focused on mathematics and physics.

“I think I was imagining working in the foreign service or as a lawyer. But during my studies, I became attracted to law as a dynamic tool for structuring society in the best way possible. In democracy’s service, so to speak.”

“After I graduated, I applied for a position as administrative officer in the Ministry of Justice. Here you get use your deep legal expertise in a political context, and your work makes an actual real-life difference,” Barbara Bertelsen explains.

Among other things, it was Associate Professor Ebbe Mansfeld Boe’s colourful and unique way of teaching constitutional law and Professor Gorm Toftegaard Nielsen’s equally entertaining dissemination of the abstract field of criminal law in a practical framework that made a particularly strong impression on the young Barbara Bertelsen.

Great honour

Other things that pop up in Barbara Bertelsen’s head when she recalls her time at university are the atmosphere of the old courtyard at the Department of Law, the close ties between lecturers and students on campus, the Friday Bar in the Economics cafeteria, and lunch in the then smoke-filled cafeteria of Political Science.

“To me, being a university student made a great change from being a secondary school pupil. Moving away from home, being responsible for your own studies and knowing that you really had to make an effort to pass the 1st year examination,” says Barbara Bertelsen, who is very proud to receive the 2017 award for Alumni of the Year at Aarhus BSS.

“It’s a very great honour”.

CV - Barbara Bertelsen

Master of Laws, Aarhus BSS - Aarhus University, 1998.

  • 2015- : Permanent Secretary
  • 2012-2015: Deputy Director-General in the Agency for the Modernisation of Public Administration
  • 2010-2012: Head of the Finance Division, the Ministry of Justice
  • 2009-2010: Head of the Planning and Development Division, the Ministry of Justice
  • 2008-2009: Head of the Police Division, the Ministry of Justice
  • 2007-2008: Deputy head of the Police Division, the Ministry of Justice
  • 2004-2006: Administrative Officer in the Ministry of Justice
  • 2003-2005: Secretary for the Vision Committee on the police of the future.
  • 2001-2003: Administrative Officer in the Prime Minister’s Office
  • 1998-2000: Administrative Officer in the Ministry of Justice