Secretariats within the Secretariat

1 September 2023
The ways in which different Working Group secretariats are organized are diverse. Two out of the six Arctic Council Working Group secretariats are part of the Arctic Council Secretariat (ACS). How did that happen, what developments have taken place over the past ten years, and where do these secretariats stand now? Let’s take a look.

The Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP) and Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group Executive Secretaries are part of the ACS team, and support and facilitate the work of their respective groups from the Tromsø office. Before 2014, the secretarial functions rotated with the chairing State, as they did for the Arctic Council in general.

While EPPR was established under the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in 1991, ACAP came into the picture originally as an Arctic Council Action Plan to Eliminate Pollution of the Arctic adopted in 2000. Six years later it developed into the Arctic Contaminants Action Program, or the ACAP Working Group as we know it today. So, while both Working Groups (WGs) have a history of operating without a standing secretariat, in the case of EPPR, the permanent secretariat has been serving the group for a short period of its existence.

As the mandates, structure and activities of the Working Groups developed over the years, the idea of building up a stable institutional memory, including archives, and a resilient long-term administrative structure persisted. The establishment of the ACS in 2013 created an opportunity for the WGs to secure continuous administrative and secretarial support, which was strongly encouraged by the WGs and their Chairs, who saw the benefits of a permanent solution.

Joint meeting between the Arctic Council Working Groups in 2015


When establishing the position of Executive Secretary for ACAP and EPPR at the ACS, the idea was that one person would manage both WGs with support from the ACS structure. In 2014, Patti Bruns was hired as the Executive Secretary for both ACAP and EPPR. When asked how she would foremost describe her experience, the first things on the list are the people, the Arctic community, and the momentum the WGs had together throughout the years she served at the ACS.

During her first year as ACAP/EPPR Executive Secretary, Patti worked hand in hand with Jaakko Henttonen and Ole Kristian Bjerkemo, as well as with Timo Seppälä and Synnøve Lunde, the ACAP and EPPR Chairs and Executive Secretaries at the time, seasoned professionals who knew the WGs inside out. “I remember my first meetings very well – I had no idea of what the expectations were. But having people who had been there for a long time, who could really walk me through those first meetings in a supportive way was very handy,” recollected Patti.

Timo and Synnøve, like many before them, had provided administrative support to ACAP and EPPR on top of having full-time jobs and being experts in their respective WGs. So, this transition also freed the expert capacity within the WGs. “In many ways that was a great time for the Arctic Council when the ACS started and so much more professionalism came to replace the ad-hoc secretariats. It’s one thing to be a chemicals management expert and quite another to be a good secretariat!” said Timo.

Sharing an Executive Secretary

At the beginning of the process, a lot of thought was put into the development of standard agendas, streamlined reporting, records of decision, as well as giving the documents a common look and feel. Another big task was to create a well-functioning document management and archiving system that would help build and maintain the WGs’ institutional memory. "The archives resided with the chairing state before the permanent Secretariat, and would remain there, while a new Chair would establish their own system,” noted Ole Kristian, looking back to earlier days. These efforts greatly benefited from being part of the ACS, and both WGs approved the parameters and structure that were put into place. When the WGs reinvigorated and advanced their communication and outreach efforts, the ACS communications support was of immense help.

Another focus was on strengthening internal communication within the larger Arctic Council family. During that time, “considerable effort was put into representing ACAP and EPPR at the Senior Arctic Officials’ (SAO) level, and Patti played an important role in facilitating information exchange between ACAP and EPPR and the Arctic Council Chairmanship, SAOs, Permanent Participants, other Working Groups and the Secretariat,” added Timo.

Between 2014-2019, ACAP and EPPR worked closely together and initiated some processes in parallel due to the shared Executive Secretary. For example, both WGs had their brands redesigned, which resulted in new matching visual identities. At the same time, collaboration with other subsidiary bodies of the Arctic Council became a top priority. As an example, during these years, all six WGs jointly drafted a milestone document for collaboration - the Common Operating Guidelines.

Patti Bruns at an Working Group and Observers meeting in Ruka, Finland, 2019.
© Kaisa Sirén, Finnish Foreign Ministry

Split in two

All these developments helped to strengthen the WGs’ capacity, enabling ACAP and EPPR to be more ambitious and expand their activities, while meeting the existing demands. As years went by and the work advanced both within the groups, as well as in cooperation with all the other WGs, it became obvious that one person was not enough to serve two groups. “One of the challenges was the meeting schedule, as arranging two WG meetings at the same time with a shared Executive Secretary was impossible,” recalled Ole Kristian. Besides, ACAP and EPPR have always had very distinct personalities and ways of working due to the differences in the nature of the mandates.

Therefore, when Patti moved on to new Arctic adventures in 2019, SAOs agreed to split the position in two. This started a new era for ACAP and EPPR in their organizational culture. Kseniia Iartceva was hired as the ACAP Executive Secretary in 2019, and Nina Ågren as EPPR Executive Secretary in 2020, after almost a year in an interim role.

The establishment of two WG secretariats instead of one coincided with a new phase of organizational development within ACAP and EPPR. One of the main tasks for both new Executive Secretaries was to help coordinate and facilitate growing intersessional work and to further strengthen institutional practices. In ACAP, for example, this included updating and synchronizing its Expert Groups’ mandates, as well as reviewing, reinforcing and developing some of the group’s internal documents. In EPPR, advancing administration resulted in, for example, enhanced internal governance and communications structures, in the form of a creation of a new executive leadership group and new ways of sharing information within the WG.

It goes without saying that having one dedicated full-time position to support the work of one WG has made a difference. With more time for intersessional work, ACAP and EPPR Executive Secretaries became more involved in project-related activities. Their capacity to work with experts within their respective WG to develop relevant communication content and larger outreach campaigns has also been strengthened.

With the COVID-19 pandemic breaking out at the beginning of 2020, the timing for splitting one secretariat into two could not have been better. Given the nature of the work during the following two years, covering the work for two groups would have been impossible for one person. The adjustments needed to accommodate the growing number of online meetings and WG events, as well as new needs for technical and administrative support, such as EPPR’s shift to virtual exercises during the pandemic.

Nina Ågren, current EPPR Executive Secretary
© Kaisa Sirén, Finnish Foreign Ministry
ACAP WG meeting in Tromsø 2019

Future considerations

This evolution of the Secretariats has made it possible for the Working Groups to grow, both in activity level, and as a part of the Council’s subsidiary bodies. With more resources to dedicate to enhancing communications efforts, cross-cutting collaboration among all the WGs, historical project tracking, development of internal structures, and exploring funding solutions, a steady and more robust administration has proved its worth. While some fundamental core tasks rarely change in their nature, ACAP and EPPR Executive Secretaries are looking forward to continuing finding ways, with the help of the rest of the ACS team, to support the evolving activities of the WGs in the best way possible.