Open government in the Nordics

Open government is intended to ensure transparency, accountability and openness and involves fundamental issues such as press freedom, public disclosure and freedom of information legislation, all key aspects of the administration of Nordic states. These states were amongst the earliest to introduce lauded measures of open government, such as the ombudsman, and are successful in maintaining their tradition of open governance. However, they can still be criticised in some respects, such as, for closed, unrecorded parliamentary committees. Additionally, they, like other countries, have to navigate the balance between openness and protecting personal data, as well as dealing with the challenges of technology in today’s global information society.

2019.02.27 | Ainur Elmgren

The Finnish Act on Freedom of the Press from 1766, which included the Principle of Publicity. Photo: © Tryckfrihetsförordningen1766 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Open government is considered to have institutional and cultural roots in the Nordic countries. Open government includes both administrative measures that enable citizens to hold decision-makers accountable, either through transparency of administration in a narrower sense or openness in governance in a wider sense. Openness in government is intended to ensure its legitimacy, and transparency is a desired quality in democratic governments, the policies of which should be easily understood and implemented, and in which the relations of accountability should be clear. Private institutions and companies may also implement principles of open government as a management model. Recently, the concept has been broadened as going beyond transparency as a participatory process to achieving genuine collaboration between government and civil society.

The Nordic definition of open government historically emphasised transparency and access to information. The Nordic countries have long-standing traditions that are seen as defining elements of open government, such as press freedom, public disclosure, and access to government documents. While open government is often promoted in response to declining confidence in politicians and public institutions, increasing openness can lead to decision-making processes going undocumented to avoid disclosure. Access to information can also entail risks to the privacy of individual citizens. This can include sensitive information becoming susceptible to abuse.

Open government in the twenty-first century

In recent decades, open government has evolved into a key concept in global discourses on democracy, civil society and the public sphere. National transparency regimes have increased worldwide. The U.S. Open Government Directive of 2009 has become a milestone initiative that outshines the Nordic so-called ‘pioneers’ in open government research. Norway was one of the founding members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral initiative to promote open government, according to the three principles of transparency, participation and collaboration. In recent years, the number of participants in OGP has increased to 76 national governments, including Sweden, Finland and Denmark, but with the exception of Iceland. The OECD is an OGP partner. As members of the OECD, the Nordic countries have a duty to promote open government worldwide. The OECD Recommendation of the Council on Open Government from 2017 defines transparency, accountability and openness as particularly relevant among the principles of good governance.

The development of interactive web services has changed the practical possibilities of access and participation. Private initiatives have highlighted difficulties to access public data. In 2016-2017, the Finnish NGO Open Knowledge Finland campaigned for the right to access information about visitors to parliament in order to disclose information about potential lobbyists. Governments have responded to such challenges by joining transnational efforts such as the Open Government Partnership Action Plan in 2012. The aid of new technologies is welcomed both as a way to increase citizens’ participation and as a way to save costs; these were for example the stated goals of the Danish Agency for Digitization’s e-Government strategy for 2011-2015.

Open government in practice

Openness in government and administration is seen as a typical feature of Nordic democracy, contributing to high levels of public trust. In addition, a close relationship between politicians and citizens is regarded as endemic. Nordic Members of Parliament are expected to communicate directly with citizens and to be accessible both online and offline.

Here are examples of some of the various methods of achieving open government:

  • Freedom of information legislation: In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, freedom of opinion and expression included the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”.  However, until 1970, only five countries that had signed the declaration had passed freedom of information (FOI) legislation. These countries were all Nordic, with the exception of the United States, which had signed the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. The Swedish FOI laws came into effect in 1766 and 1809-1812. Finland followed the Swedish example in 1952, and the Danish and Norwegian FOI laws were passed in 1970.
  • Ombudsman: In the Nordic countries, citizens can file complaints to the legislative through the parliamentary ombudsman. Among other legal rights, the ombudsman provides the public a means to keep executive power in check and to hold officials to account. The ombudsman institution was introduced in Sweden in 1809 to protect the rights of individuals against the abuse of legislative power. It also has an even older institution, the Chancellor of Justice, created in 1713 and today supervising government agencies, public officials and the judiciary, in accordance with the principle of the separation of powers. In Finland, part of the Swedish realm until 1809, the ombudsman office was established by the Constitution of 1919 according to the Swedish model. The other Nordic countries established corresponding institutions in 1955 (Denmark), 1962 (Norway), and 1997 (Iceland). Other types of public ombudsmen have been pioneered by Norway with the introduction of a Gender Equality Ombudsman in 1979. The Nordic ombudsman institution has been emulated around the world, and the word is used in other languages such as English, German, Flemish and Dutch. Government agencies, universities and private companies have also adopted the ombudsman institution to handle complaints within an organisation. Such organisational ombudsmen have been found in, for example, the United States and Commonwealth countries since the 1960s. The institution of a European Ombudsman was established by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. The first European Ombudsman elected by the European Parliament in 1995 was the Finn Jacob Söderman.
  • Citizens proposing legislation: Some of the Nordic countries, such as Finland and Denmark, allow citizens to propose legislation on the national level. The Finnish Citizen’s Initiative was first included in the constitution of the Social Democratic revolutionary government during the failed revolution and Civil War of 1918. Since 2012, the Finnish constitution guarantees that a citizen’s initiative supported by at least 50,000 Finnish citizens with suffrage can be sent to the Parliament of Finland. Unlike the revolutionary proposals of the early 20th century, the present form of the Citizen’s Initiative is indirect and submitted to the legislature, not directly to a referendum. A website, www.kansalaisaloite.fi, is utilised to propose and collect citizens’ initiatives. As of 2018, 25 proposals were sent to Parliament. To date, two of these bills have been passed (gender-equal marriage in 2014 and a reform of the maternity law in 2016), and nine are still at the committee stage. Other crowdsourcing attempts related to specific lawmaking projects of individual ministries have been short-lived.
  • Public libraries: A key channel for citizens’ equal access to information is the public library system, which is well developed in the Nordic countries. The public library systems of the Nordic countries have registered the best performances in providing a nationwide and coordinated range of services, including internet access.

Nordic openness under scrutiny

The Global Right to Information Rating index, developed by the CLD (Centre for Law and Democracy) and Access Info Europe, rates the Nordic countries as average achievers in the field of right to information. For example, according to the World Wide Web Foundation’s peer-reviewed Open Data Barometer of 2017, the UK performs better than Sweden on openness on data about government spending and public contracts, although the Nordic countries all make it to the top 25. The World Justice Project (WJP), an independent non-profit organisation, measures in its Open Government Index the publicised laws and government data, right to information, civic participation, and complaint mechanisms. The WJP Index of 2015 places four Nordic countries in the top 10 (Iceland was not included in the evaluation).

Nevertheless, open government in the Nordic countries has its limits. A common feature of the Nordic parliaments is that the legislative committees are closed to the public. While all plenary documents can be accessed and historical documents have been the object of extensive digitization efforts, the closed setting of committees is regarded as necessary to establish an atmosphere of trust and much of the legislative work happens in parliamentary committees. Paradoxically, the trust that is seen as crucial for Nordic open government is dependent on confidential, closed forums.

Although the Nordic countries do not necessarily score exceptionally high in recent Right to Information rating systems, the addition of other important factors of open government, such as low levels of public distrust and perceptible corruption, and high levels of civil control of public administration and participation in policy making, contribute to experts’ perception that the Nordic countries are successful in managing and sustaining their tradition of open governance. The Nordic countries have participated in transnational projects intending to improve open government and transparency in the EU and elsewhere. Nordic countries have also acted together and individually on behalf when they have perceived open government to be threatened, for example, by EU legislation.

The Nordic countries have profiled themselves as norm entrepreneurs in the field of open government worldwide, but there is also intra-Nordic criticism of the rosy image of Nordic open government success. Some critics claim that only a culturally homogeneous society may be able to reach the levels of trust that make the Nordic version of open government possible. Others point out that the origins of the Nordic welfare states were far from conflict-free, and that the particularly Nordic traditions of governance do not necessarily fulfil the needs of the global information society. For example, Sweden has been criticised for a lack of awareness and institutional support for open government data plans. Sweden’s Data Act of 1973 in combination with the Freedom of the Press Act enabled third party access to data concerning Swedish citizens to such an extent that anonymisation of sensitive data became a public concern by the 1980s. The Act on Personal Data of 1998 substituted the Data Act of 1973 and harmonised Swedish and EU law on the protection of privacy. This act was superseded in 2016 by the General Data Protection Regulation, a regulation in EU law on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA).

In the future, Nordic countries may get left behind in the international competition for new tools and technologies to improve the interaction between governments and civil societies.

Signature collection point at The Body Shop in Kluuvi shopping centre, Helsinki, for one of the first citizens’ initiatives in Finland, about banning fur farming. © Kaihsu Tai / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

Brief history of open government

Sweden is considered as having the longest history of systematic efforts for transparency and openness in government agencies of the Nordic countries and is seen as a historical pioneer in open government internationally. The second chapter of the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 guaranteed the right to public access to documents created or received by public institutions. This ‘Principle of Publicity’, today considered a central building block of open government, was promoted by enlightenment philosopher Anders Chydenius (1729-1803), a Finnish-born member of the Swedish Diet.

In its present sense, open government was developed conceptually in the post-war era. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, freedom of opinion and expression included the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”. However, the Nordic principle of publicity specifically addresses the right of the citizen to access state and municipal documents and records of elected assemblies, within certain limitations. As an independent state, Finland re-established this principle the Act on the Openness of Public Documents of 1951, revised in the Publicity Act of 1999. Norway passed a corresponding law in 1970. In Denmark, the Public Records Act of 1970 was superseded by the Access to Public Administration Files Act of 1985, which in turn was revised in an act in 2014.

With their roots similarly in the late 18th century Enlightenment and revolutionary era in a similar way to some of the Nordic countries, the Netherlands passed a public access act in 1978. The Council of Europe passed normative recommendations on open governance for member states in 1979. In the following decades, there was a dramatic increase in FOI legislation globally. The Nordic countries increasingly amended their FOI acts reflecting international tendencies toward legislative coordination. The Nordic latecomer, Iceland, passed its own freedom of information legislation in 1996.

While transparency and FOI laws are by no means unique to the Nordic countries, EU members Sweden, Denmark and Finland have often acted independently or in concert to promote these causes within the EU. In the 1990s, the drive for transparency in the European Community institutions was led by Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands. In 1996, Sweden was embroiled in a conflict with the European Community Council because of its more open approach to disclosure of Council documents on European policing. Denmark has also challenged definitions of public disclosure, for example, with a controversial public broadcast of recordings of European Council meetings in 2003. On occasion, representatives of Sweden, Finland and Denmark have also found themselves on opposite sides of transparency and public access debates.

The Nordic countries demonstrate useful ways of achieving open government, but they too are susceptible to the difficulties of maintaining it.

Further reading:

  • C. Grønbech-Jensen, 'The Scandinavian tradition of open government and the European Union: problems of compatibility?’, Journal of European Public Policy, 5, 1 (1998), pp. 185-199
  • C. Marklund, ‘From Promise to Compromise: Nordic Openness in a World of Global Transparency’, in: Götz, N., and Marklund, C., The Paradox of Openness – Transparency and Participation in Nordic Cultures of Consensus (Leiden: Brill, 2015)
  • F. Bignami, ‘Three Generations of Participation Rights before the European Commission’, Law & Contemporary Problems, 68 (2004), pp. 61-83
  • R. A. Chapman ‘Introduction’, in: Chapman, R. A., and Hunt, M., Open Government: A Study of the prospects of open government within the limitations of the British political system, (London: Routledge, 1987)
  • J. Ignacio Criado, J. I., Edgar Alejandro Ruvalcaba-Gómez, E. A., and Rafael Valenzuela-Mendoza R. ‘Revisiting the Open Government Phenomenon. A Meta-Analysis of the International Literature’, JeDEM 10, 1 (2018), pp. 50-81.

External links:

Open Government Partnership 

Tags: ombudsman, Nordic openness, open government, transparency, freedom of the press, freedom of information, citizens initiatives