Finnish law: Free access to public documents for everyone – Municipalities meet the demands poorly

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A value over 40 (orange) means that the municipality did not respond at all.

The Freedom of information law decrees that anyone in Finland has the right of access to public authorities’ official documents. A request of information can even be done anonymously or without needing to provide any reasons for the request.

An academic research group at the University of Jyväskylä has done research upon the theme. The project group sent a request of information to every municipality in Finland via e-mail in May 2015. The results are poor when it comes to the openness of government activities: from the 301 Finnish mainland municipalities 203 answered, 98 did not.

“Some sent back something else than requested, some of them we haven’t still got in touch with,” the other project researcher Aleksi Koski says.

The research revealed various problems in municipalities’ obeying the Freedom of information law when requesting public documents. The main cause of the missing responses seems to be the authorities’ lack of organization.

The Finnish law Act on the Openness of Government Activities (621/1999) declares every Finnish public authority should answer every request of information without delay, but at least within 14 days and in some special cases within a month from the original request. Every official document is public if the document has not separately been classified as secret by law.

“The requests might not be documented, which leads to them disappearing to the internal communication system. All of the requests may be centralized to a single person who might not have the time to response to them all,” Koski clarifies.

The researchers note that the strongest area of good responses was the Southern Finland. Somewhat surprisingly, some very small municipalities in the Ostrobothnia area answered also very quickly and comprehensively. In some cases, the municipality managers even called back to researchers.

The results thus reveal that the population size of the municipalities does not always correlate to the handling of the requests. The recipient may not recognize a request of information or does not know how to answer to it.

“The answering time and quality depend on the person handling the request of information   —  it seems that very few have the know-how and experience on the Freedom of information law or document management,” Koski tells.

According to Koski’s experiences the authorities tend to response better to a journalist than to an ordinary citizen. A right to do a request of information is still a right based on the Finnish law.

“A request of information can always be made, if you have a question or problem on your mind and the answer might be found from the authorities’ documents. But as the answering requires work from the authority, it could sometimes be better to do other research like googling first.”

Researcher Koski sees the lack of responses as an actual problem on the freedom of speech.

“If you don’t get information about societal things, you can’t really talk about them. Democracy does not function if the public documents are not really public.”

 

MA Aleksi Koski and the project coordinator, PhD Heikki Kuutti publish the project’s final results in autumn 2016.

 

Three tips for doing a request of information in Finland

  1. Locate the information you need to a single document. A diaario or some other list of public documents from the authority helps you best with this.
  2. Contact the authority first via telephone or if possible, face to face. A conversation helps both to find out what you are actually looking for.
  3. After the conversation, send your request also via e-mail to the authority’s record office. A proof of your request improves your legal protection.

Correction at 3.02 pm May 3rd: The map graphic responding time -categories have been updated to match better the law about authorities’ answering time. 

Text and graphic: Ines Sirén

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