Summer series: Access to public information in Sweden since 1766 – inhibiting the lead?
In discussions about access to public information in the Netherlands, sooner of later someone points to Sweden. Access to public information is perfect there, it’s how it should be in the Netherlands too. But is this really true? Time for a check.
⛱️ Access to public information in: Sweden
In 1766, Sweden – which then included Finland – became the first country in the world to define access to public sector information. In May this year (2023), this document was granted UNESCO status to underline its ‘unique and universal value to mankind’. SPOON spoke to Mattias Axell, co-founder of Handlingar.se, the Swedish equivalent of the Woo-Knop, about the state of public access in Sweden.
Access to public information as a fundamental right
In Sweden, access to public information is part of the Press Freedom Ordinance (Tryckfrihetsförordning) of 1766, one of its four constitutional documents. This has made Sweden the first country in the world where access to public information is a fundamental right. ‘And the fact that Sweden was the first, does a lot of good for Sweden’s “image” for more than 250 years now,’ Axell explains, with a smile. He has been working at the company MetaSolutions for 3 years, where he advises the public sector on software for better access to digital data and has been an advocate for better access to public sector information for years.
Axell therefore has mixed feelings when it comes to the UNESCO status: ‘I am proud of what the Swedish people and the people’s representatives have achieved through this pioneering work historically, and pleased with the attention these principles have received as a result, because they are as important today as they were then. But I also see how poorly we have maintained this fundamental right, ignoring both the social and technological developments of the past century instead of using them to our advantage.’
He refers to the poor searchability of the electronic document registers. The document registers for which Sweden is often praised. ‘The idea of public registers where all government documents can be found is good. But the implementation is very poor, and then you still don’t get much use out of it in the digital age. For example, no standards for the use of metadata have been developed. Most registers don’t even have a useful filtered search yet.’
No one knows how many registers
Wait a minute, registries? Plural? ‘Sweden does not have one register with all government documents, but a lot of different registers. Sometimes even several at the same administrative body.’ The misunderstanding about Sweden having one document register is because in Sweden, various authorities are collectively considered one administrative body. That ‘cabinet’ does share one register. ‘Nobody knows exactly how many registers there are and where they are.’
Another illusion poorer: the document registers are not automatically populated with government documents. Firstly, this does not happen automatically if a functioning link has not been created by the relevant administrative body. Secondly, it is then still up to the relevant author of the document to indicate whether the document should end up in the register or not.
Individual public officers
‘But just like citizens, civil servants are not well informed about disclosure rules and obligations,’ Axell adds. ‘Even when dealing with your request, you remain dependent on the individual official handling your request. Finally, the systems we work with have almost no possibility of adding metadata to documents.’
In Sweden, however, there is a Chancellor of Justice (Justitiekanslern) to complain to about the accessibility of government information. Axell: ‘The ombudsman’s response to a complaint is not binding though. Nor does the ombudsman reconsider the administrative body’s assessment. The ombudsman does have inspection powers and can impose fines on administrative bodies that do not comply with the law.’
Back again to what we thought we knew about access to public information in Sweden: after one click, you have all the government information you requested, within a few days, in your inbox. Even the mayor’s emails.
But, that one document registry for all government documents does not exist in Sweden either apparently. Moreover: not all government information ends up in registers. On the one hand, not because of inadequate linking of systems and the individual officials who handle the actual, manual steps needed. On the other hand not because Sweden has limited the right to public information to a right to ‘official’ government documents. Government documents prepared in preparation for these official government documents are not disclosed. Axell calls this group ‘working material’, similar to ‘internal documents’ including internal deliberations and communications, notes, memos, meeting documents and presentations and preparatory documents such as drafts.
Superfast vs ’too bulky’
These official documents, you receive them super-fast upon request, right? ‘The law states that an administrative body must decide on a request for official documents as quickly as possible. If you know very precisely what you are asking for and where to find it, chances are that you will succeed and get the documents you asked for the same day or within a few days. This is where Sweden lives up to its reputation. But if you do not know exactly what the documents you are looking for are called and when they were prepared, your request will probably be labelled ’too bulky’ and rejected. Unless you are willing to pay for the trouble or get a very helpful and service minded government official to help you out.’
Lots of ‘unless’…
The Press Freedom Ordinance of 1776 lists seven grounds on which the legislature may restrict the right of access to official documents:
The security of the state or its relationship with another state or an international organisation
Central fiscal, monetary or foreign exchange policy
Activities of authorities for inspection, control or other supervision
The interest in preventing or prosecuting crime
The general economic interest
The protection of the personal or financial circumstances of individuals, or
The interest in conserving animal or plant species
Over the years, these grounds have been elaborated into more than a hundred (!) different grounds for secrecy, which were collected in 2009 in the Openness and Secrecy Act (Offentlighets och Sekretesslag (OSS), view an English summary of this act here). A motley collection of de facto grounds for exceptions to the rule.
‘There are a lot of decision-making processes in Sweden that are kept out of the open. Like information about tenders.’ According to Axell, access to public information in Sweden is additionally eroded by frequent reliance on the protection of personal data under the General Data Protection Regulation and, since 1 January this year, the strict espionage act, which can make it a lot harder to investigate ‘state-sensitive topics’.
Axell’s conclusion: ‘We rely on outdated merits and have been on pause as far as upgrading our systems for 50 years, but pretend we are still leading the way in terms of openness and transparency.’ What little consolation that access to public information is thus not blissful in Sweden either.
Still, the Netherlands can learn from Sweden: with the super good set-up of sóme document registers and an Ombudsman who can also impose fines, Sweden remains a forerunner.
Do you know more about public access to government information in Sweden? Or do you have tips for SPOON’s next ‘holiday destination’?
Let us know!
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☀️ Enjoy summer ☀️
Holidays have started and SPOON is also packing her bags. A good reason to take a peek across the border.