Democracy as we know it is at a turning point. In many countries, citizens’ trust in their governments is at a low level and a growing number of citizens are dissociating themselves from traditional democratic processes. This is playing out across the globe, including in established democracies, in declining participation, reduced voter turnout, and public backlash. The causes of this discontent are complex and interconnected, including political and social polarisation, the spread of misinformation and disinformation, shrinking civic space in many countries, and increasing socio-economic inequalities. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have exacerbated these trends further. Addressing such challenges will require the effective engagement and re-engagement of a wide range of actors – including ordinary citizens, civil society organisations, academia, and the media – in an inclusive and fair manner.

While the importance of citizen-centred governance is widely acknowledged and many governments are introducing open government reforms, at the global level, civic space is narrowing. At this critical time, when civic freedoms have been necessarily constrained in response to the pandemic, efforts to protect and promote civic space are more important than ever. This includes the set of legal, policy, institutional, and practical conditions necessary for non-governmental actors to access information, express themselves, associate, organise, and participate in public life.

This Civic Space Scan of Finland, undertaken at the request of the Finnish government, is the first OECD report of its kind. It assesses four key dimensions of civic space: civic freedoms and rights, media freedoms and digital rights, the enabling environment for civil society organisations, and civic participation in policy and decision making. As part of the scan process, a citizens’ panel – also overseen by the OECD – was held in February 2021 on tackling hate speech and harassment of public figures, which also generated a wide range of recommendations for the government from a representative group of Finnish society.

OECD Civic Space Scans assess how governments protect and promote civic space in each national context and propose ways to strengthen existing frameworks and practices. The scans assess the multiple dimensions of civic space, offering an overview of the various initiatives in each country. They highlight examples of innovation and good practice and pay explicit attention to cross-cutting issues such as social inclusion, discrimination, and the impact of emergency measures related to COVID-19. Based on a wide-ranging analytical framework, they evaluate the vitality of civic space in each country and generate actionable recommendations on how to protect and promote it.

The OECD approach to assessing civic space is grounded in its long-standing expertise in public governance and open government. The approach applies good governance principles to civic space to assess legal frameworks, policies, institutional capacity, budgets, and monitoring and evaluation of civic space programmes and initiatives. It also addresses how governance frameworks translate into opportunities for civic participation. Public participation in governance increases government transparency and accountability, broadens citizens’ empowerment and influence on decisions, builds civic capacity, improves the evidence base for policy making, reduces costs, and taps into wider networks for innovation in policy making and service delivery. It also allows governments to respond more effectively to citizens by aligning policies and services with their needs and demands.

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