1. Introduction to civic space in Finland

Finland’s strategic vision for the protection of its civic space is anchored in several interlinked policy agendas. These cover support for democracy, fundamental and human rights, and open government, all of which are underpinned by a comprehensive legal framework. The Constitution is the basis for the exercise of government power and the development of relevant legislation and details the nature of the relationship between Finnish citizens and the state (Ministry of Justice, n.d.[1]). It also details the fundamental rules, values and principles underpinning Finnish democracy, defined as “the right of the individual to participate in and influence the development of society and his or her living conditions” (Constitution, Chapter 1, Section 2) (Ministry of Justice, 1999, latest amendments in 2018[2]).

Finland is justifiably proud of its democratic model, the aims of which can be summed up as protecting the realisation of citizens’ human rights and liberties in addition to equal opportunities for civic participation (Kataja, 2017[3]; Grönlund and Wass, 2016[4]). The National Democracy Programme 2025 acts as an umbrella for the numerous democracy-supporting activities carried out by different ministries, including those in relation to supporting civil society. Its broad objective is to “guarantee equal opportunities for everyone to participate in society” (Government of Finland, 2020[5]) and place civic participation at the centre of the public administration in Finland while simultaneously focusing on increasing trust in the country’s public institutions. The cross-government programme was developed as a response to what is perceived as growing inequality in participation and the alienation of decision makers from people’s everyday lives presenting a growing challenge to Finnish democracy (Government of Finland, 2020[5]). This policy agenda is supported by the use of indicators to monitor and report on the state of Finnish democracy.1 These indicators focus on election and party democracy; participatory democracy and social capital; non-governmental organisations’ participation; citizens’ views on citizenship and their own opportunities to influence; attitudes towards political institutions and actors; and criteria of informed citizenship (FNES, n.d.[6]). A cross-governmental body, the Steering and Coordination Group of the National Democracy Programme 2025 is responsible for co-ordinating the democracy policy and programme across the government.

Work on developing the democracy indicators began in 2005 as part of a Citizen Participation Policy Programme and resulted in a series of government reports on democracy policy. This area of focus has expanded exponentially since then, with the Ministry of Justice playing a key role alongside other ministries, including the Ministry of Finance as part of its open government agenda. A Democracy Unit was established at the Ministry of Justice in 2007 and the Advisory Board on Civil Society Policy (KANE), which operates in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice, was also established in 2007. A Government Resolution on Democracy was issued in 2010. The first government report on Finland’s policy environment related to democracy was submitted to parliament in 2014 (Ministry of Justice, 2014[7]), which examined the functioning of representative democracy in Finland and citizens’ possibilities to exercise direct influence between elections and assessed the consultation practices applied by the public administration. In 2015, the government released a report on Finland’s democracy indicators, which noted that overall, citizens were satisfied with the functioning of Finnish democracy and that this satisfaction was stable. However, “the lack of participation of too many” was noted as a challenge to Finland’s overall vision for democracy (Borg et al., 2015[8]). Furthermore, Finns’ political interest and knowledge were found to be relatively strong, but their “internal civic competence” – the extent to which people feel “they understand political processes and are able to participate in them effectively” – was found to be relatively weak (Borg et al., 2015[8]).2 The 2014 report was followed by a Democracy Policy Action Plan, which was implemented in 2017-2019.

The study was part of a larger government-funded area of research, published in 2016, entitled The Differentiation of Political Participation: Parliamentary Election Research 2015 (Grönlund and Wass, 2016[4]). It found that the previous decades had seen growing inequality in Finland in relation to political participation by different groups and that this had been experienced alongside increased challenges in implementing voting rights. Furthermore it noted that society was increasingly viewed as being divided between affluent and disadvantaged groups, and that a similar trend of inequality was present in relation to political participation, with socio-economic status increasing political activity. Lastly, it noted that differences in voter turnout between advantaged and disadvantaged groups had increased as the general level of voter turnout had declined since the 1980s.

These reports were followed by government action plans for the twin areas of democracy policy and human rights policy. An evaluation commissioned by the Ministry of Justice of both policy areas in 2020 criticised the fact that many human rights policy actions were excluded from the scope of the relevant action plan due to what it identified as a lack of political will. It recommended that both policy areas be continued and kept separate, but that they should also be strengthened, more co-operation should be fostered between them, and a more long-term and comprehensive approach adopted in both areas (Rautiainen et al., 2020[9]). Furthermore, it recommended that during Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s government’s term, indicators for monitoring policy on fundamental and human rights should also be developed. The Third National Action Plan on Fundamental and Human Rights 2020-2023, due to be finalised in 2021, is now focusing on developing these indicators further.3

The latest government programme also includes a series of pledges to citizens on policy reforms related to democracy, human rights and openness (Government of Finland, 2019[10]). These include commitments to a “new kind of interaction” with citizens and civil society, including via a cross-sectoral approach to the preparation of decision making, developing ways to engage a broader group of stakeholders in reforming society, involving people more strongly in public administration, and searching for and testing new ways of interacting. Crucially, it pledges that:

“Systematic measures will be taken to strengthen the civic space and facilitate civil society participation in Finland and globally” (Government of Finland, 2019[10]).

One of the goals set in the programme is to ensure “favourable conditions for inclusive practices and diverse civic activities”, while another goal highlights the need to enhance operating conditions for civil society. The government commits to undertaking measures to promote equal opportunities for participation in civic activities and to safeguard the autonomy of civil society organisations (CSOs). It also pledges to improve consultation practices and increase civil society-related expertise in the public sector. Furthermore, it commits to reducing “the administrative burden that hampers civic activities.” These reforms, which focus heavily on civic participation in decision making and equal treatment and protection of human rights, are viewed by the current government as being crucial to achieving an inclusive and socially, economically and ecologically sustainable Finland (Government of Finland, 2019[10]).

Finland’s Open Government Strategy, which was published in December 2020, also links open government reforms to democracy and the protection of civic space more broadly. Understanding of the linkages between these policy agendas has developed and changed over the last 20 years. Originally, Finland’s “openness” was viewed as being a core value at the heart of the welfare state and democracy model, and the focus was on enhancing citizens’ trust in government.4 About ten years ago, this evolved to a desire for a two-way relationship between the citizens and the state that also considered government trust in citizens and their representative groups.5 As of 2021, Finland’s focus on open government continues to seek to strengthen this mutual trust building between different actors in society and the state, based on dialogue and shared understanding. Crucially, the focus on mutual understanding is viewed as being an important means of countering current threats to democracy and human rights such as populism and polarisation. Finland’s Open Government Strategy, which will guide the government’s entire open government agenda, includes commitments to reinforcing dialogue; promoting everyone’s right to understand and to be understood; and the right of all Finns to participate (Government of Finland, 2020[11]).

Finland’s National Action Plan 2019-2023, developed as part of its membership of the Open Government Partnership, is one of many tools the government uses to strengthen openness (Government of Finland, 2020[5]). The Ministry of Finance’s Open Government Support Package, providing clearly articulated guidance and an open government checklist, is another such tool. The government’s long-standing commitment to this agenda is communicated via a wide range of educational and communications tools, with an emphasis on the use of plain language, access to information, maintaining relevant communication-related competencies among government officials, and active and anticipatory communication (Grönlund and Wass, 2016[4]). The members of the Government Officials’ Contact Network for Open Government ensure that open government issues are discussed by senior management within their respective organisations and that good practices are shared. The Municipal Democracy Contact Network brings together actors from municipal and central government, in addition to civil society, to develop and strengthen local democracy and provide a path for peer learning. Finland also has a multi stakeholder forum for developing its Open Government Partnership National Action Plans, with all related activities coordinated through the Ministry of Finance (see Box 6.4). A variety of websites (see Box 6.1), campaigns (online and offline), information events and awards are used by different actors to communicate key messages on openness, civic participation and civic space more broadly. The awards include the Democracy Award from the Ministry of Justice, which is now part of the National Democracy Programme 2025;6 the Democracy Recognition granted by the Ministry of Finance to public sector actors who have supported open government and civic participation in their work; and the “Clear Language User of the Year Award” awarded by the Finnish Centre for Easy Language to increase accessibility. Crucially, there are dedicated budgets to implement related policy areas.

Finland’s strategic vision for civic space, as described above, is underpinned by a strong commitment to social cohesion and fairness and buoyed by the redistributive model of the welfare state (OECD, 2020[12]). Public institutions generally function well, and levels of corruption remain low, helped along by a strong focus on government transparency, strong oversight institutions, and deep societal respect for civic freedoms and rights (Office of the Chancellor of Justice, 2020[13]). Levels of trust in public institutions remain high (OECD, 2021[14]). A combination of the above factors undoubtedly contributes to Finland scoring highly in most international rankings related to dimensions of civic space such as democracy, human rights, freedom of the press and the rule of law (Box 1.1).

In addition to discussing how Finland’s strategic vision is implemented in practice, this Scan also identifies and analyses challenges to the protection of civic space in particular areas. Two of the most critical issues that frame much of the discussion are Finland’s demographic changes and inequality of participation in public decision making and public life.

Fast-paced demographic changes have taken place in Finland in recent years to which some members of society are struggling to adapt (Figure 1.1). 8% of the total population of just over 5.5 million people now have a “foreign background”, of whom the majority (more than 350 000) were born overseas. By far the largest group of foreign background members of the population are from the former Soviet Union and Estonia (approximately 80 000 and 50 000 respectively), followed by smaller numbers from a range of countries including Afghanistan, the People’s Republic of China, the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey, Somalia, Viet Nam and other countries (Statistics Finland, 2019[15]). Tensions and concerns related to immigration and related intolerance, and the impact of these on civic space, are discussed in some detail in this Scan (Chapter 3).

The inequality of participation, which is referred to in various government reports as well as the marginalisation of some population groups, are recurring themes (Grönlund and Wass, 2016[4]). Socio-economic inequalities are well recognised in Finnish society and tackling them is a central concern of the current government. Despite Finland’s widely lauded education system, for example, socio-economic and ethnic background still seem to influence educational attainment. Children of parents with lower qualifications still have, on average, lower levels of attainment themselves than children of more highly qualified parents, and children of immigrants tend to have lower qualifications than children from the majority Finnish population (Kalevi Sorsa Foundation, 2020[17]).7 Of course, income inequality is relatively very low and stable in comparison to OECD, Nordic and international standards (OECD, 2020[12]). But despite this, within Finland, economic inequalities among certain groups and related social exclusion have become a significant political issue and concern for successive governments and citizens alike.

According to Statistics Finland, 669 000 households were at risk of poverty relative to others in Finnish society in 2019, concerning 12.3% of the household population (Statistics Finland, 2020[18]).8 People living exclusively on basic social benefits, income support and housing allowances are those most affected.9 A recent survey – described by the authors as being exceptionally comprehensive with 6,938 respondents – found that “growing inequality (poverty, income level etc.)” was the most cited “most divisive factor” in Finland (39% of respondents) (Pitkänen, Saukkonen and Westinen, 2020[19]). As the authors of the study note, “Finns react strongly to inequality …” (Pitkänen, Saukkonen and Westinen, 2020[19]). In fact, the issue of social inequality has been “constantly present in political agendas” in recent years (Pitkänen, Saukkonen and Westinen, 2020[19]). The government of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä set up a working group on inequality whose task was to seek new ways to stop “long-standing social segregation”, for example (Prime Minister's Office, 2018[20]). The same concern is reflected in the current government programme, which has four economic policy priorities, one of which is to “decrease inequality and narrow the income gaps” (Government of Finland, 2019[10]). The background report submitted to the OECD by the Ministry of Finance for the preparation of this Scan stated that “growing inequality in the society” was among the top five challenges Finland faces in implementing civic space initiatives.

This link between social exclusion and participation in public life, which can be affected by a host of factors including levels of education, income and health as well as socio-economic status and place of residence is explicitly recognised by the government and civil society groups (Government of Finland, 2020[5]). As noted by researchers, “the resources available to the individual have an impact on the extent to which the individual is capable of not only acquiring information about politics, but also making use of it” (Kataja, 2017[3]; Grönlund and Wass, 2016[4]). The government has committed to identifying the risk factors underpinning social exclusion in certain population groups and to developing measures to address these, including by improving education among minority groups and developing early intervention programmes for people at risk of exclusion (Government of Finland, 2020[5]). This is in recognition of the broader threat that inequality poses to Finnish democracy, affecting both voter turnout as well as broader civic activities and engagement with the government. It is of particular concern among certain demographic groups, including youth, migrants and groups where inequality is inherited (Government of Finland, 2020[5]).

This Civic Space Scan explores the above challenges in some detail. It begins with an overview of the OECD approach to civic space, background on its work in this area, and a review of the methodology used for this Scan (Chapter 2). It continues with an analysis of the current status of civic space and the enabling environment for civil society and civic participation in Finland, reviewing both challenges and opportunities ahead (Chapters 3-6). Finally, it ends with a summary of actionable recommendations gathered from the body of the report for the Government of Finland (Chapter 7).

While Finland’s commitment to democracy, openness, and civic participation as well as its impressive international standing related to aspects of civic space are acknowledged and commended throughout this report (Box 1.1), a sustained effort will be essential to maintain these high standards and identify and manage emerging risks, particularly those resulting from COVID-19. Therefore, it is key for Finland to: continue to shore up support for its civic space within the framework of its far reaching national agendas on democracy, human rights and open government; continue to experiment, innovate and invest in the systems that protect, promote and oversee its civic space; and above all adopt a forward looking strategic approach to engaging citizens who feel left out – economically, politically and socially – in a targeted and consistent manner in between election cycles.


[8] Borg, S. et al. (2015), Democracy Indicators 2015, unofficial translation, Ministry of Justice, Helsinki.

[24] Economist Intelligence Unit (2020), Democracy Index 2019, The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited, https://www.eiu.com/topic/democracy-index.

[30] European Anti Poverty Network Finland (2019), Poverty Watch Report Finland 2019, European Anti Poverty Network, Helsinki, http://www.eapn.fi/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Poverty-Watch-Report-Finland-2019.pdf.

[26] European Commission (2020), The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), European Commission, Brussels, https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/digital-economy-and-society-index-desi.

[6] FNES (n.d.), “Democracy indicators”, webpage, Finnish National Election Study Consortium, https://www.vaalitutkimus.fi/en/resources/democracy-indicators.

[23] Freedom House (2020), Freedom in the World Index, Freedom House, Washington, DC, https://freedomhouse.org/explore-the-map?type=fiw&year=2020.

[5] Government of Finland (2020), Background Report: Civic Space Scan Finland, unpublished.

[11] Government of Finland (2020), Open Government Strategy, unpublished, VM/VKO/Open Government, unofficial translation, draft 1 October 2020.

[10] Government of Finland (2019), Programme of Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s Government 10 December 2019: Inclusive and Competent Finland – A Socially, Economically and Ecologically Sustainable Society, Publications of the Finnish Government 2019:33, Helsinki, https://julkaisut.valtioneuvosto.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/161935/VN_2019_33.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

[4] Grönlund, K. and H. Wass (eds.) (2016), The Differentiation of Political Participation: Parliamentary Election Research 2015, Ministry of Justice, Helsinki.

[17] Kalevi Sorsa Foundation (2020), The State of Inequality in Finland in 2020, Kalevi Sorsa Foundation, Helsinki, https://sorsafoundation.fi/en/the-state-of-inequality-in-finland-in-2020.

[3] Kataja, E. (2017), From the Trials of Democracy Towards Future Participation, Sitra Memorandum, Sitra, Helsinki, https://www.sitra.fi/en/publications/trials-democracy-towards-future-participation.

[7] Ministry of Justice (2014), Open and Equal Involvement: Government Democracy Policy Report, Ministry of Justice, Helsinki.

[1] Ministry of Justice (n.d.), “Constitution”, webpage, Ministry of Justice, Helsinki, https://oikeusministerio.fi/en/constitution-of-finland#:~:text=In%20Finland%20the%20Constitution%20is,between%20the%20individual%20and%20government.

[2] Ministry of Justice (1999, latest amendments in 2018), The Constitution of Finland, Ministry of Justice, Helsinki, https://www.finlex.fi/en/laki/kaannokset/1999/en19990731.pdf.

[14] OECD (2021), Understanding the Drivers of Trust in Government Institutions in Finland, OECD Publishing, Paris, forthcoming.

[28] OECD (2020), OECD Better Life Index, http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/finland/ (accessed on 11 June 2021).

[12] OECD (2020), OECD Economic Surveys: Finland 2020, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/673aeb7f-en.

[13] Office of the Chancellor of Justice (2020), Memorandum European Commission, Rule of Law Report, Part on Finland, unpublished.

[19] Pitkänen, V., P. Saukkonen and J. Westinen (2020), How Different Are We? Survey Results on Identities, Values and Attitudes among the Finnish Majority Population and the Largest Ethno-Linguistic Minorities, Finnish Cultural Foundation, Helsinki, https://skr.fi/en/serve/identiteettitutkimus-how-different-are-we.

[20] Prime Minister’s Office (2018), Working Group on Inequality Final Report, Publication Series of the Pime Minister’s Office 1/2018, Helsinki, https://julkaisut.valtioneuvosto.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/160706/01_2018_Eriarvoisuutta%20kasittelevan%20tryn%20loppuraportti_kansilla_netti.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

[9] Rautiainen, P. et al. (2020), Evaluation of the Democracy Policy Action Plan 2017-2019 and the National Action Plan on Fundamental and Human Rights 2017-2019, unofficial translation, Ministry of Justice, Helsinki.

[22] Reporters without Borders (2020), 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders, Paris, https://rsf.org/en/ranking.

[25] Social Progress Imperative (2020), 2020 Social Progress Index, Social Progress Imperative, https://www.socialprogress.org/?code=FIN.

[18] Statistics Finland (2020), Number of Persons at Risk of Poverty Grew in 2019, Income Differentials Between Population Subgroups 2019, Statistics Finland, Helsinki, https://www.stat.fi/til/tjt/2019/03/tjt_2019_03_2020-12-18_tie_001_en.html.

[29] Statistics Finland (2019), “Independence Day 2019”, webpage, Statistics Finland, Helsinki, http://www.stat.fi/tup/tilastokirjasto/itsenaisyyspaiva-2019_en.html.

[15] Statistics Finland (2019), Persons with foreign background, Statistics Finland, Helsinki, https://www.stat.fi/tup/maahanmuutto/maahanmuuttajat-vaestossa/ulkomaalaistaustaiset_en.html.

[16] Statistics Finland (2019), Population by Origin, Country of Birth and Language, Statistics Finland, Helsinki.

[27] Transparency International (2020), Corruption Perceptions Index 2019, Transparency International, Berlin, Germany, https://www.transparency.org/fr/cpi/2019#.

[21] World Justice Project (2020), World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2020, World Justice Porject, Washington, DC, https://worldjusticeproject.org/our-work/research-and-data/wjp-rule-law-index-2020.


← 1. The main data are collected in connection with parliamentary elections under the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems project and financed by the Ministry of Justice since 2011.

← 2. Only about half of women and two-thirds of men were found to believe that policy makers took citizens’ views into account, at least to some extent (Borg et al., 2015[8]).

← 3. Email, Ministry of Justice, received 3 October 2020.

← 4. Interview, Ministry of Finance, 22 September 2020.

← 5. Interview, Ministry of Finance, 22 September 2020.

← 6. The purpose of the award is to thank civil society actors, raise awareness of civil society and find good practices for supporting active citizenship (Government of Finland, 2020[5]). First introduced in 2011, it has been granted to civil society actors six times on a variety of themes: volunteering; participation of children and youth; local democracy; partnerships between the third sector and public authorities; democracy and human rights education; and new forms of communication between civil society and authorities.

← 7. The report cautions that: “The dominant role of the Gini coefficient should be dismantled in measuring and discussing income inequalities. The Gini coefficient underestimates changes at the top and bottom ends of income distribution.”

← 8. The risk of relative poverty has fluctuated in the past ten years, affecting between 623 000 and 728 000 persons (Statistics Finland, 2020[18]). At the same time, the number of Finns living exclusively on basic income payments from the government, which are not considered enough to meet minimum consumption, has increased (European Anti Poverty Network Finland, 2019[30]).

← 9. Recent efforts to improve the position of Finland’s relative poor – which in any case tended to close the gap to the poverty line but did not raise households above it – have effectively halted as a result of COVID-19 (email, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, received 21 December 2020).

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