2. The OECD approach to civic space

Under the purview of the OECD’s Public Governance Committee and the Working Party on Open Government, the OECD has been supporting countries around the world to strengthen their culture of open government by providing policy advice and recommendations on how to integrate its core principles of transparency, integrity, accountability and stakeholder participation into public sector reform efforts. The OECD’s work on civic space is a continuation of this effort, recognising that civic space is an enabler of open government reforms, collaboration with non-governmental actors and effective citizen participation.1 As a key contributor to an open government ecosystem, civic space is thus fully integrated into the OECD’s open government work in support of the OECD Recommendation of the Council on Open Government (OECD, 2017[1]).

The Observatory of Civic Space was established by the OECD in November 2019 to support member and partner countries on the protection and promotion of civic space. Its work is guided by an Advisory Group comprising experts, funders and world-renowned leaders on the protection of civic space.2 The Observatory was established from within the Open and Innovative Governance Division of the Public Governance Directorate in light of a recognition that while many countries were making significant progress in furthering their open government agendas, civic space – which facilitates and underpins open government reforms - was under pressure in different ways in many of the same countries. There is also a well-documented decline in the protection of civic space at the global level (Civicus, 2020[2]).

The OECD approach to assessing civic space, which was developed in 2020, is articulated in the Civic Space Scan Analytical Framework (OECD, 2020[3]). The starting point for this work is the OECD’s working definition of civic space: “Civic space is understood as the set of legal, policy, institutional, and practical conditions that are necessary for non-governmental actors to access information, express themselves, associate, organise, and participate in public life” (OECD, 2020[3]).

As the above suggests, the OECD approach to civic space is informed by its long-standing focus and expertise on good governance and open government, in addition to its constructive relationship with civil society actors. From a good governance perspective, the work aims to evaluate how existing legal, policy and institutional frameworks, as well as the public sector’s capacities and management practices, shape and affect civic space. The open government focus addresses how these frameworks translate into participatory practices and accountability mechanisms; in other words, how civic space can be transformed into a vehicle for effective non-governmental actor participation in policy making, decision making, and service design and delivery as part of enhancing democratic governance. The intent is that this unique government perspective will contribute to a better understanding of civic space vitality, progress, opportunities, constraints and outcomes at both the national and global levels (Figure 2.1).

Civic Space Scans focus on four key thematic areas: 1) civic rights and freedoms, i.e. freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association, access to information, and protection for activists and human rights defenders), 2) media and digital rights and freedoms, i.e. the right to a free press, an open Internet, privacy and data protection, and issues related to emerging technologies), 3) the enabling operational environment created by the government for civil society organisations (CSOs) to operate in and flourish, and 4) civic and CSO participation in policy making and decision making. Cross-cutting issues, such as inclusion and non-discrimination, emergency laws, civic literacy and the impact of COVID-19 are also key concerns.

For governments interested in an external analysis of their civic space, Civic Space Scans provide in-depth qualitative assessments on theory (de jure conditions) and practice (de facto conditions). The data-gathering process adheres to the well-established Open Government Review methodology and is based on a partnership with the requesting country (OECD, 2003[5]). In all cases, the analytical framework is used as a guide, and the precise issues discussed in the Scans are determined at the country level.

A forthcoming Global Civic Space Report, to be published by the OECD in late 2021, will provide a comparative perspective on Finland’s civic space in relation to other OECD member and partner countries. The report will be based on quantitative data gathered from more than 60 countries.

As Chair of the OECD’s Working Party on Open Government, Finland requested to be the first OECD member country to have a Civic Space Scan undertaken by the Observatory of Civic Space. This was with a view to receiving support and recommendations on further strengthening its legal frameworks, policies and implementation practices related to civic participation and civic space more broadly, as part of Finland’s open government agenda.

The Scan draws on a wide range of sources and materials:

  • Government background report. The Finnish Ministry of Finance responded to a questionnaire from the Observatory of Civic Space in July 2020. The detailed questionnaire included 26 questions covering a range of issues on the policy and legal context, Finland’s strategic vision for civic space, challenges in protecting civic space, key actors, oversight mechanisms, and related public funding.

  • Literature review. The OECD team conducted an extensive review of legal texts, government policy and strategy documents, think-tank and academic reports, and government websites both in English and Finnish (using translation tools). The government background report and literature review were used to prepare a background report for the Civic Space Scan and lists of questions for each of the fact-finding interviews.

  • Library of Congress analysis. As part of a partnership with the OECD, the US-based Library of Congress submitted a background report on Finland’s legal frameworks to the Observatory of Civic Space in September 2020.

  • Public consultation. The Observatory of Civic Space held a two-month long online public consultation (August and September 2020), inviting submissions from non-governmental actors on three issues:

    1. 1. How can Finland strengthen its commitment to civic space?

    2. 2. How can Finland strengthen the enabling environment for CSOs?

    3. 3. How can Finland strengthen its commitment to citizen participation in public governance?

Submissions received were incorporated into the Scan findings and recommendations.

The consultation was advertised on OECD social media, in the OECD Civic Society Newsletter, on the OECD website3 and by the Finnish Ministry of Finance.

Peer review process. Canada, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands participated in the interviews as peer reviewers. The process was broadly in line with the OECD methodology on peer reviews (OECD, 2003[5]), which was adapted due to the need to hold all interviews online. Adaptations included allowing flexibility in terms of the number of interviews each peer review country attended and the number of peer reviewers from each country. For example, the same open government co-ordinator from Italy attended most of the fact-finding interviews whereas 16 thematic experts attended different interviews from Canada. Following the interviews and a debrief on preliminary findings from the OECD team, the peer reviewers provided analytical inputs and shared examples of good practice from their administrations, then reviewed and commented on a draft report.

Fact-finding interviews. An OECD team hosted a briefing session for government officials taking part in the Civic Space Scan to explain the purpose and format of the interviews, in addition to the desired outcomes. They then undertook two weeks of one-hour interviews with government officials and non-governmental actors, followed up with ad hoc interviews (see Annex A for a list of interviewees). They undertook separate interviews with non-governmental actors (academics, CSOs, think-tanks, journalism associations, umbrella organisations). Due to travel restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all interviews were held online. Interviews were frequently followed up by email with requests for information and clarifications. In total, government representatives from 31 public bodies were interviewed during the fact-finding mission with substantive inputs received from 36 government institutions overall. The OECD also conducted interviews with 15 non-governmental actors and received substantive inputs from 19 non-governmental actors or organisations overall. These were fully integrated into the report.

Citizens’ Panel on Freedom of Expression. As part of the Civic Space Scan, the OECD guided a representative deliberative process in Finland that was led by the Åbo Akademi University and commissioned by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Justice. A team from the OECD and the Åbo Akademi University (the Research Institute for Social Sciences, Samforsk) chose the theme for the panel – government protection of people in public professions from hate speech while safeguarding free expression of opinion– from the preliminary Scan recommendations. The resulting 25 recommendations can be found in Chapter 6. The idea behind the Citizens’ Panel was for the findings of the Civic Space Scan to have a direct impact on policy making in Finland (see Box 6.3). Furthermore, the intention was to take advantage of a representative deliberative process – defined as “a randomly selected group of people who are broadly representative of a community spending significant time learning and collaborating through facilitated deliberation to form collective recommendations for policy makers” (OECD, 2020[6]) – to provide recommendations to the government on a complex societal issue. The process was convened and organised following the OECD’s Good Practice Principles for Deliberative Processes for Public Decision Making (OECD, 2020[7]). Principle 2 focuses on the need to influence public decisions, noting that:

The commissioning public authority should publicly commit to responding to or acting on participants’ recommendations in a timely manner. It should monitor the implementation of all accepted recommendations with regular public progress reports (OECD, 2020[7]).

Fact-checking and transparency. The draft Civic Space Scan was sent to the Finnish Government for fact-checking in February 2021. A revised version was then sent to the peer reviewers and all of the interviewees – both governmental and non-governmental actors – for their review and input. Substantive feedback was received and fully incorporated into the report from more than 20 individuals from a range of ministries, CSOs, and peer review governments. A final, revised version of the report was published and officially launched in June 2021.


[2] Civicus (2020), People Power Under Attack 2020: A Report Based on Data from the Civicus Monitor, Civicus, Johannesburg, https://findings2020.monitor.civicus.org/.

[8] Ministry of Finance (2021), Citizens’ Panel Makes Recommendations For Work Against Hate Speech and Targeting, Treasury Bulletin, Helsinki, https://vm.fi/-/kansalaispaneeli-esittaa-suosituksia-vihapuheen-ja-maalittamisen-vastaiseen-tyohon#.

[4] OECD (2020), “Civic space”, webpage, OECD, Paris, http://www.oecd.org/gov/open-government/civic-space.htm.

[3] OECD (2020), Civic Space Scan Analytical Framework in the Area of Open Government, GOV/PGC/OG(2020)6, OECD, Paris.

[7] OECD (2020), Good Practice Principles for Deliberative Processes for Public Decision Making, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/gov/open-government/good-practice-principles-for-deliberative-processes-for-public-decision-making.pdf.

[6] OECD (2020), Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions: Catching the Deliberative Wave, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/339306da-en.

[1] OECD (2017), Recommendation of the Council on Open Government, OECD, Paris, https://legalinstruments.oecd.org/en/instruments/OECD-LEGAL-0438.

[5] OECD (2003), Peer Review: An OECD Tool for Co-operation and Change, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264099210-en-fr.


← 1. The term citizen is meant in the larger sense of “an inhabitant of a particular place”, which can be in reference to a village, town, city, region, state or country depending on the context. It is not meant in the more restrictive sense of “a legally recognised national of a state”.

← 2. The Advisory Group comprises: the Government of Finland; Open Society Foundations; the Ford Foundation; the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Civicus; and the Open Government Partnership.

← 3. https://www.oecd.org/gov/open-government/civic-space-finland.htm.

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