Transparency and dialogue with citizens: gateways to increased trust in parliaments?

TAPIO RAUNIO

How do you response to declining levels of trust? This is a question all types of political institutions have been struggling with in recent decades across established democracies, Finland included. Improving trust is of course no simple task.

Contextual factors such as rising unemployment, corruption, or party-political scandals can easily thwart even the most well-intended efforts at improving the image of the government or the parliament. The financial crisis and the difficulties facing the euro zone are good examples of how an external shock can quite rapidly decrease trust in national institutions.

Trust in legislatures does not go hand-in-hand with trust in political parties. Yet parliaments as party-political institutions suffer if the image of parties or their MPs worsens in the eyes of the electorate.

“Transparency is indeed a key word when listening to what people want from their political institutions in stable democracies.”

In Finland the best example from recent years is undoubtedly the campaign expenditure scandal that followed the 2007 Eduskunta elections. As knowledge of MPs’ suspicious-looking funding deals spread in the media, and as several MPs showed little if any sign of remorse, the image of the parliament and the whole political establishment was at least temporarily tarnished – a development that facilitated the rise of the Finns Party.

To their credit, the government of the day and Finnish MPs introduced more stringent campaign funding legislation. Most importantly, there are now clearer rules and reporting requirements for the MPs, and the whole process is considerably more transparent than before.

Transparency is indeed a key word when listening to what people want from their political institutions in stable democracies. For example, the recent democracy policy report of the Finnish government that drew on deliberative civil panels, online public discussions, and consultations with civil society organizations, identified various challenges in Finnish politics (Oikeusministeriö 2014).

Decreasing turnout was ranked as the first issue to be tackled, and, secondly, improving the citizens’ initiative was indicated as a solution for increasing citizens’ interest in politics. The third issue was the weak role of the Eduskunta in the oversight of the executive. People demanded transforming political culture into more a discursive one, with more parliamentary debates and active opposition parties.

The fourth point was the inaccessibility, especially regarding language, of the Eduskunta. Various solutions were put forward for overcoming this problem: making the legislative process more open, utilizing civil panels, publicizing a list of lobbyists and statement submitters, writing parliamentary documents in easy language, and sharing more information about parliamentary work.

Hence the public seems to want decision-making procedures that are not opaque and that allow, if needed, the voice of the citizens to be heard during the legislative process. The Finnish legislative culture is indeed closed, and even elitist, in many ways (Arter 2012; Seo 2015).

Importantly, the influential committees of the Eduskunta meet behind closed doors. The advantages of closed meetings are easy to identify: they allow confidential exchange of information, both between parliamentary groups and between the legislature and the executive, which in turn facilitates more informed decision-making.

And when taking evidence, committees essentially rely on the ‘usual suspects’: civil servants and the main organized interest groups. The committees have increased the use of public seminars and expert hearings, but their number is still very small with notable variation between committees. Except for the Committee for the Future, which is committed to promoting parliamentary engagement with the public, most other committees seem reluctant to embrace more transparent legislative decision-making processes. At least, the process of expert hearings could be held open to the public as a rule, unless there are special reasons for secrecy.

The Eduskunta could also offer citizens more direct mechanisms for making their views heard. Mechanisms like online consultation or ‘E-Parliament’ could be designed for citizens to submit their opinions and evidence to the committees.

As in most other legislatures, the events on the floor are broadcast on the website of Eduskunta, the recorded clips can be accessed afterwards, and the core proceedings of the floor are broadcast live on YLE. All plenary documents can be accessed online by the public, including the verbatim transcripts.

Yet all of this consists of one-way communication, there is no dialogue between the Eduskunta and citizens. In addition, more experimental ways to use ICT, such as interactive online games or applications, could be developed to foster interest especially among younger citizens.

While measuring the political will inside the Eduskunta is difficult, Finnish parliamentary culture does not appear ready for more participatory channels of influence. There is a strong attachment to traditional representative democracy and a lukewarm attitude towards democratic innovations, including the citizens’ initiative.

Moreover, despite the strongly candidate-centred ‘open list’ electoral system, Finnish MPs are much less ‘available’ to the citizens than their colleagues in countries like France, Ireland, or the UK.

However, increased transparency coupled with more direct engagement and dialogue with the citizens would surely be easy to implement. It might not result in higher turnout, but in the long term it would probably bring about a more participatory legislative culture that would increase trust in the Eduskunta as an institution (and even in political parties).

References

Arter, David (2012): The Finnish Eduskunta: Still the Nordic ‘Vatican’? Journal of Legislative Studies 18:3–4, 275–293.

Oikeusministeriö (2014): Avoin ja yhdenvertainen osallistuminen: Valtioneuvoston demokratiapoliittinen selonteko 2014. Helsinki: Oikeusministeriön selvityksiä ja ohjeita 14/2014.

Seo, Hyeon Su (2015): Public Engagement with Parliamentary Committees in Finland: A case study on the Social Affairs and Health Committee’s deliberation of the Bill of Alcohol Act. Paper presented at the FPSA (Finnish Political Science Association) 2015 Annual Conference, Åbo Akademi, 19–20.3.2015.

 

Professor Tapio Raunio is the head of Political Science at the University of Tampere. His research focuses on representative democracy in Europe, and more specifically on political parties and parliaments, both in the context of national politics and at the European level.

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