Act on the Openness of Government Activities
What documents are governed by the act?
The authorities whose documents are governed by the Act include for example:
- state administrative authorities and other state agencies and institutions,
- courts of law as well as
- municipal authorities.
The Act also applies to State enterprises, such as the Forest Administration and the Civil Aviation Administration.
In addition, the Act is applied to documents in the possession of private parties performing public tasks and exercising public authority. These include for example
- work pension institutions,
- a forest ranger and
- insurance companies in matters relating to statutory insurance.
The Act applies to both documents delivered to an authority and those prepared by an authority. The former can be for example different letters and applications. Documents prepared by an authority, on the other hand, include for example decisions and statements. Certain documents of minor importance relating to internal activities of an authority are excluded from the scope of application of the Act.
A document means not only traditional documents on paper but also electronic messages stored by means of automatic data processing as well as microfilmed documents.
Requesting access to a document
An authority assists in finding information
A document is requested from the authority in possession of the document. The authorities are under an obligation to assist those requesting information to find it, for example to identify the document desired. Various diaries and indexes can be used in the identification.
The person requesting access need not identify himself or provide reasons for his request. When considering whether to grant access to a document to be kept secret, an authority may, however, need information on the grounds for the request. For example a party has the right of access also to certain secret documents. Access to secret documents may be granted also for research purposes.
Access to the contents of a documents shall be granted in the manner requested unless this would unreasonably inconvenience the activity of the authority. Access to computerised decision registers is usually granted in electronic form if so requested. Most often the information is given orally or as a copy of the document.
An authority shall consider a request for a document without delay. Access to a document shall be granted as soon as possible and in any event within one month from receipt of the request. If the number of documents requested is large or if the request otherwise requires an irregular amount of work from the authority, access shall be granted at the latest within two months from the receipt of the request.
What if the decision is negative?
A decision refusing access to a document shall contain the reasons for the refusal. The decision shall thus indicate the reasons for the secrecy of the document requested. If the request has been made in writing, the negative decision shall also be given in writing.
If access to a document has been refused, the person may request that the official refer the matter to be decided by an authority, in practice usually by his superior.
Appeal to a decision made by an authority is usually made to an Administrative Court. The decision is accompanied by further instructions on appeal.
What charges are collected?
Oral information of course costs nothing nor the inspection of an official document in the premises of the authority.
Documents delivered on paper or electronically are, on the other hand, subject to charges. Information on the charges is available from the authority that has the document.
The right to access to information
The starting point is openness
Under the Act, access to a document is the main principle and secrecy is an exception. Access may thus not be restricted without a lawful reason or more than necessary for the interest being protected.
The right of a party to access is more extensive than that of others.
A party, or the person whose interest or right is concerned, has a right of access to official documents that may have influenced the consideration of his/her matter. This right is more extensive than usually, because a party has the right of access also to secret documents.
Some documents are, however, excluded from this access. For example at a trial the address information of the witnesses or the injured party may be kept secret for reasons of security. Nor does a party participating in an open tender arranged by an authority have access to the technical or business secrets of another tenderer.
Good governance includes the right of a party to learn of a decision made in his/her matter directly from the authority and not through the media.
Restrictions on access
Access to preparatory information
Access to preparatory documents is extended. For example different accounts and the State budget proposal will be in the public domain earlier than before.
However, access to information in documents may, under the Act, be restricted on the basis that the handling of the matter has not yet been completed.
The Act obliges the authorities the have available information on legislation under preparation and on other pending matters of general importance.
Under the Constitution, documents may be kept secret only where provided by an Act.. The most central provisions on secrecy are contained in the Act on the Openness of Government Activities.
These provisions protect important public and private interests, which include:
- international relations,
- the prevention and prosecution of crimes,
- security arrangements, preparations for emergency conditions,
- State security,
- income, financial, monetary and currency policy,
- the credibility and functioning of financial and capital markets,
- protection of natural values,
- efficiency of inspection and supervisory tasks of the authorities,
- protection of the confidentiality of information,
- public economic interests,
- private economic interests,
- the interests of research and development as well as of education,
- the security of asylum seekers as well as the protection of privacy.
If a document contains only some secret information, access is granted to the public part by covering the parts to be kept secret.
Publications and brochures
Because the right of access to official documents is a basic right, the authorities shall promote its implementation. The authorities shall produce data material describing their activities, such as publications, brochures and statistics as well as information on their socially significant decisions.
The authorities shall also ensure that documents pertinent to their activities are easily accessible for example in data networks and libraries.
The Act also imposes on the authorities the obligation to inform the public of their activities.
Did you find the information referred to at the beginning? The Zoning Department of your home municipality has information on zoning. Information on taxation is available at the Tax Office. Before the elections, you can ask the Municipal Office about where to cast your vote in advance.
In the Internet, the site for information is the portal for public sector services in Finland http://www.suomi.fi/english .