Access To Public Information:
A Key To Commercial Growth And Electronic Democracy

Conference - Stockholm
27/28 June 1996

Flags of 15 EU Member States

Laila Freivalds

Swedish Minister of Justice

Proceedings ]

I should like to begin by saying how pleased I am to have the honour of being one of the first speakers at this conference which deals with an issue that is of very special interest to me, that is, access to public sector information. It can be said that there are two aspects to this issue. One is the right of the individual citizen to information, and the other, the guidelines for the dissemination and commercial use of information.

Of the two, the individual's right of access to public sector information is fundamentally important from a democratic point of view. In my view, the right of access to information is also essential for trade and industry to compete on equal terms, because it gives every business the same opportunity of access to information. It is particularly evident among the EU institutions that companies are treated less than equally with regard to access to information. At present, small businesses do not have the same possibility to obtain relevant information through lobbying in Brussels that major companies have.

The issue of private citizens and industry being entitled access to public information is one which Sweden gives priority to at the current Intergovernmental Conference. By way of introduction, therefore, I have chosen to spend some time considering this aspect and to give an account of the Swedish proposals to the IGC.

Principle of public access to information

Sweden has a long tradition of allowing public access to official information. On the whole, the principle implies that the citizen has access to public documents held by Swedish authorities.

This principle has created a large degree of confidence in government administration in Sweden. Because this principle provides the citizen with an opportunity to observe the decision-making process, it also fosters the democratic legitimacy of the decisions taken.

Moreover, in our experience, the fact that citizens can ask to see public documents at any time has resulted in an effective administration while at the same time corruption is a very minor problem in Sweden.

The best way to promote transparency in the EU

One of the main challenges prior to the IGC is to draw the Union and its citizens closer to each other. There is now full agreement among member nations that changes in EU co-operation are necessary if it is to become more accessible and comprehensible to the general public.

However, the various member nations differ in their view of the real meaning of transparency and the ways in which it should be increased.

On the basis of Swedish experience, I am fully convinced that the best way of increasing transparency in the EU institutions is to allow public access to the documents on which discussions and decisions are based.

In effect, the principle of access to official documents means that members of the public and media representatives themselves must have the opportunity to choose the information that they want to see. This is independent of the processed information found in green papers, press releases, information folders etc.

Only when the right of the public and media representatives to read original documents is recognised are citizens able to follow and participate in the decision-making process and the press perform their task of keeping a watchful eye on those in authority.

By this means, public debate is stimulated and broadened, and this increases the democratic control of, and confidence in, the actions of official bodies and institutions.

Swedish proposal for transparency prior to the IGC

According to the Swedish proposal to the IGC, the first step would be a general ruling on a comprehensive principle laying down that everyone is entitled to access to official documents held by the EU institutions.

I use the phrase official documents to mean documents that are received by and those sent out by an institution. A large proportion of the decisions taken by institutions are based on information from documents received, so that they, too, must be included in the principle of access to public information.

Obviously, there is also a need for rules of secrecy. In our view, the Treaty should provide an exhaustive list of the interests that should be classified as secret. For example, secrecy may be necessary when the relations with other states or a company's commercial secrets can be damaged by publicity.

In order to apprise the general public on which documents contain the information that is relevant to them, we suggest that institutions be obliged to register their official documents. The register would be available to the public.

According to our proposal, any decision not to hand over an official document may be appealed against in a court of law.

This is in brief the proposal we have put forward to the Intergovernmental Conference. Sweden has described the proposal in greater detail in a working document to the IGC. Copies are available for conference delegates at the exits.

What action is required to increase transparency after the IGC?

I have just spoken on how increased transparency can be achieved within the EU. The situation is of course different for transparency at national level. In this respect, special efforts must be made to understand the different historical backgrounds underlying the different standpoints of the member nations.

In my view, the member nations should determine their own rules on public access at national level. This would not exclude a discussion on the fundamental principles that should apply.

Co-operation between private and public sectors

I should like to follow this summary with a return to the main theme of this conference, that of whether access to information is a key to commercial growth and electronic democracy.

It is of course vitally important that Europe maintains and, preferably, strengthens her competitiveness. Improved co-operation in the information field between the private and public sectors could lead to increased economic growth and employment. It is obvious that information exists in the public sector which could be used by trade and industry which is not exploited at present.

I therefore believe that there is a need to make public sector information more accessible to trade and industry. For example, information technology is currently being used in Sweden to facilitate the availability of information in the fields of patents and research.

It goes without saying that facilitating access to public information is not without its problems. It happens that information held by a public authority is immensely valuable to the commercial sector but that aspects of integrity speak against making it available. For example, I have in mind information that may be worthwhile when judging a possible contractual partner's credit-rating or general worthiness. The pros and cons in a case like this need to be weighed up very carefully. If the information is made available it might injure the individual involved, and if not made available the outcome may be that the chance to do business falls through.

Careful consideration must also be given as to whether the public sector itself should convey its information, or whether it should transfer it to the private information market. The government should take responsibility for disseminating information in some areas in order to increase civic participation. For example, there are good grounds for the government passing basic legal information to citizens free of charge. On the other hand, the prerequisites must also exist for an information market.

A subject deserving particular attention is that of charging for government-run information services. The private sector has a special interest in that the prices charged should follow carefully considered principles. There is otherwise a risk that public authorities charge too high a price in order to improve their budget situation, and access might be reduced as a result. In Sweden, we have begun trials in drawing up guidelines for the principles to be applied in this field.

There is every reason to study these and other questions on how different countries deal with co-operation between the public and private sectors. In my view, however, conditions in each country vary considerably and this makes it difficult to see that there is any need for the detailed regulation of the solutions chosen by individual countries.

Democracy and information technology

Finally, I should like to say something about democracy and information technology.

The trend is for ever more public sector information becoming available by means of information technology, and on the whole this is fortunate. Nonetheless, it should be remembered that even if a quantity of information is available electronically, this does not mean that it can be automatically exploited by everyone. We should not forget that there are those who cannot afford the necessary equipment and that there are those who do not possess the knowledge required to access the information.

It is therefore an important task to ensure that using information technology does not become the reserve of a few individuals.

I wish to conclude by saying that I look forward with great expectations to reading the green paper on access to public sector information which is the work of the EU Commission. We will all have cause to discuss the issues in the future and to study the different alternative aims and directions of the EU work, and I am convinced that the Conference will play a significant part in leading the discussion forward.

Proceedings ]

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