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Is Sweden's openness under threat or is it stronger than ever?

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Is Sweden's openness under threat or is it stronger than ever?
Sweden owes much of its success to two core values: trust and openness. Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT
08:51 CEST+02:00
Sweden's trust and openness show little sign of diminishing in the battle against fake news. Why?

Sweden has had an unusually tumultuous year. It has faced challenges with the rise of the far-right in the wake of its record intake of refugees in 2015, gang violence in suburbs, tightened border checks, worryingly high unemployment among foreign-born residents and a violent terror attack that shook the nation.

It has also found itself exposed to fake news attacks and attempts to tarnish its reputation, forcing it to mount a careful balancing act of being upfront about problems while fighting back against exaggerations.

A country for so long used to being seen as the world's shining beacon has suddenly found itself grabbing international headlines as a cautionary tale, used by US president Donald Trump as an example of a state buckling under the pressure of immigration. As exaggerated as it may have been, it inevitably started a debate in the country. Can the state be trusted to do its job? Can it be trusted to tell us the truth?

Sweden has historically ranked highly in most global surveys measuring success. It's seen as a good country for business, for gender equality, innovation, language skills, and has low levels of corruption. Much of this success is owed to two of Sweden's core values: trust and openness. It begs the question: are these values threatened by this turmoil in a post-truth world, or are they in fact the best defence?

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The SOM Institute (society, opinion, media) is one of the authoritative voices in this area. It was founded by a group of Sweden's top political scientists at Gothenburg University in 1986 and carries out surveys on trends in Swedish society and behaviour, including citizens' trust in the state, the media, and each other.

More than half of respondents told a recent survey by the SOM Institute, carried out on behalf of media watchdog Mediestudier, that they partly or fully agreed that Swedish media are "not telling the truth" about immigration. But the same report found that overall trust in media had not fallen among Swedes (although diminishing trust could be seen among voters for anti-immigration party the Sweden Democrats).

The same goes for confidence in the state. If you look at some of SOM's past nationwide surveys, what is remarkable is how little things have changed. In its latest survey, it found, for example, that Swedes are generally sceptical of party politics (political parties were given a score of -31 on a scale from 100 to -100). The government meanwhile got a score of -8, parliament -3, police +30 and radio and television +39. What these all have in common is that they have barely changed in 30 years.

“The trend over time shows remarkably little change overall for most institutions, and for media as well. Given the discussions in society today you would think that there would be stronger negative movements, but that is not the case," Henrik Ekengren Oscarsson, head of the SOM Institute, told The Local earlier this year.

What created this trust? Two important factors are openness and transparency, he argues.


This chart measures confidence in institutions: parliament (riksdagen), government (regeringen), local governments (kommunstyrelserna) and political parties (de politiska partierna). Source: SOM Swedish Trends 1986-2016 report


Confidence in radio/TV and daily newspapers (dagspress). Source: SOM Swedish Trends 1986-2016 report

Let's look at the history of transparency. Freedom of information is hardly unique to Sweden, but in few other countries are facts, information and data quite as readily available. Pick up your phone to call the relevant government agency and find out in 30 seconds how much your neighbour earns, learn what car your child's school principal drives, or how much the prime minister pays in tax. Go to the local council and read all the planning permission documents, call the district court and access criminal investigation case files.

You can do this in much of Europe, but in many other countries it involves writing a formal request followed by a few weeks' wait -- in Sweden you just ask and expect to get an almost immediate answer.

“To encourage the free exchange of opinion and availability of comprehensive information, every Swedish citizen shall be entitled to have free access to official documents,” reads chapter two, article one, of the Swedish constitution's Freedom of the Press Act.

“It's from 1766, which is a solid 200 years before the next country to implement such a law, which is the United States. So the US was in the 1960s and Sweden had then had that kind of information law for 200 years. So it definitely has the longest tradition of transparency and today, in any ranking, any rating that you'll see, Sweden always comes out on top with the other Scandinavian countries, New Zealand and Canada,” political scientist Marcia Grimes tells The Local.

Originally from the US, Grimes is the head of the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg and has researched transparency and citizens' trust in public institutions for years.

“Freedom of information is premised on the idea that any authority you are expected to honour, and give taxes to, that you have the opportunity to examine what those resources are used for and how that power is used. Individual integrity and national security are two main types of constraints on transparency, but beyond that the idea is that everything should be available and the public can scrutinize what the government does with its money and power,” she says.


Anna Fahlén and Muhanad Sammar. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

One of the main providers of facts in Sweden is Statistics Sweden, the national number-crunching agency with 1,400 employees based in Örebro and Stockholm. Founded in 1858 to focus on population statistics, it today compiles much of Sweden's official data, accessible to anyone via a free online database.

It also enjoys relatively high trust according to a recent SOM Institute survey, with 43 percent saying they have a lot or some confidence in the agency, compared to six percent saying they have none at all.

The Local meets Anna Fahlén and Muhanad Sammar at Statistics Sweden's office in Stockholm.

Sammar is a big believer in open information. He is a project coordination officer for the agency's international cooperation office, which helps low and middle income countries strengthen their capacity to produce independent and reliable statistics, in the belief that access to open data boosts democracy.

“I think in Sweden we are very much at the forefront if you compare to low and middle income countries as official statistics are produced impartially and free from political influence. In other countries statistics can be very sensitive, and that's a shame, because statistics are not right or wrong, it's just about showing that this is a perception of reality. Then it's up to each and everyone to form their opinion,” says Sammar.

Statistics Sweden is an independent agency, which means it works for the state but is not controlled by the government, and they both stress how important it is that data collectors remain impartial and present the facts without considering how they influence public opinion, whether their findings are good or bad.

“The finance minister can't call me and say 'change to this figure' and she doesn't let any of her staff do it either,” emphasizes Anna Fahlén, who works for Statistics Sweden's financial data unit.

“Our role as a statistics agency is not to shape public opinion, but just to present that this is what it's like. Then it's up to stakeholders, policy makers and decision makers, public opinion makers, NGOs, academics et cetera, to relate to the statistics and use it as evidence,” adds Sammar.

But it's not as simple as that. Often context is key to explain the data. Because what good is access to open information if the person reading the data does not understand or believe it – or uses only a select part to further their own agenda? And how many people will bother to check the facts for themselves rather than just taking claims made by politicians or media at face value?

“Take domestic violence, for example,” says Sammar, referring to the challenge of knowing how much context is needed to explain data without explaining so much you lose your impartiality.

“In Sweden each case is a figure in the statistics. In other countries, it might be different. Take for example a woman who has been abused over a ten-year period. In some countries that will count as one incident, but in Sweden every time she picks up the phone and reports it it gets added to the statistics – and then it is not comparable. Donald Trump claimed that Sweden has a lot of criminality because of immigration et cetera, but statistics are not comparable in Sweden historically either. Therefore it is essential that there is metadata available, data that explains data.”

There's another problem. Even if data is open, even if you trust that those producing it are doing so in a trustworthy way, without being influenced by anyone trying to gloss over problems, it can still be wrong.

“Have you heard of the shoe error?” asks Fahlén, referring to an infamous incident when Statistics Sweden was found to have made a mistake in a formula for calculating the price of shoes in the consumer price index (CPI). It resulted in a higher figure for inflation being reported ahead of the Swedish Central Bank's decision to increase the country's key interest rate – just days before the Lehman Brothers crash sparked the global financial crisis in 2008. In other words, just about the worst possible timing.

“There was a massive uproar, partly because the CPI is the basis for how to calculate pensions and a lot of things that are really important for citizens, and it's obviously important that Statistics Sweden can be trusted not to make these errors. But there was a huge inquiry as a result and a lot of work was done to improve the quality of our work to make sure we don't make these errors, or at least discover them in time,” says Fahlén.

“These things happen all the time, that we discover things that we want to do better. But it's important that we are open and transparent about it," she says, arguing that being honest about mistakes creates trust.

Lotta Rydström, executive secretary of global anti-corruption organization Transparency International's office in Stockholm, believes that Sweden's openness and relatively strong watchdogs help keep most public institutions in check, but warns that a series of recent scandals could harm citizens' trust.

Several Swedish institutions have faced claims of cronyism and cover-ups in the past year, including government agencies such as auditor Riksrevisionen and tax agency Skatteverket. Major international businesses based in the country have also faced damaging allegations of, for example, illicit payouts.

“Openness has created a trust in authorities because you can find information and the level of transparency is fairly high. But there is perhaps also a certain naivety, that you don't bother to find out and take for granted that everything is working as it should, because it always has,” says Rydström.

“But… that could be beginning to change.”


Lotta Rydström of Transparency International. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

This shows that increased transparency does not create trust on its own, Grimes argues.

“The theory is that if you create government transparency then citizens will have greater confidence in what their governments do and will be more willing to respect their authority and legitimacy. But if you think about it, transparency per se, why would it increase trust if you don't think what you see is trustworthy?” she asks.

“That said, government openness and the ability of journalists, of citizens, of NGOs, of non-state actors to scrutinize government – if those mechanisms work as intended they will make government less corrupt, more honest, more efficient. It's not just transparency per se, but transparency is a very important, I would say indispensable, part of a larger package of institutional arrangements that in fact leads to better government – and that is something that's strongly related to citizens' trust.”

“Citizens' trust, also in government, could be undermined if they feel that there's an elite getting away with not contributing their rightful share. But on the whole there are no signs that corruption is increasing or that government is becoming more secretive in Sweden.”

But if access to information does not automatically create confidence in the state, how major a threat does so-called fake news pose to Sweden's trust and openness? Not very major, argues US-born Grimes.

“I think the US is more susceptible to those kinds of claims than Sweden is as a society, speaking in very general terms. Here I speak not as an expert but more as a private individual, but I think even a casual observer knows that scientific knowledge has been politicized to a much greater degree in the US than it has in Sweden.”

“Sweden is not impervious to any sort of challenges, I mean there are certainly these currents in Sweden. But these fake news and claims that go against all the best scientific findings available, they have more traction in some contexts than others. It's not impossible that that kind of debate could arise in Sweden, but I think it's less likely.”

She also points out that most officials at government agencies are not politically appointed. They are civil servants, bureaucrats or ordinary experts in their fields, creating a comparatively stable state machine rarely flummoxed by the news cycle. This stability also helps create trust, argues Ekengren Oscarsson.

"The best answer so far in research is that our well-functioning political institutions have over a long period of time built our very high vertical and horizontal trust."

“Openness, transparency and irreproachable, impartial civil servants have made us one of the most trusting peoples in the world. This is a huge resource which makes all human interactivity behind a good society more efficient in a very tangible way – and we need to protect that.”

He does not rule out that this could be changing, especially in light of increased polarization in society and potentially paradigm-shifting world events such as Brexit and the US election, but says he has not yet seen any major signs.

“Perhaps our impression of this is too heavily affected by a small, small minority that thinks it has something to gain from increased uncertainty. Or perhaps we'll be able to see this development in future surveys. We relentlessly continue to systematically collect comparable data in this field: these are important key indicators."

For Sammar and Fahlén, one of the main threats to the availability of open information is that it is becoming more and more difficult to collect data, to engage the public enough to make them agree to fill out Statistics Sweden's surveys which form the basis of much of the information available in its database.

“This is a very big challenge. Everyone in society is important and we as individuals are also important. We have to respond to these surveys and to make people want to do that you have to understand why it's important and why their answers are needed,” says Fahlén.

“There are so many polling companies today, and people in general find it difficult to distinguish between them. That's a huge challenge. We're competing for individuals' patience. We have to work a lot on the Swedish public's trust in us and we still have a lot of work left, because we do have a problem with the response rate going down.”

“If we don't get good data going in, we won't have good data coming out,” adds Sammar.

“We're facing plenty of challenges, but a lot of it is about building trust and seeing that someone is using the statistics and in that way I feel, and I think you feel that way too, Anna, that our job is meaningful. You feel that you are part of something amazing.”

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