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Estonia: time to increase transparency in policy-making

Carina Paju

Estonia, a small country of only 1.3 million people, has made a brand for itself through setting up e-governance systems like nowhere else in the world. Losing that contact point between a citizen and a civil servant, or rather moving it to the digital world, has been one of the main reasons why the population enjoys a daily life free of petty corruption.

This is reflected in the Corruption Perceptions Index — since 2012, Estonia is one of only 22 countries to have significantly improved its position, at least statistically speaking. For the second year in a row, Estonia has been ranked in 18th place — the highest of all post-Soviet countries and 10th amongst EU countries. Although Estonia’s reputation has been shaken due to money-laundering scandals in the past year or two, this is not reflected in the CPI as the index does not capture private sector corruption.

While there is a lot to discuss about how to strengthen control over financial institutions, there is also a reason to focus on public sector. While trust in rescue services (96%) and police (87%) is high, it is another story when it comes to the Government (52%) or the Parliament (50%) (Ministry of Defence, 2019). This makes the latter two the least trusted public institutions in the country. Why is that the case and how can it be fixed?

This year’s CPI analysis shows a clear correlation between the index scores and V-Dem’s range of consultation indicator. Although Estonia scored a high 4.14 out of 5 in the indicator in 2018, further action is required.

Estonia is a small society, and not a day goes by without the saying, “everyone knows everyone” being true. I’ll give you an example: when I was looking through the members of a small parliamentary committee I was supposed to meet, one turned out to be my mother’s classmate and another lived in the same building as me.

It is also fairly common to become informal with people very quickly. This combination of knowing everyone and informality is a perfect recipe for conflicts of interest to arise. Therefore, it is a factor that always needs to be taken into account when designing anti-corruption legislation or initiatives.

V-Dem’s range of consultation indicator measures whether policies are developed behind closed doors and between elites, or if the process is inclusive and takes a broad range of citizen voices into account. Although Estonia is working on creating an all-encompassing citizen-engagement e-solution for legislative procedures, one vital element is still missing. We do not know when, how or by whom lobbying activities are conducted.

Tallinn, Estonia. Photo by Ilya Orehov on Unsplash

Lobbying is neither defined nor regulated in Estonia. Therefore, there is no concept of lobbying. We, for example, see media confusing lobbying and corrupt practices, such as influence peddling, which is damaging public perception. Lobbying is a legal and natural part of any democratic society but by ignoring, or even demonizing, it we push it into the shadows and give up the opportunity to discuss the ethical boundaries of lobbying.

Although transparency does not eliminate corruption, it helps prevent it and to shed light on it. During its last evaluation, GRECO recommended Estonia create rules around disclosing meetings with interest groups, but only with the limited scope of ministers and their political advisers. We in TI Estonia strongly recommend that lobbying should receive the attention it deserves in every relevant institution, not only at the ministerial level.

While Estonia’s party financing is highly transparent, receiving a 3.76 points out of 4 in V-Dem’s disclosure of party donations indicator in 2018, strengthening the supervisory committee’s mandate and broadening the reporting obligations to third parties would help to cut down the undue influence of narrow private interests on policy-making.

Transparency does not always manage to prevent corruption but it does help to bring debatable dealings to light. This fall, party financing data revealed that a certain businessman — and his business partner — supported two of the governing parties just before a law that would damage their interests was to take effect. This legislation is now under severe political scrutiny. The public memory is full of similar situations, and it’s not hard to imagine why government and parliament are so mistrusted by the public.

To improve trust in both government and parliament, Estonia needs to publish records of meetings with lobbyists and set limits to what constitutes the boundaries of ethical lobbying. Consulting interest groups is important but, in the end, acting ethically and in the public interest will determine whether citizens truly believe our governing institutions are independent and uncorrupt.

This blog is part of our “countries to watch” series from the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

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