Whistleblowing Systems and the Principle of Public Access
Published: January 15, 2024
It is common for municipalities to receive requests for information about cases in the whistleblowing channel. Requests can come from journalists, citizens, or other parties who, for various reasons, are interested in what is reported in the municipality's whistleblowing system. Some publications have made it a practice to regularly request all information that has been submitted to the municipality's whistleblowing system.
In Sweden, the principle of transparency is a fundamental idea. Therefore, the so-called Principle of Public Access is often referenced when information from whistleblowing systems is requested. For affected municipalities, two different principles are thus pitted against each other: the Principle of Public Access and the principle that advocates for extensive confidentiality protection for whistleblowers and individuals identified in whistleblowing cases, as specified in the whistleblowing law.
The balance is struck in different ways in different municipalities, and there is sometimes a clear tendency to focus on the Principle of Public Access. A recent example is Hässleholm municipality, which appears to have opened up completely to the media and participated in an article with detailed explanations of what has been reported.
It is not always clear-cut when you cross the line and disclose too much information. In some situations, adequate confidentiality protection can be achieved by masking cases, but if masking is done very selectively, there is always the risk that contextual information may still reveal the individuals involved.
Lantero's starting point is that municipalities, regarding cases in the whistleblowing system, should generally focus on the importance of confidentiality protection. This assessment is based on several different aspects:
- The whistleblowing law imposes specific requirements on the handling of information in whistleblowing systems, while the Principle of Public Access is a more loosely defined guideline.
- The harm to the individual can be significant if municipalities neglect this obligation. Both a reporting individual (who risks social or monetary costs) and an identified person (who may be wrongly identified but still has a legitimate need for protection).
- The long-term credibility of a whistleblowing system relies on respect for the individual in case handling. Protecting confidentiality is thus a prerequisite for employees and other affected parties to dare and want to report.
- The role that the whistleblowing system has to play is about silently identifying and addressing problems. In that sense, it becomes a valuable complement to the generally held principle of transparency (Public Access).
At the end of 2022, there was also a decisive ruling in the Swedish Administrative Court. An authority was questioned for being too extensive in its masking of cases that had been requested by the media. The Administrative Court clearly sided with the authority and supported very extensive masking, emphasizing the importance of the confidentiality responsibility implied by the law.