Do you feel that you are heard enough in decision making? Does it matter?

One of the main goals of the HIWE project is to promote opportunities for highly skilled internationals to participate and be heard in Finnish society. In this blog, project researcher Satu Aaltonen asks how internationals currently engage in society, and how their participation could be enhanced.

Do highly skilled internationals in Finland feel that the topics relevant to them in society are discussed over their heads, without consulting or involving them in the process? Would they be interested in being more actively included in public discussions and decision-making over matters that touch on their lives?

The interviews made in the HIWE project indicate that the answer to the first question is mostly ‘yes’, but to the second question more ambivalent. We are not quite sure to what extent and how highly skilled internationals would like to participate in societal issues. This is something we would like to learn more about.

Foreign-born Finnish citizens vote less than native citizens

Large posters in the street depicting 2024 Finnish presidential election candidates.
Election posters for 2024 Presidential Election in Finland

I started to think about participation questions more closely now that HIWE has started (in January – February 2024) several collaborative processes with internationals and labour market stakeholders. The processes tackle with various problems that internationals have in the Finnish labour market, related to recruitment practices, inclusive workplace, and effective services, in particular. These topics were chosen based on the interviews, service mapping and policy analysis conducted earlier in the project.

While collaborating with multiple stakeholders, me and my colleagues have been prompted to ask, what kind of opportunities and ways of participation and influence are actually available for internationals, how they see these opportunities, and how they could be developed further.

This pondering is further occasioned by that we are currently living through campaigning for the 2024 presidential election in Finland (Yle News ). Like in other countries, the right to vote in the presidential – or parliamentary – elections is limited to citizens of legal age, which automatically excludes people who do not yet have Finnish citizenship.

On the other hand, even citizenship does not guarantee immigrants’ active participation in elections. From existing research, we know that the voting turnout among foreign-born Finnish citizens is much lower than among native Finns. In the 2018 presidential election, the shares were 39 % (foreign born) compared with 70 % (native); and in the 2023 parliamentary election, 41% (foreign born) compared with 72 % (native). ( database/Statistics Finland, 2024.)

This same trend continues in local (county and municipal) and EU elections, even when the right to vote in them is open to all residents living in Finland (with some provisions; see more here), including residents coming from the third countries.

Such results have raised concerns among researchers about whether people with immigrant backgrounds can sufficiently express their voices in Finnish society, and what it means if they cannot. The same question preoccupies us also in the case of highly skilled internationals. In a democratic society, it is important to hear and provide opportunities to participate for everyone, regardless of their background.

Voting is not the only way

However, it is good to remember that ‘aggregative’ (or representative) democracy that takes place through elections and voting is not the only way to participate in society locally and nationally. Among other countries, Finland has developed forms of ‘deliberative democracy’ that offer more opportunities for civic participation in public debates and decision-making. Deliberation refers to public forums where participants gather to reflect on current issues and problems and look for solutions to them through open and transparent debate (Perote-Peña & Piggins, 2015).

Through various forms of deliberative democracy, internationals too have the opportunity to take part in local activities such as participatory budgeting, ‘deliberative mini-publics’ and other kinds of public hearings, as well as city-level immigrant councils. About different opportunities to get involved locally, see e.g. the immigrant and multicultural councils in Tampere, Turku, and Helsinki.

But why participate?

On the other hand, we can well ask, do immigrants – including international talents – have the interest and resources to participate in societal issues while working to adapt to their life in the new country? Or why should they participate? (See e.g. Schiller et al., 2020, Torfing et al., 2019, Røiseland & Vabo, 2016, Papadopoulos, 2007.)

Researchers have argued for many benefits in involving internationals in public discussions and decision-making processes, especially when these follow deliberative procedures (see e.g. Setälä, 202; Schiller et al., 2020; Torfing, 2019; Voorberg et al., 2015; Fauser, 2013). In their view, deliberation:

  1. fosters a shared perspective and sense of belonging
  2. works towards creating a shared vocabulary and culture that allow communication and understanding between different groups and ultimately facilitates collaboration
  3. can lead to development of projects and other means of action with each other
  4. fosters capacities and skills of all participants
  5. contributes to effective integration, because participation in these projects brings migrants, groups and organisations in closer contact with authorities, other local actors and the broader society
  6. legitimises the decision made or actions taken
  7. leads to better decisions
  8. enablers service providers and policy-makers to better understand the consequences of the decisions made
  9. is the best method for developing and implementing innovative solutions among multiple stakeholders
  10. has value in itself, in enhancing equality.

These benefits apply to participation both at the national and local level, e.g. in one’s community, association or workplace. Yet, according to our knowledge, even if still scarce, currently highly skilled internationals are rarely invited to take part in deliberative processes, either national or local. Later in the project, we will focus on this issue and develop some solutions.

What do you think?

We would love to hear your thoughts on these matters. What do you think about internationals’ opportunities to participate and be heard in Finnish society? How can internationals’ participation be enhanced? What are your own experiences? Please, share your comments on our LinkedIn channel.

Satu Aaltonen, University of Turku


Fauser, M. (2014). Co-development as Transnational Governance: An Analysis of the Engagement of Local Authorities and Migrant Organisations in Madrid, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40:7, 1060-1078, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2013.830889

Papadopoulos, Y. (2007). Problems of democratic accountability in network and multilevel governance. European Law Journal, 13, 469-486.

Røiseland, A., & Vabo, S. I. (2016). Interactive–or counteractive–governance? Lessons learned about citizen participation and political leadership. Critical reflections on interactive governance, 120-145.

Schiller, Maria, Martínez-Ariño, Julia& Mireia Bolíbar (2020). A relational approach to local immigrant policy-making: collaboration with immigrant advocacy bodies in French and German cities, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 43:11, 2041-2061, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2020.1738524

Setälä, M. (2021). Advisory, collaborative and scrutinizing roles of deliberative mini-publics. Frontiers in Political Science, 2, 591844.

Torfing, J. (2019). Collaborative innovation in the public sector: The argument. Public Management Review, 21(1), 1-11.

Torfing, J., Sørensen, E., & Røiseland, A. (2019). Transforming the public sector into an arena for co-creation: Barriers, drivers, benefits, and ways forward. Administration & Society, 51(5), 795-825.

Voorberg, W. H., Bekkers, V. J. & Tummers, L.G. (2015). A systematic review of co-creation and co-production: Embarking on the social innovation journey. Public management review, 17(9), 1333-1357.