Kela (the Social Insurance Institution) was not in breach of the law when it started using the informal term of address in its decisions and customer letters, finds Deputy-Ombudsman Jussi Pajuoja.
The person who filed the complaint on this issue with the Parliamentary Ombudsman felt that using the informal term of address in customer letters was a breach of the principle of equality laid down in the Constitution. In the complainant's opinion, using the informal term of address requires the consent of both parties.
Administrative Procedure Act in a key role
According to Pajuoja, examining Kela's decision in the light of the Administrative Procedure Act plays a key role in this matter. The act obliges the authorities to use appropriate, clear and comprehensible language.
- If a customer of the administration can unambiguously understand the contents of the document and is adequately informed by it, the requirements of the act are met, says Pajuoja.
Kela is phasing in the use of the informal term of address. According to Pajuoja, this is understandable considering the nature of its activities, which concern vast numbers of people.
Mass mailings cannot be individualised
The Institute for the Languages of Finland (Kotus) considers in its statement that the wider spread of the informal term of address is unavoidably influencing public agencies' language use.
Kotus notes that whether or not a letter is polite is not determined by the use of the formal or informal term of address alone, as other linguistic choices also come into play.
According to Kotus, the language used by an authority is appropriate when it is polite and non-discriminating. It is also polite to anticipate the way in which the recipient would like to be addressed.
In computer-aided mass mailings, however, it is not possible to consider individual customers, and one term of address or the other must be selected.
Kela is improving the clarity of its documents
Pajuoja also points out in his decision that Kela must monitor the feedback it receives and respond to it.
So far, the informal term of address has not given rise to wide-spread dissatisfaction among Kela's customers.
- In individual customer service, however, the fact that a customer may experience the informal address as insulting should be taken into consideration as far as possible, Pajuoja adds.
In 2011, Kela launched a process of improving the clarity of the documents and forms sent out to its customers. As one method of achieving this, the informal term of address was chosen, as it had been found to significantly improve the clarity of documents. The formal usage had been found unclear, as it was not always obvious to the customers who was being addressed.
Kela mainly uses the so-called polite informal address in its documents, in which the use of personal pronouns as such is minimised. In the future, informal address will be used in connection with all benefits and all insured persons.
Kela operates some 40 benefit schemes, which contain approximately 12,000 standard decisions and 125,000 text rows.
Pajuoja points out that the decision on the term of address only concerns Kela's mass mailings, not individual customer service situations. The practices of other authorities should also be examined from their individual points of departure.
The full text of Deputy-Ombudsman Jussi Pajuoja's decision no 4505/4/13 was published on the Parliamentary Ombudsman's website at oikeusasiamies.fi (in Finnish).
Further information is available from Principal Legal Adviser Juha Niemelä, tel. +358 (0)9 432 3356.