It is the beginning of the 1990s and Tytti Yli-Viikari, a secondary school pupil, has heard about the international IB diploma programme, which has just been introduced in Finland. The plans for a year on exchange quickly turn into a decision to complete the whole upper secondary school abroad.
”There was no internet then. I wrote a letter to the IB Foundation Office in Geneva by hand and asked where it was possible to complete the diploma,” recalls Tytti Yli-Viikari (born in 1975), Auditor General of the National Audit Office of Finland (NAOF).
Yli-Viikari received a long list of schools and their addresses. She wanted to go as far away as possible, to Australia or New Zealand. Yli-Viikari wrote presentation letters to the schools and requested more information.
”My parents started to hint carefully that there would be options closer to Finland, too. In those days, letters took a long time in the post and when replies then started to arrive revealing, for example, that the school was a Catholic boys' school, I gave in. We were all Francophiles in my family and I had learned French as my first foreign language at school, so France was quite a natural choice.”
Reading atlases at breaktimes
Internationalisation was encouraged at home. When Yli-Viikari was nine years old, the family spent a school year in the United States because of her father's work.
Yli-Viikari got interested in languages so early that she cannot even remember it.
”A Swedish-speaking Finnish family lived next door to us. According to my mother, when I was three or four, I started to point at things at home and ask what they were in Swedish.”
Yli-Viikari was put into a Swedish-speaking day-care centre, and was ”immersed in the language before language immersion even existed”. Later, as a pupil of a class specialising in music at Oulunkylä primary school in Helsinki, she spent the times between lessons examining an atlas.
”I was memorising names and capitals of countries. I was reading an awful lot, and that also inspired my interest in other cultures and travelling. When I left, I was convinced that I would not need a return ticket.”
After completing the IB diploma in France, Yli-Viikari continued her studies abroad: she completed a master's degree in communication, arts and culture at Sorbonne University in Paris, in EU studies at the College of Europe university in Bruges in Belgium and in administrative sciences at ENA, the national school of administration in France. The fellow students came from different parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and America.
After her studies and internships, Yli-Viikari worked at the European Commission in Brussels and at a thinktank for sustainable development in Paris.
In 2004, after almost fifteen years abroad, Yli-Viikari returned to Finland with her French husband and their small child. She found a job as an EU assistant at the Budget Department of the Ministry of Finance and a home close to nature in eastern Helsinki.
”When you have a family with children, the things you appreciate are different from when you were a student. The big cities have their bars and restaurants, but Finland has well-functioning family services and nature and it is safe. And my roots are here, so I wanted my children to learn about them, too.”
Challenges in the drafting of legislation
Yli-Viikari was chosen as Auditor General of the National Audit Office of Finland at the end of 2015. Before that, she worked in the office as a specialist, Chief of Staff, Deputy Auditor General and as acting Auditor General of Finland.
The National Audit Office of Finland is responsible for inspecting the central government finances and providing information to Parliament on how the government funds – the taxpayers' money – are used.
”We keep an eye on whether the money has been used correctly, lawfully and for the purpose Parliament has decided it should be used for. For example, we check what kind of information and facts the decisions on education policy or employment are based on or how well the preparation of the health and social services reform works.”
The current Government has repeatedly been in the headlines because of decisions that have fallen through as a result of poor preparation. However, Yli-Viikari does not want to criticise Sipilä's Government.
”Inadequate preparation in legislative drafting, such as not analysing the effects or not consulting a wide enough range of experts has long been a problem in Finland. A very tight timetable is today given for the preparation and there are not enough resources – workforce – available. In addition to that, impact analyses are difficult to do because they are very complex. There should be more networking in administration and interaction between producers of information should be supported.”
It is comforting that, although the NAOF cannot make any decisions itself but only produces information and gives recommendations, it is usually listened to.
”Measures are taken to develop and amend things. However, especially cross-administrative preparation is inflexible: there is no dialogue between the different administrative branches, the issues are not examined widely enough. Our recommendations are usually not implemented well enough in those matters.”
Foreign friends an advantage at work
Yli-Viikari's international background has been very helpful in working life.
”Of course, it may also be a question of personality that I have wanted to make independent decisions very early and that I do not let little misfortunes stop me. However, living abroad has definitely given me confidence and a feeling that I can cope with anything. I have also learned to look at things from hugely different perspectives: it is easy to think outside the box when you are used to considering things from a different point of view. You know that it is possible to solve things in different ways. It also makes you more merciful to yourself and others.”
There are also concrete benefits from the international networks that Yli-Viikari formed when studying.
”In this work, it is important to know what happens globally – for example, how climate change affects decision-making, how the situation in China affects the United States or how Brexit affects France or Germany. I read international newspapers and other sources, but I can also talk about these things with a lot of friends and colleagues who live abroad.”
If the years spent abroad have given Yli-Viikari an ability to look at things from different viewpoints, they have also had a positive effect on other parts of her life.
”I can see Finland's good sides in a whole different light. I appreciate small everyday things, which are not so small in the end, but a result of hard work and a sign of a very highly developed welfare state.”
As examples, Yli-Viikari lists child welfare clinics, schools, day-care centres, family services, ”actually, the entire central government and the infrastructure”.
”In other countries, the level of the services often depends on how much you are prepared to pay, but here the framework is the same for everyone. When you hear your friends who live in different countries talk about their experiences, you appreciate how freely children can move around and go to their hobbies here, and how much society supports families.”
Yli-Viikari knows what she is talking about. The family has five children, the youngest one four and the oldest, born in France, fourteen years old.
Although right now, Finland feels the best place to live in, the idea of moving abroad at some point in the future is tempting.
”It is like having a mental back door – knowing that you can always leave and continue your life somewhere else. International studies opened my eyes to opportunities and to the fact that it is important to also make an impact on matters in Finland.”
Text: Silja Ylitalo