Icelandic citizens are having their say by suggesting policies through Better Reykjavik, an online, open-source platform used by over 56% of the city’s population. Initial suggestions are shortlisted by council members before being published for a public vote. Over $2.2 million has been spent developing over 200 citizen-suggested policies so far.
Results & Impact
Better Reykjavik counts over 70,000 users past and present, more than half of the city’s population. Policies including more trips for schoolchildren and better support for the homeless have since become law. A platform using the same open-source software in Estonia, called Rahvakogu, has seen seven policy suggestions become law, including tougher sanctions on political figures accepting illicit donations and lower participation thresholds for the founding of new political parties.
Icelandic Citizens Foundation, Reykjavik City Council
Your Priorities, an online platform engineered by the Icelandic Citizens Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to developing digital strategies for citizen engagement, allows citizens to propose policies which are then debated on the forum. Policies are critiqued, voted up or down, and submitted to city councillors. Specific sections are created to deal with longer-term projects - for example, Iceland’s education policy has its own space on the site with regular engagement from users.
Cost & Value
As an open-source software there are no costs of replication. In terms of value, Better Reykjavik has been involved in allocating over $17.5m on close to 600 projects.
Running since 2010
Ensuring citizen engagement has been boosted by Iceland’s strong tradition of online democratic engagement and the highest levels of internet use in the EU. Some 96% of Icelandic households use broadband and, by the end of 2013, 81% of citizens had used e-government sites. Countries with less digitally savvy or active electorates might not experience the same uptake.
Your Priorities has also been used in Estonia by 50,000 citizens to relay in excess of 2,000 proposals to government through a project called Rahvakogu (People’s Assembly). Smaller-scale uses of the technology have been employed in the UK, North Carolina, and the Balkans.
Better Reykjavik, an online citizen engagement platform, is opening new avenues for e-democracy in Iceland’s capital.
Since 2008, the Icelandic Citizen’s Foundation has used Your Priorities, an open-source software to craft a site which relays policy suggestions from citizens to policymakers. Better Reykjavik, launched in 2010 one week before municipal elections, has been used by some 56% of the city’s 120,000 residents.
Better Reykjavik allows citizens to propose the policies that matter to them. Other users offer arguments for or against a suggested policy. A voting system makes clear to policymakers which suggestions matter most to the electorate. Some $17.5m has been spent on close to 600 citizen-suggested policies since the site’s inception, including more trips for schoolchildren.
The site has done much to repair the city’s confidence in its elected politicians following the 2008 financial crisis, which saw all three of Iceland’s largest privately-owned banks default at the end of the year. Former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde’s admission of guilt for accepting controversial donations to his Icelandic Independence Party in 2006 from major financial institutions came the following year and saw political unrest grip the nation island.
“Trust in society plummeted on many levels,” explains Róbert Bjarnason, the co-founder of Better Reykjavik, “People realized that voting for someone once every four years just wasn’t cutting it.”
Launched a week before the 2010 municipal elections, the platform was immediately adopted by The Best Party, an anti-political party led by comedian Jón Gnarr which ran without a policy platform in protest at what they deemed the corruption of the political system.
“We offered all parties a section on the website,” says Bjarnason, who is keen to stress the non-partisan nature of the site, but only Gnarr saw its potential. When The Best Party won some 36% of the vote and entered into coalition with the Social Democratic Party, Better Reykjavik became a vital tool in determining coalition policy.
The experiment in e-democracy seems to have worked: to date, over 16,000 registered users have submitted over 5,800 ideas and 12,000 points for and against, while over 1,000 ideas have been formally reviewed since 2011. Today, around 10-15 top priorities are considered by Reykjavik City Council and voted on each month.
Specific sections are created to deal with longer-term projects: Iceland’s long-term education policy has its own space on the site with regular engagement from users.
After winning the Europe e-Democracy Award in 2011, the software—which is entirely open-source—has found favour in communities across the world, though no other municipality has yet seen the success enjoyed by Reykjavik.
Estonia’s equivalent, Rahvakogu, has received more than 2,000 proposals from over 50,000 active citizens. Parliament officially debated 15 of the proposed policies and 7 have been implemented. Smaller-scale uses of the software have also been used in the North Carolina, the Balkans, and even the UK’s National Health Service.
Better Reykjavik’s success has depended on quick user-uptake and Iceland’s strong tradition of online democratic participation. Some 97% of households own broadband subscriptions, while 81% of citizens had used e-government sites in some form.
Bjarnason rejects any intimation that the platform’s success is due to any unique characteristic of Iceland’s political culture, though notes that participatory platforms might work better in small states.