Problem and purpose
As a consequence of the loss of democratic legitimacy in modern representative democracies, new social actors have appeared on the scene who emphasize the importance of information technologies to improve democratic participation, legitimacy and transparency. Online deliberation forums are recognized by some researchers as an extension of public space through the Internet to deepen connections and conversations between government and citizens (Dahlberg 2001). A large number of different actors take part in “governing 2.0” because the classic, hierarchical government model is replaced by an informal, non-hierarchical model of mass participation made possible by new communication technologies (Medimorec et al 2011).
A remarkable illustration of this development can be found in Finland, where new laws are "crowdsourced". “Crowdsourcing” in political decision-making and legislative processes aims to involve citizens in a public discussion about a proposed law or a public good and to link their suggestions with the institutionalized decision-making process. Crowdsourcing is defined as outsourcing certain tasks to a group of volunteers over the Internet. In Finland, legislative crowdsourcing, initiated by the government, is used to develop a new law on traffic on unpaved roads on an online platform. Online legislative processes are defined here as the use of information technologies for the development, commenting, advice, structuring, formatting, submission, modification or publication of / to laws passed by elected institutions (Council of Europe Committee of Ministers 2009).
The decision-making process on the Finnish online platform is explained below to illustrate the mechanisms of crowdsourcing of legislative processes and their deliberative potential. The transport reform, which is normally regulated by the Finnish Ministry of the Environment, affects all motorized traffic outside of paved roads. Therefore, the new law will primarily affect Finnish citizens who own an off-road vehicle or a snowmobile. There are currently around 100,000 registered snowmobiles in Finland and around 20,000 off-road vehicles (Aitamurto / Landemore 2013).
History and selection of participants
The crowdsourcing experiment was initiated by the Finnish Ministry of the Environment in cooperation with the Committee for the Future of the Finnish Parliament. This was because the previous government was unable to pass a new law on traffic on unpaved roads in 2010. On the one hand, this was because some MPs were against changing the basis of the law from a needs-based view to a rights-based assessment. On the other hand, there were disagreements regarding the level at which decisions should be made (Aitamurto / Landemore 2013). Citizens who participated in online deliberation should therefore decide, among other things, whether civil servants should be able to reject proposals for new unpaved roads (needs-based legislation) or whether there should be a legal right for citizens to build new roads as long as they comply with ecological guidelines. Participants should also discuss whether these decisions should be made at the county, municipal or local level (Interview Aitamurto 2013).
The law, which currently regulates traffic on unpaved roads in Finland, was passed in 1995 and is to be reformed for two reasons: first, the number of SUVs and snowmobiles in Finland has increased significantly since then, and secondly, the existing law has been criticized the high traffic density in summer is not sufficiently regulated. As a result, the Finnish government created the online platform www.suomijoukkoistaa.fi, on which the public should contribute to the legislative process of the new law (Aitamurto / Landemore 2013).
The experiment started in January 2013. The advantage of online deliberations is that a large number of citizens can participate in a structured, virtual space. No target group was defined in the Finnish experiment. Rather, anyone who is interested in the topic or is affected by it could participate in the deliberations. This made it theoretically possible for all Finnish residents with Internet access to participate. A total of more than 700 citizens took part in the online debate and the website was accessed by more than 14,000 users ( www.maastoliikennelaki.fi ).
Deliberation, decision and public interaction
The Finnish crowdsourcing experiment can be divided into three phases and is still ongoing. The first phase from January to March 2013 was primarily about identifying problems with the existing law. In the second phase, from March to June 2013, solutions to the problems should be found and during the third phase, which started in June and is still ongoing, the results will be evaluated. The new legislation is to be established on the basis of the evaluation.
Every citizen wishing to participate in the deliberation must set up a user account on the website. Users can decide whether they want to remain anonymous or use their correct name or a nickname (Interview Aitamurto 2013). From January to March 2013, participants were asked to comment on ten areas of traffic on unpaved roads that had been identified in advance by experts from the Ministry of the Environment (Aitamurto / Landemore 2013). These topics included, for example, general problems with driving on unpaved roads, age limits, emission regulations and road courses. In this context, participants commented, made suggestions, and even uploaded pictures or other attachments to enrich the debate. Citizens were primarily concerned with safety issues and illegal driving. It quickly became clear that there was some confusion about current legislation, as it appears to have been applied and monitored differently in different areas of Finland (Interview Aitamurto 2013).
If the topic that dealt with the citizens was not on the list of ten proposed topics, the citizens were free to bring this up themselves. Every comment and contribution on the website was visible to all participants. As a special incentive to participate, the participants received points for their contributions on the website. In an activity ranking, the participants could then see how active they are compared to other participants (Interview Aitamurto 2013). To facilitate informed discussions, the Finnish government set up a website with background information on the subject ( www.maastoliikennelaki.fi ). This contained information about the current legislation and the previous attempt to reform the law as well as the crowdsourcing procedure. There was also a blog that posted the latest news.
During the first crowdsourcing phase, 340 ideas, 2,600 comments in response to the ideas and 19,000 votes were generated (Aitamurto / Landemore 2013). This input was analyzed and categorized as follows: route planning, control, security, regulation and rights, nature and environment, information gathering and use (for traffic on unpaved roads), social values, improvement of the crowdsourcing process. These categories were in turn divided into subcategories and given specific questions that served as the basis for the second phase.
In the second phase, from March to June 2013, citizens should find solutions to the issues and problems identified. They could also suggest their own topic again. On June 13, the participants generated 88 ideas with 828 comments and 4000 votes from 731 active users (Aitamurto / Landemore 2013). At the same time, the moderation on the platform was strengthened to encourage the participants to think in more detail about the ideas. The moderators encouraged citizens to ask more questions and offered them the answers from the ministry, which increased the exchange of information.
The platform users perceived the experiment as an enrichment in the area of democratic participation, as it gave them the opportunity to contribute their ideas and they felt that their views were heard. Although the real aim of the experiment was simply to get information and solutions from the citizens, deliberation took place automatically on the platform as the citizens started to argue and express their opinions. Although only a minority of participants stated that they changed their mind during the deliberation, all citizens confirmed that the decision-making process was interactive and that they subsequently understood the arguments and positions of the opposite party better. Aitamurto and Landemore (2013) also found that the participants' impression of the experiment was more procedural (the experiment makes the decision-making process fairer and more inclusive) than instrumental (the experiment has a concrete impact on the policy outcome). That said, although participants were skeptical that their ideas would really become part of the new law, they appreciated the opportunity to contribute to the legislative process. These results also indicate that citizens do not trust the traditional political mechanisms in Finland sufficiently, in the sense that they often do not feel adequately represented.
The researchers found that participants' views and arguments approximated during the deliberation. For example, the participants agreed that awareness of the risks associated with snowmobiling should be increased and that the rights of snowmobilers should not be absolute and unregulated. The experiment also had an educational character. Thus, during the deliberation, the citizens changed their understanding of certain facts and expanded their knowledge of the respective topic. On the other hand, the participants also expressed concerns that some people affected by the new traffic laws, or who will be in the future, did not take part in the discussion because they are not aware that they will be affected by the issue or simply because they are do not use the Internet (Interview Aitamurto 2013).
The deliberation occurred more in the second phase of the experiment than the moderation was increased. Although most participants were more focused on expressing their own interests, compromise and collaboration naturally became part of the discussion. For example, one participant said:
“At the beginning I didn't make any suggestions myself, but commented on and coordinated the ideas of others. I felt that there were already so many different opinions. However, towards the end of the second phase, I realized that not all of my ideas had been suggested by other participants. So I made some suggestions myself. In it I would like to reconcile the opinions of many to reach a compromise, because I think that it will then be more likely that my ideas will become part of the new law ”(male participant) (Aitamurto / Landemore 2013).
Although the participant initially only watched the discussions and expressed his opinion primarily through the voting function, he became more and more involved in the process, expressed disagreements and tried to help find a consensus. This also shows the high level of respect between the platform participants.
Results and impact
As the project is still ongoing, the results and effects cannot yet be finally assessed. By the end of the second phase on July 24th, 500 suggestions and ideas had been expressed by the participants with 4000 comments and 25,000 votes from 731 users. The website was visited by more than 14,000 citizens. The ideas are currently being analyzed in order to present a report to the Ministry of the Environment, which evaluates the solution choices of the citizens. The online evaluation includes a mass evaluation and an expert evaluation. In the mass evaluation, the online participants cannot choose which proposal to evaluate. Instead, they are given a suggestion at random to prevent the participants from evaluating the suggestions that they agree with anyway. The results of the evaluation will be presented to the Ministry of the Environment at the end of October, whereupon the Ministry will decide whether the law will be reformed and what it should look like. There are many different ways to reform the law, including the option to keep the status quo, depending on what preferences citizens have expressed. If the ministry decides to reform the law, this process begins immediately so that the new law can be presented in summer 2014 (Interview Aitamurto 2013).
Ville Niinistö, Finnish Minister for the Environment, has already expressed satisfaction with the results of the experiment. He said that the project to reform the law on traffic on unpaved roads was an inspiring and groundbreaking experiment to prepare for the new law, because citizen participation was comprehensive, effective and professional. In addition, views and information came to light that would have remained hidden without the experiment ( www.maastoliikennelaki.fi ).
Analysis and criticism
A number of researchers consider online discussions an important tool for participatory and deliberative democracy. They argue that the characteristics of online communication, such as reduced social ties, relative autonomy of participants and a dependency on text-based communication that lacks non-verbal evidence, could facilitate political deliberation (Price 2006). Because of their relative anonymity, online deliberations can balance power imbalances. Studies have shown that dominant behavior occurs less frequently in online discussions than in face-to-face discussions. In addition, studies on crowdsourcing show that a problem-solving process or a creative task involving people with a heterogeneous professional background produces more creative and innovative solutions than with a group with a homogeneous background on the topic. This assessment was partially confirmed in the Finnish experiment (Interview Aitamurto 2013).
Aitamurto and Landemore (2013) draw four conclusions from their analysis of the Finnish crowdsourcing experiment:
1. The participants generally had a positive opinion of the democratic potential of the project because it gave them the feeling of giving them a voice. This is also an indication of a certain mistrust of traditional legislative procedures.
2. This distrust of the democratic institutions is also expressed in the fact that the participants felt that the process of the experiment (fair, inclusive, etc.) was more important than the concrete influence on the new law, as they considered it unlikely that their ideas would be implemented.
3. Although citizens criticized the lack of consensus on the platform, the researchers found that there were indeed some overlapping opinions and suggestions.
4. Many participants indicated that they received new information and learned something that gives the project an educational character.
The findings indicate that the crowdsourcing experiment has successfully increased citizen participation in the legislative process. However, it remains to be seen whether the participants' skepticism regarding the implementation of their suggestions will prove to be true. In addition, the quality of the deliberation could be increased through increased moderation mechanisms. Although there was some discussion, many participants pursued their own interests and there was no deep deliberation. It is also unclear where the citizens who participated in the experiment take the legitimacy to represent the Finnish population in this matter. Since the digital divide prefers some parts of society, online participants are unlikely to adequately represent Finnish citizens. In fact, the majority of the participants were male. The results of other studies on online participation support these findings, since they show that active users are mostly relatively young, male and above-average educated (Millard et al 2012). It is therefore important to find ways to involve all layers of society in crowdsourcing experiments. On the other hand, however, it must be conceded that theoretically anyone affected by the issue had the opportunity to contribute to the legislative process.
Of the approximately 700 citizens who registered on the platform, 20% actively participated in the discussions and a slightly smaller number were very active. Accordingly, there is still a need to increase user activity. In addition, the proportion of moderation should be increased, since the experiment has shown that deliberations occurred more often if they were moderated. Concerning online deliberation forums, concerns are often expressed that emerging deliberations are not based on reason, are too superficial, and that their overall quality is rather low. This cannot be confirmed using the Finnish example. The conversations were respectful and only 20 of the 4,000 comments had to be deleted because they were inappropriate (Interview Aitamurto 2013).
The problem, however, is that there is no authentication process on the platform, so that in theory, citizens can set up as many profiles as they want. This means that they can support their own ideas with an invented profile. Since people tend to agree more with ideas when they have already found support, this could create a snowball effect and distort deliberation and real support for an idea. The introduction of an authentication process could solve this problem.
Finally, there is still no institutionalized process in which the proposals are implemented. After all, the decision as to how the law should be reformed lies with the Finnish Ministry of the Environment and not with the participants in the experiment. To emphasize the importance of citizens' proposals, the Finnish Parliament should introduce a binding process to incorporate the ideas into the new law.
In summary, it can be said that the crowdsourcing process has improved the legitimacy and transparency of the decision-making process for the new law on traffic on unpaved roads, but that there is still room for improvements in deliberative quality. It should also be guaranteed that citizens' ideas and suggestions are implemented in the final law.
Aitamurto, Tanja / Landmore, Helen (2013): “Democratic Participation and Deliberation in Crowdsourced Legislative Processes: The Case of the Law on Off-Road Traffic in Finland”, available at: http://comtech13.xrce.xerox.com/ papers / paper1_aitamurto_landemore.pdf
Council of Europe Committee of Ministers (2009): “Recommendation CM / Rec (2009) 1 on electronic democracy (e-democracy)”, available at: https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?id=1410627 .
Dahlberg, Lincoln (2001): "The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring the Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere", in: Information, Communication & Society , Vol. 4, No. 4, pp. 615-33, available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13691180110097030 .
Interview with Tanja Aitamurto (2013), Visiting Researcher at the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University and Advisor to the Government and Parliament of Finland about Open Government practices.
Medimorec, Daniel / Parycek, Peter / Schossboeck, Judith (2011): “Vitalizing Democracy through E-Participation and Open Government: An Austrian and Eastern European Perspective”, Bertelsmann Stiftung, available at: http: //www.bertelsmann- stiftung. de / cps / rde / xbcr / SID-4B6B2682-20BE4653 / bst / Daniel% 20Medimorec.pdf .
Millard, Peter / Millard, Kate / Adams, Carl / McMillan, Stuart (2012): “Transforming Government through e-Participation: challenges for e-democracy”, in: 12th European Conference on e-Government (ECEG 2012), 14- 15 June 2012, Barcelona, Spain, available at: http://eprints.port.ac.uk/8494/1/Microsoft_Word_-_Millard_et_al__post_review_edited_ECEG_12_paper.pdf .
Price, Vincent (2006): “Citizen Deliberating Online: Theory and some Evidence”, in: T. Davies & BS Noveck (Eds.), Online Deliberation: Design, Research, and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, also available at: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/netgov/files/talks/docs/11_13_06_seminar_Price_citizens-delib_online.pdf .