My Neighbourhood is the participatory budgeting application of the online Better Reykjavik citizen consultation platform.
Problems and Purpose
Following the 2008 financial crisis, mistrust of political officials was rampant throughout Iceland (Bjarnason, 2014). Leading up to Reykyavik's municipal elections in 2010, Robert Bjarnason and Gunnar Grimsson launched the 'Better Reykjavik' online consultation platform in an effort to rebuild the relationship between elected officials and their constituents. Following the 2010 election, the Better Reykjavik platform was expanded to include the My Neighbourhood 'community' (message forum) dedicated to participatory budgeting. My Neighborhoods further involves citizens in the decision-making process by allowing participation in the allocation of city funds.
Background History and Context
The 2008 financial crisis in Iceland caused significant financial hardship and grief among Icelanders. Blamed for financial and regulatory mismanagement, the country's political and economic institutions suffered a sharp decline in public trust. In response, many citizens' and community groups organised, demanding new forms of democratic participation and the inclusion of ordinary citizens in the deliberation and writing of public policy.
Leading up to the municipal elections of Reykjavik in 2010, Robert Bjarnason and Gunnar Grimsson launched the 'Better Reykjavik' website, which offered running candidates a space to crowdsource ideas in an effort to rebuild the relationship between elected officials and the citizenry. During the weeks leading up to and following the election, approximately two-thousand ideas were uploaded by roughly forty percent of Reykjavik's population (Bjarnason, 2014).
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Better Reykjavik was created and initially funded by two private citizens, Robert Bjarnason and Gunnar Grimsson. Eventually, the program was turned into the Icelandic-equivalent of a non-profit organization. Funding ranges from €1,500-€1,600 per month. In 2011, the Better Reykjavik website was formally accepted as a collaborator by the Reykjavik City Council. This formal collaboration sparked the creation of the My Neighborhoods forum accessible through the Better Reykjavik platform. Better Neighborhoods received a €5.7 million initial investment from the city of Reykjavik (Bjarnason, 2014).
Participant Recruitment and Selection
There are no qualifying or disqualifying factors for participants on the Better Reykjavik platform and the integration of social media accounts allows users to sign-up with a verified Facebook or Twitter profile. Participation in the My Neighbourhood final vote is more restrictive, requiring users to obtain verification by the Icelandic National Voter Registry. While the initial idea phase is open to anyone with a registered account, the final vote requires authentication because it will determine the spending of real city funds (Citizens.is). In addition, advanced security measures are utilized to protect user and website information.
Methods and Tools Used
The Better Reykjavik platform is built using the Your Priorities web application built by the non-profit, Iceland-based Citizens Foundation. Using Your Priorities, individuals, groups, and governments can create their own participatory web portals with various sub-forums called 'communities' - such as the My Neighbourhood community. Your Priorities was developed as a way to make online citizen participation simpler and more convenient. Unique to the platform is the ability to both propose ideas and deliberate on other proposals. According to developers, the application “allows large groups to speak with one voice and organize ideas.” (Citizens Foundation). By separating points for and against into columns, people are able to see the most popular points of view on the topic.
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
Each year, a new My Neighbourhoods community message board is created by the city and made accessible to all Better Reykjavik users. The idea proposal phase is open to anyone with a registered account with each project proposal reviewed by the City's Construction Board for both feasibility and cost. To participate in the final vote, user must be authenticated as an Icelandic citizen by the National Voter Registry. Following authentication, each user chooses a neighbourhood to vote within. Each vote is like spending part of a budget so users see the amount remaining decreasing as they vote (spend more money). If a user votes for a project that costs half the budget, those that cost more than half (and would therefore be over-budget) are greyed out. Users can re-do their vote as many times as they'd like with their final vote being sent on to the next round: tallying by the City (Citizens.is).
Influence, Outcomes and Effects
As of 2017, My Neighbourhood has seen over 600 different project ideas come to fruition through a yearly allocation of 450m ISK (3m EUR). Although the budget is rather small, the fact that it gives people the opportunity to participate in the budgeting process is still valuable. According to the COuncil of Europe, My Neighbourhood "has resulted in thousands of citizens having had a real influence on their environment. All neighbourhoods of Reykjavík have been visibly improved through the My Neighbourhood project" (Council of Europe).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The success of the Better Reykjavik platform and its My Neighbourhoods forum can be seen in their high rates of pariticipation and their ability to turning popular, citizen-submitted ideas into concreate policy and fully funded civil projects. The dedication of policy makers and public officials to the participatory budgeting forum in particular has allowed citizens to see the fruits of their participatory labour (i.e. citizen-driven projects) come into existence, thereby increasing trust in the political system. As well, the Better Reykjavik platform as a whole has proven successful in overcoming a problem typical of modern democracies: declining voter turnout, especially among youth (see graph).
Better Reykjavik: Iceland's Online Participation Platform
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Better Reykjavik Project Website (Icelandic): https://betrireykjavik.is/
Better Neighbourhoods Webstie (English): http://www.citizens.is/portfolio/better-neighborhoods-helps-citizens-und...
Journal Article: http://www.academia.edu/1764288/Crowdsourcing_democracy_the_case_of_Icel...
This case study was originally done as a requirement for an undergraduate seminar (POLI 420A) at the University of British Columbia in June 2015. Original authors: Alexander Andruzzi, Paddy Cole, Kevin Zhao.