Better Reykjavik is an online participatory social network built using the 'Your Priorities' web application. It allows registered users to post ideas in topic-specific message 'communities' created by the city on topics such as Open Consultations and participatory budgeting.
Problems and Purpose
Better Reykjavik was launch in 2010 as a way to restore public trust in Iceland's political institutions. The first 'community' (message forum) set up on the website titled 'Open Consultations' welcomed campaign and policy ideas from supporters of any party. The city has since authorized more communities such as a yearly participatory budgeting forum and, in 2017, a forum dedicated to the co-creation of the City's education policy through crowdsourcing.
Background History and Context
Before the crisis, Iceland underwent a successful economic transformation from a low value industry based on fishing to a high value industry based on finances. Iceland’s economic liberalization and financial deregulation policies boosted the country’s economy and won high praise from scholars and politicians. With low unemployment and strong economic growth, Iceland seemed to be poised to enter into an era of prosperity. However, in September 2008, Iceland fell into a deep economic recession. The collapse of the three major banks generated not only a deep sense of crisis and fear among Icelandic citizens but also a widespread sentiment of frustration and anger toward the dominant political and economic system. The sudden economic collapse captured a lot of global attention. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has called Iceland “the poster child for financial excess.” In January 2009, thousands of citizens gathered in front of the parliament in what was known as the ‘pots-and-pans-revolution’, demanding politicians to step down and culminating in replacing the ruling party with the election of the first social democrat government in Icelandic history.
As a response to the crisis and the protests, the Icelandic politicians began to consider the possibility of the inclusion of ordinary citizens in policy-making process. The online crowdsourcing of the new constitution was one of the solutions to involve citizen participation in governance. The two national referendums in 2010 and 2011on foreign debt are “the only known direct democratic votes on sovereign debt resettlement in history” (Johnsson, p6), and in the capital of Reykjavik, we witnessed the birth of the grassroots movement called Better Reykjavik. The case of democratic innovations in Reykjavik in Iceland started with the launch of the participatory online platform Shadow City by two web developers named Gunnar Grimsson and Robert Bjarnason, which later turned into ‘Better Reykjavik.’
Origanizing, 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. Having increased citizen participation as its main objective barriers to access are contrary to the project's goals. Perhaps the best example of the platform's inclusiveness is the idea of more class field trips proposed by a 9-year old on the website. The idea was upvoted by other users, passed by the City Council, and implemented in their school.
However, participation in the My Neighbourhood 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).
Methods and Tools Used
The Better Reykjavik platform was built using the Your Priorities web application developed 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'. 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.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Following the 2010 municipal election that launched the Better Reykjavik platform, city councilors continued to leverage the trust-building power of online citizen consultation. Since that time, the Better Reykjavik platform has been used to stimulate civic engagement in the decision-making process by giving citizens the opportunity to upload ideas and vote (up or down) ideas they find appealing or unappealing. Specifically, the "Open Consultations" forum ('community') allows for an ongoing dialogue between citizens and officials on any topic. However, for this process to be effective, it is imperative that officials commit to the consideration, deliberation, and (when decided through democratic means) implementation of citizen proposals. Robert Bjarnason, speaking on the use of the open consultations 'community' stated that “the city council committed itself to review, every month, the 10 ideas which had the most votes on the online platform.” The municipal government also informs the citizens about whether or not the ideas were approved. This gives the citizens the ability to see the tangible results of their participation. Although the final decision is not in the hands of the public, city council understands that the ideas that are brought to them are highly supported by citizens. As of August 2014, roughly 64% of proposals were accepted by Reykjavik city council. Although the political party in power changed in 2014, political will is still present and Better Reykjavik continues to be a successful platform for debate, deliberation and participation.
Unlike the yearly My Neighbourhood participatory budgeting programme - which has it's own 'community' on the Better Reykjavik platform - there is no clear budget limit for each individual idea or policy proposal submitted in the Open Consultations forum. However, there is a year budget allocation of approximately 300 million ISK (1.6 million GBP) to the programme as a whole. Therefore, it is difficult to gain support from fellow citizens and city councilors if the financial requirements of one's project are excessive. In an interview with Gunnar Grimson and Robert Bjarnason, they mentioned a proposal to move the Reykjavik Airport. And although this gained support from citizens, it was deemed unrealistic by the city council. This demonstrates that, while support in the form of 'up-votes' is important, feasibility is integral to the ultimate success of any proposal.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
In the first 3 years of the Better Reykjavik Open Consultations community forum, city council approved over 150 of the ideas posted, discussed, and voted on by citizens. These projects and the process through which they were concieved give people the power to improve their own lives in the city. Past projects include a programme to support homeless citizens during the winter (approved in 2011), and a proposal to transform the city's main commercial street, the Laugavegur, into a pedestrian-only corridor (approved in 2012).
The Better Reykjavik platform has since expanded to include the "My Neighbourhood" participatory budget for which a separate 'community' is opened on the platform for each year. My Neighbourhood allows citizens to register in their neighbourhood based on their address as indicated on their voter registry. Following the Your Priorities model, each year's My Neighbourhood forum enables people to propose, discuss, and vote for and against ideas and project proposals. Unlike the Open Consultations, however, a final voting round is held in which citizens must select their favourite projects which can be funded without going over the budget. The My Neighbourhood programme draws a large numebr of participants each year as people view it as a way to more immediately or directly improve their lives and neighbourhood-specific isues than the more policy-oriented, city-wide Open Consultations.
The Better Reykjavik platform and its popular My Neighborhoods participatory budgeting forum have, overtime, proven successful at overcoming the political mistrust facing Iceland in 2010. By bringing citizens into the political realm and giving them a real voice in policy decisions, the platform has not only empowered citizens, but increased transparency and helped to align government action with citizen opinion and priorities.
Due to the success in Reykjavik, other Icelandic cities have begun to adopt similar forms of electronic democracy. In 2012 Estonia experienced a political scandal that caused a large amount of mistrust in the national government. To remedy this, the President used the Your Priorities platform (the same platform as Better Reykjavik) to crowdsource legal reforms. The 15 ideas that received the most public support were submitted to parliament, and 7 of them have been passed into law. Your Priorities has also been used in Bulgaria, United Kingdom, India, and the USA (Citizens Foundation). Because it relies on a high level of internet penetration in order to be truly representative of the population, electronic democracy will likely continue to grow in developed countries.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Participatory governance has an intrinsic value for human life in a democratic society. Through political participation, the citizens gain a sense of empowerment and fulfillment. The Better Reykjavik project clearly achieves this central goal of participatory democracy by providing an important channel for ordinary citizens to become involved in the political decision-making process. Through open deliberation and participation, citizens’ voices have been heard and their opinions have been taken into consideration, as in the successful implementation of many citizen-led proposals including increasing the number of school field trips and providing homeless shelters. In the case of school field trip proposal, it is quite remarkable that the idea comes from a nine year old child and that the city council has taken her idea seriously. This goes to show the power of participatory governance and the Reykjavik government’s political will in supporting democratic innovation.
As a case of democratic innovation, the BR brings real changes to the local political structure. One of its core principles is crowd-sourcing, which is a process of “collaborative knowledge production” based on the collection of input from the public as opposed to from the experts. It has empowered ordinary citizens to engage in deliberations on important public policies and at the same time greatly reduced the influence of elite interests in politics. It marks a significant departure from representative democracy. The BR project shows significant potential in elevating the everyday life of the citizen to a higher level: instead of spending their time on passive consumption and private pleasures, citizens collectively participate in the building of a better community and fulfill their duty for the common good. The medium of the innovation of BR, the internet, is another revolutionary feature that has an intrinsic democratic value. As Grimsson and Bjarnason argue, eparticipation is inherently liberating and transcending since the internet promotes free flow of ideas and transparency whereas traditional print media and broadcast strictly control the information that is disseminated to the public (Grimsson and Bjarnason, p4). Marco Bani also argues that the internet and social media have demolished the traditional boundaries of time and space of political deliberation where physical presence is necessary and public input is slow to materialize (Bani, p2). E-democracy is an extremely valuable tool to engage public interest in participation because it gives those who are disillusioned with traditional forms of participation a new way to express their voices and concerns. Dani talks about the fact that there is an alarming trend of growing political apathy in contemporary democratic societies marked by “a collapse of turnouts in elections, a decline of community life and growing cynicism and distrust of political parties and institutions.” Eparticipation is also more likely to attract people’s interests because it is convenient and can be done at the comfort of their own homes. The leader of Best Party John Gnar remarks, “Instead of spending two hours in some stuffy office down in the city, drinking vending-machine coffee and listening to vacuous anecdotes about some employee’s private life, you can sit comfortably at home, in peace and quiet, at your computer, in your underwear if you feel like it.” (G.&B, p22).
The success of the Better Reykjavik program can be seen in the age demographics of its participants. There has been a steady increase in participation in all age groups (see Figure 1) and there does not appear to be decrease in participation or enthusiasm since the Best Party has been dissolved. Participants in the 26-35 and 36-45 years of age have the highest representation (approximately 25% for both groups). Interestingly, however, participants in the 16-20 and 21-25 age ranges are actually represented less than participants in the 50-60 and 61+ years of age with less than 8% representation for both of the former groups and between 8 and 15% for the latter groups. Based on this information, it can be inferred that the Better Reykjavik project was meant to encourage the participation of all age groups in the democratic process and was not targeted towards any specific age group (e.g. young people), as was stated in an interview the original authors conducted with Gunnar Grimsson and Robert Bjarnason in May 2015.
Limitations and Challenges
Despite the unprecedented success and potential of BR in the context of global democratic movement, there are some limitations regarding its internal structure, and its long-term evolution. The BR policy-making process is essentially non-binding since the final decision rests in the hands of city councillors who decide which proposals get passed and implemented. Magnus Jonsson calls this process “advocacy democracy” instead of direct participation since the final decision is left to the discretion of the elites (Johnsson, P8). In the current system of BR, citizens have developed policies to improve the quality of their everyday lives involving school field trips, pedestrian park and homeless shelters; they are largely precluded from taking on greater political and economic matters since those are usually managed by the specialists and experts in contemporary society.
It is not exactly clear what the project will accomplish in the long term since the organizers do not have a detailed plan of how the BR project will be applied on a national scale and used to further broader reforms. The organizers make it clear that the main objective of the BR project is to empower ordinary citizens while detaching itself from any type of clear political label. The project’s lack of long-term planning speaks to its spontaneity and the fact that it is a bottom-up, autonomous movement. There is a real possibility that the BR project will lose its momentum once the country’s economy improves and people’s enthusiasm for the project dies down. Landemore refers to a fickle public that oscillates in its opinion according to economic conditions as one of the possible reasons why the Icelandic constitutional reform experienced a decline in public support (Landemore, p170). Yet there is still ground for optimism. The organizers have made a wise decision to institutionalize the project from the very beginning, making it less vulnerable to changes in political scene and public opinions. The municipal structures and the relationship between government and the citizens have been fundamentally transformed. The BR project is here to stay. The organizers have created a precious legacy for the future generation to take advantage of and to expand upon.
My Neighbourhood: Online Participatory Budgeting in Iceland
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