Published January 30, 2012
In the midst of heated protests following Iceland’s economic collapse in October 2008, two Icelandic programmers started dreaming about a more democratic Iceland. Their idea was to create a website called Shadow Parliament, which would enable citizens to play a greater role in their own governance.
Founders Gunnar Grímsson and Róbert Bjarnason tell me that Shadow Parliament never gained the critical mass of users required for it to work effectively, but it served them well as a pilot project for their second and more successful iteration of the idea: Better Reykjavík.
They launched Better Reykjavík just before the 2010 municipal elections, which saw comedian Jón Gnarr crowned mayor and The Best Party win a majority of city council seats.
“It was entirely a grassroots initiative,” Gunnar says. “We weren’t working with any political parties or the city or anybody. We just launched the Better Reykjavík website and gave every party that was running access to use as they saw fit.”
This meant that each political party could interact with their supporters via the website. People posted their ideas on the site backed by supporting arguments. Other people then endorsed those ideas, opposed them with a counter argument or simply ignored them. In this manner, voters debated ideas and political parties could address the ideas that mattered most to the public.
THE BEST PARTY BECOME EARLY ADOPTERS
Though it was open to all parties, The Best Party latched onto it with the greatest force. Some people even believed that The Best Party was behind the initiative though it was actually the non-profit Citizens Foundation run by Gunnar and Robert.
“It’s not anything I lose sleep over,” Gunnar says, “but it’s really important to us that people know that we are non-partisan and that we work with everyone that wants to further democracy.”
Róbert, who calculates that 40 percent of voters visited the site before the 2010 election, believes that The Best Party was wise to use the site so heavily.
“I heard from quite a few people who had been thinking about whether The Best Party was just all a big joke and they went to the website and saw that they were doing something,” he says. “I think it definitely helped them in terms of solidifying votes.”
Notably lacking in politicians, The Best Party ran an unprecedented campaign in Reykjavík whose seriousness was often difficult to determine. Citing their promise to bring a polar bear to the zoo has perhaps grown stale, but it is telling all the same.
“There were quite a few joke priorities on The Best Party’s Better Reykjavík page,” Gunnar says. “Still, most of the priorities were things that people were serious about, while maybe ten to fifteen percent were in the vein of Best Party jokes.”
Now, one and half years later, I ask them if the jokes have disappeared.
“Yeah, there are no joke priorities anymore,” Gunnar says. “Well… the occasional one,” Róbert interjects, and we laugh.
“There is at least one,” I say, having just perused the priorities and seen an idea to have the city hire someone to dress up in a bear suit and walk around giving people hugs. But who am I to say that this is a joke, and more hugs to go around is certainly not a bad idea.
“Well, yeah, occasionally there are jokes, but the website works in such a way that when people don’t find something important, they don’t endorse it and it just disappears,” Gunnar says. “It’s the people themselves that police it,” Róbert continues. “If it’s a bad or a silly idea then it drops like a stone to the bottom of the list.”
With six endorsement and six opposition votes, the bear hugger priority has fallen into the ‘Controversial’ category along with ideas to move the Reykjavík airport out of the Vatnsmýri area and to allow right hand turns on red.
THE CITY SIGNS AN OFFICIAL PARTNERSHIP
A number of ideas implemented by the city over the last year may very well have taken shape on the Better Reykjavík site. For instance, Róbert mentions the idea of making Laugavegur a pedestrian-only street this summer, as well as requiring residents to roll their garbage bins to the curb for trash pickup.
However, ideas on the site had been voluntarily considered by City Council until October 19 when an official partnership between the Citizens Foundation and the city was formed. The City Council is now committed to discuss in meeting each month the five most popular ideas across the board as well as the most popular ideas in each of thirteen categories on the website.
The first idea to be implemented under the new system is an idea that Róbert’s nine-year-old niece posted. “My nine-year-old niece was very excited when I told her we were launching the site and she said she had a lot of ideas. When we opened it in October, she suggested that kids in elementary school be able to go on more field trips.”
Another idea that originated on the site, but has yet to go through the final bureaucratic hoop, has already secured funding of forty million ISK to improve the life for the homeless during the winter.
“This idea and other ideas in progress are having a real influence on the city,” Gunnar says. “People are putting in the time to debate ideas and something is coming out of it.”
And judging by the top priorities on the site, it is evident that people want improvements to the public bus system in Reykjavík, which has undergone a series of cutbacks since the economic crash.
THE PUBLIC IS TRUSTED TO CALL THE SHOTS
Gunnar pulls up the site’s analytics and shows me that since this official partnership was established the site has received 22.800 unique visitors and has 2.900 active users who have signed up and supported at least one priority.
This brings us to the topic of representation because surely technology can, for instance, exclude participation from the old and more computer illiterate populace.
“One of the issues is how to make sure—or does it even matter—that the people using it are representative of everyone,” Róbert says. “As it is now, until everyone uses it, there is no way of knowing, so our site is effectively an addition to representative democracy. There is still this filter, which are the elected representatives, and one of their main functions is to protect minorities and human rights.”
But should the masses be trusted with this responsibility? Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”
Gunnar says it’s simple: “If people aren’t able to govern themselves then they aren’t able to vote for someone to govern them. We probably need a mixture of representative and direct democracy. The current system we have been living with hasn’t really worked that well. Politicians, at least here in Iceland, need to be watched and there needs to be more communication between the ivory tower and the people.”
He continues: “This site enables citizens to communicate with their rulers and also provides real meaningful data to make better decisions. I don’t see any chances of that exploding into nihilism like some are predicting.”
Next year, however, citizens will be given the greater responsibility of making budget decisions for their neighbourhoods.
The City has allocated 300 million ISK to the aptly named Better Neighbourhood project. These funds will be divided between Reykjavík’s ten neighbourhoods.
Ideas will be accepted until January 16 when the administration determines the cost of the proposed ideas. Then in March, people will be able to electronically select from those ideas and place them on their proposed budget for the neighbourhood.
“Every citizen creates their own budget and this is a binding vote,” Róbert explains.
Such direct participatory democracy in budgeting has been practiced in Porto Alegre, Brazil since 1989, but in this case, citizens will be involved in the entire process, from coming up with the ideas to putting them into the budget.
THE CITIZENS FOUNDATION EXPORTS DEMOCRACY
While Better Reykjavík thrives, Gunnar and Róbert have made their e-democracy platform available to countries around the world under the name, Your Priorities. Each country has its own page and people are free to use it as they please.
“We presented our system at a conference in Greece last September, and since then some thousands of people there have started to use it,” Róbert says.
“It’s quite interesting, their top priority is to subject the church to taxes like everybody else, and their second priority is to remove immunity from the prosecution of parliamentarians.”
In the New Year, Róbert and Gunnar, who won a European eDemocracy Award in 2011, plan to revamp Better Iceland, formerly Shadow Parliament, and furthermore to establish partnerships such as the one that they have with the City of Reykjavík with other countries.
When I ask them if this is the future of democracy, Gunnar says frankly that he doesn’t think anybody knows what good democracy will look like in thirty years. “So much is happening all around the world that it’s difficult to say how to improve democracy, or how to save democracy in some cases, and even how to instate it in the Arab countries and elsewhere,” he says.
“The thing is that we have a tool that works for improving democracy and we work with people who have the same intentions. We simply want better democracy and we’re doing our bit to improve it.”
Róbert adds: “At least as the situation is now, we feel that the public is not involved enough in the political process. We feel that people should at least have the tools to read up on and understand issues, and have some influence through this suggestion system. We think that this an important step forward.”