From Iceland — Protecting Democracy by Opening City Budget

Protecting Democracy by Opening City Budget

Published May 24, 2017

Photo by
Art Bicnick

It’s barely been a month since the city of Reykjavík has implemented an open-budget policy. Halldór Auðar Svansson, of the Pirate Party, is one of the City Council members who actively pushed for the project, following in the footsteps of American and European municipalities.

His policy, however, has ambitiously jumped a couple of steps ahead. Not only is information open to the public so that individuals can go online and find it without having to apply, but it’s also published as raw data. This means that the data has not been manipulated or processed but comes straight from the source and is machine-readable.

A Good Beginning

Halldór expects the policy to be a crucial tool in changing people’s mentality. “It’s a bit of a paradigm shift when it comes to the culture of openness. It changes how people approach data, information and power,” Halldór tells me. “If you know that everything is in the public eye it changes the way people operate—they become more accountable and it sets a higher standard. In the end, the best way to limit power is to do it through processes that you can’t control on your own.”

Albeit being satisfied with opening part of the budget, Halldór seems eager to dig even deeper and open up specific transactions. “It’s a good beginning,” he concedes, “but it’s a tool that can be extended. There is a lot of work ahead of us so our next step is to make sure we have a policy to protect private data.”

Privacy vs. Transparency.

The idea of privacy has represented an obstacle to the discussion in the past, as citizens have envisioned their personal information scattered on the web and left to the mercy of predators. That’s why Halldór makes a clear distinction between transparency and privacy. “Transparency is opening the more powerful to the scrutiny of the less powerful, while privacy is about protecting the less powerful from the scrutiny of the more powerful,” he explains patiently. “Therefore, information regarding citizens (like who receives benefits) needs to be protected, but data that has to do with how the city operates needs to be opened up to the scrutiny of the public.”

Halldór’s energy is palpable: would he want to work on a similar policy for the national government? “There is a lot to do in the city for me,” he chuckles, amused. “But it’s definitely something that someone needs to push on a national level.”


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