Priorities of the people: an interview with Iceland's Citizens Foundation

Phil England interviews Gunnar Grimsson and Robert Bjarnson of the Citizens Foundation, pioneers of an open-source software platform, Your Priorities, which allows citizens to develop ideas to improve their areas and take more control of public spending.

Phil England
30 June 2015

(Image: krismadden, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) )

What was the genesis of the Better Reykjavik project? Did it have roots in the crash and the protest movement that followed?

For sure. It’s a direct outcome. We started our work in late 2008 just right after the crisis was happening. A group of people came together and said ‘it’s clear that we haven’t really been paying enough attention to what’s going on with our government, our institutions and our society.’ So we were thinking at first about giving people more influence but also to build bridges and connect citizens with representatives in better ways.

It’s generally talked about as an economic or financial crash or crisis. It was as well and maybe even more a trust crash. It was like a severing over time between the representatives and the citizens. So we’ve definitely been trying to connect those two together.

Was the connection that the Better Reykjavik project had with the satirical political party the Best Party – and the fact that they ended up winning the Mayoral election in 2010 – the reason why the project ended up being formally adopted by the city?

We launched Better Reykjavik effectively a week before the city elections in 2010. So we created an area on the website for every political party running for the city. We seeded it with their main policy areas and sent them all an email saying, ‘Try some electronic democracy.’

The Best Party didn’t really have an agenda. They promised to break all their promises and other jokes. It was cool actually but they realised, ‘we’re going to be a majority and we don’t have any policies.’ So they jumped on the opportunity to use our software.

So as soon as we had launched it, the Best Party told their supporters to go onto the Better Reykjavik website and help us make our policy for the next four years. And the thing is that at that point, without a policy platform, being effectively a joke party, they were still polling like close to 40%. So as soon as the Best Party said this, the media went crazy for it. So Better Reykjavik was in the media, online, in the news on TV, it was everywhere in all the days before the elections. So that really put it on the map, if you like.

But then it was the coalition between the Best Party and the Social Democrats that decided to integrate Better Reykjavik in a more formal way into the City administration.

So how did that end up looking in practice? Have many of the ideas submitted via Better Reykjavik ended up being taken on by the city council?

Yeah a lot. Actually if you count both Better Neighbourhoods and Better Reykjavik then it’s probably about 600 ideas that have been approved. And some of those are to build some stuff and some are to change or modify policy. In some cases like with Better Neighbourhoods where there is a binding vote on a project in the neighbourhood then basically it’s exactly what people want. Sometimes they take the input in, somebody comments who has an idea about changing something, and maybe the city doesn’t do exactly like that but their view is incorporated into a final compromise. So there’s many different levels of it how the ideas are affecting the city but it is affecting the city in a big way.

Are there a couple of examples you could point to of things that you are particularly happy about being taken forward?

Yeah. One example is to close in the summer the main shopping street downtown Reykjavik. This was a really narrow car road. A simple idea like that has been really effective if you know the downtown area. There was a campaign to turn an old power station into a youth centre. And they used Better Reykjavik to do the final push on that. So now this power station is a youth centre.

And in Better Neighbourhoods there’s an aluminium ladder down to the beech at one point. There is more shelter for the homeless. It doesn’t really matter which neighbourhood in Reykjavik you walk around, in a few minutes you’ll see something that came through an idea through Better Neighbourhoods. It’s definitely changed the city for sure.

Sometimes it’s brand new stuff. Some of it’s quite a bit out of the box. And sometimes it’s ideas that have been percolating in society for some time. It’s just a mix. I think what’s more exciting about it is there’s a lot of ideas that would not necessarily come from the normal bureaucratic process. It’s not like the citizens have taken over and are completely controlling the city obviously – there’s a lot of professionals working in the planning department, for example – but the balance is shifting in the right direction towards involving citizens more.

One of the biggest complaints is that citizens are not given enough control or power over budgets. That’s one of the biggest complaints people have. It’s not only here. On the other side is the influence of money. The big fishing companies for example that own so much of the wealth of the country they have so much influence. It’s part of our mission to change the balance a bit to give citizens a stronger voice at the table.

Now with Better Reykjavik, firmly every month 12-15 ideas go into the City Hall committees. Citizens have a voice. Those ideas are discussed.

So is that the practical commitment that the city has made?

There’s two different processes. With Better Neighbourhoods it’s ideas that people vote in. They are then costed by the City and citizens vote for them in a secure online system. And that’s like direct democracy at the end where people vote for it, but giving the city quite a lot of power in the costing process.

With Better Reykjavik every month 10 to 15 of the top ideas are taken out and marked as moved to this or that specialist council, like the tourism or education council. At that point everybody that has interacted with that idea gets an email telling them it’s been moved to, say, the tourist council. And then maybe in a month or two, or more in some cases, you get an answer from the tourist council about the status of the idea. You get an email and it’s also put on the website. With Better Reykjavik there is no obligation to say yes to any single idea but quite a few ideas have been approved. But that’s definitely not direct democracy as you can see.

Because it’s an open process, has there been any sabotage by vested interests?

Not really. We encourage pressure groups to Better Reykjavik. The cyclists in Reykjavik have used it quite effectively to push their agenda. For example, just a few days after the site was launched, the fifth top idea was to have more cycle paths and repainting the streets. The increase in cycle paths since the Best Party took power has been measured in hundreds of per cents.

With any system like this we try to give equal opportunities to people to know about it. In the end, if people use it effectively then they can cause things to go through but then this is a normal democratic function.

Has there been much talk about other forms of direct democracy in Iceland? There have been a few referenda which have received quite a bit of publicity but perhaps that has that just happened when the politicians feel pressured? Is there any formal process currently for allowing people to call for a referendum?

No. The president can refuse to sign laws then we should have a binding referendum. When that happened for the first time, parliament decided to withdraw the laws. The other two times when he has refused to sign a law it has gone to a referendum and both of those were about the Icesave banking issue.

Those Icesave referendums helped build up a belief that people could really make a difference. The government was under a lot of pressure from the EU, IMF and everybody to push this through. It was an overwhelming ‘no’ in both referenda and people were quite empowered and later on the people have been quite vindicated. I mean so far at least after the courts have basically sided with what people felt intuitively, that it was a private bank and that the taxpayer should not have to take over the debts.

What about a digital method of inputting into policy formulation? Rather than just coming forward with projects or initiatives, do you see any potential in the future for digital platforms to enable citizens to have an input into legislation and policy-making?

Well one example actually from Estonia where in late 2012 there were political scandals. Campaign donations out of control. So they decided to use our open-source Your Priorities software which is the same software as Better Reykjavik runs on. It was a very narrow scope just to change the law governing the political parties. And the president of Estonia agreed with the grassroots that he would put the proposals forward in the parliament as the end step of the crowd-source process. People collected ideas on Your Priorities. About 2000 ideas were submitted. Then they prioritised those. And then the top ideas went into a peoples’ assembly – a physical meeting – where randomly selected people fleshed them out into law proposals. The Parliament decided how it dealt with those president-submitted proposals. And as of last November seven of the ideas have become Estonian law. Some are new laws, some are modifications of older laws. An interesting part of it is that one of the laws that was approved was about one thousand citizens being able to send issues to the parliament for processing and there’s been a law created already from that process. So the law is already making babies. It’s a bit of a meta-law.

So in the future, policy for sure. We are working a lot now with artificial intelligence technology to help people be better informed when they’re writing ideas. To pull information in from all sorts of databases, planning regulations, planning maps and things like that to help people be more qualified writing actual policy.

I don’t think that society can escape the fact that electronic communication, electronic democracy will become more of a part of the decision-making process. The thing is how is it going to be done and how well is it going to be connected while it is being done?

Do you have a view on the draft Icelandic constitution in terms of the democracy clauses in that? Would that take democracy forward in Iceland significantly if that was adopted?

It would. At least let it make more sense in a functional way. It would be a step forward for sure. It would increase people’s motivation to take part. It would give people more opportunities to call for a referendum. If people participate now in a vacuum there’s very little they can do as citizens even if they’re organised. The only thing they can do is have a petition. They can just collect signatures. It’s the only thing they have.

It’s basically a King’s constitution we have now from Denmark since like 80, 90 years ago, something like that. We’ve replaced the King with a president and a few other localised issues, but apart from a better humanitarian part the rest of it is pretty much like it was way back. So there’s lots of clauses in it saying the president does this, the president does that but then there’s a clause that says the president outsources his power to the prime minister.

So definitely from a functional standpoint it makes sense to upgrade the constitution. But also in terms of trying to improve things at the same time as well.

I think the constitutional committee [that drafted the new constitution] reached a good sort of compromise. I find it way too conservative, but it’s a good compromise.

Are there any particular clauses that you’d pull out and say ‘this would be really good for democracy’?

I don’t have them in my head. One thing about the [draft] constitution is that the fact that it was was killed or put to sleep is one of the biggest sources of the current apathy in Iceland regarding political and civic participation. That was really quite a blow for a lot of people.

Does the fact that the right-wing parties [that set into place the conditions that gave rise to the financial crash in 2008] have got back into power again and the fact the  [draft]constitution has been frozen help to explain why the Pirate Party have started polling as the most popular party in Iceland?

It’s definitely all connected. You can see the same in Spain in the recent elections. In many places where people are looking for something different in terms of how  politics is working. You have people looking for changes and you have people so totally fed up with the old parties that they’re just not going to vote for them no matter what if there’s no alternative. They would definitely vote for the Pirates as it is now because there’s no longer the problem of ‘if I vote for them my vote might be wasted’. If they keep polling well up until the election nobody knows what might happen.

We were very surprised in 2012 when we did our first participatory budgeting vote with Better Neighbourhoods, because people need an electronic ID or a special password from the government so we get anonymous democratic data. We thought it was going to be the stereotypical young men online, but actually the 16-20 year olds are really low and 20-25 year olds are low as well. So one of our key questions at the moment is how we can increase youth participation.

Is the Better Neighbourhoods project just happening in Reykjavik?

Yes. The ten neighbourhoods of Reykjavik get allocated a fixed amount of money and citizens put in ideas about how they want that money to be spent. People vote those ideas up and down. Then the city costs them and they are voted for in a secure online voting system.

So it’s not like citizens are taking control of the full budget, but there’s a proportion of it that they can dictate spending on?


And when did that start?

We did it for the fourth time now so it would have been 2011. The process starts in the late Autumn in October, November with the gathering of ideas, then the voting process is around March or April. So the process actually started in Autumn 2010.

At one time I saw talk of a Better Iceland project. Did that move forward? Could the same kind of thing work at a national level?

Yeah it probably could. Seeing the state of the nation at the moment it might be ripe for that now. The basic problem is a lack of resources our end to keep juggling all these balls and doing many different projects. We have some towns that are signed up to Better Iceland like Hafnarfjörður which is the third largest town or city and a few others. People do use the Better Iceland website - there’s a lot of ideas there. And we’re planning something for next year in the year leading up to the elections to try to revive that a bit.

Is there anything else I’ve you’d like to mention that I’ve not given you the opportunity to?

We’re actually working with the National Health Service on this project called NHS Citizen. So we did some trials and experiments last year and we’ll be doing some more this year mostly using our open source software. The project is largely run by some non-profits in England including Democratic Society. There’s an atmosphere in this non-profit civic activism group of people to share knowledge not only code but we also try to build from each other’s experiences in the different countries.

Would you say NHS Citizen was a success?

Definitely. Last year was just about doing a pilot project but it got funding again properly for this year so it’s a success from that perspective. It’s a long-term project and if you google it you’ll see there’s a report. Ideas were collected, opinions were gathered both offline and online and then there was a voice at the table at the NHS England board. The conclusion of the first trial was that the NHS listened to them but I don’t know if anything’s going to come out of it. With this trial mass participation was not the target but to find the best procedures and the best practice. We’ll be doing the next experiments in September.

Why is it important for people to have more opportunities to take part in democratic processes?

For me the answer is quite simple: to move the balance of power towards citizens and their needs. Corporations should have influence as actors in society but the situation now is that corporations and money has far too much influence on politics and decision-making and the financial crisis made a lot of people realise that here in Iceland. We should give people more direct influence and more transparency to see what’s going on. It’s our money, it’s our taxpayers money so we should have more say in it.

The decisions that are made affect the lives of citizens so it actually sounds quite stupid if citizens don’t really have a say in the changes to their environment and their society. Often the people that know the most about things and are closest to where it’s at and have information are the citizens. So if you don’t bring the people that are going to be using and working inside what you’re changing you’re not going to get as good a result.

Every four years to vote in something: that whole democratic system is old. It was the same in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s or whenever. Just think about how much happened in one year in 1920 compared to what happens in one year now. I think that’s one reason why the democratic system can be abused so much because the world is so complicated that the politicians can promise everything before the election but then after the election reality hits they say ‘we can’t do that.’ We have the opportunity now with the internet to give citizens more oversight and we should take it. It’s needed.

See The Independent for Phil England's accompanying overview of the current situation in Iceland.

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