Crowdsourcing Icelandic constitution: a myth or reality?

Many have heard the  inspiring story of Icelandic people crowdsourcing their own constitution. But how much of it is real and how much rather is wishful thinking?  To find out, Iveta Kazoka, PROVIDUS policy analyst, talks with Finnur Magnusson who was the Chief Technology Officer of the Constitutional Council in Iceland.

Prior to writing constitutional draft, was large scale citizen participation in decision making something common for Iceland?

Not really! We’d not been as participatory as some other countries. There had been some attempts on city level, especially Reykjavik, but the parliament was quite one-way in its communications.

How come the parliament didn’t draft the constitution itself?

There had been numerous attempts! The parliament had been setting up committees and working groups for the last 40 years or so. There was no new constitution, just some updates coming from such efforts: for example, a new human rights chapter. Our constitution has a strict acceptance clause – that means that all amendments have to go through two consecutive parliaments in order to come in force, so it is very difficult to change our constitution.

Who had the initiative to draft a constitution by involving so many people?

It was our prime minister [Johanna Sigurdsdottira] and her party who were interested in having a new constitution and insisted that it should be widely discussed. The process of drafting a constitution started with a specific event – 1000 randomly selected Icelanders were flown in to Reykjavik in order to decide on the main principles for the new constitution.  .

Do you think that such a large scale event was necessary?

I believe that it was a very good starting position for drafting a new constitution!  It paralleled a historic event – our first parliament Althing where people came together to decide on common matters.  There was also a more recent event: when the crisis struck, people brainstormed ideas to make life better.  That was a great success! So when politicians decided on drafting a new constitution, they wanted some similar process. It was important that people gathered in the event represent the Icelandic society – so they were randomly chosen as to come from all over Iceland; gender, age, other demographics were also important. They met in Reykjavik where they worked for a whole day being paid the salary that a member of parliament would have got for a day’s work. That’s how we got many new ideas. We even made a complex mind map to organize them.

Was there a statement, idea that originated in this event and ended up in the draft constitution?

People wanted the constitution to be readable, in a clear language. They also wanted more direct democracy and that it is clearly written in constitution that Icelandic public resources belong to its people. Those were very clear messages coming from the Assembly. Those ideas can be found also in the final edition of the constitutional draft.

Who were the people chosen to draft a new constitution?

There were more than 500 candidates who participated in elections for Constitutional Council. Candidates needed a specific number of signatures in order to run. So people voted in elections using single transferable vote system, and that’s how we got 25 Council members.

But then there was a hiccup. One person challenged the election results because of technicalities (our voting legislation states that you should fold your ballot and you should be in closed surroundings during vote, but this time we voted using electronic machines). The High Court deemed the election results void. But the government decided to go ahead anyway – they just renamed the institution “Constitutional Council” (rather than “Constitutional Parliament” as originally intended) and offered the 25 to take their seats in this Council.

But were the 25 people in the Council already known in Icelandic society?

It was a good cross-section of Icelandic society. We had politicians, mayors, a TV celebrity – yes, it was hard for someone totally unknown to be elected for Council, but otherwise the Council was quite diverse.

Was the Constitutional Council free to choose its own methods of engaging people?

I’d say that High Court ruling turned out to be a good thing regarding this specific issue. The parliament had made some very clear guidelines on how the constitution should be written, and that was a very old-fashioned way of doing it. Many committees, consensus-based procedures – a lot of people, me included, were doubtful whether that was at all possible to write a constitution this way. So when they renamed Constitutional Parliament into Constitutional Council the parliament decided to let the Council itself to decide on its procedures. You can do whatever you want, but get everything completed by the deadline!

So we had two weeks to come up with methods. We knew that the process should be as open as possible, so we developed on that. Basically we tried to publish what we had frequently. We created the foundations of the process, but then adapted it to circumstances.

What methods did you use to involve people?

We used our own website. We publicized our event via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, but the work itself took place on our website. Every week we posted an update of the bill, and as soon as it went live on the website, you could post Facebook-style comments! It was quite critical to get the first release of the report – when the drafters saw that nothing bad happened because of it, then they themselves wanted to publish more, just to see what the people would say. And everyone got very used to this type of working.

Did crowdsourcing lead to changes in the draft?

Maybe 12-13 Council members were very active on the discussion threads. People noticed that: they felt listened to, considered. In the meeting notes you can see that they are discussing the ideas from the people.

I can say that at least 4 out of 100 articles in the constitutional draft were directly influenced by the online conversations, for example, on open data and rights of children. We also received formal letters! So we had a very considerable amount of suggestions.

Were there any influential people against such a process of drafting constitution?

Yes, one of political parties – Independence party – was against from the very beginning. They believed that it is the parliament that should write the constitution. This party and their media have been criticizing the process the whole way.

Even the scholars in university sometimes say that this big of a change should be drafted by legal teams, and not members of the public. There are also members of parliament who think like that – they also say that the draft needs more time, more work, that maybe some amendments should be enough…

So there is no total agreement on the new constitution. In fact, the things are not looking good! If it is not passed in this parliament, then it will take a very long time due to the constitutional amendment rules in Iceland.

How would you explain such an opposition? Are the arguments by legal academia convincing to Icelandic parliament?

This has put many people in doubt – that maybe the constitution needs more time, more arguments… There are also attempts by the parliament to delay the process. It is very hard to reach a consensus. We needed 4 months to draft a constitution, but now it is already 2 years since parliament can not manage to approve it.

What does the Icelandic public think about the constitutional draft?

We had some on-binding referenda questions. Majority gave a clear indication that they wanted this constitution to be adopted, and that they wanted more direct democracy, and also the statement on national resources. A slight majority wanted us to change the section on religion, so there has been an update in the text.

So at least 50% of population wants this constitution, and that’s important for political parties prior to elections. But the current parliamentary majority is not very vocal in supporting the draft! Maybe that’s because there are some changes that takes some power away from politicians and makes things more difficult for them – for example, ministers would not be members of parliament anymore.

As things stand right now, I’m not very hopeful that this parliament will adopt the constitution.

Irrespective of what happens with the draft, do Icelandic people now expect such brainstorming methods to be a new norm for civic participation in decision making?

Despite a few positive discussions, the parliament hasn’t shown any signs of increasing citizen involvement. But there are some parties running for elections who advocate for similar work procedures – such as Pirate party and some new parties (and we’ve never had so many new parties!) There is some work under way in the Ministry of Finance on open data. The city of Reykjavik has done the most – for example, they’ve created a site for participatory budgeting. So there are a few things on municipal level, but the parliament remains quite the same.

You can also watch Finnur talking on the Icelandic constitution here:

http://bambuser.com/v/2995524   (in Finland, 2012)

and in Riga, 2013 here:

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