Enhancing Estonia’s democracy through Rahvakogu

In February, Democracy One Day blog reported on a fantastic e-participation initiative in Estonia, rahvakogu.ee. The idea was to crowdsource policy proposals that have a potential to enhance Estonia’s democracy. In that post, we promised to do a follow-up when the project is finished. So, to keep our promise, we contacted Olari Koppel of the The Foundation Estonian Cooperation Assembly (Eesti Koostöö Kogu[i]) to tell us what has happened since February.

The readers of Democracy One Day already know the idea behind the Rahvakogu and about the initial idea-gathering process. What we do not yet know is what has happened since the end of February. Please give us an update.

We gathered approximately 1500 proposals during the  crowdsourcing stage, the three weeks in January. After bundling, analysis, evaluation by experts and seminars these 1500 were boiled down to 20 most important proposals which were submitted to the Deliberation  Day audience (320 randomly chosen people). The result, 15 proposals were presented  to the Parliament by the President of the Republic [Toomas Hendrik Ilves]. The Parliament’s  Committee of Constitutional Affairs has been discussing these  proposals for some time now and had a public hearing on 3 June.

The positive thing is that the Parliament has treated Rahvakogu’s work as  a legitimate material so far and this is a clear sign of cooperation.  According to our laws, the Parliament actually has the right to reject any proposal without discussion, if the proposals are not submitted in accordance with the law. Even the President has no  right to submit new laws or amendments to the Parliament (he/she can  only initiate amendments to the Constitution).

Two MPs – one from the [ruling] coalition and the other from the opposition – acted as  rapporteurs. They presented the proposals about the timetable [of implementation] and  possible ways of combining the proposals. Also, they reflected the  initial reflections from the parties represented in the Parliament. I cannot say that politicians are overwhelmed by the job Rahvakogu does. But  they are not totally opposed either. I predict, one third of the proposals will be  passed and the laws changed as Rahvakogu asked, one third will be  somewhat modified and one third will be rejected. The real work –  writing the official amendments and discussions in the Parliament –  will start in September.

What are the proposals that, in your view, are almost certain to be adopted by the Parliament?

Rahvakogu is proposing the idea of lowering the threshold for founding a new political party. Under the current law you have to have 1000 members to establish a party. Rahvakogu’s proposal is 200. I think the final result will be somewhere between 300 and 500.

In addition, Rahvakogu is proposing the idea of lowering the threshold of votes necessary for entering the Parliament. Under the current law a political party must get 5% of the votes in order to become eligible for seats. Rahvakogu’s proposal is 3%, but most likely the final result will be 4%.

What about those that have almost no chance of being adopted?

This one is much easier to answer [laughs]! The Parliament is opposed to giving the citizens the right to initiate referenda. The proposal that would make the members of supervisory boards of state-owned companies directly financially responsible  [for possible financial losses of those companies] also does not have any political support.

What has been the public response to the whole process? Has it  been more positive or negative?

The public response has been ambivalent. There are people and groups  who lack trust  in the parliamentary process, particularly when it comes to politicians dealing with their own privileges and rules of conduct, the election laws etcetera. And these people call Rahvakogu’s  efforts a  nice try  but they doubt if any real results and changes  would come out of it. Some have even said that the whole Rahvakogu thing is a pretense, a process initiated by the political establishment in order to avoid serious consequences and real change.

And, there are of course people, who sincerely believe that this could  be a new way of doing and discussing things. It is too early to make any projections or measure success. I personally believe that, in a democratic system, political changes should  be evolutionary not revolutionary.

Would you consider the Rahvakogu initiative a success?

It is too early to answer this question. But it definitely works  as a method for gathering and discussing various proposals. There are two ways of evaluating the whole Rahvakogu event. Some prefer the process – communicating with people, discussing, gathering ideas, finding a compromise et cetera. Some prefer the results, i.e. how many proposals will actually become law. Process-wise we can call it a success already. The method -deliberative poll or deliberative democracy- is sound and it can be used in the future. Result-wise we have to wait till next spring [2014]. And I do personally hope, that the Parliament will start amending laws out of  the desire to improve our democracy. Although the cynical element also exists – that it is just very unpopular to ignore Rahvakogu.

I wonder if Rahvakogu initiative (the whole consultation, the idea -crowdsourcing process) was something totally new for Estonia or did you build on something that had been tried before?

There have been several efforts in the past to build a direct link between the politicians and the general public. You can still write a letter to your representative in the Parliament or to a government minister. And there are also internet platforms where you can follow public discussions about certain topics initiated by the Government.

However , Rahvakogu is unique because of its method, scope and the measurability of the possible outcome. We defined the topics, designed the process  and set a deadline.

How did you come up with the methodology for Rahvakogu?

It was like putting a puzzle together  – one thing leads to another etcetera.  It is really a combination of different things. There is nothing unique about web-based crowdsourcing, i.e. pooling of ideas, proposals and arguments. And Professor James Fishkin from Stanford [University] has conducted  deliberative polling in 18 countries already. We combined the two and  also made an agreement with the political parties represented in the  Parliament, that they will give a fair treatment to the Rahvakogu  proposals.

There were many Estonian NGO’s involved in Rahvakogu initiative: how did you manage the logistics?

We had the so-called initiative group to run the whole „show“: some IT geeks to design and maintain the online platform, people from the so-called roof organization of NGOs, e-Government Academy, the analysts from Praxis [Center for Political Studies], one representative from every political party represented in the parliament. My organization coordinated the whole process, kept people together, watched the deadlines, paid the bills etcetera. Most of the work was done on a voluntary basis in the evenings and weekends.


I know that there are several other things under way in your organization. Could you briefly describe some of them?

This year, the Estonian Cooperation Assembly started a three-year project of the so-called state management analysis. We are going to evaluate the functioning of the state apparatus by first describing all the different bodies established by the state and executing state power, from the ministries to various semi-public/semi-business/semi-NGO organizations, where the state is a stakeholder or an interested party. We review all the functions and  resources (money and people), which are used for running these bodies.  The next stage is the same analysis at the local level. And the basic question we are trying to answer is whether this whole organization we know as the State is working in the public interest, is the bureaucracy only solving problems or perhaps creating some new ones, is the system sustainable and so on? Our analysis could finally become a White Paper for a wider state reform.

Well done and good luck with that!

[Interview by Iveta]

[i] The Foundation Estonian Cooperation Assembly was established by the President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves  in 2007 as a cooperation network for non-governmental organizations. The foundation monitors topics which influence Estonia’s long term development and that are seen as priorities by its members. It was given by the President the task to „run“ or co-ordinate the Rahvakogu process.

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