This week Democracy One Day is discussing e-participation in Finland. I’m interviewing Joonas Pekkanen – founder and president of the Open Ministry (Avoin ministeriö) and a Member of the Board at Open Knowledge Finland (which was recently accepted into the international Open Knowledge network as a local partner). Joonas is also one of the organizers of the Open Knowledge Festival which has seen some wonderful contributions to the discussion of e-participation and open data
E-petitions and open data
Throughout last year I’ve heard a lot about Finland in the context of open data and e-petitions to parliament. Would you say that those two are the most interesting democratic innovations in your country?
Yes, I believe those two are the major ones. There’s a strong open data and open democracy movement, especially in Helsinki. Helsinki has been opening up a lot of data, including the data on decision making. A Helsinki region project was just awarded 100 000 euro prize from European Union for being in front line of opening-up municipal data.
There’s also a new legal framework (since March 2012, when the constitutional amendments and Citizens’ initiative law came into force) that allows 50 000 citizens to suggest new laws directly to parliament. 50 000 citizens is 1.2% of population – that’s what you need in order to put a question into the parliament’s agenda. So it is the first time when the parliament has to take into consideration topics that they otherwise would not touch.
There are some interesting pilots in participatory budgeting and parliamentary monitoring, but the open data and e-petitions seem to be the most impressive initiatives. They are also of particular interest to me.
Is Finland in any way special when compared to other countries regarding opening its data?
Currently, there’s a strong political will to open up everything, it’s even in the government program and there will be some government budget for this purpose next year. The roots for openness are deep – after all, we have the world’s first public records and freedom to information legislation dating back to 1766. But it hasn’t been obvious in the last decades that we would be in the frontline regarding open data. I still do not know whether we are, but we’re trying – our public information regulation is quite good and we’re working together with officials to prioritize data-sets that will be made available in machine-readable format.
Could you give me an example of an open data success story in Finland?
At Helsinki municipal level even the subcommittees have placed their information online – all the agenda items. They are available in machine readable formats, so you can make applications out of that data. There’s one ongoing project that is being developed at the moment – OpenHelsinki.net – which would make it possible to structure conversation around those data so that the people can have meaningful discussions about the same topics that local politicians are considering. There might even be shadow voting on the same issues. It would also structure the data in a way that you can always explore the history of some debate or amendment. All of such possibilities will probably be self-evident in a few years, but we’re not there yet.
There’s a lot of data online. The most widely used datasets concerns real-time public transportation. With the real-time data that includes GPS-coordinates, developers have made applications that show you whether your bus is already behind the corner.
Is there any information that is currently not available to the public, but should be?
It would be interesting to get the datasets and models used by Ministry of Finance to create simulations of various budget decisions so that anybody could see how, by changing different budget decisions and variables, different outcomes are reached. This would improve the level of political debate and allow not only opposition politicians but also academics to make solid counter-proposals to the government.
Ok, let’s move on to e-petitioning! How did Finnish population manage to convince the parliament to change the constitution to allow such petitions?
At that time there wasn’t much of a political debate. Only after the constitution was changed and the first initiatives started coming in, did the politicians wake up and really understand what they have done! There’s now four initiatives that have passed the 50 000 threshold to be considered by the parliament – so that’s not many. But, nevertheless, some politicians are feeling that they are losing their power to set the parliamentary agenda.
Are those members of parliament voicing their concerns in public?
Yes, there has been criticism. Many members of parliament are quite welcoming towards citizen initiatives, but there are also quite a few who have voiced their criticism and, thus, attracted media attention. For example, recently the members of Democratic Party said that citizen initiatives that are not in the government program, would not be accepted. That makes no sense – the whole point of the citizens’ initiative is to bring issues to the parliament, which would otherwise not end up there.
But those initiatives are not binding to the parliament, are they?
They are treated in the same was as other initiatives proposed either by a majority of the members of parliament or by the government, as is usually the case. Citizens’ initiatives may be accepted or rejected, but they are first considered by the subcommittee which hears to experts, organizes public hearings and prepares a statement on the issue – it can also suggest amendments. The parliamentary plenary then votes on the initiative and the possible amendments that the subcommittee has suggested. The plenary can also make changes, even though this would be rare.
Please tell me more about the initiatives that have passed the threshold!
The first one gathered around 70 000 signatures – it was about farming the animals for their furs which is banned in several European countries. Despite the initiative, the majority of members of parliament decided to not ban such farming. It was very clear from the very beginning that there will not be political support for that initiative.
Yesterday we handed-in the petition of 53 000 signatures – the petition is on copyright regulation. It is the most crowdsourced petition to this date! My organization helped to collect people’s ideas and to formulate the petition into a law-proposal format. In helping this initiative, we wanted to counter-balance the influence of copyright industry: there’s a lot of criticism of copyright legislation being overly influenced by the copyright lobby of the entertainment industry and members of parliament lacking alternative information.
More than 150 000 signatures were gathered in favour of allowing the same-sex marriages which will go to the parliament later this year. There’s also a petition on Swedish language no more being mandatory for Finnish students.
So the parliament refused the initiative on animal farming, but what about the other three – do they have any chance of being approved?
The other petitions have a decent chance of being turned into laws. Some suggestions regarding copyright legislation have wide general and political support even though the industry objects to many of them. The Swedish language issue is a very culturally controversial issue in Finland, so there will be a lot of debate, and the result in unclear. The same-sex marriage petition would be quite hard to vote down considering the international developments of more and more of countries now updating their legislation on the issue.
These three initiatives most likely will be processed in the spring 2014.
Please, elaborate a bit on the process of collecting signatures in Finland!
Since last December, there’s a website maintained by the Ministry of Justice, kansalaisaloite.fi, where you can verify your signature in several ways, including online banking codes. Prior to that we launched our own version of the digital signing platform, but the banks refused to provide us the possibility to verify the signatures free of charge.
Our main mission is to help develop the initiatives before they are launched: we’re making sure that many people are collaborating on producing the initiative, and in making it into the law format with volunteer lawyers. The 50 000 threshold is not easy to reach unless the campaign is also well prepared. I founded the Open Ministry because I saw the risk of low quality initiatives damaging the reputation of the whole system. So we’re trying to make the suggestions as good as possible so that the parliament would take them seriously. Up until know we have been involved with all the fours initiatives that have reached the 50 000 signature threshold, in three of them from form the very beginning. So there’s a good correlation!