Toolbox of participation for Latvia

In our articles, we are always trying to illuminate the most interesting and innovative new practices (or tools if you will) that make democratic participation easier and more effective, especially if they entail an online or e-participation element. But since we are based in Latvia, I always have a question popping up in the back of my head – would this initiative work in Latvia? What obstacles would it meet and how could we overcome them to integrate these new tools in our existing system?

In 2011 a new participation tool was created in Latvia – a web platform manabalss.lv where people could sign for new law proposals to be then discussed in the parliament. With this step the participation rights of Latvian citizens where extended, now adding the collective petitioning rights to the list.

From June, 2011 to September, 2014 801 initiatives were submitted to the portal, 71 of which gathered more than 100 signatures and 14 – more than 10 000. In 8 of these 14 cases Saeima has already undertaken to develop these ideas further – either as a result of the suggested proposals or as their own independent initiative. After 3 years, 106 536 have signed a proposal in the portal, the total amount of signatures exceeding 316 469.

Like it is with any new idea, this initiative needs time for people to appreciate the opportunities it provides and start using it more frequently. But the level of involvement up until now and the mere fact that such a platform exists is a big step towards improving quality of democracy in Latvia.

Now looking at back at the success of this platform, it seems to be an appropriate to develop the idea of increased participation in Latvia further. Which other tools could be implement and use? What could potentially motivate people to use them more actively? Would they even work here?
Finding answers to these questions is the very reason behind us working on this blog – we describe different initiatives with a hope that perhaps some of these will inspire people to try and ‘import’ them into Latvian society (or any other society for that matter). So far what we see is that many of them could easily work in Latvia, but not without support from both the government as well as the general public.
So what are the most popular participation tools and what can we learn from them?

There are many participation tools out there and it is difficult to predict how exactly they would function in Latvian context. Nevertheless it is worthwhile to try and sketch the main tendencies to help us determine in which direction we would want to go in an ideal scenario.

Most of the participation tools are used in USA and UK, though there are many successful participation platforms operating in Europe, too (some of these are listed here). In Great Britain, for example, the civic involvement is so popular that it has led to emergence of companies whose main task is developing mobile or online apps and tools of participation for state institutions and other governing bodies (Check DelibIntellitics,Govdelivery).
There are different types of participation tools but the most popular by far are petition portals and monitoring sites. The former are usually trying to get support for a concrete project or a proposal (such as the popular global petition  Avaaz.org) while the latter, as the name suggests, monitor a concrete institution, execution of certain responsibilities, as well as reporting breach of law. Portals of this type are extremely useful for increasing participation, while at the same time they also offer more information to general society and help them make more informed decisions. It is perhaps due to these practical benefits that these types of participation tools have gained the most popularity.

When it comes to themes and topics addressed most, its mostly issues that people encounter in their everyday lives and which somehow decrease their quality of life. A good example here is a British participation platform called- Fix my street.  It allows people to submit their observations of the condition of roads and street nearby them, as well as things like broken benches, garbage dumping and other problems they may encounter in their immediate environment. The local municipality is then to react to these complaints and attempt to solve the issue.

Tools like this are popular, because they lighten the bureaucratic burden and speed up the communication processes between the general society and the authorities – instead of several people writing their each individual complaint they can instead join their forces online. Plus, they then know they are not on their own and many other people are affected by the same problem.

Similarly, the American participation tool Politifact serves as a good example – it helps people to evaluate the work of a certain politician or an institution. The portal uses a “truth-o-meter” to evaluate statements made by politicians and their promises, using a spectrum of categories from “true” to “pants on fire”. Thus, with the use of humour, the portal offers valuable information to general public in an ‘easy-to-digest’ manner.

It is interesting to note that the popularity of the online participation tools seems to differ by country, too – in Britian, discussion portals for experts are popular, as well as participation tools’ repositories (such as Participation Compass) and petitions’ portals. Meanwhile, In USA most popular platforms are those that have to do with open data and promotion of transparency, such as Opening ParliamentOpening Government and Open Knowledge Foundation.

Latvian experience in global context
Even if it doesn’t reach out to millions of people like Avaaz.org does, the Latvian petitioning site manabalss.lv. is remarkable nevertheless. The most amazing thing about it is that it can actually affect the agenda of the Latvian Parliament (Saeima), which is a rather rare achievement. This platform allows the Latvian people to take their participation to a very serious level, which is why manabalss.lv stands out among other petitioning platforms out there.

Having said that, I must admit that many of the initiatives that have gained support on the platform are a result of a pro-longed discontent with the current situation – in other words, they have come up when people have become so desperate that they could no longer remain quiet. But having this platform actually allows putting these issues for discussion much earlier – way before they become so pressing it is impossible to keep your mouth shut. If the hope is to make participation a common practice, it is crucial to work towards building trust and starting a quality dialogue between the government and the people, which includes a more active use of participation tools such as manabalss.lv. As it stands, according to Eurobarometer data, only 33% of Latvians believe that their voice carries any weight at all in Latvia, which is a really alarming indicator.

So the first steps would be introducing more participation tools – such as fixmystreet or whatdotheyknow, which allows users to monitor institutions, also asking them questions about topics that are important to them.  However, this sort of thing can only work if the institutions are pro-active. Introducing this system is one thing, but using it responsibly and answering to questions regularly is something else altogether. We need both.

In other words – introducing such tools in itself isn’t anything extremely complicated or painfully expensive, but there is no point of doing it unless the government and state institutions actively engage and don’t abuse general public’s trust (which, admittedly, will be difficult to gain in the first place).

The general public could, of course pressurize the government and ask for certain information itself, but if the government neither has the skill or the will to respond, cooperation will freeze right there and trust will drop to lower levels yet.And if this cycle continues, the government will not only lose support of the electorate and its own legitimacy, but also throttle quality decision making processes and cripple the general quality of democracy. And that’s no good for anyone.

 


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

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Planning alerts

Privately owned, yet publicly visible, buildings that are the labours of love for the owners but turn out to be the source of headaches for the neighbourhood. Some planned public buildings or buildings in historically noteworthy locations may manage to receive the attention of media. Just the same depending on where you live, neighbours may be required or expected to notify those  living nearby. Still we are faced with those private creations whose construction we notice too late and whose particular form or function it may have been good to discuss with local residents beforehand.

In comes PlanningAlerts, a website created by the Open Australia Foundation, which gathers together all planning permission applications and provides an email notification service for local residents. Most of the information is gathered automatically from the websites of local authorities, ‘scraped’ as they call it, while local authorities themselves are encouraged to share their data in an accessible format. Once a new planning application is submitted nearby, you get to know about it straight away.

The website also offers the option to browse its database in your own time. Below is one example of the kind of information it offers. For each council it is possible to monitor the rate of planning applications as well as browse the most recent applications.

planning-alerts-photo

Just the same, one can search for planning applications nearby using a postcode or the current location. Those who are conscious of what kind of architectural direction their city is taking would probably appreciate the ability to browse through any new plans for areas of their interest.

The initiative is intended to give the opportunity to community members to raise concerns about planned construction works. As mentioned by an official at the Mosman Council (AU), officials are not always able to reach their constituents even when they would like to:

Councils spend a lot of time putting ads in the paper, signs on sites and writing to people but it is not always easy to identify the community of interest for a particular development proposal or approval. I see Planning Alerts as a supplement to the statutory notification we undertake and provides us with greater reach as a result. (John Carmichael, planningalerts.org)

If the resident wishes to raise an objection to a specific building it is possible to leave comments directly below each planning application. The comments section aspires to act as the focal point for online discussions surrounding the same construction plans. The developers have also integrated Twitter with tweets mentioning the relevant PlanningAlerts link being automatically displayed next to the application. Unfortunately a quick browse through the latest applications does not find any integrated tweets – to a large degree it could be due to the fact that most planning applications are routine and do not cause concern for locals.

What happens to the comments depends on the council and how willing it has been to collaborate with the site. Commenters under applications for the City of Brisbane are redirected to an official online submission form, while any comments for Melbourne City Council planning applications are sent directly to the council. For other councils, where it’s likely that no partnership has been established, the comments remain online under the planning applications.

To somewhat discourage angry neighbours without justifiable grounds for objections, the site requires to submit your address any time you comment, also this way any discussion emanating from the website is more likely to be taken seriously by the council. Just the same, commenters need to disclose any donations to councillors in the relevant jurisdiction, which is something that is required by Australian law but a good practice to borrow for anywhere else as well.

The website is inspired by planningalerts.com, a UK-based project that is currently closed down and in the process of being integrated into a new website – openlylocal.com. What is great about their story of collaboration is that their open source codebase has inspired new initiatives, such as the local one in Hampshire, UK. For a group of enthusiasts willing to create such a service in their home town (perhaps the conscious architects vary of what is being built in their city?) a big part of the initial work is already done.

[Marta]


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

Open Contracting Partnership

Government purchases of goods and services – a huge industry estimated to be worth ‘between 13% and 20% of GDP on average worldwide’ (OECD) made with public funding for the public good. Yet it remains as one of the more opaque state operations.

Rooted in the commitment to opening up governments the Open Contracting Partnership targets government procurement procedures and aims to reduce corruption as well as inefficiency. In its essence open contracting refers to practices that increase the disclosure of information and promote public involvement in procurement procedures. In practice this can translate into a publicly available online database for contracts, past and present, and consultations with local representatives or civil society groups throughout the contracting process.

The Open Contracting Partnershipinits essence is an advocacy and support group for governments and industry actors. Based on the argument that government contracts are indeed purchases by the public and for the public, the Partnership has set the standard in terms of public rights to information and involvement in government contracting. Besides their advocacy work, the Open Contracting Partnership also provides resources, including their latest offering – the Open Contracting Data Standard that was developed together with the World Bank.

open contracting

Sought-after outcomes

While the seemingly obvious target of the open contracting movement is corruption, it can deliver more efficient public competitions and better quality outcomes.[1] Having publicly accessible databases can enable bureaucrats to borrow good practices in contract design from other states as well as make the bidding process smarter – companies with access to previous contracts can make better decisions when deciding whether to take part in a competition or not. Just the same oversight can alleviate poor execution of services or delivery of goods – if civil society groups and the media can raise the alarm when known costs are overrun or resulting services do not follow specifications, the possibility exists to bring the responsible actors to account.

What is especially noteworthy about the Partnership is its initial focus on the extractives sector. While corruption is debilitating for any democracy, fledgling democracies can see their progress reversed with the discovery of valuable natural resources. What is sometimes called the ‘resource curse’ is not only an economic ailment but a disease of the political system as well. Rents from natural resources can compromise the political system by creating the opportunity for the reigning leaders to use revenue to retain power (through outright vote-buying or by backing favourable public sector officials).[2]

Public contracts are one of the remedies suggested by such experts in the fields of development and natural resource management as Paul Collier (other necessary ingredients being an active civil society and vigorous media). Such interventions cut directly through the malicious relationship between highly valuable natural resources and the performance of a political system by cutting off the private pay-offs of resource extraction.

Noteworthy practices

One of the more comprehensive electronic databases for public contracts can be found in Colombia, namely its Electronic Public Contracting System or SECOP (see “Publish What You Buy”). What makes SECOP stand apart from other systems is the disclosure of all the relevant information pertaining to any particular contract (except for discrepancies that arise when researchers have previously tried to access contracts relating to the ‘Carousel of Contracting’ scandal in Bogotá). A typical contract entry will include the personal information of officials involved in the project, their salaries, tax payments, company fees, as well as any costs of services or materials.

An example of a successful intervention closer to home comes from Lithuania where their branch of Transparency International won the Promoting Transparent Contract Award in 2012. After realising how widespread undisclosed public procurement actually was, Transparency International Lithuania launched an investigation of unannounced tenders. Following their initiative legislation was amended to limit the use of such tenders, with clear requirements to publish the relevant justification whenever an undisclosed tender is used, for example in cases with formidable time constraints or sensitive content.

All in all, it is very likely that states will often already be publishing some information online regarding the main details of public purchases. Yet to reduce corruption in public contracting and to achieve better quality outcomes, states need to go one step further by implementing an open process of contracting instead of publishing retrospective reports that do not offer enough information to allow sufficient scrutiny by the public.

[Marta]

[1] Charles Kenny. 2012. “Publish What You Buy: The Case for Routine Publication of Government Contracts.” CGD Policy Paper 011. Washington DC: Center for Global Development. http://www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/1426431 [Accessed 10/11/2014]

[2] Paul Collier, “The Political Economy of Natural Resources,” Social Research 77, no. 4 (2010): 1114.

 


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

The whole world joining hands? Avaaz petitioning

avaaz (2)

 

Avaaz – which means voice in several languages – has indeed become one of the most vocal online political participation platforms in the world. Called as the world’s largest and most powerful web movement, Avaaz provides the possibility for anyone to start a petition or donation campaign, and the greater the attention it receives from other members of the Avaaz community, the greater is the campaign the organization helps to set up for promoting the issue. The initiatives that Avaaz members bring to public spotlight are different: they range from specifically national questions like petitioning for the government of Germany to close all nuclear facilities, complex political conflicts as the call to recognize Palestine’s statehood to global and cross-cutting issues like the climate change. Here the recent highlight by Avaaz, one that also underscores the link between online and real-life activism, was co-organizing the massive global march on making the world leaders act on the climate change that gathered around 400 000 people in New York and hundreds of thousands across the world.

Creating the scope and publicity is really in the heart of what Avaaz aims to do, and the actual size of the issue may not be so relevant. Their self-described strong side is the ability to draw resources from their (at the moment forty) millions wide community and make the issues, on which small activist groups have possibly worked for years, reach the ‘tipping point’ by transforming them into the campaigns with global reach that receive attention in the highest political level and by the major media outlets.

Avaaz is not a very typical non-governmental organization: the permanent staff is constituted by around one hundred people that are located in various countries yet much of the work is also relied on the broad network of community members. It declares itself as completely independent and as fully financed by its members. The initiatives that receive campaign funding and attention by the Avaaz are ‘upvoted’ by members themselves (every new call for petition is sent out in the Avaaz network); organization itself calls it a ‘’servant leadership’’ strategy where the main agenda is set by members themselves while the staff works on realizing it into major events.

As the organization that has elevated the online organized activism to such a massive scale, Avaaz has also faced the accusations about lack of real impact of their initiatives. It reflects the broader criticism of the online activism that describes it as ‘clicktivism’, giving the satisfaction for its members in doing the good deed but changing little in the reality. Signing petitions and sharing information in the social media may indeed not be difficult, however, many of these initiatives have acquired significant attention because of the activities as, for example, distributing campaign posters, organizing media events and protest marches that Avaaz has carried on the ground. The online and traditional activism forms thus are combined and this along with the millions of members globally makes Avaaz a very intriguing and trail-blazing case of today’s political activism in the web.

 


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

 

FixMyStreet

Sometimes our public decisions involve the most mundane of questions, How can we make our local government fix this pothole? instead of Do we as a society choose to care for the weak?

FixMyStreet [https://www.fixmystreet.com] addresses exactly the first kind of query. The website allows users to submit photos and requests to fix road maintenance related issues which are then sent directly to their local authorities by the FixMyStreet team.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 12.52.31

FixMyStreet was developed by MySociety [https://www.mysociety.org], a UK based NGO, which specialises in making tools for online democracy. FixMyStreet can be accessed as a web application or as an iOS or Android mobile application. The MySociety team seems to be consistently delivering on the design front and FixMyStreet is no exception – the user interface is intuitive and pleasing to the eye.

While you should have realistic expectations of the average response rate from your respective local authority, this website can make the bureaucratic burden easier to bear thereby increasing response time. Instead of five different people e-mailing, calling, and complaining in paper about the same old mattress dumped down the road, a quick look at the submitted reports in your area [https://www.fixmystreet.com/reports] can inform you that a complaint has already been made. The same goes for councillors who are encouraged to integrate FixMyStreet on their websites [https://www.fixmystreet.com/council] – this allows them to quickly access a centralised map of their constituents’ concerns. There does seem to be one feature missing from the application – a voting system where fellow locals could add support to those reports they also find worthy of attention.

[Marta]

 


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

Participatory Budgeting

We can be quick to judge our fellow citizens’ apathy when it comes to politics. Especially when we have reasonable grounds for being disappointed. It is fair to find fault with someone who never reads the news, never bothers to read up on the politicians for whom she votes, or worse still does not bother to vote at all. It is our responsibility as citizens to check up on the government, to question their proposed policies, and to sack them when they fail to deliver. However, dwelling on our disappointment will do little to help. The constructive thing to do would be to give those who feel disenfranchised a fair chance to participate.

One way to do this is to try participatory budgeting, the phrase is a bit of a mouthful, yet the process itself is quite straightforward. The city sets aside a certain amount of cash for local improvements. Community members gather in an assembly and come up with ideas for improvements, and then the best of those are put to the vote. The winning projects are implemented.

Started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989 the practice first reached Europe around the early 2000s and has become popular in the US in the last five years. The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) is a North American organisation that deserves extra credit for the organisational work it has done to bring participatory budgeting to North America, as well as for the resources and know-how it has accumulated on its website. Here is one of their videos doing more justice to the underlying ideas than I probably did:

To some it may seem irresponsible to allow residents to build lavish parks or water fountains when the city needs essential maintenance. For this reason, it should be stressed that participatory budgeting projects in most cases work with a portion of the budget that is intended for additional improvements. Also the project selection process and the vote itself is likely to do away with the more extravagant projects.

Skeptics may also doubt the content of such proposals – will the community really come up with ideas worth spending our common money on, shouldn’t this be better left to the experts? Participatory budgeting does not aim to get rid of experts, but add another layer to the way our democracy works. It creates the opportunity for locals to propose solutions to those issues that they encounter in their day-to-day lives, but which have been overlooked or underestimated by elected officials.

Moreover, the experience of those involved in participatory budgeting seems to indicate that the right circumstances can create very thoughtful project ideas. As stressed by James Fishkin, who works with deliberative polling, it’s bad institutional design that leads to people making bad decisions. If you stopped someone in the middle of the street after an eight hour work day and asked them what they thought of the latest campaign in their local youth centre, it is very likely that they their answer may not be the considerate one. Yet if you provide an organised event and a comfortable environment the very same people can come up with quite different responses.

Advocates of participatory budgeting usually see it as a means to building trust in state institutions, raising the perceived legitimacy of the state, as well as end in itself – participants get an education in the democratic process as well as a sense of empowerment. It would also be exciting if, in combination with other policies, participatory budgeting could encourage the disconnected citizens to start following the news or start voting again. All of the potential benefits shouldn’t be taken on faith, yet given that participatory budgeting has been around for two decades and, according to PBP estimates, has reached around 1000 cities worldwide, there is scope for testing these ideas.

If you are one of those with excess energy for current affairs, perhaps it’s worthwhile to consider campaigning for participatory budgeting in your city. Your budget might not end up as large as that of Chicago’s 49th Ward (around  $1 million a year), but even on a smaller scale you might be able to reinvigorate local participation in democracy.

[Marta]


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

What are the Finns up to?

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!

 

(Iveta)