Better Reykjavik: Open Municipal Policymaking
Following an economic crisis which swept away much of their wealth, international regard, and trust in established political institutions, Icelanders were in a unique position to experiment with radical new approaches to governance and citizenship. As one of the world’s most highly developed nations (95% of Icelanders are “regular users” of the internet, the highest percentage in Europe),1 several Icelandic grassroots initiatives attempted to leverage digital platforms to improve governmental access, transparency, and accountability.
Better Reykjavik (Betri Reykjavík) is one such socio-technical initiative designed to promote citizen participation and collaborative problem solving in city governance. Better Reykjavik is a website that allows citizens to submit policy proposals to the municipal government. These ideas are publicly accessible, and may be debated by other participants and revised. The public is also encouraged to make a simple vote on each proposal—support or oppose. Over time, a body of proposals emerges, each idea refined by debate, with the aggregate list ordered by the number of votes it has received. Better Reykjavik is an “e-petition” or “open innovation” website that enables citizens to submit, debate, and prioritize policy proposals and ideas.
Launched in 2009 by grassroots activists as a platform for a frustrated citizenry to express their views about how to move forward, the project was subsequently endorsed by a new political party that went on to win the Reykjavik municipal government election. The platform was later formally adopted as an official channel for citizen petitions of the government. In its four years of operation, over 70,000 people have used the platform to propose and discuss over 1,800 policy proposals and ideas, of which nearly 450 have received formal consideration from the municipal government and over 350 have been implemented or are in the process of implementation. The nonprofit Citizens Foundation2 maintains the codebase as an open-source project3 and has assisted in the launching of similar projects in locations ranging from the United Kingdom4 to the Balkans5 to rural North Carolina.6
One of the 2,000+ policy proposals submitted on the Better Reykavik site for deliberation and endorsement by the public.
Better Reykjavik has several qualities that distinguish it from similar projects: it (1) is developed and maintained by a grassroots nonprofit organization, and not by a government, (2) rapidly achieved significant buy-in from citizens, policy-makers, and public administrators, and (3) has been normalized as an ongoing channel for citizen-government interaction. The citizen engagement and policy development process it facilitates more closely resembles crowdsourcing and aggregation platforms like Reddit than established e-petition sites such as the Obama administration's We The People site7 or the German Bundestag’s e-petitions site.8
Building a Better Reykjavik: From E-governance to E-democracy
Iceland is among the world’s “most connected” nations, and has a strong tradition of official initiatives at both the national and municipal levels to provide services to citizens via the Internet, a project often termed “e-government.” A 2005 study identified Reykjavik as one of the top 20 municipalities worldwide in digital governance, including high rankings for the privacy and security, content, and service delivery provided via its website (Carrizales, Holzer, and Manoharan 2008, 98-119). At the end of 2013, 96% of Icelandic households had a broadband Internet subscription, and 81% of citizens used eGovernment services.9 An e-government benchmark report in May 2014 characterized Iceland as a “steady performer” with “good performance, consistently, across all priorities” in e-government implementation.10
The development of new models for more open institutions and infrastructures has emerged as an important goal of both official and grassroots efforts, indicating a potential shift from service provision to civic participation and engagement.
Following the 2008 economic crisis, Iceland’s political context was characterized by a massive decline in trust for incumbent politicians and institutions. A unique characteristic of many post-crisis Icelandic political initiatives is that individuals and groups without direct policy-making authority developed them: not politicians and government officials, but grassroots activists, hackers, and entrepreneurs. The “interfaces” between these projects and Icelandic policy-making institutions developed following popular interest and success.
Much Icelandic attention has focused on allowing citizens easier and more effective ways to make their opinions, and more importantly, their ideas, apparent to politicians. A 2009 “National Assembly” was organized by tech entrepreneurs and activists, and brought together 1,500 Icelanders for a multimodal “envisioning” summit focused on the future of the country—the results of which were subsequently endorsed by the national parliament. A second, similar, assembly in 2010 with 950 participants launched the nation’s (in)famous “crowdsourced” constitution-crafting project (Landemore forthcoming).
Better Reykjavik did not emerge fully formed, but is one of the longest-lasting and most impactful of the projects that emerged from this particular milieu for innovative civic technology. It evolved from a previous initiative called the Shadow City (Skuggaborg), which was opened created by grassroots activists shortly before the Reykjavík municipal elections in May 2010. Each of the eight political parties vying for seats on the council was provided with a “branded” section of the site to use to connect with potential voters, who were encouraged to submit their political priorities for debate and voting. While most of the parties utilized the site little or not at all, supporters of “anarcho-surrealist” comedian Jón Gnarr’s (2014) Best Party were encouraged to help set the agenda by using the site, and approximately 1,400 citizens joined in this process.
On May 29, 2010, the Best Party defeated the incumbent Independence Party in the city council election, and subsequently entered into coalition talks with the Social Democrats. The dense social networks within the small society contributed to high awareness of the Shadow City among new city councilors. Best Party officials, having been impressed with the system and its possibilities, asked the Shadow City developers to create a website devoted to soliciting the opinions of the citizens of Reykjavík on their pact for their coalition city council. A new section of the Shadow City website called Better Reykjavík was opened, and the coalition partners encouraged citizens to use the site to share their priorities for the new government. Soon over 5,000 users were participating on the site – an impressive figure in a municipality where 56,897 votes were cast in total. Within months, several of the highest-rated ideas from the Better Reykjavík site had been placed at the top of the policy agenda listed on the Best Party website, and many were soon implemented.11
Following completion of the coalition talks, citizens continued to use the Better Reykjavik site to petition the new government. In October 2011, the City of Reykjavik entered into a formal partnership with the Citizens Foundation. One component of this partnership was a commitment by the city council to address the top five priorities posted to the site each month, as well as the top priorities in each of the thirteen topical categories on this site (e.g. “environment,” “transportation,” “education”12). Over the next several years, tens of thousands of participants engaged with the site. Reykjavik city committees formally evaluated and processed hundreds of these citizen-submitted ideas, issued an official response to each, and implemented those deemed feasible.
The popularity of the project with residents and city administrators alike led to further initiatives for innovative governance. In 2012, Reykjavik started using the Better Reykjavik site to support its participatory budgeting initiative Better Neighborhoods (Betri Hverfi).13 Through 2014, the city has allocated ISK 900 million (nearly USD 8 million) to the best ideas submitted for neighborhood beautification and improvement. Residents with digitally-verified residential addresses cast their votes on the site to select projects to implement in their neighborhoods.
In the May 2014 municipal election, Gnarr declined to stand for office, and his Best Party was dissolved. A new government was formed in June 2014, with the Social Democrats entering a coalition with the colorfully named Bright Future, Left-Green, and Pirate parties. In their joint platform statement, the parties reiterated their commitment to using and developing the Better Reykjavik platform during the next four years.14
Why has the Better Reykjavik initiative been successful while similar initiatives elsewhere have faltered?
First, the initiative was implemented quickly, and is subject to a fast iterative process where successful projects attract attention and meaningful resources. This model is greatly supported by the fact that most key software technologies are open-source, which supports a grassroots development and participation model with very low upfront costs. Those projects that prove especially useful, such as Better Reykjavik, have successfully attracted more formal forms of financial and political support.
Second, the scale of the project was clear, and goals were clearly defined. Better Reykjavik offers an affective user experience of online engagement that is not simply symbolic, but leads directly to policy outcomes. Disruptive users have not been a major problem because participants understand and accept both the overall agenda and the technical process. This success might be contrasted, for example, against the debacle of the U.S. Republican National Committee’s technically-similar open innovation site America Speaking Out, which was overrun by pranksters and ideologues within days of its launch in 2010.15
Third, a direct connection with social media networks like Facebook and Twitter reduces barriers to participation while situating policy discussions within the users’ real social networks. Users may quickly and easily engage their online network via “likes” and “shares” with the ideas that are important to them.
Although many of the nation’s political and cultural divisions have been laid bare by the crisis and its aftermath, Icelanders and their governments increasingly share a commitment to high-tech engagement and transparency. Better Reykjavik provides a useful demonstration of how new interfaces between fast-moving digital participation systems and slow-moving governmental institutions can be successfully negotiated.
“Computer and Internet Usage in Iceland the Highest in Europe.” Statistics Iceland, January 27, 2014. http://www.statice.is/Pages/444?NewsID=10790.
Gnarr, Jón. Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2014.
Landemore, Hélène. “Inclusive Constitution-Making: The Icelandic Experiment.” Journal of Political Philosophy forthcoming. doi:10.1111/jopp.12032.
“Nætursund Í Laugardalslaug.” Mbl.is, July 20, 2010. http://www.mbl.is/frettir/innlent/2010/07/20/naetursund_i_laugardalslaug//.