How Iceland Is Using Digital to Increase Public Participation in Politics

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Hallgrímskirkja in central Reykjavík. The façade of this church references volcanic basalt columns of the Icelandic landscape – and perhaps gives physical form to the Icelandic attitude towards thinking differently (CCO/ fellowferdi/ Unsplash)

There are a few countries that immediately spring to mind when thinking about e-government, or the digital transformation of public services and using the internet to alter the relationship between the citizen and the state. Estonia is the poster child for this movement, with its digital voting platforms, e-residency for businesses and innovative information-sharing systems integrating the databases held by individual government departments. The UK’s Government Digital Service enjoys a prestigious reputation, having particular strengths in user-centred service design (full disclosure: I used to be on the Civil Service’s Digital Fast Stream, so may be slightly biased). Britain currently ranks fourth in the UN’s E-Government Ranking that measures the use of IT in delivering public services, coming in just behind Denmark, Australia and South Korea. However, there is a new (northern) light on the horizon when it comes to using digital for greater public involvement in politics: Iceland. So, what is the point of e-government? What can we learn from the Icelandic experience, and to what extent are the innovations in this small, rich, highly-developed nation replicable elsewhere?

Benefits and challenges of effective e-government

There are numerous benefits of e-government – when it’s done well. With digital platforms accessible 24/7, there is no longer any need to wait in a queue in an office somewhere that is only open 9-5, when many people are at work. Online platforms also allow people to log-in and check the status of their applications, rather than waiting hours on a phone line listening to tinny muzak. Linking up the databases held by different public agencies can allow for more holistic policy and service design, although there admittedly is a great challenge in connecting data when different organisations often hold data in different ways. E-government also has important benefits for transparency and political trust if the citizen can log in and see what information is being held on them. Citizens in Europe can maintain control over their personal data through the rights laid down under the EU’s GDPR regulations, including the right to opt-out of data being processed for any purpose without consent. Finally, from the perspective of government itself, an appealing prospect of going digital is the potential to reduce costs. Done well, this means money that would have been spent on physical infrastructure for processing information and applications can instead be redirected elsewhere. Digital platforms can also be used to encourage citizens to engage with decisions and to share their views on issues that affect them and their areas, thus leading to a more participatory democratic culture.

Thanks to the likes of Google and Amazon, working in digital is increasingly perceived as being “cool” (austindistel/ Unsplash/ CCO)

However, there are also many well-documented risks of trying to go digital. The NHS National Programme for IT started with the noble aims of integrating and digitally storing patient records currently held across the fragmented landscape of NHS organisations, allowing patients to book appointments online, and moving from paper to electronic prescriptions and records management. £10 billion later and the project is widely viewed as a total failure, with the blame being attributed to overly complex contracting of work to external providers, a lack of technical skills and understanding of digital at management level, inadequate planning and unreasonable timescales, and most crucially poor buy-in from end-users – in this case, particularly frontline NHS staff. The failure of the project shows the importance of engagement throughout the process – from initial scoping to delivery – and flexibility to incorporate user needs into the vision for the end product. In general, a shortage of digital skills holds back e-government; those with these precious skills frequently find that the private sector can offer much better salaries than the public sector can.

While digital can be used to increase transparency and improve trust, another risk can be public scepticism towards using digital platforms. Many people also lack basic digital skills – or even access to the internet. It can be easy to forget among all the excitement for digital that 10% of the UK population has never been online – three-quarters of whom are elderly and just under a quarter of whom are disabled, both of whom are the most vulnerable groups who are hence most likely to apply for support from the state. Take for example the DWP’s “Digital First” approach to new products such as Universal Credit. Many of those who need to apply are simply unable to do their applications online, either lacking digital skills or having no access to a smartphone or computer. DWP encourages these people to go to libraries to use computers there and ask for help from staff. And it’s true that libraries can offer this support – but the government has been starving the sector of funding, with the result that nearly 1 in 5 libraries has closed since 2010. There is also the question of whether it is appropriate to expect library staff to give support with filling out Universal Credit applications, given the sensitivity of this data and the importance of the result for the applicant.

Innovation on ice

The particular Icelandic experience of embracing digital has been in the sphere of civic engagement. The Citizens Foundation is a non-profit NGO that was founded after Iceland’s dramatic economic crash in 2008 that toppled the government and bankrupted the country. In the twelve years since, the Citizens Foundation has designed a series of platforms and tools to encourage greater public participation in politics at all levels. First came Better Reykjavik, designed in collaboration with Reykjavik City Council, that seeks to increase public trust in politics, participation in decision-making and improve the quality of public political debates. The success of the platform can be judged in that over 58% of the city’s population have used the site and today between 12-15% of the city’s population regularly use it – remarkable figures indeed in the world of engagement and consultation.

Delivering public services in a sparsely populated country presents its own challenges. Vík í Mýrdal on the south coast has 318 inhabitants – and is the largest settlement for 50 miles in any direction (jonflobrant/ Unsplash/ CCO)

What has made the platform such a success? I met Robert Bjarnason, President of the Citizens Foundation, to find out. According to him, its success can be attributed to three things: embeddedness in the political process, tangible results, and constant advertising. Anyone can log on and submit ideas for policies or investments that other citizens then debate on. Through observing users, Robert experimented with removing the function for people to comment on each other’s posts – and found this almost erased the problem of threads devolving into arguments. Instead, those who log on have to present an argument for or against a proposal and can vote on it. The most popular proposals are then sent to Reykjavik City Council, where it is voted on in collaboration with neighbourhood councils. Provided they are feasible, the proposals are frequently enacted – to date, there have been 700 projects created from the ground-up, rather than top-down. Pictures of these successful projects create a positive feedback loop when used in advertising, showing citizens that the platform can deliver real change to their areas. These include things such as new, disability-friendly parks, cycle paths, the installation of water fountains, street art and lighting, mini-libraries at bus stops and cleaning up of graffiti.

The platform is not just for improvements to the physical realm, however. It has also been used to facilitate participatory budgeting, with 5% of the city’s capital investment budget reserved for projects that citizens themselves choose through the Better Neighbourhoods platform. Finally, the platform has recently been scaled up to Better Iceland and is being used in the ongoing constitutional revision efforts, which my team at the University of Iceland is working on, alongside the Prime Minister’s Office, to monitor the implementation of the revisions over the period 2018-2025. The Better Iceland platform, in particular, is a truly fascinating democratic experiment. Right now, hundreds of citizens are logging on to submit their ideas for what the Constitution of Iceland should say about issues such as the voting system, powers reserved to the President’s Office, public vs private ownership of natural resources, international cooperation and participation in transnational organisations – and “anything else” that springs to mind! This builds upon the use of crowdsourcing in the design of the earlier attempt to write a new constitution which was ultimately frustrated by political opposition – the full fascinating story of the “world’s first crowdsourced constitution” can be accessed here.

The aurora borealis above Kirkjufell – a defining image of Iceland (joshuaearle/ Unsplash/ CCO)

Is it replicable?

In a word: yes. Robert and the team at Citizens Foundation have been listed by the OECD as a leading example of digital innovation in the public sector. They have been invited to design platforms in other towns across Iceland and consulted on the launch of similar platforms in Madrid and Norway. In fact, the open-source code for the software has been officially used in over 20 countries, including in the digital trailblazer of Estonia. Closer to home, there is significant interest in Scotland; Dundee City Council has gone as far as piloting the scheme, and initial results are very encouraging. It turns out that there isn’t something unique about Icelandic culture that encourages civic engagement – it’s just having politicians with open minds and a real commitment to including the public in decisions. Of course, it is worth remembering the risks that were outlined above in using digital technology, especially with regards to access to the hardware and digital skills required. Moreover, my one criticism of the Better Reykjavik movement is that more could be done to include migrant communities in the process. While there is a Google Translate add-on to the site, my own personal opinion is that more outreach work could be done. Perhaps some space on the site could even be reserved for specific issues affecting the country’s growing population of non-ethnic Icelanders?

However, we are talking here about refining the design of a tool that is working well and is clearly changing political culture for the better by opening it up to the public to participate more fully in. The only real barrier appears to be political will. Is it too optimistic to hope that one day a Better Britain platform will be used to develop a totally open, transparent, citizen-led constitution for the UK?


This blog was written by Liam O’Farrell, Researcher at the University of Iceland and Research Associate of City-REDI, University of Birmingham.

Disclaimer: 
The opinions presented here belong to the author rather than the University of Birmingham.

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