How did participation thrive in Iceland in a time of low trust? Dyfrig Williams took part in a web chat with Kevin Davies and Dean George of the National Assembly for Wales, and Gunnar Grímsson of the Citizens Foundation to learn more about Better Reykjavik.
2008 was a difficult time in Iceland. All three of the country’s major privately owned banks went under, which prompted a financial crisis that enveloped the country and even reached local authorities in Wales.
How effective was the website?
The Better Reykjavik website was launched before the municipal elections and became a hub for online participation.
- Over 70,000 people have participated out of a population of 120,000
- 12,000 registered users have submitted over 3,300 ideas and 5,500 points for and against
- 257 ideas have been formally reviewed, and 165 have been accepted since 2011
As an external not-for-profit website, Better Reykjavik was better able to involve people because it wasn’t perceived to be part of pre-existing political structures.
In the run up to the elections, the soon to be Mayor Jón Gnarr championed the platform at every opportunity. This buy-in from a prominent figure was key, as it publicised the site and showed that there was buy-in for the work at the highest level.
How does it work?
The website enables people to have a direct say in the democratic process. The website gives the space for people to propose, debate and rate ways that their community can be improved. Every month the council is obliged to discuss the 10-15 highest rated ideas from the website.
Everybody who has submitted a comment on a topic or rated a comment receives feedback on the outcome of the discussion. As Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic Parliament says in the above video, “one of the best ways to get people active as citizens, is that they see results.”
As the elected members have developed their use of the system, the quality of their responses to the public has improved. Any vague or non-committal answers were rejected by the online community, and the strict character limit helped to ensure that answers were kept clear and concise.
Online or offline?
I asked Gunnar about concerns of digital exclusion, which turned into a chat about exclusion on a wider basis. Gunnar made the point that “Any kind of meeting is excluding people. A meeting in Reykjavik is excluding people as people outside the area can’t take part. If we don’t open up the channel for use now, we’re not going to be using it properly in ten years when everyone is using it.” They are keen to involve people in offline work though, because as a participant said, “You can’t fax a handshake.”
What’s happening in Wales?
While there haven’t been developments quite to the scale of Better Reykjavik, it’s fascinating to see how the National Assembly for Wales has used Loomio as part of the Health and Social Care Committee’s inquiry into alcohol and substance misuse. They used it to bring people together online to look at issues in-between meetings. This meant that the Assembly was able to gather rich information from participants online, and focus on the most pressing topics in the follow up meeting with Assembly Members.
We’ve been working with the Wales Audit Office Health Team to scope a webinar on how service user experience can improve strategic direction and services. Key figures from across Welsh public services will come together to share their approaches and learn from each other.
There’ll be opportunities to post questions throughout the webinar, which we’ll record and share after the event. If you’re busy on 15 July, please post your questions below. Because one of the key things I’ve learnt from my work is that we get much better outcomes if we pool our expertise.