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Iceland: Where Citizens Govern via Facebook

Iceland: Where Citizens Govern via Facebook

Iceland has involved its citizens in many forms of crowdsourced government. "Apart from the National Assembly, which is definitely an example of crowdsourcing, there is also Better Reykjavik, and that is a very literal example of crowdsourcing," said Icelandic journalist Paul Fontaine. "Suggestions are invited from the general public on this website about changes they would like to see to the city."

Iceland recently drafted a new constitution, a noteworthy event (a) because new constitutions aren't all that common and (b) because citizens were invited to participate via social networking sites. While not Iceland's most pure example of crowdsourcing, the constitutional update made extensive use of public input.

In fact, Iceland has responded to the current financial crisis -- which hit the small nation hard -- by inviting the public to take part in a number of initiatives to improve government.

In this TechNewsWorld podcast, Paul Fontaine, an editor for the Reykjavik Grapevine, joins us from Iceland to talk about how the constitutional process unfolded. He also discusses what was gained -- and potentially lost -- when Iceland decided to incorporate the Web into its constitution.


Download the podcast (17:38 minutes) or use the player:

Here are some excerpts:

TechNewsWorld: I want to get to this crowdsourcing issue and your recent column that you wrote. But first, let me ask you about the constitution in general, and kind of how it came to be. I guess before they could let citizens participate online in the drafting of the constitution, they had to decide that they needed a new constitution. So tell how that decision came about, and kind of what the background is on this new constitution.

Paul Fontaine: Well, after the crash of 2008, there was a lot of soul-searching that was done in the general public, and a lot of people believed that the system itself was in part to blame. We've had the same constitution since independence, and it was more or less copy-pasted from Denmark's.

So this began first in 2009 with what's known as the National Assembly. This was a very generalized type of meeting where average citizens got together and they discussed a number of different ideas about things that they would like to see happen in their society, not just pertaining to the constitution, but changes they would like to see in their society.

As that progressed, it became more and more apparent that the national will was there for a new constitution. So there was set up, first of all, an election of a 25-member constitutional council. Now, the stipulation to run for this council was that (a) you could have never served in political office before, and (b) you could have never even run for political office before. So then intention behind this was that you'd get the average Icelander to sit on this council.

Once this council was assembled, they were set to the task of writing up a constitutional draft, which they did. They put a lot of work into this, a lot of man-hours went into writing up a draft of this constitution.

TNW: Was the term "crowdsourcing" ever used domestically? Or is this something that was totally from abroad that people kind of imposed on the process?

Fontaine: Well, there were a lot of people here, locally, who were hoping for a more direct influence from the people because there are examples of it here in Iceland. Apart from the National Assembly, which is definitely an example of crowdsourcing, there is also Better Reykjavik, and that is a very literal example of crowdsourcing. Suggestions are invited from the general public on this website about changes they would like to see to the city. Like say for example somebody posts, "I think garbage should be collected every Thursday instead of every Tuesday." If that suggestion gets enough e-votes from other people registered on that site, then the city council is obliged to put that suggestion before the council for a vote.

TNW: Would you consider those examples, like the trash pickup for instance, would you say that that is crowdsourcing?

Fontaine: Absolutely. The Better Reykjavik website -- I mean, these are actual proposals, written by average people amongst the crowd. It is the crowd who pushed the proposal up with enough votes for it to actually get on the floor of city hall for actual vote by politicians. That is by definition crowdsourcing: The source of the proposal is the crowd.

The Inspiration, Not the Source

The source of the constitutional draft was not the crowd. However, in fairness to the constitutional council, they did take the suggestions being offered by the people under advisement. In no instance, however, did you actually see, "Well, the constitutional council believes one thing, but the Icelandic people believe another," and so they were influenced and changed their minds.

TNW: So they didn't say, "Pursuant to Facebook Status Update Number Whatever, we..."

Fontaine: No.

I mean, one thing that Icelanders are really great at is social networking. Social networking was the driving force behind the organizational structure behind the Pots and Pans Revolution. You saw constantly people creating groups and events and inviting their friends and getting people together.

There was a tremendous amount of motivation on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the constitutional referendum of people encouraging each other to go out and vote, vote, vote, vote. And yet, of all the eligible voters, only 48.9 percent actually did vote.

I think -- and this is just my little pet theory, mind you, I have no evidence whatsoever to back this up -- I think the reason for the low turnout was that many people were assuming that everyone around is going to vote the way I want to vote anyway, so I don't really need to go out and vote. I know a lot of people around me actually said this. And I was stunned. I was like, "You're voting in a historic election, how could you not vote for it?" And the response was, "Well, I had a feeling that everyone around me was going to vote pretty much the same way I would have anyway."

TNW: Do you think the participation of people online reinforced that? That all their friends and all their Twitter followers, that everyone was talking about it so then it was like, "Oh, hey, I can see everybody is interested so I can sit this one out."

Fontaine: Well, I think that's a good point actually, because one of the dynamics of the Internet is that it very easily creates these little echo chambers of ideas. So if you're a leftist and you align yourself with a particular political party, chances are that a very sizeable portion of your Facebook friends are going to be leftist too. And so throughout your news feed you're gonna be seeing all these people saying, "Well, of course we're going to nationalize natural resources."

And you see this over and over and over again, then I think yes, the echo chamber probably would reinforce the idea that everybody around me thinks that same way I do. Even if the reality is that it's a much bigger world that you and your Facebook friends.


David Vranicar is a freelance journalist and author of The Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. You can check out his ECT News archive here, and you can email him at david[dot]vranicar[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com.


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