Derek Lackaff, Elon University
Gunnar Grímsson, Róbert Viðar Bjarnason
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 (boasting not just a high internet penetration rate, for example, but also the highest Facebook penetration rate), many new Icelandic initiatives attempted to leverage digital platforms to improve governmental access, transparency, and accountability.
This paper presents a case study of Better Reykjavik (http://betrireykjavik.is), a socio-technical initiative designed to promote citizen participation and collaborative problem-solving in city governance. We suggest that the initiative provides a digital space for meaningful e-citizenship, what Coleman (2008) terms “autonomous citizenship." Better Reykjavik is an “e-petition” or “open innovation” website that enables citizens to submit policy proposals and ideas for consideration by the city government.
Developed in 2010 by grassroots activists, the initiative was endorsed by a newly-formed political party that went on to win the election, and later formally adopted as an official channel for citizen petitions of the government. As of March 2014, citizens have used the platform to propose and discuss over 1,800 policy proposals and ideas, of which over 400 have received formal consideration from the municipal government and over 300 have been implemented or are in the process of implementation.
Better Reykjavik is unique among similar projects in that it (1) is developed and maintained by a grassroots nonprofit organization, and not 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 site or the German Bundestag’s e-petitions site.
We situate this work theoretically in the recent tradition of political communication and digital citizenship studies developed by Coleman and colleagues (2008; Coleman & Blumler, 2009). Coleman’s notion of “autonomous citizenship,” describing political engagement processes that are promoted (but not entirely managed) by governments, provides a framework for understanding the relative success of Better Reykjavik initiative. Coleman’s prescient 2008 article describes e-citizenship as a technology of governance: not governance “in the traditionally coercive and dominating sense,” but one that “is about nurturing forms of conduct consistent with being a citizen” (p. 201). Although Coleman was primarily focused on youth citizenship practices, we find his formulation appropriate for the broader context of Reykjavik’s highly-connected citizenry. Further, the social value of policy crowdsourcing or e-petition websites, and of the system implemented by Better Reykjavik more specifically, can be usefully situated within Landesmore’s (2008) “democratic reason” framework. Landesmore argues that democratic reason is “the kind of collective intelligence distributed across citizens and a certain number of institutions and practices that can be seen as specifics to democratic politics” (n.p.). The “social calculus” of collective democratic organization, Landesmore finds, is best supported within a context of maximal social inclusion and participation. Better Reykjavik’s inclusive and distinctively informal origins provide a singular case for understanding the democratic reasoning process of a newly-empowered and increasingly autonomous citizenry.
Better Reykjavik has received limited attention from scholars within and outside Iceland. Lackaff and Grímsson (2011) provide a brief historical and technical overview of the initiative. In her master’s thesis, Eiríksdóttir (2012) focuses on citizen perceptions of Better Reykjavik, drawing on user interviews and focus groups. In their comparative case study of e-participation policy in Sweden, Estonia, and Iceland, Åström, Jonsson, Hinsberg, & Karlsson (2013) highlight the “important differences” of the Reykjavik initiative: first, that the grassroots, independent character of the system is emphasized, and that the political system took the design of the technical system into consideration (rather than the reverse); second, that the government resolved to address a number of crowdsourced ideas each month without setting a minimum threshold of idea signatories; and third, that the system offers citizens “more opportunities to contest, refine, or combine one another’s ideas and arguments than is usual in e-petition systems” (p. 39).
The major contribution of the present study is a detailed analysis of the interface between the grassroots-developed technical system and the existing political and administrative institutions of municipal policymaking. We draw upon web analytics data from the Better Reykjavik site, our interviews with citizens, administrators, and politicians completed since 2010, and archival data including newspaper reports, committee meeting minutes, and other public information. We present an analysis of the socio-technical process of the initiative’s software development and political integration, showing how this project moved from the fringes of the grassroots towards the center of public and governmental awareness. We present findings that illustrate how a bottom-up, fast-moving technical initiative can productively support the slower-moving processes of democratic governance.
Åström, J., Jonsson, M., Hinsberg, H., & Karlsson, M. (2013). Case studies on e-participation policy : Sweden, Estonia and Iceland. Praxis Policy Center. Retrieved from http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2:638808
Coleman, S. (2008). Doing IT for Themselves: Management versus Autonomy in Youth E-Citizenship. In W. L. Bennett (Ed.), Civic life online: learning how digital media can engage youth. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Coleman, S., & Blumler, J. G. (2009). The Internet and Democratic Citizenship: Theory, Practice and Policy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Lackaff, D., & Grímsson, G. (2011). Shadow Governments: An Icelandic Experiment in Participatory Governance and Social Change. Presented at the International Studies Association-South, Elon University, Elon, North Carolina, USA. Retrieved from http://www.researchgate.net/publication/250914890_Shadow_Governments_An_...
Landemore, H. (2011). Democratic Reason: The Mechanisms of Collective Intelligence in Politics (SSRN Scholarly Paper No. ID 1845709). Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1845709