The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Nele Leosk, Alexander Trechsel: The Estonian People’s Assembly: a Systemic Approach to Crowdsourcing Initiatives

Nele Leosk, European University Institute

Alexander Trechsel, European University Institute



A former Estonian MP, a member of the ruling Reform Party announced in 2012 that the party’s officials gave him 7600 euros of unknown origin that he then had to donate to the party. He claimed that dozens of members had donated funds to the party this way, including MPs. Although the party rejected the accusations and the subsequent investigation was ended due to a lack of evidence, the public did not find the party’s denial convincing. Widespread protests yielded to the street demonstrations and petitions, demanding more transparency in party funding as well as more dialogue and openness in the political system. This paper investigates a particular crowdsourcing initiative: The Estonian People’s Assembly (in Estonian: “Rahvakogu”) that was proposed by civil society activists in November 2012 as a solution to then widespread political protests in this Baltic EU member state. 

The paper makes three important contributions. First, it stages the process of the initiative, offering a review of the sequence of the People’s Assembly. Second, it analyses the role of different actors, such as civil society, experts, politicians, the President of Estonia, and the media in this process. Third, it looks at the various methods applied throughout the process. Additionally, it addresses the potential applicability of this process in different contexts and derives some lessons for the future initiatives of the kind. 

Literature review

Until recently, research in policy crowdsourcing has focused on individual crowdsourcing instances. These instances usually follow a web-based business model introduced by Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson in June 2006 issue of Wired magazine (Howe 2006) in which new creative solutions are harnessed from the public through an open call. In other words, a problem in any given area (for example, in space planning) is being posted online, and a vast number of individuals are asked to offer their solutions to this problem. As policy making is no longer considered the activity of professional individuals but of a team with very diverse background, knowledge, and expertise (Landemore 2012), crowdsourcing has been considered as an appropriate method for citizen participation in policy making process (Aitamurto 2012; Brabham 2010). Even though crowdsourcing for policy making is still a relatively new phenomenon, it is definetely gaining ground and has been used in many countries; one of the best known instances stemming from Iceland where crowdsourcing was used in the constitutional writing process in 2011 (Landemore 2014). So far, however, research in policy crowdsourcing has been casting a single crowdsourcing instance, for example, a crowd generated content through a specific internet platform, and has not looked at the interdependence of these crowdsourcing instances within a larger system. Yet, no online crowsourcing platform could possess the capacity to legitimate the ideas presented and the decisons made. 

Analytical framework. Method and data 

This paper makes an important contribution to the understanding of participatory democracy and policy crowdsourcing by adopting a systemic approach (Mansbridge et al. 2012). First, the systemic approach allows me to look at the role of different actors in the Estonian People’s Assembly initiative, evaluate their contribution as well as their interrelationships. Second, it allows me to look at how different yet to some extent interdependent parts connect to each other. The point here is that policy making process does not fall on just one (online crowdsourcing) instance but different components and cases. Third, it allows me to look at the context in which this initiative occurred.

I employ a mixed method approach to my data and analysis, utilising content analyses (user generated content that was posted on the crowdsourcing website), interviews with the key stakeholders, and an online survey.


The preliminary findings suggest that an online crowdsourcing platform can constitute an essential initial phase and method for the learning process of the general public, with novel ideas being presented, discussed, and debated upon. Within one month, in January 2013, the platform gained 60’000 visitors; 1’800 registered users posting nearly 6’000 ideas and comments in the areas such as elections, public participation, political parties and their funding. The People’s Assembly process benefitted from being made transparent and participatory throughout all its stages. The presented ideas were grouped and analysed by the experts; all the materials were made available to the public, and the already analysed ideas were further discussed in open meetings. These ideas were sent to the Deliberation Day on April, 6, 2013 where a representative sample of 314 people discussed the pros and cons of the ideas and casted then their preferences. The outcomes were presented to the Parliament who set a timetable when these legislative changes would be discussed in the formal procedures. Until the present, two of the sixteen persented proposals have been turned into laws. 

The findings underline the crucial role of different actors in this process, such as the one played by experts moderating the entire process, the crucial role of the President of Estonia guaranteeing for concrete outcomes of the initiative and, additionally, the part of the mainstream media for giving a wider visibility to the initiative throughout its process. Finally, elements of this innovative process could travel to different contexts, provided there is a willingness of the different institutional actors to participate as well as interest and involvment of the citizens. Together, this can raise new issues and generate solutions for common and highly salient problems.


Aitamurto, T. (2012). Crowdsourcing for Democracy: A New Era in Policy-Making. Publication of the Committee for the Future Parliament of Finland. ISBN, 978-951.

Brabham, D. C. (2010). Moving the crowd at Threadless: Motivations for participation in a crowdsourcing application. Information, Communication & Society, 13(8), 1122-1145.

Howe, J. (2006). The Rise of Crowdsourcing, Wired Magazine, June 14, 2006. Available at:

Landemore, H. (2012). Democratic reason: Politics, collective intelligence, and the rule of the many. Princeton University Press.

Landemore, H. (2014). Inclusive Constitution‐Making: The Icelandic Experiment. Journal of Political Philosophy.

Mansbridge, J., Bohman, J., Chambers, S., Christiano, T., Fung, A., Parkinson, J., and Warren, M. E. (2012). A systemic approach to deliberative democracy. Deliberative systems, 1-26.

Nele Leosk, Alexander Trechsel