Head of Society Programme Antti Halonen blogs about our recent event on citizen initiatives and open policy making.
The Finnish Institute organised together with the Embassy of Finland, Democratic Society and Open Data Institute an event where Aleksi Rossi, a co-founder of Open Ministry, gave a passionate lecture on citizen initiatives and how to facilitate them. The lecture was followed by a round table discussion on the more general outcomes and challenges of open policy making.
Open Ministry is a non-profit organization based in Helsinki. They help citizens and NGO's with national citizens' initiatives, EU citizens initiatives and develop online services for collaborating, sharing and signing the initiatives. Open Ministry was established in 2012, after the new Finnish constitution came into force. The constitution allows every citizen a right to put forward a law proposal for the Parliament to consider. If the proposal gains more than 50.000 signatures within six months, then the Parliament is obliged to discuss and vote on the initiative.
Rossi started of the event with a brief reminder of Finland’s relatively good standing in international country comparison rankings. Despite the harsh climate (or maybe partly because of it) Finland seems to do rather well: no 3 in PISA rankings (2009) and no 1 in anti-corruption index (2009), to name a few. In addition, the Finnish political culture has long been characterised by a high level of public trust towards the government.
According to Rossi, however, this trust has started to erode. This is reflected in a decrease in election turnouts and a collapse in political party memberships. There is, in parallel, a growing demand for exploring new forms of participative democracy and open policy making.
Open Ministry’s version of open policy making combines technology and the human factor interestingly. It recognises the fact that technology itself can never be a solution for social problems or a motivator for political participation. In addition to the internationally unique system of strong online authentication, Open Ministry provides an opportunity for citizens to sign initiatives in public libraries. It also participates in an academic study on the longitudinal changes in public opinion.
Rossi explained that there is an abundance of ideas for citizen initiatives, but the big problem is how to filter the good ideas and how to develop them into credible law proposals. Open Ministry provides a platform for crowdsourced draft writing and also expert help in formulating the final law text proposals.
Effectively Open Ministry works as a good indicator of public opinion. Most of the initiatives never gather enough signatures to enter the parliamentary discussion but in some cases citizen initiatives can reveal an overwhelming public support for a particular initiative that has been previously neglected by the parliament. In Finland, the initiative supporting equal marriage gathered over 100.000 signatures in one day only, thus making it virtually impossible for the parliament to ignore the topic.
How to place Open Ministry in a bigger societal context? Participation through political parties is still as relevant as ever. Crowdsourcing will never replace representative parliaments, but it doesn’t undermine the value of citizen initiatives. Where Open Ministry have been particularly successful, is in highlighting the fact that the expertise does not necessarily lie within parliaments or established policy makers only. The question worth asking is, how to harness this collective skill without losing the efficiency and accountability of representative systems.
This culture of openness was one of the highlighting themes of the event. Arguably the culture change is not only a question for governments and civil services to consider, but increasingly for communities, too. Individual citizens have to realise that due to demographic changes the relevance of certain structures of decision making and service delivery have to be scrutinised. In terms of political participation, especially the younger generation needs to find a way to get their voice heard. Bold initiatives like Open Ministry can help in creating a political culture where interconnected networks and smaller scale local initiatives are not only appreciated, but also put in use for a more participative democracy.
You can read a storify-summery of the event and listen the presentation