This is a pretty much unedited transcript of our conversation with Finnur Magnusson about the Icelandic Crowdsource Constitution. We hope you enjoy listening to what Finnur had to say about this inspiring project.
Thanks for speaking to us today… really really appreciate that.. So for the Democracy2 project we’ve been really excited to speak to you guys, The Icelandic Constitution being one of the major projects that we’ve heard about in the last few years that’s really grabbed a lot of attention in many different ways. So Finnur we’d love to get your perspective, so thanks for joining us Finnur.
...so if we start a little bit with you. I’d love to know a little bit about your background… who you are and how you came to be a part of such an interesting and famous project really.
My background is that I’m a nerd by heart - I’ve been into computers since 14 years old, I did computer science and one of the first tasks we were handed out in our first class was to build our own personal homepage and that opened up a new dimension in my head. Doing consul programming and I can actually publish something to the web, then I started going online as a teenager and since then I’ve been heavily involved in web development. Then when web changed from being just static pages where you click between links, into being an interactive medium with commenting and communities forming - I’d participated on IRC and chat protocols before - but seeing webpages turn into interactive communication platforms and communities forming online interested me very much from the early days of the internet.
I joined a lot of the online communities initially and then in my work, I started working for web development agencies and things like that. Maybe 12 or 14 years ago I moved to the UK and lived there for 3 years. This was around the time when some of the democracy development was going on over there. They work for you and then some of these become monitoring and advertising groups online. I was also then participating as Twitter got going and all of the other social networks. I was actively monitoring that and also had a very big interest in social and political activities, so I was a part of the student politics movement in university. I’m interested in people, I’m interested in how people communicate and I’m also interested in technology.
My wife and me we had a long distance relationship for the 3 years I lived in the UK. She came out 6 months before we moved back to Iceland and we moved back to Iceland just as the financial crisis was happening. So, I came back to a very treacherous situation and there were some grassroots movements that were meeting both planned or sporadically in Iceland. One of them was the Ministry of Ideas which was a group of likeminded people that were coming from startup companies and maybe had a technology background or something like that were interested in how we can quickly get past this financial collapse and reboot the the country. This movement was a grassroots group of people that was combined by one of our ministers to set up an event. Iceland has the oldest parliament in the world so Vikings used to gather in Thingvellir our national parliament place from all over the country and they made the law and they had discussions about the future of the country etcetera. So we wanted to do a big crowdsourcing event around the future vision and values of the country - “how are we going to rebuild Iceland after the financial collapse?”. I took part in developing that process and the technology side of inviting 900 people to an auditorium, collecting all of their thoughts live during the event, and using online tools to broadcast the crowdsourcing event to the internet, and collect all of the thoughts in some sort of a comprehensive result. And then, later we had a new government and a new prime minister who was very keen on creating a new constitution, so started work on a new constitution.
We had the same constitution since we got our independence from the Danish crown. The current Icelandic constitution is mainly the Danish one so it's written for a monarch, with slight adaptations through the years, but it hasn’t changed much. So Iceland never got its own constitution. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir - the prime minister at the time - wanted the constitution to come from the people. She was interested in repeating this crowdsourcing event but with focus on the Icelandic constitution, so some of us who took part in the first event were recruited to do another one. This was a truly random sample from all over the country - people spending one day brainstorming about the constitution. Then there was the constitution council and they needed at CTO and I got volunteered for that position… so I was a part of the team that created that process, with the aim to have a truly open and transparent process for writing a constitution in modern day of age, using all the technology available to us. That’s the short story of how I got involved in the constitution process.
Well it’s super interesting… it sounds like it happened quite organically for you. It started off with a passion and then the prime minister sort of jumped on that movement that guys created quite organically with the crowdsourcing movement at the beginning, right?
It did, yeah. You need to bear in mind that Iceland is a nation of 370 thousand people so there’s always someone who knows someone. There’s only 1 degree of separation really if you have online connections and such, so I raised my hand in one of the meetups with the Ministry of Ideas and said “I know internet and social media, so if you need someone, you know to do that… i can help…” so I started showing up for these planning meetings and the first crowdsourcing event was really a grassroots, volunteer type of event. It was a very agile process where we created a process to capture ideas from hundreds of people during a day’s brainstorming session. All participants were really happy with the outcome of it and we created values for the Icelandic nation that everyone could agree on. So it was a natural progression, and the new government were quite keen on getting a constitution written by the people for the people.
We’ve had numerous attempts for revisiting the constitution but we have a very strict clause in the current one where a new constitution needs to go through two parliaments. In fact, either it takes 8 years, or you need to split the government have a new election. So it’s a very strict clause to update. They wanted to take a totally different approach. There was this pots and pans revolution where people took to the streets and protested, and we had a shift in politics. From right wing government for the last 16 years, to a left wing government, and they wanted to do this - they wanted to activate as many people as they could in the process.
And tell me a little bit about that process… you mentioned gathering ideas. I can imagine that must be tough to get so many people with so many opinions expressed in so many different ways managing to compile a sort of cohesive and articulate set of values for a country… Tell me a little bit about that.
There was a group called the Alþingi Movement. It’s the people that set up the first crowdsourcing event. We sourced inspiration from companies like IDEO and other design thinking policies. We did a sort of interactive process where we came up with a 4 day script where we did small meetings with maybe 20 or 30 people, and we repeated the process numerous times. The idea was to get a totally random sample from the nation and it started out with broad concepts, almost like warm-up/brainstorming exercises to get vision and values. Everyone thought about “what do you believe to be the values of the Icelandic nation?” and they wrote down their ideas and went around and you explained your idea. Then we had dot voting and things like that and we had 10 people at each table and each table nominated their top ideas, and then we had runners. So we had 100 tables with 10 people on them, and we had trained facilitators at each table, and we had runners that collected all of those tickets from each table and ran to the computer lab where we had 20 or 30 people just typing it in as quickly as they could. We fed that into the system and we projected like a word-cloud with the …(17:35- interference) at the first 15 minute break.
Then there was this hectic moment where people said “hey, this is what we just decided!” and then we went on and we started talking about different themes and we started working on more complex ideas and everyone ended up submitting all of that data. The data was captured and typed in as we went.
Just as an example: honesty - heiðarleika in Icelandic, was by far the biggest word in the first session. Then you had respect, equality, justice and this captured the atmosphere in 2009, one year after the collapse. People felt betrayed and they wanted to build a new society based on honesty.
Then we talked about themes - where should we focus our efforts in the next years. It was education, employment, the environment, prosperity, sustainability and family as the main themes they wanted to talk about. Then we created a future vision based on this.
During the meeting, after each session, we had runners coming in, typing in the data and feeding it back into the meeting and also online.
So we came up with this structure, it’s actually a very nice brainstorming structure. We’ve done this after these meetings, with Search and Rescue and companies wanting to capture the atmosphere and create a vision for a group of 100-1,000 people.
So it’s a pretty innovative process and it’s based on a lot of ideas. Design-thinking ideas and brainstorming ideas, but compiled in a flow that works for a very large audience. And we did the same for the constitution, but it’s more focused on what should be the content of the constitution. We actually worked with some of the startups in Iceland to do language processing, to distill core content from the copy, all from the tables in the meeting. The themes for the constitution were equality, democracy, again honesty, human-rights, justice, respect, freedom. Those were the high-level ones from the first session.
But then we had a mind cloud. There were some themes that evolved during the day, for instance, that the constitution should be written in a language that everyone could understand. There was this concern that Icelandic law is not very easy to read for the people, so they wanted the constitution to be written in a language that everyone could understand… that it wasn’t a complicated legal document that you needed to have interpreted for you.
And there was a lot of stuff that is not in the current constitution about ownership of natural/national resources. We have a very rich fishing culture and it’s a big part of our income, but it’s roughly ten families that control all of the fishing quota, and people are saying that this needs to be distributed more equally.
We were also talking about access to our big country, access to clean air and clean water. Who owns the natural resources? Is it us, or can it be sold and traded like a commodity?
Things like that came through, and was used as a starting ground for the basis of the work of the constitution council. It was then elected after this crowdsourcing event.
After this it became a smaller council - how did that work out?
We had an election where anyone could run. It was quite unique as well. It was an individual election and a lot of people ran, so a lot of people were interested in taking part in the council and we had hundreds of people that ran for the council, but we had 30 members elected. They didn’t anticipate so many participants when they passed the election, so they had to come up with a way to create the polls and how we were going to sort this out, so they used the single transferable vote method, which has been used in Ireland and other places - people create a sorted list, they can choose as many people on the ballot and put them in an order. This is then calculated and you get a result, and the result was actually a very nice cross section of the nation. You had a priest, a lawyer, a couple of mathematicians, you had the board member of a big games company. Of course there was some bias towards some people who had been writing articles in the news etcetera. It had a disabled person in a wheelchair, young representatives… It was a good mix, and it didn’t seem to be influenced a lot by political parties, as such. It was just quite a random sample that was elected.
But, I need to explain some of the complications, because not everyone was happy with this work. There were a couple of people that challenged the election based on technicalities because the ballot was quite big. It was a big A3 paper because you had to fit all of the people on there. Then you had to slide it into a ballot box. Someone said, based on Icelandic election laws, if someone sees what you’re voting, it’s illegal. So they took it to the high court and said the election wasn’t legal. No-one actually said that anyone had seen anyone else’s vote, and no-one was challenging the result of the election, but the high court actually decided to deem the election void.
There’s lots of conspiracy theories and everything else around it…
Just because the ballot was on an A3 sheet of paper?!
Yes, someone could’ve seen your ballot. There has been a lot of writing about this. The idea is that there is a power struggle in Iceland about who controls the country. Is it the people who control the money? or the fish? or whatever… And this is the only example of such a ruling, but this was maybe to trip up the process.
But the parliament decided to go on with the process anyway. So the plan was that this group of people would be elected and they would work for a year, come up with the constitution, and they actually had a very fixed process on how this was going to pan out. For people that are familiar with software development, it was like a waterfall process. They should all go into a room, they should have commitments, they should do a lot of voting, and discussions like that, and at the end of it, they would have a fully complete bill to put forward to the people. But, after the election was deemed void, there was this uncertainty. There was this group of people that had been elected, but when the election was void, no-one really knew what to do.
The prime minister and the government decided to continue, but it wasn’t the constitution parliament, it was the constitution council. They got half the time to complete this, so they reduced it down to 6 months, and we could do it any way we liked - which was actually quite a good thing, because the group had actually met up after the elections, and the group didn’t quite like the process. They wanted to have a more democratic way, and more conversational approach to this… To reach a consensus rather than have some 3 people that were nominated as… not deciding factors in the process and everything else like that.
So this was the pivotal point that provided an opportunity to do all of the innovative things that we ended up doing. The group was really motivated to do a good job so we decided to sit down and decided - “ok, we’ve got 6 months to write a constitution”, and they were in the mind-set to create a full new document. So we got in agile coaches from CCP which is a big online multiplayer games producer in Iceland, and the constitution council created like a tourist guide for Iceland in three iterations during a day - just to get acquainted with agile methodology.
This was one of the hard moments in the process, so we decided to adopt weekly sprints - we would work in groups, and every friday, we would take the results of our work, publish it, and then repeat. So rather than spending 6 months on writing one document and then putting it to the people, we would just publish the progress every week.
I had some input into deciding what the process was going to be, so I sat with the people deciding how it was going to work, and I had been doing community management - I was working in the UK on building for the software company that powers the Guardian online community, and Sky etc ...so they were providing commenting and voting and social media solutions, called Pluck… they were a provider of social media services for media companies - so I had experience in setting up and managing social media communities, and as the parliament had suggested, they wanted to keep the process really open and transparent and interactive with the nation, so I suggested that we went all in and that we would include commenting and interactive social media features on our own council site, to try to involve as many people as possible. The initial reaction wasn’t great because we had local media that had turned on commenting and the discussion was far from polite or contextual. But we created ‘community guidelines’ which we used throughout production, and we had very active community management, a media and a PR person, and the council members themselves to enact a part in discussing the (…?) and communicated through the website and on Facebook and Twitter channels.
We decided to do this and this was picked up by The Guardian initially and then (32:19…) and all of the big media followed. It became the ‘crowdsourced constitution’. I would say it was ‘collaborative’, but we still had the group of council members that did most of the writing. But it was open and collaborative so anyone could chip in and actually some of the ideas that converged on the website made it all the way into the bid.
You mentioned that there was a point that it was considered void, but you still went through with the process and it was perhaps a more innovative process after that. What happened subsequently? With the bill being void, and you still doing all that work… what was the outcome of the whole process?
We submitted the bill; so we wrote the full constitution, and during the term of the government that started the process, we had an open election where people could vote on some of the themes - they could vote - “would you like to use this bill as the foundation for the next constitution?” And then they voted on a couple of things that were controversial, like the separation of church and state, and the natural resources being owned by the nation and things like that. It was approved and people wanted to use this, so that election went well. But then we had an election and the reins shifted from left to right again and that government was not the one that started the process, and it stuck there.
Still, nothing has moved for the last 7 years.
So the bill was approved in an almost referendum-like setup, so you had a left government and then once a more right leaning government came in, would you say it stalled the project or has it just halted completely now?
They were against some of the ideas in the constitution. They don’t like the idea, for example, of the fish being owned by the nation as opposed to the companies that are supportive of their policies, if I can put it like that. This is just my opinion, but it’s quite a widespread belief. These parties like to maintain the current control of the fishing industry and also the farming in Iceland, those are two of the important factions in the country. For instance, our voting policy is such that if you live in the rural side of Iceland, your boat might count one and a half, or even two, compared to the votes behind every politician in the capital area, where we have 70% of the nation. Things like that are structured to maintain the situation that we’ve had for many years. These political parties have been against many of the ideas in the new constitution for a while.
But there is still a very active group that would like to see this constitution go forward and we have an election coming up soon. It’s going to be very interesting to see, because we have the Pirate Party, who have around 26-30% following in the polls now. They had 8% in the last election. Their agenda is to approve the constitution bill and have a new election straight away to put it in motion.
And we have some other new parties coming up as well, and when we had the ‘release party’ of the constitution, it was my guess that it would take at least 8-10 years to get the new constitution approved, and, I don’t know, we’ll see what happens after the next election…!
In that sense, you can at least hope that you are still in your deadline… if you thought it was going to be 8-10 years, that sounds about correct!
I’m really interested because you have a situation here where the people have chosen, and then a new government goes against that. Now having opened up the process so much to the country, was there no backlash? I’m surprised they ‘got away with it’ so to speak.
Me too. We had an interesting election last time. The Progressive Party promised to take the money from the bad investment firms that had money locked in the old banks, and to transfer that money to the people that lost a lot of money in the collapse. They had a very popular campaign and they got a lot of the votes, but then, of course, it turned out after the election that this wasn’t possible. They’ve had a very difficult term and actually it’s been cut short. Our prime minister had a very difficult TV interview where they found out that him and his wife had a company in Tortola, a tax haven. He was actually one of the people involved in deciding what happened to the money of the invested companies that were locked into Iceland. So Iceland locked the economy - we have an embargo on currency and trading, and many of the investors were trading and making dodgy deals before the collapse. The money is still locked in the old banks and we’re gradually releasing the embargo. So he had to step down and there was a big protest again and they promised to have an election soon, which is cutting their term short. A lot of people feel betrayed based on the promises. It’s like we’re still recovering from the financial collapse and all the turmoil that followed.
Coming back to the theme of Democracy2 - I believe the internet and social media in Iceland are playing a very active part in how the politics are evolving. With the organisation of protests, comes the pressure that we’re putting on politicians. It’s a very, very tough crowd - we don’t put up with as much as usual. But we’ve maybe also gone too far in a sense. You can maybe relate to some of the stuff that is happening in the US now. We’ve got a totally different political scenario because of how people communicate online today. There was just so much pressure after this interview [with Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson]. He tried to play it down, he had some weeks before the show went live, and there was a lot of old style PR stuff going on. But he didn’t have any (...?) after the show went viral across the world. He had no option but to stand down. He is coming back to parliament. It’s not the tradition in Icelandic politics to stand down if you make mistakes, there’s a tendency to stick around for a long time.
Having been through this whole process - it sounds like a hell of a journey - what are your main take-outs or learnings for the future? And what do you think the future looks like? Both for Iceland in terms of the particular initiative, but maybe for this kind of project in other countries on a more meta level let’s say.
This is now 7 years ago. A lot has changed, but at that time, Facebook had just introduced their plug-in to include comments and likes and such on external websites, and it could be translated into Icelandic so we could easily plug that into our site. I was the only technical person on the staff, so I had to build a site to maintain all of this content. I had help from some associate partners, but we decided that instead of introducing some stuff, or likes for the iterations of the constitution, we went with comments, so you actually had to read through the articles that were posted on the Friday, come up with an opinion and voice that in text [comment]. That text was cross posted onto your Facebook profile. So commenting on the article put light on the process and people were reading through it and were having discussions. We had people from 16-year olds saying “what?” or “wtf” or just commenting - they didn’t realise that it was all aggregated under this article about human rights on the website, necessarily. But we also had 70-year-olds in the west of Iceland having very intelligent and civilised conversation about things like sustainability and separation of church and state and other things like that. So we actually had very good dialogue around this work.
So I’ve questions like “would this ever world in a larger country? with billions of people?”, “how can you control this type of dialogue?” The thing is, I would do things differently. We only had 6 months to do this. This is quite a feat for covering everything - the parliament, the president, the high courts, the voting, national resources, church and state… everything. So you create a lot of content in a short space of time. I think we could’ve done much better if we could have had a couple of months for each chapter, and we would have combined online and offline activities. Similar to what Ideo has been doing on their website - they have a pretty nice flow, replicating some of the crowdsourcing activities we did offline… you can do that online. So you can collect ideas around a certain theme, and doing some polling and votes around that, and then people can go deeper. Then, towards the end, you can collate all of that and create the best version of a chapter. With a slightly different process and a bit more time, I believe that a cross section of people throughout the whole nation can be involved in creating something as important as a constitution for a country. A lot of the content that got through was insightful and you saw that people had spent a lot of time thinking about this. We had comments from abroad as well - so we had experts writing to us in English - constitutional experts from around the world. We had an ad hoc online community of ‘hackers’ if you like, that were communicating about access to internet as a part of the human rights clause, which was around the time when social media was being closed down in countries in the East, based on their protest. We actually came up with a clause using a wiki-style editing notepad, and this was submitted as a proposal from the computer geeks and the council members took it up and created a clause that was slightly more toned down, but it’s in there and it’s one of the nicer ones, in my opinion.
You mentioned that Wiki-type clause… one of the things that’s popped up for me in my research is this sort of hypothesis - ‘is it possible to have a constitution or another official/important document as such, be a dynamic document for the nation to contribute to?’ What are your thoughts on that? Is that a way in which the world might be going?
I would have liked to have had more participation. If we’d had more time, I would have wanted to organise more offline events, in order to reach out to the older generation - to people that were maybe not aware of the process.
After the election was deemed void and everything else, the national media wasn’t as interested in the process. It became like a hobby for the government as opposed to being this elected council that was going to make the new constitution. Out of the 300,000 people we maybe had 1% gatesmen, so based on my data we had roughly 3600 people that actively wrote comments on the site. But we had 40,000 unique visitors. I don’t know how many people you would expect to take part in actually writing the constitution, and I still believe you need at least a process… I’m not sure if you need to have like an editorial board, writers, like the constitution council… I think it would’ve helped us to get the constitution approved if it would’ve included parliament and the legal representation of Iceland in the process because they were kind of hands off.
We particularly noted that lawyers just didn’t take part in the process because they thought “this is a silly experiment, we’re the experts. How can people write the constitution when they don’t have any legal background?” When it was completed, there was a group of lawyers that wrote a series of articles explaining that people can’t write laws, you needs lawyers to write laws… And the same with parliament - we had another election and because the new government was not involved in setting up the process or shaping the constitution, it was maybe a “I wasn’t included” symptom, and it was more just something created by the 30 elected members and the 3600 people that commented on the document.
You have a very nice document in many people’s minds that was created by just less than 4,000 people that contributed, and you had crowdsourcing event with 1,000 people, so you never had as many people touch the process. It’s not just a small group of people that have been selected to complete a task. I think you still need some sort of flow to go from very broad ideas, concepts and vision, into having a finalised text that everyone can agree upon. I believe such a process could be designed using technology without necessarily doing the election, but it needs a bit of time and it needs facilitators or moderators to make sure that you’re engaging with a lot of people through a lot of channels, because otherwise you might end up with a very loud minority taking over the writing and the moderation process of the whole project.
And now with you looking back and now looking forward, abstracting from this experience, do you have a bit of a glimpse into what you think the future of governance or systems like that work?
If you’re going to be a bit of a not-so-amateur futurist, how would you describe the future for us?
Iceland is the ideal platform to test new ideas like this. We were just a small team of people hired to set up this process and had 30 people elected and basically we got free reign to do what we liked. There’s a tendency here just to test it out and if it fails we just try it again. We have very high computer literacy, we have 97% of the nation on facebook and using computers. We have the highest penetration of broadband internet and highest number of mobile phones per capita. Etc etc. So this pool of 330,000 people is the ideal test bed to make experiments like this on a small scale. I am very excited to see what happens in the next election. If the Pirate Party get into position to create a new government… they’ve been taking some of these ideas: they have an online voting process and some of their policies go online and the people that are running for parliament for the Pirate Party agree to represent the Pirate Party community as opposed to themselves. They’re challenging the norm of the 4 year election period. That is, you make promises every 4 years then you go and do something completely different, and just in the last year you make some adjustments and you make new promises… that is the cycle in the Icelandic politic. But they say, why only listen to the people every 4 years? Why don’t we have an active dialogue and ask people? So if there’s an important item on the agenda… we’ve had a huge influx of tourism for instance in Iceland, and this wasn’t something on the agenda in the last election. So why would we have to wait for the next election to vote on those things? Why not actively take part in the political process? So if you’re so inclined, the Pirate Party is going to be using their online tools during their terms, just to have people vote on a variety of things. But not only vote, but also try to foster intelligent conversations and an active dialogue between members of parliament and the nation. They have a big following now as again it’s a mix of people from all classes and it’s very diverse and a strange party that has a very humane approach and they want to challenge the old system and use modern communication technology to have a more up to date and dynamic process.
It sounds to me, in this instance at least, that the Pirate Party really understands the philosophy that really understands the internet. Rather than voting in 4 year cycles, we do that frequently and that rather than making indirect decisions (via voting for representatives), we make direct decisions and vote on the policy itself. Is that something that you think the future of governments will look like, and if so, what’s the role of the government if we’re just voting directly for policy rather than for representatives to choose the policies themselves? What happens to those representatives?
Not only in policy making, but also with information. There’s been an active movement towards open data. We’re actually lagging behind many nations, which is kind of weird because we have a pretty basic setup in this nation, but still we struggle with sharing data. With information, I think we should have had a dashboard that could have helped up prevent the collapse. You’ve been talking to (...?), at CLICK, he was one of the founders of the Ministry of Ideas and we were discussing that we could have prevented the collapse if we’d just had a dashboard with the information about the financial market and everything else that was happening in the country, but we don’t have the data. So that’s one factor where technology can play so we can have an up to date view of what’s happening in the country and based on that data we should be able to make informed decisions. I firmly believe in the wisdom of the crowds. I think if you have a diverse, large group of people, you can come up with the best ideas and the best decisions.
Why just elect a handful of people, like in the current state here in Iceland? - it’s really the ministers who control everything in parliament… we really only have a handful of people that are making all the decisions and deciding where our focus is. But if you can distribute this, and come up with a system where we are focusing on the right thing based on data and based on shared consensus of a large group of people, then I believe we should be in a very good position to run our countries in a better way.
If you think of what the project was initially, and where you are today, it sounds to me like you still have aspirations and you still believe in what you’re doing. So how much of a success do you think the project has been?
So when they killed it, I was gutted for like, two years. “OK, this was fun while it lasted, but I’m not touching politics again... or a few years at least.” So I was a bit disheartened having been through all of this exercise and actually I still get many requests to talk about the process and how I dealt with things. Google Ventures have been helping countries like Turkey, and Libya is now doing constitution editing. I believe we had a fantastic journey and it was a great experiment in how you can involve people in writing a constitution using modern technology, but we’re still way behind when it comes to actually making things happen. Going from ideas to execution… there’s a big disjunct there.
And what do you think we need in order to make that change happen?
I think we need to make politics more human-centred. I did a talk recently called ‘Agile, Human-Centred Constitution Design.’ I’m product manager at a FinTech company here, so I work a lot with people. My main focus is communicating. I try to understand the people that use our product. I have a lot of interviews; I make concepts helping people understand their finances better. I make a concept with my team and then we bring in people, or we go out and have a discussion with people and we say “how do you like this?”, “will this work for you?”, “is this beneficial to you?”... things like that… I‘m trying to empathise with a wide group of people. I try to understand their needs and what they want. But I believe that politicians have lost that connection to the people and the country. I don’t think they do enough human-centred design for the policy making and decisions. They might be working for their own ideas. I know that if I would build a software just for myself, no-one else would be able to use it. If you’re writing legislation or if you’re deciding where tax money should go, you need to have a very good connection to the people in the country. You need to have an active dialogue with the general population and I think that’s what we did in sourcing the vision for the new constitution. That’s what we did while we were actually writing the document and there was an election where people agreed that we should build our constitution on this, and then it went into parliament and they said no. With all of this, they’re creating a bigger gap between the nation and the parliament. The parliament doesn’t have a lot of trust or confidence from voters.
If you had any tips for people trying to undergo similar projects in other countries, or any projects related to using technology to deepen our democracies, what would that advice be?
I would focus on a human-centred design, and agility. You need to think about just basic things in designing software and applications. It needs to be very easy to use, and simple and understandable for the general population. You need to utilise any channel of communication available to you. We made our own YouTube clips and we were active on our Facebook channels and we used Twitter and we used any communication methods available. And active community management. “We need to have technology, so let’s have a company come in and build some technological solution for us, and they’ll just take care of us” but one of the key success factors for us was that if someone was asking a question or having a discussion about one of the articles on the site. We had a closed group on Facebook where I could notify the council member who was most involved in the topic to go in and have that conversation. So when people noticed that it wasn’t just the community talking amongst themselves, it was actually the council members taking an active part in the conversation, once we had examples where ideas from the community were being fed into the process, and actually surfaced in the bill itself, this is the proof and the key to igniting further engagement in the whole online process.
People need to feel that they’re listened to - just like in real life! You need some kind of simulate real-life communication. People need to be heard, they need to have an effective communication channel that isn’t complicated for them, and they need to believe that their contribution - if they’re spending time contributing to the process - is being valued, and that it could actually have an impact on the final decision, or bill in this case.
What change/impact do you think this project has had? Although the bill didn’t go through in the end, it sounds like it had a ripple effect… it certainly got a lot of publicity internationally.
There is always fear of the unknown - of what is going to happen if we do this type of exercise.
The setup we went through… we went ahead with it and nothing bad happened. On the contrary, it was a positive exercise. I think in many of these scenarios where we have an old, established institution like a parliament, people are afraid of trying new things. I’ve been taking part in many conversations both with government officials but also at conferences on topics like these, and I know, like in Turkey and other places, they replicated a lot of what we did in their own constitution process. It’s an example that has been used to increase the social influence in policy making. For instance, there are countries that have taken this much further in recent years, like in Finland, they’re actually creating, sourcing bills and voting on things that are taken to parliament and are being passed as law. In the Finnish parliament... it’s amazing the stuff that they’ve been doing. I’ve been touching base with Tanja Aitamurto - she’s at Stanford State University of Technology and they’ve been collecting examples like these and sharing it with countries where the democracy is being developed or reinvented at the moment.
Thank you so much for today…
Is there anything you’ve not said that you want to share with us?
I just hope it all makes sense. It’s lot of content to get through, I talk fast and I’ve touched on a lot of things… There’s a lot of small stories that give more context to this. Examples of changes started by the community that made it all the way into the bill.
The main thing for me is that if, or when, we finally get this constitution passed, I know a few people that we can track through the comments. Some people could say to their grandchildren, “you see this article here in the constitution, I influenced that.” I took part in writing the reactions to the internet clause and I have a few words in the bill, so if it gets passed as the constitution, I could tell my daughter that “your father actually wrote these words in the constitution bill”. That is quite powerful, if we actually manage to get this one approved, we would have had input from people that actually shaped the document. It wasn’t just a group of individuals selected by the parliament to do this thing, it actually came from wide audiences… thousands of people participated in making a document, many of them can actually point to it and say “I helped write this”.
A real part of history by the sounds of it….