Online PB in Reykjavik: making democracy easier and more fun

As part of our work developing the use of digital participatory budgeting (PB) in Scotland, Demsoc has been sharing inspiring examples of how digital tools have been used for PB around the world. This time we’re looking at Reykjavik’s long-standing PB process. This blog was written with the help of Róbert Bjarnason, who gave us a short interview about Reykjavik’s PB process. Róbert is Chief Exec of Citizens Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation, whose technology has been used in this process. Citizens Foundation are also one of the providers we’ve worked with to support digital PB in Scotland.

Why read this post?

Are you interested in:

  • Using Participatory Budgeting as a way to give citizens power to change what happens on their doorstep?
  • Using digital to make it easy to get involved in political decision making?
  • The promotion of digital PB and dealing with security of voting?

When the city of Reykjavik introduced Participatory Budgeting it was an attempt to do politics differently: giving citizens tangible power to make things happen on their doorstep; and turning participation from something onerous into something easy, or even fun.

This blogpost shows how they did it. It also shows some of the key considerations needed for digitally enabled PB to work, particularly around promotion and security. Lastly, we look at how the PB process fits into other forms of online democracy in the city.

A view of Reykjavik showing low white buildings with water and an imposing mountain in the background.
Reykjavik. Creative commons image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcobellucci/8154357332

The history of participatory budgeting in Reykjavik

After the Icelandic financial crisis there was huge distrust in Icelandic politics. The Citizens Foundation was set up as a not-for-profit civic tech provider in response. The Foundation  developed a platform that allows parties standing in a forthcoming election to crowdsource policy ideas. The Best Party, set up as a satirical response to Iceland’s crisis of confidence in its traditional politics, really took this up and thousands of people engaged with the opportunity. In elections to Reykjavik’s city government, The Best Party won enough seats to form a coalition government and continued to look to the public for direction on policy making. It was in this context that participatory budgeting was first set up in Reykjavik in 2011. According to Róbert Bjarnason of the Citizens Foundation, a key motivation for introducing participatory budgeting was to build a different way for  politics to be done, where engagement was more fun, and where the effects of taking part were really tangible to citizens. But it was also a response to substantial cuts to spending that followed the economic crisis that focused the reduced resources on the best uses.

The digital PB process in Reykjavik

Roughly 6% of Reykjavik’s city council investment budget of €3.5 millions is subject to participatory budgeting each year. This is split between the city’s 10 districts. The PB process is based online, with offline activities feeding into the online idea generation and deliberation.

Stage one: generating ideas

Participants submit ideas for how one of the city’s ten neighbourhoods can be improved on the open-source online platform, Your Priorities, developed by Citizens Foundation. They just need to register with Facebook Connect or an email and password to do so. They are then asked for a short description, an image, and to click on a map to share their proposal’s location. You can also comment on other people’s ideas,  by adding points for, or against the proposal. You can express support by ‘liking’ an idea, and can up-vote or down-vote other people’s comments. This idea generation stage lasts for about a month.

A screenshot of the Better Neighbourhoods website, showing three proposals citizens have made. Each has an image and short description and numbers showing how many comments, up-votes and down-votes each has received.
Screenshot of the online ideation stage for the 2018 PB process within one of the city’s districts: https://betrireykjavik.is/group/1505/successful  (Translated to English using the auto-translate feature in Your Priorities)

Stage two: assessment

Following the completion of this stage, the city’s construction board judges how much they will cost. Ideas that are beyond the scope of the process are rejected. Where ideas are not taken forward, participants are emailed to tell them why.

Stage three: voting online

Voters have the chance to choose which of the ten districts they will vote in, and they then decide which projects they think their district’s budget should be spent on. Anyone 15 and over can vote, two years younger than the voting age ceiling applied in other Icelandic elections. To cast their vote, residents divide the available budget up between their favourite projects. This encourages people to think about trade-offs and get the best value for money. It’s also designed to be a fun way of casting a vote.

Voters are also able to select one project as their favourite, and therefore give it double the vote. Voters aren’t given a lot of information about projects, but instead the focus has been on making it easy for voters to express their preference. Róbert told us that the process of casting a vote takes on average 4.3 minutes. Voters can also go back and change their vote at any time during the voting period. Every time a voter clicks on the site ideas are presented in a random order to protect against bias. The software used for the vote is called Open Active Voting, which is also open source. The votes are announced through a voting ceremony, with participants emailed to share the results.

Each year about 100 – 120 ideas are implemented. Róbert suggested that having a large number of proposals involved could help to increase the chance of a range of different interests getting their projects implemented.

Promotion

Róbert said that you can roughly  predict how many people will take part in a the PB process by how much is put into the promotion. Reykjavik has made a conscious effort to invest in  using professional marketing companies and a multi-channel marketing campaign to make people aware of the PB process. This has included Google and Facebook ads, and adverts on radio and TV. Comedians have been hired as the face of the process.

The city also runs face-to-face meetings. Ideas put forward here are fed directly into the online process. And they conduct outreach in places like shopping malls, older people’s homes, and schools. Using tablets makes it easy for such outreach to feed straight into the online process.

Security

Security is an important consideration for online PB, ensuring that only Reykjavik residents get a vote, and that people aren’t getting more than one vote. This has become even more important over time as concerns about foreign interference have grown around the world. It’s also important that processes are protected from the possibility of corruption – particularly when sizeable budgets are involved.

To make it easier to take part, the ideas generation stage just uses an email and password or Facebook Connect, but stronger security is introduced at the voting stage. The Icelandic National Registry operates a single sign-on system, using citizens’ phones, which is used for a variety of services, including banking. This system is used to verify voters within the PB process.

In offline votes different people would perform different roles to protect against fraud. This principle is emulated in Reykjavik’s online vote. Citizens Foundation created the code used, but they do not have access to data about how people have voted. The election itself is operated by the City of Reykjavik. The city’s Internal Audit monitors the election, and there is also a security audit each year, before, during and after the vote.

Online democracy in Reykjavik

The online PB process, branded as ‘My Neighbourhood’, is hosted on a site called ‘Better Reykjavik’. This site, built using the Your Priorities software, brings together a range of ways that citizens can have their voice heard in the city.

One part of  Better Reykjavik is ‘My voice at the city council’ which allows citizens to make suggestions online about  how their city can be improved. These ideas can be commented on and voted up or down by other participants on the site. Every month the top five ideas, and the top idea in each category, are discussed in the appropriate standing committee within the council. Their response is published on the site.

In 2017 the city also experimented with using this site to crowdsource ideas for their education policy over two stages.

A screenshot of the Better Reykjavik site. Links to different parts of the site are shown using images with short descriptions underneath.
Screenshot of the Better Reykjavik site, showing different initiatives that citizens can engage with: https://betrireykjavik.is  (Translated to english using the auto-translate feature in Your Priorities.)

As such, Better Reykjavik provides an online location where a number of opportunities are brought together. There has also been some movement between these, for instance ideas first submitted to the PB process have been moved into the ongoing ideation section.

What has been achieved?

In  Reykjavik the annual PB process has been able to attract participation of around 12.5% of the city’s population. PB can act as a gateway for bringing citizens and bureaucracies together. It has now become something demanded by voters, and which politicians also really like. At time of writing (April 2019) the city has had just completed its 8th annual idea generation, with around 39,000 people visiting Better Reykjavik (approximately 37% of the voting population) and 5,800 logging in to take part.

The population of Reykjavik makes up about 35% of Iceland’s population. Since being introduced to the capital, PB has subsequently spread to other smaller municipalities.

Find out more

Reykjavik’s PB process shows how online PB can give citizens an easy way to have real power, which they can see working. It also shows how this can be built into a wider array of online opportunities for participation. In creating this accessible front-end, there is lots of work that has to be put in behind the scenes – some of these considerations have been shown here. If you want to know about this case study, or the topic in general, you can contact Róbert via the Citizens Foundation website, or speak to us at: Scotland@demsoc.org.

Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssyoutube