"Better Reykjavík is one of the pioneering direct democracy projects originating from Iceland. By harnessing the collective wisdom of the crowd, it enables people to connect directly with political power and could be applied far beyond Iceland’s shores.
In conversations with Occupy.com, its developers explained how, along with the financial crash that hit the island hard in 2008, Icelanders’ trust in politicians also crashed. In reaction, two eDemocracy pioneers decided to look at ways to use the internet to give citizens a way to get their voices heard.
They created the online platform Your Priorities, which was first used within Better Reykjavik. During the 2009 elections for mayor of Iceland’s capital, each candidate was given an equal space to use the site. The Best Party used it most widely, and went on to win an election in which 10% of voters took part and created some 1,000 policy initiatives.
Since then, the new mayor has continued to implement citizen-led legislation.
Better Reykjavik was started by the Citizens Foundation, an advocacy NGO focusing on direct democracy. I sent the project’s founders, Gunnar Grímsson and Róbert Bjarnason, an extensive set of questions. In response, the crowd-sourcers collaborated on their answers. Grímsson and Bjarnason say that before the online democracy project, they identified themselves as both entrepreneurs and activists; it was the project that made their activism full-time. “It just felt right at the time and still does,” they said, “using our extensive IT knowledge and experience to be proactive for a better world instead of being reactive in protests.”
The Your Priorities platform has also been used elsewhere in Europe, such as Estonia, as part of a people’s assembly project to create new legislation following numerous political scandals in the small Baltic nation in 2012. Grímsson and Bjarnason explained: “Close to 60,000 people participated, over 1,500 ideas were submitted and the best ideas were prioritized.”
The platform is now having a real impact, as Estonia’s president has started pushing the top 20 ideas through Parliament.
In the Balkans too, the site is in action, with 12 projects occurring in seven countries. And on a global level, the Your Priorities site is geared up for anyone, anywhere, to set up platforms for their locale or country.
Grímsson and Bjarnason, talking of the way that direct democracy projects must balance the need for inclusion while not being stifled by personal conflicts or people who try to sabotage the process, described the way Your Priorities has dealt with these core points.
“It is totally geared towards fostering honest debate and preventing hijacking,” they said. “By separating points – for and against, in different columns – we make arguing really hard but invite rational debate. Plus, this is not in sequence like the classic comment section, where arguments often degenerate viciously.”
In contrast to some other direct democracy groups, the founders of Your Priorities actively encourage political groups: “It increases participation and that’s the most important thing. With enough participation it will be impossible to sabotage online democracy.”
Iceland’s political innovations, since the financial crash, are often quoted as examples to contradict the neoliberal assertion that there are “no alternatives” to the economic-political status quo. Attention has focused on the country’s steps towards a crowd-sourced constitution, its revolutionary internet privacy and freedom of press laws, alongside Better Reykjavík. I asked Grímsson and Bjarnason to reflect on their experience and the Icelandic advances, in order to give advice to other groups and initiatives that may want to push direct democracy in their countries. Their response: within representative democracies, “generally politicians won’t listen to the people unless there’s a lot of participation. But the people won’t participate unless they believe they will be listened to.”