The photo above has been made for publication “E-Estonia. E-Governance in Practice.” It illustrates the chapter about internet voting (i-voting) in Estonia. The fact that I am depicted in the photo is not by chance. Indeed, I am a devoted i-voter from the first moment when this new voting channel became available in 2005. But even more importantly, I was a Member of Parliament when basic laws were approved, making i-voting possible.
In this photo you can also see Estonian ID card, which carries my digital identity. Now it is installed also in my mobile phone.
I still remember the debates in Parliament when the draft law for digital identity was initiated in 2001. What does digital identity mean? Who would need it? Is it justified spending tax payer’s money for something we can’t fully explain the outcome of?
We took the risk and voted for innovation.
Now Estonian society is picking up the fruits of that bold legislative decision. We can use almost all public services online seamlessly. No need to carry documents from one office to another and wait in queue to get things done. In average, we save 5 working days per year for each citizen.
I do not have at hand data on how much time citizens all together saved using i-voting, but the fact is that more and more voters prefer to vote via internet. During last year’s local elections, one third of voters used i-voting.
I brought this example in order to highlight the importance of parliaments for innovation. The question to think about together is how to develop a capacity of parliaments to meet new challenges and opportunities that digital revolution offers us.
Democracy now and in the future
First and foremost, we should talk about democracy now and in the future. The fact is that in several democratic countries there is a growing mistrust towards the institutions of representative democracy. It seems that in addition to other factors, the current policy making process does not satisfy expectations of digital citizens. I can say this relying on my own experience.
The matter is that traditional role of parliaments and MPs – listening citizens’ concerns and finding solutions – is no longer silently respected by active people. They want more dialog and direct individual engagement in decision making. I stress “individual” since the current models of citizen participation prefer organised interests and advocacy groups.
Wisdom of the crowd
Of course, organised civil society is still of great importance for democracy but at the same time the Internet allows us to harness the “wisdom of the crowd” or collective intelligence. The method is called crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing means that the initiator of the process invites all who are interested to contribute to achievement of predefined common goal. Thanks to rapidly growing connectivity, it is now easier than ever to mobilize citizens to take part in policy making which task is exactly to find out the common goal called the public interest.
5 years ago, during the political turmoil that broke out in Estonia, due to the hidden financing of the prime minister’s party, we used crowdsourcing to find new ideas on how to improve functioning of democracy in our country. The topics for crowdsourcing were agreed upon at the meeting of active CSOs and citizen groups which was convened by the President of the Republic. The tackled problems were the rules of functioning of political parties and the mechanisms of citizen participation in politics between elections.
During one month of operation, the online platform gathered more than 1300 ideas that were subsequently systematized and discussed at thematic seminars. Finally, a random selection of Estonian citizens was summoned to a Debate Day, to decide which proposals to submit to Parliament. The whole process is now known as the People’s Assembly Process.
I have to admit that I was somewhat concerned about how parliament will react to the new situation created by the people’s assembly. In media, some MPs expressed a negative attitude toward this kind of citizens’ initiative arguing that this is not foreseen by constitution.
However, Parliament took all proposals in proceedings and implemented a part of the package. So far, we have no agreement in media whether Parliament has adequately met the wishes of the people or not.
Encouraging citizens-parliament dialog
Personally I am satisfied. On the crowdsourcing platform I presented an idea to introduce collective citizens’ memoranda to the parliament as a legal instrument. The aim was to facilitate citizen participation in politics between elections and to encourage citizens-parliament dialog.
This proposal became law. For submission of a collective proposal, at least 1000 signatures in support have to be collected. Signature may be given by a permanent resident of Estonia who is at least 16 years of age. Please note that citizenship is not decisive factor and also young people can take part in the petition process.
As is appropriate in e-state, we can prepare collective proposals and collect digital signatures online. The platform was opened two years ago as one of the commitment of Estonian OGP action plan. The implementer of the activity was Estonian Cooperation Assembly, a NGO initially founded by President of Republic.
I imagine that you are interested in what has happened with the citizens’ initiatives in the Parliament. All together parliament has received 32 proposals. Proceedings have been finalised for 30 of them. According to the Rules of Procedure Parliament have several options how to resolve the citizens’ proposals.
Only in two cases law has been amended. It may be seen as unsatisfactory outcome. However, passing law is not an aim by itself. From my opinion dialog and deliberation matters as well, especially on thorny issues citizens like to rise.
Dear parliamentarians, civil society activists! Time has come to renew democracy and make citizens real partners in policy making.
Please vote for democracy innovation!
The speech was conducted at the OGP Summit, Parliamentary Day on July 17, 2018 in Tbilisi.