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Summary:

The Finnish government has approved the technology behind a new ‘Open Ministry’ platform, which will act as a hub for citizens who want new laws voted on in the country’s parliament. But could that work elsewhere?

Finlandcold

Who makes laws? In most of the democratic world, that’s the sole preserve of elected governments. But in Finland, technology is about to make democracy significantly more direct.

Earlier this year, the Finnish government enabled something called a “citizens’ initiative”, through which registered voters can come up with new laws – if they can get 50,000 of their fellow citizens to back them up within six months, then the Eduskunta (the Finnish parliament) is forced to vote on the proposal.

Now this crowdsourced law-making system is about to go online through a platform called the Open Ministry. The non-profit organization has been collecting signatures for various proposals on paper since 1 March, when citizens’ initiatives came in, but a couple of days ago the government approved the electronic ID mechanism that underpins the digital version of the platform. That means it can now go live on 1 October.

“The National Communications Security Authority audited our code, our security policies and our service/hosting providers to ensure that the details of citizens are safe and can’t be hacked into,” Open Ministry founder Joonas Pekkanen told me via email. “[The system verifies] the people’s identity through the APIs offered by banks and mobile operators. So people can sign the initiatives online with the online banking codes or their mobile phones.”

What’s more, the banks and operators are providing the use of their strong verification APIs for free, as part of their social responsibility policies. Welcome to Finland!

Could it work elsewhere?

There are clear similarities to be found between the Finnish model and that being experimented with by the German Pirate Party, but the Open Ministry platform is somewhat less radical and less likely to be derailed by endless collaborative editing. The first batch of proposals on the Finnish platform is pretty varied: a ban on fur farming, a requirement for all public software procurement to take into account open data and APIs, a ban on energy drinks for under-16s, and a referendum on Finland’s restrictive alcohol laws (the government has a monopoly and prices are sky-high).

Open Ministry founder Joonas PekkanenAssuming they get their 50,000 signatures (the fur-farming one has already amassed 43,500 paper signatures), each will have to be voted on by the Eduskunta. Compare that with, for example, the UK system – there, an e-petition that garners 100,000 backers wins the grand prize of being considered by a government back-office and maybe being discussed in Parliament.

But could it work elsewhere? On a technical level, there is little reason why not. Indeed, the Open Ministry platform is (naturally) open-source and available on GitHub. “We encourage anyone to fork and contribute to it and use it in other countries also,” Pekkanen said.

But a lot of this drive for openness has a cultural and political basis. Perhaps it has something to do with the cold winters (as suggested to me by representatives of the Finnish Innovation Fund in Helsinki this week) or their small-ish populations, but the Nordic countries tend to have relatively close societies where people are enthusiastic about pitching into civic life. Politically, Iceland provides a great example with its partly-crowdsourced constitution.

And in terms of civic-minded tech projects that capitalize on open data, Finland has a particularly impressive roster. Just a few examples:

That’s give-and-take activity, with some projects engendering trust between citizenry and government, and others benefitting from trust being there in the first place – people are less likely to contribute to an officially-sanctioned project if they think it’s pointless or exploitative. By way of a slightly frivolous example, where but somewhere like Finland would you find a national patient health records co-operative with this tagline?

Tech-driven democracy fans in other countries may not find the environment as conducive to crowdsourced legislation right now, but on the other hand they just got themselves a model to study. If crowdsourced legislation is going to work anywhere, Finland would be the right place for it to happen.

  1. What about getting rid of old ones?

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    1. Well, you usually need to write a new law to erase an old one, so yep – it could be used for that too.

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  2. Definitely using this to vote on the referendum on Finland’s restrictive alcohol laws. It’s ridiculous here. Having to pay 15 euros for 4 cans of beer, which cost 3 euros in other countries.

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    1. Good luck with that one. last time alchohol prices went down people started drinking themselves to death. People who thinked positived about it thought the effect will wear of. it didnt. it became even worse.

      So just getting rid of the high prices wont do. You need to add some other laws to support the lowered price. how abour right to carry a gun? heavy prison time for beating up your wife? or serious shit in the fan if your binge drinking causes bad things for your kids?

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    2. and look at spain and the uk – they’re the model of how a society should be run. i live in sweden and dont mind paying the extra because i can see where the money goes

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      1. So all the leftists here in Spain are looking to the nordic countries as the model of how a society should be run and you say the nordic countries should look to Spain as the model of how a society should be run.

        Well… Helloooooooo!!! *waves hand* :D

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      2. Do definitely NOT look to Spain for society model.

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  3. Was tried in Estonia on two occasions. Failed miserably.

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    1. Hey Siim, can you share the reasons for failing?

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      1. I think, this is the problem of many post-communist bloc countries. For 50 years people were so brainwashed and devoid of bottom – up social incentive, that they simply do not know, or dont believe that they can actually affect something. Home rule concept is something new for them, so it doesn’t suprise me why it failed in Estonia. Finland however as well as rest of other egalitarian Scandinavian societies is a different story. I think it will work, and i keep my fingers crossed for the Finns.

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  4. needed in america, desperately ..

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    1. Democracy is far from America. don’t be fooled. you live in a republic. and as much as I don’t trust us reps to make good decisions… I trust the people less.

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      1. sabretruthtiger Wednesday, October 24, 2012

        So true, and people don’t realise you will never have democracy, the left/right paradigm is a dog and pony show to give the people the illusion of democracy. Decisions are always made by those in power to keep them in power. They’re not about to allow mob rule.

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  5. Kevin FitzMaurice Saturday, September 22, 2012

    We need a new plan for government. All the old plans have proven to be failures over time. For one reason, they do not scale well, but only work with small samples. Are you interested in learning about and promoting the first important and new form of government in centuries? I think it is ideally suited to our times and troubles. Please examine it for yourself at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008VVV3T2

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  6. Looks good on paper. On the other hand, Finland’s police just forbid finnish people on raising capital via Kickstarter.

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    1. Jouni J Särkijärvi Sunday, September 23, 2012

      Actually there was nothing wrong with pledges to buy something, the problem was that you cannot ask for donations without a permit and subsequent auditing.

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  7. With UK governments a sham I believe this should be the next step “Power to the people” said Wolfie Smith.

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  8. Democracy Unplugged
    This has the potential to return to a true direct democracy, with the benefit of our modern system as a parallel defence point for added resilience and deliberative changes in the whole public interest.
    Thank you for sharing.

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  9. I think it’s important that only people who are able to demonstrate a knowledge of a particular subject should be allowed to vote.

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    1. Absolutely right Neal. You can not expect from a layman to know what laws is best suited for the country. In order to make such choices, you need to have the knowledge and the deep understanding of the political life of the country.

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      1. Hussein Nour Eldin Tuesday, September 25, 2012

        The layman and the professor will express their understandings & perspectives . The authorized editors will learn from such expressions. Being a professor or expert should not be a prerequisite to express one’s view.

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      2. I strongly disagree. Data of the expected concecuences of the law should be published so anyone could vote. Effects of the law should be presented in a way that everyone can understand. What is best for the country and what is in the best intrest of the people are often two different things.

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      3. I’m sorry ahmed but that is just wrong, just because some one isn’t educated politically doesn’t mean that they cant have a good idea.

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    2. That would mean the left would be denied participation as they basically know nothing about anything.

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      1. and the right knows??????

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