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).
Assuming 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:
- The Helsinki Region Infoshare project, which collates and offers up municipal datasets.
- APIs for official campaign-funding audit data.
- The crowdsourced digitization of Finland’s national archives.
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.