Avoin Ministerio: the quest for an Open Ministry
Successes and drawbacks from a Finnish digital democracy experiment
Finland is traditionally held as a stable and advanced democracy. After all, it was the first European country to grant women the right to vote and stand for elections as early as 1906. It should come as no surprise then that the country has been experimenting with citizen engagement for more than 20 years.
After running 4-year Citizen Participation Policy Programs (in 1998–2002 and in 2002–2007), the greatest breakthrough came in 2012, as the Citizen Participation Act amended the Constitution. With this reform, citizens obtained the right to submit legislative proposals or amendments to Parliament if they managed to gather at least 50,000 signatures. The Parliament was charged with the duty to scrutinize all initiatives passing the threshold, while maintaining the right to accept, amend or reject the texts. An official portal (Kansalaisaloite) was set up by the Ministry of Justice allowing citizens to file in proposals and collect signatures in support.
This, however, didn’t seem enough to Joonas Pekkanen, a Helsinki-based activist who drew international attention by funding Avoin Ministerio (“Open Ministry”) in 2012. Open Ministry was a platform that empowered citizens not only to propose but also to comment and discuss legislation. Run as an NGO, Open Ministry initially received €30,000 in funding provided by Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Agency.
The platform featured a strong identification system to validate signatures, which relied on bank IDs and mobile phone numbers. With time, Open Ministry grew to allow for new functions: citizens could now propose sketchy ideas and later co-draft legislative texts with the support of volunteer lawyers and campaign experts, as it happened with a copyright law initiative. The greatest achievement of Open Ministry was crowdsourcing the same-sex marriage legislative proposal and gathering over 100,000 signatures in its support in less than 24 hours: Parliament eventually turned into law in 2014.
Unfortunately, this was an isolated case. No other legislative proposal published on the platform ever passed parliamentary scrutiny. Indeed, while highly praised abroad (Pekkanen was even invited by the Council of Europe to present the project), Open Ministry faced opposition by MPs at home. Welcomed with a mixture of surprise and distrust on their side, the platform never succeeded in replaicing the official one. What’s more, the volunteer nature of Open Ministry proved unsustainable in the long run. By 2016 the NGO started in fact to fall short of human resources and eventually had to shut down its activities. At present, its website automatically redirects visitors to the official Kansalaisaloite page.
If anything, Open Ministry has demonstrated that there is a demand for participation beyond agenda-setting. Citizens are not anymore content with some small group (be it of citizens or elected representatives) advancing proposals on which they can merely agree or disagree. Rather, they want to engage in discussing, drafting, and even co-drafting the provisions of legislation. This seems a legitimate democratic demand and one Finland could address. Indeed, while Open Ministry fell short of funding and volunteers, the Ministry of Justice would have the financial and human resources to expand the functions of Kansalaisaloite to include those once featured in Open Ministry.
At the same time, however, data on participation warns us that rushing the process online could not be the best solution to empower the whole citizenry. Open Ministry users were mainly urban, well-educated men aged 21–40 and the platform proved only complementary to traditional offline signature gathering.
This reminds us that the effectiveness of digital participation in updating democracy for the XXI century depends heavily on the ability of governments to reach out to historically more disenfranchised parts of the population. This would not simply mean providing them with the knowledge and tools to engage with digital platforms, but also conveying them the value and relevance of their contribution, eventually boosting their interest (and why not? excitement) in participating to the policy process.