Crowdsourcing Better Education Policy in Reykjavik

Tackling challenges together This case study is part of a series by CPI and Engage Britain examining innovations in citizen engagement that have used tech-enabled deliberative methods to enhance the policymaking process. There are seven assessed against the Public Impact Fundamentals and two briefings that describe processes for ideas gathering. The series demonstrates that though we are in the early days of using these methods, they offer much hope for more legitimate answers to the big public policy questions of our time. Such methods are also becoming more widespread but work best when used in combination with offline methods. Our paper pulls all the innovations together and offers a view on what we can learn so far.

In January 2017, Reykjavik’s city council decided to crowdsource ideas to cocreate its Education Policy 2030, calling for ideas from main stakeholders (teachers and other staff members, parents and students) and using an online platform called Better Reykjavik. This was the first time that a specific policy of national or local government within Iceland was crowdsourced. The council  asked: “what skills do we want our education system to have provided our children by 2030?” It held meetings with key stakeholders between February and April 2017 and identified five basic competencies and skills that were most needed: social skills, self-empowerment, literacy, creativity and health. The council then crowdsourced ideas from the public on how the education system could foster these skills, using a combination of offline workshops and online discussion with citizens via the Better Reykjavik platform.[1] From May to June 2017 around 10,000 people participated in the crowdsourcing process in total, 5,800 people participated online, generating 56 ideas and 204 arguments. 

During the autumn of 2017, these ideas were synthesised and developed in a draft proposal and action plan, and following reviews the city council approved the policy. The implementation process started formally at the end of December 2018, with a commitment from the implementation team to closely monitor and evaluate the process and review after three years.  A Development and Innovation Fund provided ISK200 million to support Reykjavik’s schools and leisure centres in delivering the education policy, which was entitled “Let Our Dreams Come True”. The implementation team is providing support and tools to enable schools and leisure centres achieve the policy goals in their local contexts.[5]

The challenge

The City of Reykjavik‘s challenge for its Education Policy 2030 can be framed as a series of three questions:

  • What skills do we want children to have when they leave school in 2030? 
  • What ideas for education policy can help ensure children develop these skills? 
  • How do we develop a coherent plan across pre-schools (aged 1-5), elementary schools and leisure centres in the city to support our aims?[2] 

The city council therefore sought to engage in a large-scale public engagement process to help develop ideas on the skills that it should prioritise, and the education policies that could help the city’s school children acquire those skills.[1]

The initiative

At a meeting of the city council on 17 January 2017, council members agreed to begin the development of the city’s long-term education policy.[3] A steering committee was appointed, comprising civil servants and representatives of all city council departments. Their role was to manage the project and ensure the following work was carried out:

  • An analysis of state education in the city
  • The development of key educational goals
  • Ensure close cooperation between project management, the online consultation platform, party representatives, and schools and leisure centres
  • An action plan for the proposal and implementation of the policy.

The following month, a consultation forum led by the Mayor of Reykjavik was convened. Its members were responsible for researching and creating a joint action plan for education policy. Key stakeholders were invited to the forum by the mayor, including representatives of the School and Leisure Council, elected representatives of the council, domestic and international education experts and academics, managers of schools and leisure centres, and representatives of staff, parents and students.[4]

Between February and April 2017, 11 meetings were held with about 450 participants in total, including representatives of parents’ associations, young people, staff at preschools, primary school/ compulsory school (the term used for education between 6 to 16), and representatives of the central office of the School and Leisure Division. The purpose of the meetings were to establish the basic attributes children would need on graduating from school in 2030. The participants agreed on five basic attributes: 

  • Social skills – societal responsibility and agency

The ability to engage in fruitful social relations with others and to impact the community and environment positively. A strong emphasis was placed on empathy, cooperation, kindness and respect. 

  • Self-empowerment – a strong self-image and belief in one’s own abilities

Self empowerment is based on self-discipline and determination, helping children to make independent and responsible decisions, face adversity, and coexist peacefully with others. Children learn to recognise their strengths and weaknesses, set goals and follow through with them. 

  • Literacy – knowledge and understanding of society and the environment

The ability to read, understand, interpret and actively engage with written language, numbers, images and symbols. This includes a broad interpretation, incorporating emotional intelligence and reading social situations, and interpreting the media, IT and statistics. 

  • Creativity – applying creative thinking

A multifaceted process based on curiosity, creative and critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge, initiative and skill. Creativity flourishes when it meets diverse challenges, questions and solutions. Children’s creativity produces something of value in and of itself as well as for society and/or the local community.

  • Health – healthy lifestyle and wellbeing

Health refers to lifestyle choices, consumer behaviour, physical ability, reproductive health and physical and mental wellbeing. A healthy individual is someone who maintains a healthy lifestyle and has the ability to safeguard his or her own health.[5]

From May to June 2017, the council ran an online and offline public consultation process to gather ideas on how to achieve these five basic competencies and skills. The online component was delivered through collaboration with a not-for-profit digital democracy organisation called the Citizens’ Foundation, using its platform, Better Reykjavik. This platform crowdsources solutions to urban challenges and was launched by the foundation in May 2010. The platform is well established in local politics, 70,000 people have participated in total – from an overall population of 120,000 – and the city council has committed to reviewing the 15 most popular ideas each month. As soon as an idea is presented on Better Reykjavik, it is regarded as a common property of the city.

Source: Better Reykjavik’s Education Policy Discussion Home Page (https://betrireykjavik.is/community/725)

The platform hosted the discussion on the Education Policy 2030, organising a central hub for the project and separate space for each basic competency. Registered users could participate by presenting ideas, examining the ideas of others, giving their reasons for supporting or opposing ideas, and voting. The platform filters suggestions to some extent by highlighting the most popular ideas, while city council staff also sifted through ideas themselves. There were 5,800 participants, 56 unique ideas were submitted, and around 300 arguments for and against those ideas were put forward.

In addition to the online component, offline meetings were held at different locations, such as schools and leisure centres. A total of 96 workplaces participated, and participants included administrators and staff at schools and leisure centres as well as parents and children. Final reports by the city council estimated that around 10,000 people participated in the public consultation process.[4] Some of the more popular proposals that emerged through Better Reykjavik included promoting finance and IT education, data interpretation skills, open learning materials, meditation and yoga exercises, and critical thinking, as well as setting up greenhouses at all primary schools.[2]

From September 2017 to November 2018, several meetings were organised to synthesise the data and develop it into a policy draft and action plan. These meetings involved the steering committee, the consultation forum, the school and leisure division, and the University of Iceland. The city council approved the final version of the policy draft and action plan on 20 November 2018.[1][3][4]

The implementation process started formally at the end of December 2018. The implementation team – from the Department of Education and Youth, led by the Centre for Innovation in Education, a division at the Department  – established a systematic implementation process, timeline and action plan. The team placed an emphasis on enabling schools and leisure centres to implement policies based on their local conditions and in collaboration with other schools. The city council was committed to providing the necessary support, and after a three-year period, an assessment will be made on how successful the project has been, and the improvements needed in light of this experience will be identified. 

The following actions were adopted for the first three years of the implementation process:

  • Emphasise language development, reading skills and reading comprehension for all children, regardless of their native language
  • Simplify the entire support system for children with special needs
  • Increase the priority of natural subjects, mathematics, outdoor learning and creativity
  • Ensure that children have more equal opportunities and access to diverse art and vocational training at school and in schools
  • Improve facilities for school and leisure activities, so that housing and equipment make it easier for employees to work on the advancement of the 2030 education policy
  • Implement a comprehensive use of digital technology in school and leisure activities
  • Increase the number of professional staff in kindergartens, compulsory schools and leisure services, and promote professionalism and cooperation
  • Provide school and leisure employees with ample opportunities for career development and therefore ensure targeted advice and guidance on work
  • Establish a development fund to support innovation in school and leisure areas and provide workplaces with advice on applications in domestic and foreign development funds
  • Establish an Innovation Centre for Education which supports the implementation of the policy at all establishments, with a particular emphasis on career development and pedagogical counselling.[4]

The public impact

The actions that have already been implemented are:

  • New rules for the Development and Innovation Fund for Let Our Dreams Come True, were approved by the city council in February 2019.
  • A Centre for Innovation in Education has been established to provide support and advice to workplaces in implementing the education policy and its individual focus areas in collaboration with institutions inside and outside the city.
  • An interactive cooperation agreement has been signed with the School of Education at the University of Iceland, which includes lifelong learning, career development and professional guidance, as well as making the activities of the school and leisure area of ​​Reykjavík more visible.
  • A project manager for international cooperation and grants has been appointed to support workplaces in their grant applications.[5]

The Development and Innovation Fund for Let Our Dreams Come True was approved, providing a fund of ISK200 million. This allows schools and leisure centres to apply for support in implementing policies promoting the five basic competencies, and 208 applications have been made so far.[4] The implementation team has developed two to four key metrics for each basic competency and is currently developing indicators to support evaluation of the policy.[5] The team has also run a series of events and neighbourhood meetings to promote the policy. The 2030 education policy was introduced at all local school management meetings in the spring semester, and representatives of the implementation team have been to visit several workplaces to support applications for development funds, introduce the policy, and create plans for its implementation.[4]

Written by Martin King

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence Good

Around 10,000 residents (out of a population of 220 000) participated in the crowdsourcing initiative, and were broadly very positive about what the initiative was trying to do and about their own experience of it.[4] There was some criticism that the policy failed to address what were considered to be important grievances around staffing shortages and pay at the time, coming after a period of economic austerity.[3] There were mixed attitudes about the significance of this: for example, while some welcomed the more positive focus on ambitions that the policy introduced, others, according to one interviewee, thought it was too “fluffy” and might entail placing more demands on stretched services.[3] 

The initiative took place three months before city council elections, and although there was no suggestion that it was politically motivated, one interviewee felt that this meant some political actors were less likely to be critical about public engagement and education policy in general. At an institutional level, the Better Reykjavik platform enjoys a remarkably high level of participation: 70,000 people have participated indicating strong confidence in those who were delivering the public engagement process.  

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The initiative was developed in close consultation with the key stakeholders: representatives of staff, parents, and students at the different stages of education from preschool to senior school; managers of schools and leisure centres; and domestic and international academics and educational professionals. These groups were involved at various stages of the initiative, from initial meetings determining the policy and the key priorities through to evaluating the ideas generated via crowdsourcing. One person involved in running the education policy observed that among those stakeholder groups involved, there was a strong commitment to the process and many shared priorities. Around 10,000 members of the public (out of Reykjavik’s 220,000 population) actively participated in the process, giving up time to attend workshops and contribute online.[4]

Political Commitment Strong

The council’s School and Leisure Division collectively took the decision to crowdsource education policy using the Better Reykjavik platform. This was an ambitious project that involved the commitment of time and resources from many political actors. Representatives from all parties in local government were involved in delivering the project.[4] 

An independent academic interviewed said there was strong political commitment to the initiative, and they noted that the Mayor of Reykjavik and the head of the School and Leisure Division were among its most enthusiastic advocates. This interviewee went on to say that they were unaware of any political figures who opposed the process, although some academics had reservations about the use of crowdsourcing. Those involved in the delivery observed strong cross-party commitment.[3] The project’s implementation was further supported by a dedicated fund of ISK200 million, which was approved by the city council.

More broadly, there was strong political commitment to the crowdsourcing and the Better Reykjavik process enjoyed support from the mayor, the city council, and the process had by this point become a semi-institutionalised way of enabling public input into decision-making at the local level. Indeed, since 2010 there have been 1,045 ideas submitted to the council, 220 of which were approved, 289 rejected, and 336 are still being processed.[1]

Policy

Clear Objectives Good

The central question the initiative aimed to address was what qualities people would like to see in a secondary school graduate in 2030 (see also The Challenge above). Through public consultation, the city council identified five principal attributes, and while these were presented at a relatively abstract level they were clearly defined.[5] The initiative then developed a set of specific actions and policy ideas that would help to deliver these goals. One interviewee commented that they felt the objectives were as clear as they could have been. [3]

Evidence Strong

The organisers of the initiative drew on both local and international expertise in order to analyse ideas and develop policy and action plans. There were clear efforts made to explore existing policy and practice and consider how they could inform and strengthen the education policy developed in this case.[3] The crowdsourcing element of the initiative used a tried and tested platform in Better Reykjavik. This had been used since 2010 to allow citizens to contribute ideas for local government and – through Better Neighbourhoods in 2011 – engage in participatory budgeting.[6] This had the advantage, therefore, of being a platform that many citizens would already be familiar with. 

Feasibility Good

The proposal and action plans were refined through a process of scrutiny that involved policy experts. The policy draft was reviewed, assessed and refined by the School and Leisure Division, and finally the implementation process was supported by a implementation plan and outline schedule developed through consultation with experts, schools and leisure centres to ensure they were realistic.[4] During an interview, a member of the implementation team said that they were given sufficient resources to deliver the aims of the proposal. 

The public consultation process was praised for its capacity to engage a large number of people. Relative to public engagement through traditional town hall meetings, the use of technology enabled more convenient and cost-efficient engagement with a wider group of people. The offline element of the public engagement also involved efforts to meet the public at various different locations around the city. This was to enable people to participate in a more convenient way – one interviewee explained that part of the motivation was that some parents and children might feel more comfortable attending the meeting at their own school rather than going to the central office of the School and Leisure Division. Another interviewee noted, however, that there was no record of demographic information about participants, for example in terms of gender or education level, so it was difficult to fully investigate how representative these meetings were.

Those involved in the process highlighted a concern over the short time given to deliver the project. One interviewee commented that only a few weeks were allowed for organising promotional work on the project, and felt this limited the number of people who were able to participate. Many felt that the public engagement itself (from 9 May to 6 June) was too short, and the project would have benefited from allowing more time for ideas to be digested and developed. One person involved in the project observed that it was remarkable that it was so successful, given the time and number of staff involved in the project.[3] 

Those responsible for running the technical side of the initiative felt they could have provided a better experience given more time, for they would then have been able to introduce further functionality for the purpose of debating the policy, including extending the word limit on ideas and allowing contributors to attach PDFs or other sources of evidence to support their comments. Another interviewee said that the project would ideally have taken a year.[3]

Action

Management Good

During the delivery of the initiative, there were clearly established responsibilities and mechanisms in place. This included a steering committee, chaired by Skuli Helgason, to manage the process and ensure the delivery of the initiative’s aims . A consultative forum led by the mayor, Dagur B Eggertsson, and advisory experts led by educational policy expert, Pasi Sahlberg. Fríða Bjarney Jónsdóttir was assigned to monitor the implementation, with the support of an implementation team, which used the lean Kanban Method (further details) to monitor progress and manage tasks, as well as setting out clear action plans.[4] 

Several people involved in the initiative reported that they found it to be well managed. Indeed, one observed that it was remarkable how successful it was, given limited resources both in terms of time, staff and money available for public engagement. They also commented that decision-making during the initiative had strong support from experts and experienced staff, and that the project management was efficient. 

There was some concern over the implementation of the recommendations developed through the initiative. This was due to  taking place at the same time as council elections, one person remarking that no one knew whether there would be the same will among political actors after the election to make this project a priority. This created some difficulty in establishing accountability, as the steering committee had to be reorganised. However, a further interviewee responsible for implementation commented that the results of the election ultimately had no effect on the support for, or implementation of, the policies developed through the initiative.[3]

Measurement Good

The implementation team established a systematic implementation process, timeline and action plan. They are also developing two to four key metrics for capturing each basic competency to support schools and leisure centres in implementing policies. The team used a large information table with a “Kanban Board” to monitor implementation progress. There are plans to provide an electronic checklist as a tool to help schools and leisure centres record their own progress.[4]

Alignment Strong

Those involved in the delivery of the project identified strongly with the principle of engaging with the public on education policy. Indeed, many felt that the initiative could have gone further in gathering children’s input into education policy.[3] People involved in delivering the process were surprised by how positive and consensus-oriented the conversations were between otherwise disparate groups (i.e. the shared interests between parents, teachers and children, and between staff at kindergarten, primary school and compulsory school).[3] One interviewee commented that there was support for the policies across the different political parties on the city council. When interviewed, a member of the implementation team felt the team were united around both the methods of policy implementation and the goals identified through the initiative. [3]