Estonia Citizens’ Assembly, Restoring Political Legitimacy
Following political scandals concerning party funding in Estonia in 2012, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves invited grassroots organisations to develop ideas on how to restore public faith in the democratic process and address flaws in the country's democratic system. The result was a 2013 citizens' assembly, referred to as Rahvakogu or “deliberation day”. As part of Rahvakogu, an online platform was used to crowdsource ideas to amend Estonia's electoral and political party laws, together with other issues related to the future of democracy in Estonia. Over 60,000 people visited the website during the three weeks it was live, with 2,000 registered users contributing and the process producing 6,000 proposals. This was followed by a modified version of a deliberation day, a face-to-face assembly involving a representative sample of 314 citizens to vote on the ideas. The top fifteen ideas were presented to parliament. Of the fifteen proposals, three have been implemented with slight modifications and become new laws or legal amendments, and four have been partly adopted or become commitments in a government programme.
Ice Cellar Meeting
President Ilves invited representatives of civil society organisations and political parties, social scientists and signatories to Charter 12 to discuss the demonstrations and the challenge of how to restore faith in the political system. The meeting was broadcast online and became known as the Jaakelder or Ice Cellar meeting, in reference to the location of the meeting in an ice-cooled basement in Tallinn. The discussion considered democratic innovations in other countries, including the work of James Fishkin and the crowdsourced constitution of Iceland. There was common understanding that deliberative features and digital technology should be used in the process. There were differing levels of support for the process, with representatives of political parties being uninterested, particularly in crowdsourcing, while NGOs displayed far more enthusiasm for the ideas under discussion.
The meeting resulted in a decision by the president to sanction and initiate an Estonian Citizens' Assembly, featuring a crowdsourcing process and a deliberation day for citizens to suggest ideas and debate proposals for democratic reform. The process was organised and run by grassroots organisations, including a group of civil society advocates from the Estonian Cooperation Assembly, the Praxis Centre for Policy Studies, the Network of Estonian Non-profit Organisations (NENO), the Open Estonia Foundation, the e-Governance Academy, and the Citizens' Foundation.
Stage 1: Crowdsourcing
In January 2013, the online platform People's Assembly, Rahvakogu.ee, was launched to crowdsource ideas on five predetermined issues: electoral law, political party law, the financing of political parties, public participation in political decision-making, and the politicisation of public office. The platform also provided an opportunity for citizens to comment on, support or criticise the submitted proposals. The platform used a modified version of the Your Priorities software developed by the Citizens' Foundation, which had previously been used successfully in public engagement processes in Iceland.
The Rahvakogu.ee stage lasted for three weeks and attracted 60,000 visitors, 2,000 registered users, and generated 6,000 proposals and 4,000 comments on those proposals.
Stage 2: Expert meetings
The results of the crowdsourcing phase were collected, and a group of analysts from the Praxis Centre for Policy Studies synthesised the proposals, and drew up written summaries. This was followed by an analysis by 30 experts from various fields including economics, political science and law. They contributed their professional knowledge by giving an impact assessment of citizens' proposals.
This work informed a series of five deliberative seminars held over one week in March 2013. Political representatives, experts and citizens who had contributed to the original proposals discussed the ideas raised during the crowdsourcing stage. The purpose of these seminars was to identify the ideas best suited to solving the political problems that had led to the initiative. This process refined the ideas to 18 proposals to be discussed as part of the Rahvakogu.
Stage 3: Rahvakogu, Deliberation Day
The Rahvakogu was held on 6 April 2013. A random sample of the population was selected to participate, using the government's national database register. In all, 550 citizens were selected, of whom 314 chose to attend.
There were 18 amendments discussed at tables of approximately 10 people. Each table was hosted by a moderator to assist in the process and their preferences were eventually aggregated into a group preference via formal voting. This process identified the top 15 ideas, which were then taken before parliament.
The following proposals were agreed (the percentage of support is given in brackets):
- Half of the state funds earmarked for political parties should go to organisations elected to parliament, with the other half to be divided between all candidates or parties, based on the number of votes received (87)
- Increase the monitoring of party finances, expanding the relevant committee's supervisory powers over the financing of political parties to oversee all the economic activities of the parties financed by the state and their affiliate organisations (86)
- Anonymous, hidden or business donations should be criminally actionable (85)
- Maintain current party election law, whereby only the public, not legal bodies, may make political donations (78).
Politicisation of public office
- Establish laws to regulate requirements for state and local municipality representatives and improve regulation of the roles and responsibilities of board members of state-owned companies (87)
- Prohibit MPs from joining the supervisory boards of state-owned enterprises (62).
- The election threshold in parliamentary elections should be lowered from 5 percent to 3 percent (75)
- The number of people needed to found a political party should be reduced from 1,000 to 200 (65)
- The possibility that, if a certain number of signatures are collected, a candidate can forgo the requirement to put up a security deposit (at 44 percent support, this was the most popular amongst three approaches offered to addressing this issue).
- Change electoral law to oblige candidates who are elected to take up their position and define a list of permitted exceptions (93)
- Independent candidates should have the same requirements as party candidates (92)
- Change party election lists according to the number of votes gathered, as opposed to the party deciding the final positioning (53).
- Parliament must discuss publicly initiated motions (petitions) if enough signatures are collected for support (95)
- Regulate how information on proposals is made public and increase public participation in drafting legislation (84)
- Simplifying the process of publicly initiated proposals and referendums (75).
The day itself became a major media event, attracting a great deal of public attention. Feedback collected from participants suggested it was a consensus-oriented atmosphere and that participants were satisfied with the experience. Of these, 90 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the “results were similar to their own viewpoints”, while all agreed that they were “happy that they decided to participate”, with 88 percent strongly agreeing.
Stage 4: Representative Arena
There were no clear-cut institutional regulations on how the proposals produced by this initiative would reach parliament. President Ilves used his presidential privilege to propose bills to the legislature and handed over the fifteen agreed proposals to the Parliamentary Constitutional Committee to evaluate. Three proposals (numbers 8, 9 and 13) were implemented with slight modifications and became new laws or legal amendments. Four proposals (1, 2, 3 and 11) were partly implemented or have become commitments within the government's programme.
In the Economist Democracy Index 2012, Estonia was categorised as a “flawed democracy”, primarily due to low participation and low trust in political parties. In the early 2010s, Estonia experienced a series of political scandals including two party leaders being charged with corruption. Things came to a head in 2012 when a whistleblower exposed a scandal in party donations and funding. In May 2012, Silver Meiker, a former Estonian MP, announced that his party's officials had given him EUR7,600 of unknown origin, which he was required to donate to the party. He claimed that dozens of other party members had donated funds to the party in this way, including MPs. Although the party denied this, and the investigation collapsed due to a lack of conclusive evidence, the public were not reassured by the denials.
In autumn 2012, these scandals served as a catalyst for widespread protests and street demonstrations. A pamphlet called Harta 12 (Charter 12) was published in the newspaper Postimees, fiercely attacking Estonia's political establishment and claiming that the country's democracy was crumbling. The pamphlet was translated into a petition that collected over 18,000 signatures and was supported by opinion leaders in the media and academia.
In response, the President Ilves, who was relatively well trusted by the public, identified the need to calm the atmosphere and develop a way to allow the public voice to be heard and to restore faith in the democratic system.
The public impact
As stated above, three of the fifteen proposals sent to parliament have since become law, while four proposals were partly implemented or redefined as commitments in the government's programme.
The three legal changes were:
1. Parliament must discuss publicly-initiated motions (petitions) if enough signatures are collected for support
Legal amendments were adopted that require parliament to start official procedures based on public petitions that receive at least 1,000 supporting signatures. This has resulted in citizens' petitions being discussed through parliament and eventually resulting in new laws.
2. The number of people needed to found a political party should be reduced from 1,000 to 200
Parliament agreed to lower the number of members required for the establishment of a party from 1,000 to 500 (this has enabled two new parties to be formed).
3. The possibility that, if a certain number of signatures are collected, a candidate can forgo the requirement to put up a security deposit
To boost political competition, parliament reduced the candidate's deposit required for entering national elections by half and increased the financing of parties that failed to meet the election threshold. A monetary fine was established for accepting prohibited donations, and the powers of the Political Party Financing Supervision Committee were expanded.
However, there was some dismay in the media and among the people involved in the process that only three of the fifteen proposals were fully adopted. The organisations involved in delivering the initiative were disappointed that when the proposals reached parliament, they turned down offers of assistance and continued to operate behind closed doors. Nevertheless, there have been reports of a gradual culture change in Estonian politics, in which participatory democracy has now entered the mainstream. Both parliament and government have made proposals for opening up the political process and ceding their monopoly on setting agendas and offering solutions.
One result of the process has led to the development of Rahvaalgatus.ee, a new online digital democracy platform, which was launched in March 2016. This platform facilitates making proposals, debating and voting on them, and ultimately petitioning for the proposal to be discussed in parliamentary committee. Since its launch, eight initiatives have reached the 1,000 threshold to be discussed in parliamentary committees. There have also been awareness-raising campaigns focusing on young adults, older people, and Russian speakers, who are typically the least engaged with civil society and issues in Estonia.
Written by Martin King
In developing the initiative, President Ilves reached out to a wide range of stakeholders, including representatives of political parties from across the spectrum, civil servants, opinion leaders in the media and academia, political scientists, social interest groups, and the non-profit sector. The president was an advocate of the public sphere and democratic innovations and was keen to ensure stakeholders were involved from the start. The meetings were broadcast live to enable greater transparency.
The initiative also engaged the general public. The crowdsourcing event was successful in attracting a large number of citizens. It was reported that 60,000 visited the site, while 2,000 contributed to the online debate. The crowdsourcing process was vulnerable to self-selection bias, and research identified a bias in participation towards more highly educated citizens, those already politically active, and a demographic profile of professional, male, and leaning towards right-wing views. By contrast, the deliberation day stage was based on a representative sample, allowing for more diverse and representative public input.
Political commitment was strong from some actors, notably the president and those involved in the delivery of the stages of the process leading up to policymaking. This included NGOs, experts and other organisers involved in the crowdsourcing, expert meetings, and Rahvakogu. The final stage involved engaging representative institutions, and these actors - politicians and civil servants - did not display the same commitment, and failed to engage or participate beyond the initial Ice Cellar meeting. Indeed, during the Ice Cellar meeting, one attendee from an NGO described the political parties involved as being uninterested, especially in the crowdsourcing element, and had argued for a “politics as usual approach”..
The initiative emerged as a response to a crisis in public confidence in parliamentary democracy and the integrity of Estonia's political parties. The initiative was sanctioned by the president and organised by grassroots political organisations, who were perceived - by those advocating for change - as holding greater legitimacy than those impacted by the donations scandal.
A survey was circulated, gathering feedback from participants at the deliberation day event, which suggested high levels of satisfaction: 298 out of the 314 participants completed the survey. Overall, 90 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the results reflected their own viewpoint and that they had increased their knowledge of the topics discussed. The vast majority claimed that they had become more interested in politics in general, while all those who completed the survey agreed that they were happy that they decided to participate and 88 percent strongly agreed with this statement. The event itself was described as a major media event, attracting a great deal of public attention.
Although media reports and subsequent research indicate high levels of trust in the initiative among citizens, there was disappointment at the limited action taken by political institutions. There was some evidence that levels of trust in institutions had not increased, at least in the short term.
Clarity of objectives
The primary objective of the initiative was understood at an abstract level as restoring faith in Estonia's democratic system. This objective was made more specific by identifying five issues around which this would be discussed and achieved: electoral law, political party law, the financing of political parties, public participation in political decision-making, and the politicisation of public office. A short-term objective of the process was to calm tensions and street protests. Some civil society groups were ambivalent about cooling the momentum of street protests in this way, and expressed concern that the president “took over” the issue and institutionalised it.
Strength of evidence
The process itself was well researched, emerging through open consultation with experts in the field. In particular, it drew on practices in Iceland - utilising tools developed there - and on the work of James Fishkin. The crowdsourcing process enabled ideas and knowledge from a wide range of citizens to emerge and inform decision-making. The expert meetings allowed for a more in-depth reflection and the refinement of proposals. The process ensured that the public were well informed and the proposals debated were well supported by evidence and expert analysis.
FeasibilityMedia reports and research indicate that the process was well managed and delivered efficiently within the proposed timeframe. The process deployed open source technology to facilitate large-scale participation at a relatively low cost compared to traditional methods. This minimised demands on staff and participants and enabled greater inclusivity. The only major challenge to the project’s feasibility was a lack of clarity about influencing existing decision-making institutions.
ManagementThe entire process was described by the organisers involved in its delivery as an ad hoc solution. Consequently, there was a lack of clarity regarding the form of the process. For example, there was an understanding that deliberative features and digital technology should be used, but it was not initially clear how this would be achieved. The most significant area of uncertainty was that there were no clear institutional regulations for transmitting the proposals produced by the process to parliament. In the event, President Ilves used his presidential privilege to propose bills in the legislature, and handed over the fifteen agreed proposals to the Parliamentary Constitutional Committee. However, it was unclear how parliament would weigh up the proposals generated by the initiative.
MeasurementThe initiative generated a clear set of policy recommendations, indicating the levels of public support and detailing how they could be implemented. The main challenge concerned ambiguity over how these recommendations should be treated at an institutional level. Of the fifteen recommendations, eight have not been acted on at all and four have been only partly implemented. However, three proposals have been adopted into law, and their impact has been monitored and evaluated.
AlignmentThe president and those involved in the delivery of the initiative were strongly committed to the values of improving public engagement and democratic accountability and supported the specific means of the initiative. The most notable actors included the Estonian Cooperation Assembly, the Praxis Centre for Policy Studies, NENO, the Open Estonia Foundation, the e-Governance Academy, and the Citizens’ Foundation. There was some concern that political actors, such as MPs, who were ultimately responsible for legislating on the recommendations generated by the initiative were far less aligned with those values. Nevertheless, media reports imply a potential culture change following the process, whereby actors from parliament have been far more willing than they were to embrace public participation and similar initiatives.
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