In Iceland, The Crowd Takes A Shot At “We The People”

The same country that helped give Bjork her voice hands over its guiding document to everyday citizens. But at its heart, the experiment in social media confuses democracy with transparency, a leading expert in participatory government tells Fast Company.



Iceland wants to rebuild its government using a Facebook Wall. And the democracy-loving Internet is abuzz about the country’s “crowdsourcing” of its constitution through social media.

But Tiago Peixoto, Director of Research at the Electronic Democracy Center at the University of Zurich, and one of the world’s foremost experts on digital participatory governance, tells Fast Company that transparency should be not be confused with democracy. And past experiments with crowdsourced legislation tell us that citizens might not actually have any influence on the lawmakers who are ultimately responsible for ratification. And even if so, their influence might not be so wise.

Even well-educated voters can have difficulty grasping the wildly intricate thicket of legal problems from legislation. “In a constitutional process it becomes even more difficult,” says Peixoto, “because it’s difficult to raise awareness on the huge number of issues that are at stake.”

“The closest the world has ever come to true online legislative democracy, where citizens craft legislation en masse was the Brazilian government’s experiment at “wiki” legislation. Unfortunately, citizen recommendations were largely ignored, because legislators had lackluster interest from the start. Iceland’s experiment is also ultimately subject to approval by an elected body. “There is a risk that maybe the process only opened up to confirm what was already decided before hand,” Peixoto says.

But Iceland’s constitutional reformation isn’t being written over the Internet like a Wikipedia entry. The newly elected “constitutional council” is soliciting feedback through social media, posting interviews on YouTube, and making regular updates on their website (which, conveniently, has an English version).

“The public have added much to our debate. Their comments have been quite helpful and they have had a positive effect on the outcome,” said Thorvaldur Gylfason, a member of Iceland’s constitutional council, which was specially elected to assist with the transition.


But have they? “When I look at their Twitter page [and] their Facebook page, the numbers are extremely low” says Peixoto. About two thirds of Iceland’s 320,000 population is on Facebook, but an average post there gets just 4 to 5 comments. Brazil only garnered 10% participation when one of its cities allowed citizens to directly vote online for a significant chunk of the budget. Opening up their budgeting process to an online vote did funnel more money to public works projects, however, indicating that representative democracy was likely blocking deep desires of the population for more governmental help.

Before the Internet-extravaganza, Peixoto praised Iceland’s move to collect 950 randomly selected participants to hold a one-day forum about the new constitution, an added layer of direct democracy on top of the traditional representative layer, which is most often composed of higher educated, more connected individuals. Such measures, have, in the past, been more inclusive of “systematically excluded” social classes. Brazil garnered comparatively massive civic engagement during a 1988 amendment process, with 12 million citizens contributing or endorsing over 122 proposals, 88 of which actually were, later on, integrated.

Were he advising Iceland, Peixoto would have suggested organizing the constitutional process like a brainstorming session, first gathering every possible idea one can think of (through social media), then holding a deliberative democracy forum of representative citizens, and finally sending the document to the public for an up or down vote.

Iceland’s offline component is radically democratic by conventional standards and their digital experiments may prove a useful testing ground for exciting new citizen crowdsourcing in the future.

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[Image: Flickr user bbodien]


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I am a writer and an educator. As a writer, I investigate how technology is shaping education, politics, Generation Y, social good, and the media industry.