RAHVAKOGU or "People´s Assembly" : Open Government in Estonia

The People’s Assembly was/is originated, organized and led by volunteers from various non-governmental organizations (Coordination Council):
 
1. Estonian Cooperation Assembly - independent think-tank,
2. Praxis Centre for Policy Studies - independent think-tank
3. Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organizations (NENO)
4. e-Governance Academy (independent, non-profit)
5. Open Estonia Foundation (independent, non-profit)
6. IT and communications professionals

The People's Assembly had/has Partners from all major 4 political parties and also from the national Parliament, mainly the Committee of Constitutional Affairs.

Policy Context

A former Estonian MP announced in May 2012 that the party’s officials gave him 7600 euros of unknown origin that he then had to donate to the party. He claimed that dozens of members had donated funds to the party this way, including MPs.

Although the party rejected the accusations and the subsequent investigation collapsed  due to  lack of hard evidence, the public did not find party’s denials convincing. Widespread protest yielded to the street demonstrations demanding more transparency in party funding as well as more dialogue and openness in the political system. Estonia is not a country famous for anti-government street protests, quite the opposite.

A petition, Charter12 co-authored by leading Estonian intellectuals, declared the moral bankruptcy of party-political system and demanded reforms. More than 18 000 people signed the Charter within the next 8 days.

How to turn this wave of protest and activism into something constructive? Civil society activists proposed crowdsourcing as a method for finding solutions to these complex problems. The original idea was conceived at a meeting convened by the President of the Republic. Main political parties, representatives of protesters, NGO representatives, authors of Charter12, and experts of constitutional law were invited to take part.

Description of target users and groups

One might consider the whole society as target population of RAHVAKOGU initiative, as far as the main aim of the initiative was to give the general public their share in designing new laws and making the participation in politics and public policy making easier in the future. Rahvakogu is a meeting point, a deliberation platform for activists, politicians, experts as well as for general public. The idea was to channel the popular discontent into constructive suggestions and proposals to the Parliament.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

People´s Assembly had/has 2 main goals:

1. PROCESS - to prove that change in decision making process is possible by combining online crowd-sourcing with smaller seminars and big deliberation day conference;  

2. RESULTS - to have laws amended or new laws passed by the Parliament.
 

A new website was launched early January 2013 where everyone could propose ideas for improving the situation in the areas such as elections, public participation, political parties and their funding. Within three weeks, it gained 60,000 visitors; 1,800 registered users posted nearly 6,000 ideas and comments. All these were grouped and provided with impact assessment by scholars and practitioners.  

Thematic workshops were held to prioritize proposals in each topic category. Participants in seminars totalled 150 persons, including authors of presented proposals, political party representatives, experts in political science and electoral regulations. The outcome of these  prioritized proposals were sent to the Deliberation Day on 6th of April, where a  recruited representative sample of 500 (of which 314 actually turned up and participated) people discussed the pros and cons of ideas and cast then their preferences.

The outcomes of People´s Assembly – 15 proposals for legislative amendments -  were presented to the Parliament who set a timetable when these regulations would be discussed in the formal process.

Two legislative amendments have been adopted within a year of the deliberation process.

If legislative process is usually considered (and is) a "for members only" event even in democracies, Rahvakogu created a model of doing the legislative work with maximum openness (everybody was invited to participate) and transparency. The initiative received massive media coverage during the whole 3 months process. Later the Rahvakogu Coordination Committee (together with its media partners) held the Parliament under permanent scrutiny for doing their part of the job, i.e discussing the proposals and amending laws.

The most critical part was overcoming the public pessimism and even cynicism, it was not easy to prove that Rahvakogu was just not another futile attempt to bring politicians and people "together", another attempt by political parties to make promises and then fail to deliver.

Technology solution

Technology choice: Accessibility-compliant (minimum WAI AA)

Main results, benefits and impacts

Despite the fact that only 3 of the 15 Rahvakogu proposals have been implemented and laws amended within the first year (4 more proposals are pending), the process as a whole is considered as a success.

Thanks to the People´s Assembly the public has acquired a possibility to bring their proposals directly to the Parliament for discussions (Law on Petition). It is easier to create a new political party and take part in national elections. The legal barriers for newcomers have been lowered.

But the most important thing - participatory democracy has become a mainstream idea in political discussions. Estonian Parliament and Government are themselves making proposals for opening up the political process and giving up their monopoly for agenda-setting and offering solutions.

Lessons learnt

Scope: European

Categorisation

Type of document
Open source case study
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