Listen to the people

Over the past decade, Reykjavik has undertaken a mass experiment in democracy. Not only has the city dedicated budget resources to fund citizens’ good ideas, but the city council, alongside a local NGO, has actively encouraged people’s participation in city developments.

“Through this project we get a feeling for the districts,” says Sigurlaug Anna Jóhannsdóttir, who works as a democracy advisor for the city of Reykjavik, “we interact with citizens, we understand how the neighbourhoods are doing.”

The idea, which comes in the form of an online platform, is one that has been rapidly gaining traction in cities across Europe.

Why only listen to what people have to say once in a blue moon, at every election cycle, when modern technologies and e-governance allows the town hall debate to become a mainstay of local governance…

Participative budgeting

Within the Better Reykjavik platform there are several projects. For example, ‘My district’ is a participative budget project that has been running since 2012. The city is divided into 10 districts and €3.2 million is set aside to fund winning ideas.

Last year 1,053 ideas were submitted.

“The ideas have no limits,” says Jóhannsdóttir, “they can be to do with mobility, planting trees, surveillance cameras, you name it.” With this in mind, she explains, “we need specialists in each field to help us select good projects.”

Each year ‘my district’ is open for local residents to submit their ideas during the winter, and then in consultation with experts, the city council whittles down these ideas to a few hundred of the most feasible.

Of course, operating as a city council, means that any ideas that are carried forward must be within the purview of the law, they must be implementable within the city territory, and there are budget constraints. Nonetheless, last year, after about one month of consultations, the city council managed to narrow these to 250 ideas (25 per district) with the help of local residents, which were put back online for a popular vote.

Some of the final 91 ideas that received funding to be implemented included, “a sled hill, to make it safe so that the kids can walk up and slide down and not end up in the street,” as well as an outdoor gym for hikers, bicycle lanes, swimming pool slides and a dog park according to Jóhannsdóttir.

Direct democracy

The Better Reykjavik platform, which is run by the Citizens Foundation, has even notably been used to crowdsource ideas for the city’s education policy. In 2017 the city used the platform, in the first such example of co-creating policy in Iceland, to come up with five priority areas in education. Since then, the platform has continued to be well used, with around two thirds of the city’s population taking part in various actions.

Once any idea is put onto the platform, it is instantly considered to be ‘public property’ and many people then have a chance not only to vote an idea up, or down, but also to add further suggestions. As such, the crucial element of co-creation comes into play and ideas are often made stronger over time as many more voices join the fray.

“It’s an opportunity for citizens to express their preferences,” says Jóhannsdóttir, but more than that, “it opens up a discussion and connection between the city administration and the people of the district.”

In doing so, Better Reykjavik helps keep people engaged in the election cycle and in politics. Moreover, unlike other, more traditional models for making ones’ voice heard, such as signing a petition, using a platform like Better Reykjavik has more obvious and direct outcomes.

People are engaged in a way that they see how things get shaped, can receive feedback on their ideas, and understand how they can contribute to local developments.

Right now, for example, “we are asking people to offer their ideas on what should be included in our democracy policy” says Jóhannsdóttir.

Next week, an open meeting, encourages people to also turn up in person and share their views on how democracy can be improved in a range of city services from schools to the environment, welfare and sports.

Inspiration for Europe

At a time when the European Commission has set its sites on a ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ that is set to start on 9 May, but which is so far lacking an obvious channel for citizens’ participation, it is to our cities that the Commission can look for inspiration.

In Jóhannsdóttir’s words, when I asked her what it is that makes the idea of direct democracy work for her, and from the city perspective, “I think it’s really valuable to have a project that helps us go out and speak to people,” and she continues, “it’s a way of getting a feeling for the district.”

Well, the European Commission could certainly take a leaf out of Reykjavik’s playbook.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer