Crowds and constitutions

Thorvaldur Gylfason

13 October 2011

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Iceland has never been particularly good at outsourcing. Insourcing, on the other hand, has been something of a national sport. For example, a few years ago first the nephew and then a close friend of the prime minister were appointed judges on the Supreme Court. When a few years later the prime minister’s son was appointed district judge, a more qualified applicant for the job sued the offending minister and was awarded financial compensation by the Supreme Court (much lower compensation, however, than a lower court had decided). After the financial crash of 2008, to take another example, the government thought it better to appoint a domestic Special Investigation Committee (SIC), rejecting proposals for an international commission of enquiry that would have been beyond all suspicion of partiality. As it happened, the SIC did a good job, but that is another story (Gylfason 2010).

From insourcing to crowdsourcing

The constitutional assembly/council (CAC) assembled by the people and parliament to revise Iceland’s constitution decided to do things differently. The CAC decided to invite the people of Iceland to participate in the drafting of a new constitutional bill on the internet, an arrangement that has attracted considerable interest in foreign media.1 This decision proved advantageous and trouble-free. It was known that ordinary people from all walks of life were interested in – or even passionate about –seeing the constitution revised. Otherwise, 522 people would hardly have run for the 25 seats in the constitutional assembly.2 The election campaign, if campaign is the right word, was exceptionally civilised, and quite different from parliamentary campaigns. Hardly any advertising took place nor did any significant amounts of money change hands; in fact, most of the candidates did little or nothing to promote their candidacy apart from posting articles or blogs on the internet. The media, including state television and radio, did little to inform the electorate. The political parties did not field candidates, perhaps in part because the main opposition parties were firmly against the project from the start. Interest organisations did not field or openly support any candidates.

The candidates (I was among them) seemed to view one another as fellow advocates of a common cause rather than as competitors or opponents. In keeping with the conclusions of the national assembly convened the month before, the answers the candidates gave the media before the November 2010 election reflected a broad consensus that substantial changes in the constitution were needed. Opinion polls suggested that the consensus among the candidates reflected not only the sentiments of the national assembly attended by 1,000 randomly selected citizens, but reflected also public opinion. For example, nearly all candidates agreed that the way judges are appointed needs to be changed; hence the opening salvo above. Also, there was broad consensus about the need to substantiate, or rather reclaim, the people’s ownership rights to their natural resources. Further, it was widely agreed that Iceland needs to preserve its semi-presidential form of parliamentary government in which the president of Iceland retains a constitutional right to refer legislation from parliament to a national referendum for approval or rejection.3 The national assembly had set the tone. The CAC considered itself obliged to take the resolutions of the national assembly into consideration. Therefore, no one needed to be surprised when the CAC approved and delivered to parliament a constitutional bill that, if ratified in a national referendum, will entail a major overhaul of Iceland’s constitution.

Three rounds

The job was done in three overlapping rounds. First, each week, the CAC posted on its website some new provisional articles for perusal by the public. In a second round, usually two to three weeks later, after receiving comments and suggestions from the public as well as from experts, the CAC posted revised versions of those articles on the website. Then, in a final round, proposals for changes in the document as a whole were debated and voted upon article by article, and the final version of the bill was prepared. At the end of the last round, each article was approved by an overwhelming majority of votes. The bill as a whole was passed unanimously, with 25 votes against zero.

Heavy traffic

Judging by the traffic on the CAC website, the people of Iceland welcomed the CAC’s invitation to them to participate in the project. The CAC received 323 formal proposals that the three committees of the CAC discussed and answered. More than 3,600 written comments were posted on the website by visitors; the CAC representatives answered many if not most of them. Nearly all the proposals and comments received proved useful in one way or another – not only what was said, but also the things left unsaid. If no one objected to the provisional articles posted on the website, then perhaps we were on the right track. Almost invariably, the proposals and comments were polite unlike some of the text that some participants permit themselves to publish on political websites. Fears that an open CAC website might be drowned in gibberish, or worse, proved groundless. Why did the low standard of public political debate in Iceland pass the CAC by? Perhaps it helped that the discussions in CAC meetings were characterised by courtesy and mutual respect as well as by respect for the task bestowed on the CAC by the people and parliament. Direct broadcasts on the internet as well as on television from CAC meetings were regularly watched by about 150-450 viewers. More than 50 interviews with CAC members and others concerned were posted on YouTube and they have now been viewed 5,000 times. The website contains lots of information on the work of the CAC and related material, including press coverage at home and abroad. The phone numbers and email addresses of CAC members were accessible to all. The CAC meetings took place in Reykjavík, not in some remote corner of the country as sometimes has been considered necessary elsewhere in the past to shield the constitution makers from special interest groups.

Even if the CAC emphasised cooperation with the public, the CAC also actively sought the advice of experts. The constitutional committee prepared a 700-page background report for the CAC packed with good ideas. Many experts advised the CAC every step of the way, lawyers and others, in meetings as well as in writing. The CAC could not seek the advice of all available and eligible experts, but, like everyone else, those who had points to make were welcome to do so. Departing from standard operating procedure in parliamentary work, the CAC did not invite representatives of interest organisations to special meetings, but these organisations had the same access as the general public to the CAC, its open meetings, and to individual CAC members. The CAC comprised a diverse group of people of all ages with broad experience from almost every nook and cranny of national life: not only doctors, lawyers, priests, and professors, but also company board members, a farmer, a fighter for the rights of handicapped persons, mathematicians, media people, erstwhile members of parliament, a nurse, a philosopher, poets and artists, political scientists, a theatre director, and a union leader – a good cross section of society.

Lessons for other countries

Even with the world’s largest per capita number of internet users, or 95% in 2009,4 Iceland’s experiment with constitutional crowdsourcing may raise concerns about unequal access because the unconnected 5% are disproportionately old people. Even so, the democratic gains from granting easy access to a vast majority of the electorate seem likely to outweigh the losses from slightly unequal access, a trivial disparity compared with the standard parliamentary procedure of granting special interest organisations (farmers, vessel owners, etc) privileged access to the legislative process. In fact, CAC members also answered letters and phone calls. Even so, in countries with limited access to the internet, such as in the Arab world, crowdsourcing new constitutions might be seen to give significantly disproportionate voice to those with ready internet access.

The main lesson from Iceland’s crowdsourcing experiment, however, may be universal: Treat people with respect and they will respond in kind. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

What happens next?

The prime minister has declared that the CAC bill, following discussion in a parliamentary committee as well as with the disbanded CAC and its experts, must be put to a referendum concurrent with the presidential election of mid-2012. The president has declared that the referendum must take place before the presidential election because the bill proposes changes in the role of the president. Strong political forces, opposed to equal voting rights and to national ownership rights to natural resources, among other things, want the bill to be shelved. Were this to happen, against the odds, would the people take to the streets, banging their pots and pans? They know how to. They have done it before.

References

Duverger, Maurice (1980), “A New Political System Model: Semi-Presidential Government,” European Journal of Political Research, 8(2):165-187.

Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2010), “Iceland’s special investigation: The plot thickens”, VoxEU.org, 30 April.

Special Investigation Commission (SIC) (2010), “Report of the Special Investigation Commission (SIC)”, report delivered to Althingi, the Icelandic Parliament, on 12 April.

World Bank (2011), World Development Indicators, Washington, DC.


1 Here, for example, is The Guardian, 9 June 2011.

2 The electoral system used was STV (single-transferable-vote), a system designed to ensure that if your preferred candidate has no chance of being elected or has enough votes already, your vote is transferred to another candidate according to your instructions, thus ensuring that few votes go to waste. Some observers attributed the 37% turnout in the constituent assembly election to the STV system, claiming that choosing one to 25 candidates out of 522 was more off-putting than choosing one party slate out of, say, 8, the usual method. The STV system is used, for example, in Ireland (except in elections for the presidency and by-elections) as well as in local elections in Scotland.

3 A semi-presidential government is one where the president is directly elected by the people, and has significant powers de facto as well as de jure, and where the prime minister must enjoy the confidence of a nationally elected parliament (Duverger 1980). Austria, Bulgaria, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, and Romania all have semi-presidential governments, but some constitutions grant more power to the president than others.

4 Source: World Bank (2011). For comparison, the 2009 figure for the United States is 78%.

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Topics:  Europe's nations and regions Politics and economics

Professor of Economics, University of Iceland; Research Fellow, CESifo and CEPR Research Fellow

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