As its citizens become directly involved in attempting better choices, Reykjavik’s city council are evolving the decision-making process.Through opening suggestion forums to the citizens of Reykjavik, 60% of the population have participated in Better Reykjavik. 420 ideas have passed through the initiative to a participatory budget vote and 52% have been approved.
Once a registered user has submitted their idea to the website, operated by the Citizens Foundation, the suggestion is considered public property and can be debated by Reykjavik’s citizens. Ideas can vary, from something small — like outdoor gym equipment — to bigger projects, such as a park. Whilst being discussed, the ideas will be put to a simple vote: support or oppose.
Robert Bjarnason, CEO of the Citizens Foundation, says that this “Isn’t a poll. This is a binding vote and the city council has to take it seriously, It’s direct democracy but in a very structured way.”
At the end of each month, the five top rated ideas and the top rated idea of each category are moved to an area of the Better Reykjavik website where they can no longer be discussed. The thirteen categories vary from tourism, recreation and leisure, sports, human rights, art and culture, education, transportation, planning, and more.
Reykjavik’s council organises appropriate standing committees to address the ideas, discussing whether there is enough political backing to implement them into practice. Once the committee has decided, the decision will be published in the name of Better Reykjavik as a crowdsourced idea.
The move towards direct democracy emerged from the international banking crisis in 2008. As the three major banks went bankrupt, trust in the political institutions was wiped out and Iceland was left in a unique position to experiment with new approaches to governance and citizenship.
Shadow City was a platform for citizens to express their views about how to move forward. In 2010, launching shortly before the Reykjavik municipal elections, the site provided the eight political parties campaigning with a “branded” section. Of the parties, it was the ‘Best Party’ who made use of this feature, recognising that it could be a way to connect with potential voters.
The Best Party won the city council election, and later entered coalition talks with the Social Democrats. As talks went on, the Best Party requested that Shadow City create a website devoted to asking the citizens for their opinions on their pact in the coalition. As a result, a new section of the site was opened called Better Reykjavik.
Drawbacks have been highlighted. Those without access to the internet, and therefore offline, are unable to participate in the programme. One citizen stated that you “can’t fax a handshake.”
Though, the initiative has been considered a success, winning the European award in the e-Democracy Awards 2011. In addition, a recent independent audit, 2016, regarded Better Reykjavik as an important tool for citizens to participate and communicate with city officials online. Finding that 67% of those who were interviewed are happy with the programme and 7% stated that they were unhappy.