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Iceland, Crowdsourcing a New Constitution

BY Antonella Napolitano | Wednesday, June 15 2011

In the past few years Iceland, a small island closer to Greenland than to Europe, has been known mostly for the collapse of its economic system and for the eruption of its volcanoes.
But despite the very difficult situation, the country firmly believes in public participation and in the power of social media to be *the* medium to better shape it. Now its government has decided to ask its citizens to share ideas on the new constitution, or “Charta”, for the country and to use social media to collect and organize ideas from them.

The “crowdsourcing body in charge” is a council of 25 members elected by popular vote from a field of 522 candidates over the age of 18. The process has been shaped from the start to involve people from the start and throughout the whole procedure, as reported by the Guardian:

In creating the new document, the council has been posting draft clauses every week since the project launched in April. The public can comment underneath or join a discussion on the council's Facebook page. The council also has a Twitter account, a YouTube page where interviews with its members are regularly posted, and a Flickr account containing pictures of the 25 members at work, all intended to maximise interaction with citizens.

[...]The crowdsourcing follows a national forum last year where 950 randomly selected people spent a day discussing the constitution. If the committee has its way the draft bill, due to be ready at the end of July, will be put to a referendum without any changes imposed by parliament – so it will genuinely be a document by the people, for the people.

The council is basing its work on a 700-page report prepared by a committee that took into account the recommendations of the National Forum.
Recommendations need to be approved by local staff before being passed on to the council and posted online for discussion, but then, when approved by the council, they are added to the draft of the document.
The process is taking place in one of the most computer-literate countries in the world. As ABC News noted, “two-thirds of Icelanders are on Facebook, so the constitutional council's weekly meetings are broadcast live on the social networking site as well as on the council's website”.

Iceland: a story of participation

"To me, it has long been clear that a comprehensive review of the constitution would only be carried out with the direct participation of the Icelandic people"

Iceland's Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir

After the collapse of the banks, Wikileaks burst onto the scene, publishing documents that exposed the corruption of people that profited from their connections with Iceland’s Kaupthing Bank.

The banking crisis that brought down the Icelandic economy, paradoxically created space for opportunities: the scandal made the Icelandic government decide to adopt a new and more open way to legislate in order to create a better relationship with citizens, outraged by the corruption of their country.

One of the steps was to start working with Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, who became an advisor to the Icelandic government on the draft of a law that aims to create a media haven for freedom of information and expression, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI).
The IMMI caught the attention of the world and was widely covered by European newspapers, also because the proposal was adopted unanimously by Parliament one year ago. It is expected to became a piece of legislation by mid-2012 (in a set of 13 different laws).

Now, the “crowdsourcing for a constitution” process seems to be an extension of Iceland’s willingness to try new ways of doing things.
But will it succeed in giving Icelanders a feeling of being part of a new start for their troubled country?

It is legitimate to have doubts but also hope, as Curt Hopkins points out at ReadWriteWeb:

It is far from guaranteed that this process will give Icelanders a sense of investment in, and responsibility for, the new constitution, and whether it protects against the kind of walled-off and disconnected government that allowed all the major Icelandic banks to fail. But, given the country's needs, its recent history, its ancient history and its extraordinary level of online participation, it is surely worth a try.