Lessons from exporting Estonia’s digital democracy

Frans Jorna. Photo by Henri Pook.

Daniel Vaarik had a chat with Frans Jorna from the Saxion University in the Netherlands, who is currently working on applying Estonia’s system for local democracy procedures called Volis.

For years Estonia has been experimenting with tools for digital democracy. Internet voting was introduced already in 2005 and today at least one in five voters casts their votes electronically in elections. At the same time the other countries are not following Estonia’s suit easily. Just how could one export these tools from one country to another anyway? Daniel Vaarik had a chat with Frans Jorna from the Saxion University in the Netherlands, who is currently working on applying Estonia’s system for local democracy procedures called Volis.

Why are you interested in Estonian digital democracy tools? 

I am studying new modes of public governance and after meeting with some colleagues from Estonia, I developed an interest in e-democracy in Estonia, its lessons and applicability in other countries. Estonia’s e-democracy has a specific pedigree, it is from one point attractive, but it is also hard to export.

Why is it hard to export? 

Contrary to many other government systems it starts with openness by default. As a reaction to the cumbersome bureaucratic past experiences with Soviet systems, openness, flexibility and apparent forms of government are now hardcoded in your genes. You also had to start from the scratch with little money whereas in many other European countries there are large bureaucratic systems with a long legacy.

You also have specific technical requirements like X-Road (the environment that allows to use various e-services databases) that exchanges information freely between public and private domains. This would be unthinkable in many other countries with distributed heterogenous info streams.

What are you doing with Volis specifically?

In Netherlands we are developing a local open government lab that connects citizens with professionals to develop good solid ideas that would normally not originate in top down government. Volis could be used as a backbone to get more transparency into the system.

The room I am in now, this is what we call the City Lab. Professionals, citizens, real estate developers, city marketing people, businesses and researchers will be having discussions and we would formulate and reformulate the ideas, comment on them, vote and transform them into local politics. It would be similar to the participatory budget process in the city of Tartu in Estonia.

What have you learned by implementing Volis in Netherlands? 

Whatever application you take, you always have to take the country-specificness into account. The comparative aspect needs to be addressed.

For example as in Tartu they have a participatory budget project where citizens can come up with ideas for public investment. What struck me is the grassroots approach: it is ordinary citizens that participate, craft proposals and cooperate. In Holland, most of the participants are in some way public servants, and the language they speak and proposals they produce are voiced in highly professional language. The reason for this difference became apparent when I visited Tartu. The Tartu municipality had four times less public servants than a city with comparable size in the Netherlands. It simply does not have the money and manpower to dominate participatory processes. Estonia’s local government is flexible and employs much less people, so the particular IT systems make perfect sense there.

How will systems like Volis change politics, if at all?

It is an interesting question that I ask myself as well. It seems too soon to tell. Information technology may be a catalyst, requiring transparency and driving out inconsistencies. Open decision-making is a driver for open data sets, open budgets and open spending. Information technology has the capacity to empower ordinary citizens by allowing them to use the power of the network to come up with proposals that can compete with expert-based proposals.

This may help overcome the cynicism and bias that professionals sometimes have towards e-participation. The long evening sessions that we are used to in Holland could be supplemented by forms of IT sustained participation that are much lighter. Today less people are willing to spend time in traditional forms of civic participation. By limiting the transaction costs with IT, they could enter the discussion any time and any place. The problem with many open systems is that in the end you still need an expert to explain the terms and numbers. So we need more tools that help people to interpret the data, to play with it.

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Cover photo: Frans Jorna. Photo by Henri Pook.

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About the author: Daniel Vaarik

Daniel Vaarik is a public relations and e-democracy expert in Estonia.