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Icelandic Citizen Engagement Tool Offers Tips for U.S.

The Better Reykjavik platform has found a way to encourage thoughtful debate for government improvement among citizens while avoiding vitriolic arguments, and similar projects are coming to United States cities.

The world of online discourse was vastly different one decade ago. This was before foreign election meddling, before social media execs were questioned by Congress, and before fighting with cantankerous uncles became an online trope. The world was perhaps more naïve, with a wide-eyed belief in some circles that Internet forums would amplify the voiceless within democracy.

This was the world in which Róbert Bjarnason and his collaborators lived. Based in Iceland, Bjarnason and his team developed a platform in 2010 for digital democracy. It was called Shadow Parliament, and its aim was simply to connect Iceland’s people with its governmental leadership. The platform launched one morning that year, with a comments section for debate. By evening, two users were locked in a deeply personal argument.

“We just looked at each other and thought, this is not going to be too much fun,” Bjarnason recalled recently. “We had just created one more platform for people to argue on.”

Sure, the engagement level was quite high, bringing furious users back to the site repeatedly to launch vitriol, but Shadow Parliament was not fostering the helpful discourse for which it was designed. So, developers scrapped it, pulling from the wreckage lessons to inform future work.

Bjarnason and team, officially a nonprofit called Citizens Foundation, worked for roughly a year, and, eventually, a new platform called Better Reykjavik was born. Better Reykjavik had key differences, chief among them a new debate system with simple tweaks: Citizens must list arguments for and against ideas, and instead of replying to each other directly, they can only down-vote things with which they disagree. This is a design that essentially forces users to create standalone points, rather than volley combative responses at one another, threaded in the fashion of Facebook or Twitter.

“With this framing of it,” Bjarnason said, “we’re not asking people to write the first comment they think of. We’re actually asking people to evaluate the idea.”

One tradeoff is that fury has proven itself to be an incredible driver of traffic, and the site loses that. But what the platform sacrifices in irate engagement, it gains in thoughtful debate. It’s essentially trading anger clicks for coherent discourse, and it’s seen tremendous success within Iceland — where some municipalities report 20 percent citizen usage — as well as throughout the international community, primarily in Europe. All told, Citizens Foundation has now built like-minded projects in 20 countries. And now, it is starting to build platforms for communities in the U.S.

So far, Citizens Foundation has a nascent collaboration with New Jersey. It is supporting work led by the New York City-based academic research entity The Governance Lab (GovLab), bringing a Better Reykjavik-esque platform to state employees. There is optimism for a similar project aimed at the public next year.

Still, the question looms: Will Americans — who find themselves torn by unprecedented polarization in 2020 — embrace an online digital democracy system that prizes rationality over team sport rhetoric? A look at current digital engagement efforts across the U.S. offers some valuable insights.    

Civic Engagement in the U.S.

Creating platforms for digital democracy is almost a cottage industry in the U.S., one that has grown rapidly in recent years as tech has accelerated and concerns about the health of the republic have grown in the wake of election meddling and online misinformation campaigns.

Yet, no one platform has become the dominant place for local, county and state government agencies seeking to offer citizens easy and productive ways to participate in the governance of their communities. One major success story, however, is the town of Gilbert, Ariz. The work there is led by Dana Berchman, the town’s charismatic chief digital officer, who has private-sector media experience with massive entities such as MTV.

With a small department and a budget no larger than any strapped local government, Berchman’s efforts have drawn large segments of Gilbert’s population to engage with government online. Berchman said residents are interested in participating with government, even if busy schedules and lack of knowledge about how to do so make it difficult.

“There’s this misconception that people don’t care,” Berchman said, “and that they won’t participate. No, they do care, you just don’t make it easy for them to participate.”

The key is meeting them where they spend their time — which for many is online. To that end, Berchman has had much success engaging residents of Gilbert with the neighborhood social networking platform Nextdoor, which requires verification that residents actually live in the communities they are voicing opinions about. In other words, that uncle who always sails in with a hot take about your Facebook posts couldn’t do that unless he lived right next to you. That’s one way to reduce the threat of personal attacks and unproductive debates, while at the same time giving elected officials real data at a low cost from verified constituents. Gilbert, for example, recently crowdsourced a public consensus about laws pertaining to the e-scooters that are laying siege to U.S. communities nationwide.

The challenge, however, is creating a culture in which people are as enthusiastic about using a digital democracy platform as they are about scrolling through Facebook.

One idea that has proven useful for this in the U.S. is building online platforms with specific, results-oriented missions. These are projects that reel residents into participatory online spaces by asking them to help solve problems they care about, ultimately keeping them coming back by showing them the actual results of their contributions.

This has certainly been the case in Flint, Mich., where the local government has long struggled with a rash of blighted buildings. Within the last decade, work on a master plan there found that blighted buildings were often a problem for private businesses and communities alike. In fact, the plan found that roughly 60 percent of blighted buildings there were owned by entities outside of the public sector, said Suzanne Wilcox, Flint’s director of planning and development.

In response, the city created the Flint Property Portal, which gives residents a place to easily report information about blighted properties in their neighborhoods. With this portal, which is accessible via both a website and mobile app, people who live in Flint can send messages about blighted properties to the local government, creating useful data. They can then track the data to see how the government is responding to it.

In 2019, the Flint Property Portal received Cities of Service’s Engaged Cities Award, an international citizen engagement accolade. At the time of the award in October, officials noted that more than 189,000 informational messages about blight had been sent to the city from its residents, leading to a $60 million blight elimination grant from the federal government that has so far helped demolish more than 4,000 structures.

Moreover, Wilcox said the portal has inspired many who use it to continue engaging with their local government, as well as to collaborate with neighbors on taking personal responsibility for other blighted lots. Basically, rather than fighting about the political reasons the town has become blighted, this results-oriented work has created an actionable channel for making real, lasting change. No matter how eloquently worded, no social media retort is capable of that.

Can Better Reykjavik Work Here?

These types of success stories seem to be limited in the U.S., however, as compared to broader commensurate efforts such as Better Reykjavik in Europe.

Mauricio Garcia is the deputy director of Cities of Service, which bestows the Engaged Cities awards. Garcia has followed international citizen engagement efforts for the past four years and noted a clear increase in the work both abroad and in the U.S.

“Just over the last couple of years here, you’ve seen a lot more investment in dollars as well as in political and social capital,” Garcia said, pointing to Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Knight Foundation as vital supporters of the work domestically.

Garcia agreed that many citizen engagement efforts in the U.S. have more specific asks than the broad workings of projects in Iceland, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. He also noted that Better Reykjavik is one of a growing number of these platforms, pointing to a company called Bang the Table, as well as to a municipal project in New York City. Garcia said that the domestic and international work has become complementary.

“We’re ahead in some ways and they’re ahead in others,” Garcia said, “and we’re learning from each other.”

Bjarnason, for his part, also noted that the seemingly insurmountable divides in modern American politics are not unique to this country, with his homeland of Iceland as well as other European nations facing similar climates. The key, he reiterated, is keeping the focus on useful ways to help.

“It’s a simple thing to show people that a little bit of transparency and a little bit of participation dramatically decreases divisions between people,” Bjarnason said, “especially if it’s happening at the state or local level.”

In fact, New Jersey has already used the Better Reykjavik platform to support an internal innovation challenge. Citizens Foundation has also set up an American nonprofit group called Citizens Foundation America, which is being led by Oregon-based Joshua Lanthier-Welch as it works to bring the platform to more of this country.

Nobody involved is terribly concerned that American divisions or culture will mitigate the impact of the work, if public outreach is done in an effective way that introduces users to the full potential of the platform.

“People see technology as having undermined democracy,” said Lanthier-Welch, “and we have to show them that the same technology can be used to build it back up.” 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.