The digital age offers new opportunities for citizen participation, but few places have these opportunities been seized as effectively as in Latvia, where Manabalss has given citizens a new way to participate in decision-making. Incorporating elements from popular petition platforms and offering a direct link to the Latvian parliament has allowed the online platform to become a widely used tool that in seven years' time has sparked 22 changes in legislation. We spoke with Imants Breidaks, the CEO of Manabalss.lv.
First of all, could you explain how ManaBalss works? What was the idea behind it?
ManaBalss.lv is a citizens’ initiative platform, or more precisely a citizens’ legislation initiative platform, where citizens can propose ideas for new laws in Latvia. So, these are not just petitions about anything and everything.
What differentiates our platform from others is the results: 64% of the initiatives that have received a vote in the parliament have received a positive vote. As far as we know that is the highest result in the world - we have changed 22 laws so far! We know for example that in Finland the platform on citizens’ initiatives also works - although there are some differences to ours - but the results are that two laws out of twenty have passed. The British Parliament petition platform has led to basically zero changed laws but has sparked tens and tens of discussions and debates in the Parliament.
What differentiates us, is our quality control system. Before anything gets published we look at the author’s proposal and we communicate with each and every one of them. Sometimes everything is done perfectly, and we have nothing to add, but usually we do. We want to go over the proposal thoroughly, and assist the author by asking for example “Could you rephrase this paragraph? Because no one can understand it”, “Can you check the facts on this part?”, “Can you contact this Professor and check your statement with them?”, “Or some experts from the Ministry or an organization or even a private company...” But you have to know that our framework is public. These are not arbitrary choices; these rules are binding for us as well: we will publish things that we dislike. Because this is not about choice or political preference: we provide the framework.
However, we do acknowledge that freedom of speech in the world is being used to deconstruct democracy and we do see to it that no neo-Hitlerite or neo-Stalinist, or any other group, will use our platform to directly or secretly attack democracy. If we see that something is strange, we will ask more questions and it can happen that we reject publishing.
Either way, our main rules are that core parts of the Latvian constitution need to be respected - you can propose to change the anthem, because this does not attack the statehood or the democracy, but if you would propose to elect an emperor for life, that is not going to be published. The second rule is that we publish nothing that directly attacks the statehood of Latvia: changing borders or anything related to financial gifts to other countries. Thirdly, probably most our important rule is that it has to be realistic. For example, there was a proposal that the Latvian army should develop nuclear weapons. So, we asked the author to please explain the budgetary requirements and where this funding would come from. Because we have to be realistic. And of course, the author couldn’t describe what the budgetary means would be for this idea and so we did not publish it. We are not attacking the idea of nuclear weapons, but we are talking about realism. The proposal has to be viable within the Latvian state.
But at the same time, I could mention which initiatives have passed: Additional funding for cancer treatment, additional funding for Hepatitis C, changes to rules about company taxes, additional rules for members of parliaments breaking their swearing-in oaths…
So, we count our results based on how many laws have passed, it does not mean that the parliament has to accept all of them, that would be absurd. But we do try to push the parliament to at least have a dialogue, an explanation. There has to be a due process.
Latvia has two million inhabitants and 227.000 people have used our platform at least once. We only use secure authorization, through banks and with digital signature. Meaning that we can absolutely claim that this is a no troll-zone, that it is one man, one vote. No politician ever, as far as I know has publicly claimed that this is insignificant, that these are not real people. They respect it!
It started as a private initiative, an idea of just two people who set it up and then the parliament adopted it as their official petition tool. How did this come to be?
It still is non-governmental. We still are independent from the parliament. What we like to say is that we love all parties equally passionately and we are equally distant from all of them. But yes, this began with two guys who had a dream of digital referendums. As it turned out that no one from the government wanted to see digital referendums, that was way too risky basically - but digital legislative proposals, yes! And that was an amazing choice. It took months and months of preparations and multiple sides were involved: experts jumped in and consultants… The communication was happening for months before it went public. But when it did go public, on the third day the prime minister was talking about it. All politicians were basically instantly on board, saying “Yes, we will put these proposals into law if 10.000 sign,” for those first two initiatives which were published.
Those months of preparation made that it was very effective, and the result is that seven years later, the press writes about ManaBalss initiatives daily.
What are some of your biggest successes?
We have a success-rate of 64%, which is something very valuable that we can be proud of. So far, we’ve seen 22 laws changed and more are coming up: some 15 or 16 citizen legislation initiatives are currently under review in the parliament and we know that a couple of them will go into law. 227.000 people have used the platform at least once. And the great thing is that we exist through micro-funding, we don’t rely on government funding or grants. Just last, year our total budget was 40.000 euros, which is not huge, but 29.000 of that was micro-donations. And this allows us to keep above water. In the last three years, around 30.000 unique individuals have donated some money to us. Which is as far as I know, also something that is globally unique, because it’s so many people (1,5% of the population of 2 million). Of course, this is not enough to grow. There is no funding for programming, which is what we really need, but it is enough to keep us afloat.
One more aspect on the content side, is that in Finland the system is such that basically the opposition has taken over the platform. Theirs is a governmental platform it was developed and is maintained by the justice ministry. So, at no point it was independent. Plus, you have to propose full legal text there. Our platform is basically one page of free-style language, you don’t have to be a lawyer, which immediately is far more inclusive.
So basically, in Finland the opposition spams the platform. While we, out of 300 initiatives in total have only had some 15 from political parties. This is because we ask for a donation from parties who want to make proposals or want to use our platform in order to maintain it. We haven’t banned politicians, we just made it a little harder for them to use the platform and overall, they respect this. Sometimes, a politician wants to create some hype, but the majority actually respect that this isn’t really for them, so we have successfully limited the amount of political party involvement.
This year, because it is an election year, it’s kind of unusual that two parties published a proposal, and both donated 1000 euros. However, we will not talk about these proposals as much as about other citizen initiatives in our newsletter or on our Facebook page. Because, well guys just promote it on your own, you have the muscle for that!
On the European level we have the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), to propose legislation to the European Commission and is currently undergoing reform. How do you think the ECI could be improved?
Apparently, it is possible to build a system where average citizens, without NGO or political party association, can propose legislative ideas, and this can go through in actual law. If Latvia can manage to build something like this, it cannot be a unique situation. It must be possible to do the same in other countries. This does require the preparation period, months and months of preparation, finding the thought leaders, finding the associations, forging agreements with politicians, agreeing on the legal framework, people planning and PR preparation...
In the EU, what is happening now… From our perspective, we want to help, we want to make it happen, but not within the framework that is there. We want the real deal. If we were doing it, we would find the resources, the right people in the right countries and we would organize something that is legally outside the EU structures but in very close cooperation with them.
What we mean is that you don’t actually have to change a law to make the German legislators listen to democratic pressure for example. Because there shouldn’t have to be a law which states that you have to change the law if so or so many people demonstrate in front of the parliament in Berlin. It doesn’t make sense in a democracy. How do you measure democratic pressure? But there is actually a number where the parliament will listen. If two people demonstrate in front of the parliament, you shouldn’t change the law, because that is a ridiculously small number. But if a 100.000 people demonstrate, you should. This is enough to put something on the agenda, to get a real vote in legislature. From a digital marketing perspective we say that if a certain number is enough to make European institutions listen, then that number can be organized without any tweaks to the existing legislation about the European Citizens’ Initiative. Because you can do it independently, it is a democratic dialogue even if it is not regulated as a specific procedure. If 100.000 people demonstrate in central Brussels you can theoretically ignore it because there is no procedure, but this would be undemocratic. So, if you can claim to have a digital system which is secure, trustable and even applies quality control, well you can make it happen.
Our proposed method for European level citizen initiative platform: 2’500’000 votes. From at least 7 countries that each have a working ManaBalss.lv type system in place. And when the signatures have been gathered, there must be mandatory evaluation and vote in the European Commission or European Parliament. It is possible that such EU citizen initiatives should be targeted for the initial mandatory vote in the European Council. We know it is possible to implement such a plan, but for that we need the right partners.