Workshop of volunteers is building a website to facilitate the launching of citizens’ initiatives
From the beginning of March, citizens’ initiative bills can be sent for parliamentary handling if they are signed by 50,000 people entitled to vote
By Esa Mäkinen
Collectors of the dog licence tax, beware! Your days are numbered.
A couple of dozen of computer programmers, graphic designers, and civic activists are meeting in a workshop in downtown Helsinki on a Friday evening in February.
They are working on the Avoin ministeriö (“Open Ministry”) website, to be launched at the beginning of March.
From the start of March, the new Citizens’ Initiative Act will come into force.
According to the new law, a required minimum of 50,000 citizens of voting age can launch a bill that Parliament then has to process.
On the Open Ministry website, anyone can present an idea for a law initiative. If the idea wins enough support, the ministry’s volunteer workers will work on it and turn it into a presentable bill for the MPs to chew over.
At the fourth Open Ministry workshop, which is taking place at a space provided by the Helsinki-based software firm Reaktor, the group has been divided into two.
In the first room the programmers work on the layout and realisation of the website. In the second room Joonas Pekkanen and other activists make plans as to how the ministry will operate in practice.
At the moment, what is being debated is whether the initiator of a suggestion owns the rights to his or her idea.
What if an idea is transformed into something else in the handling process?
Does anyone own the rights to any of the presented initiatives?
In spite of the high-flown themes, the project seems refreshingly different.
Normally, this kind of undertaking involve numerous hippies and a lot of talk and hot air, and the results remain meagre.
The programmers and the consultants, on the other hand, actually appear to be accomplishing something.
A citizens’ initiative can be filed from the beginning of March, when the amendment to the Constitution comes into force.
After that a required minimum of 50,000 citizens eligible to vote can file a policy initiative (a proposal that a bill drafting process should be started) or a bill itself.
A policy initiative will be handled by an appropriate ministry, whereas a bill will be fast-tracked directly to parliamentary handling.
The Open Ministry’s plan is to concentrate on the bills in particular.
“The aim is that citizens’ initiatives would have the best possible chances of being passed as laws by Parliament”, Pekkanen explains.
Once a bill is ready, the process of finding people to sign it will commence.
The signatures, which can be obtained either online or on paper, have to be collected within six months of the launching of the initiative.
The Open Ministry is an idea that Joonas Pekkanen came up with last December.
Pekkanen, who has been involved in launching Internet-based start-up companies, saw a newspaper article about the citizens’ initiative.
He began to recruit volunteer workers for the project from his circle of friends, and the group was formed quickly.
The entire operation has started from the grass-roots level. No money from the government or any interest group is involved.
Openness and involving everybody in the operation of the ministry has been the central principle behind the activity.
“We want to set an example to other ministries as well”, Pekkanen says.
“Of course this involves the risk that we receive so many citizens’ initiatives that the whole idea will suffer from some kind of hyperinflation.”
When the website is launched, it will contain a couple of suggestions to serve as an example.
“The first one will be the abolition of the dog tax”, Pekkanen explains.
“It is good to have this kind of low-key start to the undertaking so that people will become familiar with the ministry.”
According to Pekkanen, a project such as the discontinuation of the dog tax was chosen because from the legislative point of view it is simple enough: it involves changes to just one law.
The dog tax, whilst technically in force in all 336 Finnish municipalities and chargeable at a rate of up to EUR 50.00 on pooches over the age of five months, is in fact hugely impractical (it costs more to keep records of who has a dog than the tax ever brings in), is levied today only in Helsinki and Tampere, and its payment is monitored by nobody.
In practice the law is a dead letter and a soft target to get things rolling.
There is, however, one obstacle that the Open Ministry and the entire citizens’ initiative law is already facing.
The Ministry of Justice should have a website where people can sign the initiatives.
To be legally valid, the signing of an initiative requires a bank identifier code or some other form of accepted online signature to prove the signee is who he or she says he is.
The Ministry of Justice has not even commenced the constructing of such a system.
It will not be up and running before the end of the year at the earliest.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 24.2.2012
Ministry of Justice - Citizens´ initiative will be introduced at the beginning of March (12.1.2012)
ESA MÄKINEN / Helsingin Sanomat