Citizens’ initiatives are a relatively new element in the fabric of Finnish public governance. SixDegrees looks into the democracy-extending institution, its merits, and why some have regarded it with suspicion.

ARE YOU satisfied with the way the country is being run? Do you think that the politicians are at the service of the people? Do you have faith in the Finnish political system?

Presumably, few people would answer to all of these questions with an unreserved “yes”, even if they have basic confidence in the Finnish decision-making processes. Yet the framework that governs those processes is not set in stone, but keeps developing. A significant recent addition to it is the system of citizens’ initiatives.

Citizens’ initiatives give the population a new, unprecedentedly direct way of affecting legislation and bringing topics and propositions into the public debate. The law on citizens’ initiatives came into force in March 2012. Since then one initiative has gone through the full cycle of collecting the required support and being deliberated upon by the Parliament; several others are in the pipeline to be considered in the near future.

Although a new institution in Finland, internationally-speaking citizens’ initiatives aren’t anything new, as other types of comparable systems – collecting support through petitions, aiming to change laws or practices – exist in other countries as well. But the Finnish system of citizens’ initiatives stands apart for two reasons: firstly, the state provides an online platform where initiatives can be presented and through which the required signatures can be collected. Secondly, the scope within which new laws can be proposed is notably vast, making citizens’ initiatives a potentially powerful tool.

The successful initiatives so far

In order to be submitted to the Parliament, an initiative has to collect 50,000 signatures.

Banning fur farming: the first citizens’ initiative to collect 50,000 signatures (69,381, to be precise) and to be submitted to the Parliament (on 5 March 2013). The Parliament rejected the bill on 19 June.

Abolishing Swedish as a mandatory school subject: the initiative collected 62,158 signatures by its deadline of 4 September last year. It will likely be taken up at the Parliament this spring.

Equal marriage law: collection of signatures ended on 19 September, with 164,069 signatures. The bill was submitted to the Parliament in December last year.

Amending the law on energy certificates for buildings: collected 61,361 signatures by 11 October. Will be processed by the Parliament most likely this year.

Changing the copyright law: collection ended 23 July, with 51,974 signatures. The initiative was to be handed to the Parliament on 26 November last year.

The following initiatives tried but failed to collect enough support, reaching 20,000-32,000 signatures: banning energy drinks for below 16-year-olds, referendum on Finland’s EU membership, legalising use and possession of cannabis and an initiative on basic income.

If you want to change Finnish legislation, here’s the procedure. The first step is writing an initiative, including a bill or a proposal that a bill drafting process is started, and submitting it by entering it into a form on Kansalaisaloite.fi, the website for citizens’ initiatives. The site will forward the draft to the Ministry of Justice for verification. If it is validated (meaning that the initiative is structured appropriately, and is originated by a Finnish citizen entitled to vote), the initiative will appear on the website.

This starts the process of collecting statements of support: from then on, the initiative has six months to collect 50,000 signatures, from Finnish citizens entitled to vote, either online or on paper. If this goal is reached, the initiative can be sent to the Finnish Population Register Centre, which verifies the signatures.

If all is in order, the next stop for the initiative is the Parliament, which will process it the same way it handles government bills. This means that the Parliament can approve the initiative, send it to be amended, or reject it. Thus, collecting the required support does not guarantee that the bill will be implemented in the proposed form, or at all.

Getting the message across

The fact that citizens’ initiatives are equal to the Government’s bills in the eyes of the Parliament gives the institution a considerable status. Initiatives can thus relate to any issue that concerns legislation and is within the Parliament’s power, save international agreements and budgetary issues. This is significantly more than in most countries with similar systems. For example, in Italy you can only propose cancelling an existing law, says Joonas Pekkanen, Founder and President of the Open Ministry, an NGO that supports the institution of citizens’ initiatives.

While the fate of the Initiative for Equal Marriage Act presented to Parliament last December hangs in the balance, after gathering nearly 170,000 signatures, the first initiative to reach the Parliament (and be rejected by it) aimed to ban fur farming in Finland. Although this may raise some questions about the significance of citizens’ initiatives – what is the point of collecting signatures if the Parliament can ultimately reject the proposed bill? – Pekkanen says that it is too early to draw conclusions on the potency of citizens’ initiatives as an institution based on one case.

Actually, according to Pekkanen the fact that the first initiative was taken into the Parliament’s agenda was already a victory in itself, being a vital precedent in establishing how citizens’ initiatives are processed. Nevertheless, in setting a model for the long term what is important is the outcomes of the several subsequent initiatives that are to be presented to the Parliament in the next few months (see the adjacent list for more information).

It should be made clear that drafting and submitting an initiative is only a relatively small step in the process – it is the collection of signatures that almost certainly requires the most work. For an initiative to reach 50,000 signatures, simply posting it on the website and then waiting for supporters to arrive is not enough, but also coordinated, persistent campaigning is needed.

“Based on the experiences so far, informing people and campaigning for the initiative are absolutely crucial in order to reach the goal,” says Laura Nurminen, Project Manager at the Ministry of Justice. The subject of the initiative also plays a part in this: looking at the initiatives that have so far succeeded in the collection of signatures, it seems clear that it is easier to get support for the kinds of topics that have already been publicly and repeatedly debated upon.

Nurminen explains this through the subjects’ familiarity among citizens: if there have been previous publicity campaigns on a given subject, it’s likely to be easier to put together a substantial amount of people to work on the campaign. Moreover, if the public already knows about the issue, people may have already thought about their own views on the matter. Conversely, if the topic is not familiar to the mainstream public, the campaign has to make particular efforts in informing citizens and the media of it. “It’s not impossible, but it requires more work.”

Indeed, one of the initiatives that will be on the Parliament’s agenda soon concerns a change in the regulation of house energy performance certificates. As the issue lacks the kind of media attention that, for example, same-sex marriage or abolishing mandatory Swedish at school receive, the coordinators behind the initiative say that they put their most campaign efforts in communicating the reasoning behind the initiative.

“We reached out to people online, through social media, and through our membership magazine,” says Kaija Savolainen, Executive Director at the Finnish House Owners’ Association. “Our advantage are our over 75,000 members, and our 261 local associations did a great deal of legwork in collecting support and informing people about the issue. It also helped that various organisations and a group of celebrities endorsed our initiative.”

Legislation 2.0

Pekkanen points out that apart from the energy certificate initiative, what initiatives that have so far been successful have in common is that they all relate to topics that for one reason or another are politically difficult for political parties to endorse. Citizens’ initiatives make it possible for such topics with widespread public support to reach the Parliament.

What also distinguishes the initiative on energy certificates is that it seeks to correct a single grievance that concerns a detail of a law. “It’s interesting that citizens’ initiatives are used in this manner – that they allow the ‘collective mind’ to correct what are perceived as errors in legislation. It’s imaginable that citizens’ initiatives are later used more generally in this manner, to correct anomalies in legislation,” Pekkanen says, drawing up a parallel with software development: when a “bug” is observed in the law, the system permits fixing it through a popular initiative.

Before conjuring possible futures for citizens’ initiatives, however, it needs to establish itself as a reliable tool so that citizens perceive its value. When the initiative for equal marriage law reached its goal of 50,000 signatures within 24 hours last spring, a year after the law on citizens’ initiatives had passed, some concern was voiced from the ranks of politicians over the recently created system. For example Anne Holmlund from the National Coalition questioned publicly the system of citizens’ initiatives, worrying that it allows citizens to use a fast lane in taking issues directly to the Parliament. Elsewhere, Parliamentary Secretary Seppo Tiitinen stressed that the government has the primary role of proposing new legislations, validated by elections, and new methods of sending bills to the Parliament risk undermining this.

Pekkanen estimates that such views arise from the fact that citizens’ initiatives break for the first time the monopoly that decision-makers have had in drawing their agenda. He points out, however, that the Parliament still has an important role as it accepts or rejects proposals. Otherwise 50,000 people could use the system to purely advance their own interests, without regard to the bigger picture. Overall, it takes time for new practices to be tried and established. “It’s been positive that so far people have participated by supporting these first initiatives, and that there has been lively discussion about them in the media,” he says.

In the end, although the stated goal behind initiatives may be a change in legislation, another aim may of course be to get publicity as part of a wider campaign around an issue. “I’ve understood that the people behind the initiative to ban fur farming were pleased with the results, even if the initiative was rejected at the Parliament,” Nurminen says. “They were satisfied that it at least was discussed at the Parliament, and contributed to the societal debate on the topic, and might thus bring about changes in a longer run.”

Therein lies what seems to be the main quality of citizens’ initiatives: although they do not guarantee a change in legislation, at the very least they encourage citizen participation around societal and political issues and give the public a means to make their voices heard. If it turns out that none of the initiatives that are handed to the Parliament for consideration bring about changes, the credibility of the institution may be at stake. But at least for now, an initiative, coupled with a popular movement, is a force to be reckoned with.

Teemu Henriksson