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I participate, therefore I am?

A look at how the Finnish government went to the people to help shape its plans for future well-being...

Writer

Elina Kiiski Kataja

Published

The results of the Finnish government’s foresight project, detailing Finland’s future challenges and prospects, have been published (14th February 2013). Such a report is released once in each electoral term, with this current study for Prime Minister Katainen’s administration focusing on the themes of sustainable growth and the well-being of citizens.

This time, preparatory foresight work was conducted for the report, providing a wider range of opportunities to participate compared to previous reports. Participation is the word of the day, one that the government can no longer ignore – and in many cases, probably doesn’t even want to.

A bigger challenge lies in the creation of opportunities to participate in government, and the ways in which these generate real discussion and change, instead of only providing a downward stream of consultation.

There is one participation channel related to the foresight report that I would like to highlight: the foresight website www.2030.fi, where the past autumn’s foresight processes and activities were brought together. First and foremost, the website acted as a forum for anyone interested in the future to provide a link to their future-related blogs, thus allowing other interested parties and the project’s thematic groups access to and the use of their opinions.

The outcome was a living website, which attracted more than 30,000 visitors interested in the future, and more than 200 blogs by people wanting to participate. Some of the opinions and comments derived from the website were incorporated in the final report on the foresight project, to sharpen the vision for the future.

This shows that the opportunity to participate was a genuine one, open to any blogger interested in the subject. The discussion extended beyond the voicing of opinions via the website, because statements were included verbatim in the final report, which constitutes the input on the basis of which the government foresight report will be drafted.

The website did face some criticism for demanding the use of users’ own names, for example, and the decision-makers’ participation in the discussion would have also been welcome. These are understandable criticisms, which should be taken into consideration the next time there are plans to initiate such online discussion.

However, one good example of a successful and genuine discussion that benefited both participants and the authorities was the way in which the Finnish police developed its presence on social media, including Facebook. It meant there was an online officer active and present in the discussions, using his own name and exposing his own personality. This is quite different to the traditional approach taken by officials to social media.

Being present where the people are is an important consideration that must be examined from all perspectives and taken seriously whenever planning something to do with participation, be it online or in town. When it comes to the www.2030.fi website, “being where the people are” meant people’s existing blogs. In other words, this website was not established to attract people to blog there; instead, it was created to serve as a link to people’s existing blogs and discussions.

Other excellent examples of going where the people are include the participation-oriented city planning in Lahti, where city officials take their plans to Lahti’s main square to get people’s feedback and development ideas. Or in the UK, where the cities involved in the Future Communities project had noticed how local planning meetings did not attract any visitors. They came up with the idea of organising family picnics in a local park or in a closed-down street. Everyone would bring something and take part in the discussions, while families had the opportunity to meet and do something fun together, all the time influencing matters they deemed important. The administration came to the people, not the other way round.

These types of encounters do not happen on their own; humans are needed. The people making the 2030.fi website a reality were network facilitator Otto, designer Sara in Lahti, and Tricia and Tanya in the UK. They know how to shuttle their way between people and administration, and can help generate joint activities and, above all, disseminate results.

Why, then, is participation so important? One answer is that the world has become so complex that the best way to grasp it is through bringing together various viewpoints and realities. At the same time, people’s level of education is higher than before, and information is available to everyone instead of a select few.

Before, a civil servant may have instructed a family in need of domestic help where to get such services, whereas now the family can provide the civil servant with advice on how to develop the services in such a way that the domestic help truly meets the family’s needs. People have information that the decision-makers need, and vice versa. “I participate, therefore I am” also applies to administrators and not only to citizens, although often the phrase’s meaning is interpreted to apply to the latter.

The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra has been involved in the web-based section of the foresight process for the current foresight report. I would like to extend our warmest thanks to everyone who made their blog available to us, participated in the discussions and development work, and presented their ideas via the www.2030.fi website. Thanks to you, for the first time, this type of online participation could be tested as a means for involving citizens in future-related discussion, and incorporating your views in the project’s final output will be possible.

I would also like to thank the parties involved in the actual foresight process, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Employment and the Economy, the Academy of Finland, and the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, Tekes, for their open-minded and enthusiastic approach to the development of online participation.

This is just one perspective on the foresight process; many more are available at www.2030.fi.

Writer

Elina Kiiski Kataja

Published