About 300,000 Finnish citizens live outside Finland, of whom more than 250,000 are entitled to vote. Their number is equal to the population of a large Finnish city. Despite their large numbers, expatriate Finns are still a relatively invisible group in Finnish social debate. Only 13% of them voted in the last parliamentary elections in 2019.
Despite the low voter turnout expatriate Finns consider domestic politics important and are increasingly keen to participate and have an influence. Expatriate Finns have expressed a desire for better opportunities to do so and to be seen as an asset. According to a Sitra survey, expatriate Finns would also prefer easy and digital ways of participating.
To respond to this need, the Finland Society, an expert resource for Finns living overseas, opened a digital discussion platform in early March. The service, called Virta, makes it possible to join expatriate Finns living all over the world and exchange messages on local social media forums, to discuss matters that concern them. The service also makes it easier to submit their ideas and initiatives for processing and decision-making. As a location- and time-independent platform, Virta improves equality and serves the diverse community of expatriate Finns.
Sitra funded the implementation of the service as part of its work to reform democracy.
“We are developing new ways of participation and empowerment that support representative democracy. For expatriate Finns, a well-functioning digital interface to democracy is extremely important”, notes Hannu-Pekka Ikäheimo, the leader of Sitra’s New Forms of Participation project.
Until now, the Finnish Expatriate Parliament coordinated by Finland Society has served as one of the forums for expatriate Finns. However, the forum organised in person in Helsinki has managed to reach few expatriate Finns living around the world. In the future, Virta will replace the Finnish Expatriate Parliament’s system for submitting ideas and initiatives and the platform will serve as the main arena for the regular and up-to-date processing of initiatives and ideas that are important to expatriate Finns.
Summaries of the discussions on the platform will be compiled and forwarded to those in Finland dealing expatriate affairs. The service has been developed using the Digiraati (Digital Panel) maintained by the Ministry of Justice and the KerroKantasi service used by the City of Helsinki, among others.
As more user experiences are gathered, the development work will continue. In the future, the plan is to invite public officials and decision-makers to participate in the Virta discussions. Good experiences of this have already been gathered from deliberative citizens’ panels, where the involvement of decision-makers has increased their understanding of the experiences of the public and strengthened the effectiveness of participation in decision-making.
Increasing debate and interaction between expatriate Finns and creating a stronger connection with Finnish society strengthens Finnish identity, which is also a prerequisite for interest in domestic politics and voting in elections. The first discussions focus on the Parliamentary elections and electoral issues that expatriate Finns consider important.
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