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Shadow Governments: An Icelandic Experiment in Participatory Governance and Social Change

Open Panel

Abstract

Following the collapse of its financial institutions and a subsequent economic and political crisis (kreppa), Iceland was in a unique position to conduct broad social experiments related to democratic decision-making and institutional transparency. In contrast to many previous e-participation projects, Iceland’s post-kreppa initiatives have been organized by grassroots participants outside the official channels of government. This paper introduces the Shadow Government initiative, a grassroots socio-technical project designed to promote citizen participation and collaborative problem-solving, which provides a clear case of system design to empower citizens to engage directly with complex political issues. The Shadow Government initiatives refer to three distinct but related online projects (the Shadow Parliament, the Shadow City, and Better Reykjavik) developed to allow to citizens to identify, debate, and clarify policy proposals and decisions. The technical design of these collaborative political communication platforms aims to promote reasoned and reasonable discussion among diverse and independent stakeholders, with an end result of clearly articulated positions and actionable proposals. The Shadow Government initiatives are unique among similar projects in that they (1) were developed independently of any top-down, official agenda and (2) have achieved significant buy-in from both policy-makers and citizens. We present a brief discussion of open innovation within the contemporary Icelandic political context, suggesting that this context is key to understanding the efficacy of the Shadow Government projects. We then discuss the brief history of the socio-technical process of software development and political integration, showing how these projects have moved from the fringes of the grassroots to the center of official policy-making. Finally, we conclude by presenting analysis of key, specific factors that may impact the success of similar projects in other political or social contexts.