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The Citizens’ Legislative Initiative is not for everyone

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fot. Gerd Altmann z Pixabay

We talk to Annija Emersone (www.manabalss.lv) about how Latvians use the civic legislative initiative and whether they do it better than Poles.

Annija Emersone – experienced project manager, with a knowledge in community engagement, communication & business development. Sustainability activist. She works in ManaBalss.

Maria Jaraszek: What was the impulse to start Mana Balss?

Annija Emersone: Well, the store started from two people, two guys. One guy (as I told you yesterday) was doing work in marketing field, the other one was entrepreneur. They basically decided that they are tired of reading a lot of comments of their media news, and they were tired that people are trying to say something and fighting but no one actually gives the solutions or if they give there’s no infrastructure how to propose something, they can just shout loud of they don’t like something. They wanted to change this. They came up with the idea to collect signatures for ideas online. I don’t really know what is the reason it was online. Probably it was just that time, in 2011, everything was happening already in the internet environment. Probably as a citizens active people, working in their businesses, they found that doing this online it will be more effective. This is how it started.

Was there any just one thing that happened or it was general opinion form them that people need to have voice?

It was the time of posteconomic crisis in Latvia. I think it also means something because as you know the reforms and things like that mostly happen when there is a crisis. If everything is calm, everything is ok, maybe there is no urgent need for something like that. It was two years after the crisis, when people lost their jobs, trying to get over bad financial situation. Also one really hot topic was the oligarchs of Latvia. There was a lot of things happen around that.

What does it mean? (oligarchy)

It means that here are few people who control the money, the state and the economics because they have monopolies in different fields. It was intense, and people were not pleased that their were living in this kind of state where those oligarchs have all. This two things helped to come up with this urgent need to do platform when citizens can decide and do things and say how to make Latvia a better place.

Those oligarchs were in Seima in parliament?

At that moment I don’t really know but their presents where everywhere. Also oligarchy is still a thing also now in Latvia because it takes a lot of time to break this system down. But I think this system is very popular in postsoviet countries.

How many ideas (initiatives) entered into force?

The number of initiatives which succeed in eight years is 29. It’s actually a big number. We have never seen that kind of success anywhere else in similar national platforms. Half of the initiatives – 13 actually went through the system in Seima (parliament). Other half, as I already mentioned yesterday, was somehow accepted event before they collected signatures because either of deputies took the problem or the parties took the problem or activists were so active that somehow lobbied that idea was already supported before collecting 10 thousands signatures. Not always you need to collect all the signatures that is required. For example, we have a building that is called […] museum, there was security institution in soviet times. Now is its a museum called […]. Few years ago it was open for one season. And the administrators know there was no plan to leave it open, just to close it. People started to collect signatures in Mana Balss asking to the state for extra funding so the museum could be open for now on. This initiative really helped. It were bringing up to the this topic of the conversation to not government but responsible ministry. The museum is still operating. This is kind of way how it also the idea can be introduce even though doesn’t go through the right process.

How many initiatives collected 10 thousands signatures and didn’t get through parliament?

Those were not supported are 20.

But they were rejected?

They were either officially rejected or… Well the problem is that parliament has to vote . And at the beginning when the say we vote and we want to look into this initiative or we will reject at the beginning it. But there is no another voting official. For example after year of investigation they can leave it in some committee or we look and this is good idea (and nothing happen). So basically this is a problem. We are trying to fight with it that we need some final decision. 20 initiatives was not supported, some of them ware officially rejected or some of the didn’t go anywhere.

So they are in the freezer?

Yes, they are in the freezer but we have decided together with authors that there ideas have been rejected. Now we have 22 initiatives that are in the process. Some of them we can call that there are in the freezer but we are looking into if they are still in the process, if some activity going on, or is it really rejected. From time to time we are trying to make them “topical”, bring them up to the agenda. We are saying you have this initiative, you didn’t give us the final answer.

What was your the greatest success? The success story of your project.

The greatest success in my opinion is that people, the citizens really trust our platform. They trust and they use it and also they also show it by donating some microdations. As long as they do this we see the importance of doing this. And most probably is they trust us because the see it is possible to change something. We are also trying to be really loud abut success because it is very important for the NGO to show your success to show your work. We believe that citizens see it and they keep using our platform. That is the greatest thing.

Do media support citizens’ initiative?

Yes. Actually we have really good unofficial partnership with media. They evaluate that our platform, they can find quality content there, and they can trust the information there. And in nowadays I think it is very important. I guess they come to our platform to find information for their media sites, tv shows, news or whatever. And every week we give them information. There has been a case where initiative was published and after like seven minutes was republished as a news in some media channels. There are also people from media who are monitoring what’s new in Mana Balss, what the citizens active about at the moment.

Is there any difference between national and private media? Because in our country is, that’s the contexts from us.

I would say it is not so big. More difference is what is the aim of the private media, what kind of news they are posting. But what is interesting, what we understood while working with our sister platform in Ukraine, when citizens or community want to publish something in media it costs. It doesn’t matter for them if “hey we have a protest please cover it and the say yes, give us a money and we will write the article. It is not like that in Latvia. Latvian media basically never ask for money if you are just citizen and you’re doing something active freely they cover the stories. This case really help our authors because all they have to do is to show media that their news is topical and urgent interesting for media and they will cover it, they take the story. They just have to sell it.

Usually how long do authors collect signatures?

We have around 400 initiatives. Every case is different. We have initiative that started collecting in 2013, 2012 and in last year got accepted and we have initiative went through the process in one year so it’s really different. They are some topics that in the society goes like up and down for example the topic of openly elected president. It was topical few years ago and becomes topical again when some election is going on. There are some initiatives I would say not populist but less popular and it takes longer

But you need at least one year?

No, we have initiative that collected signatures in 7 days. This was about tax relief for the only property. It really depends on the topic. Because if it something that everybody cares about. You would care about your living space. You maybe would not so much care about your relative’s problem with gardening. If a lot of people care about it there is bigger chance that it will be signed really quickly. For example the second case that collected signatures really fast was about changing the system how the taxes are put upon for autogas. They collected so fast because many people has cars in Latvia. Maybe that’s why social initiative collect a bit slower because usually they are for the concrete social group not for the main part of the society.

How do you finance your activities?

The main finance come from bottom that are the microdonations. Our platform users are those who are donating to us. So the average donation is from 0,50 to 2 euros. People have the chance to donate after every time they decide to sign the initiative. This micrdonations cover our operation costs so we can independently operate our platform. But for the development costs and other project costs we need to attract funding. Usually they are either local grants or international ones. We have had a good cooperation with few Embassy (US, German). We are doing project with Northern Institution, The Ministry of Nordic countries (long name). For the additional growth and development we are trying to find funding outside. The microdonators who show us the trust they basically support the system of Mana Balss.

So actually the latvian people finance this platform?

Yes.

Do you cooperate with media (tv or radio)?

We have nice cooperation with tv. It is called Riga TV. It broadcasts mainly on the television. We has tv discussion show there. It’s called Mana Balss. We are now in the third season of it. Weekly we put up some topics that closely related to the initiative. If we have a chance we also invite initiatives’ authors to the discussion. We invite people who are pro and against initiative. And also we try to invite legislators or policy makers. So it is not just talking about something. It is really finding the connection between author and who makes decision about this. In lot of cases it has been really good experience. For example there was one initiative about starting school earlier, not starting but against this state idea because there was not enough information provided for the teachers about this new system. And this tv discussion was actually one case where they met and talk for one hour and saying oh we did not know this, we did know this, it is good that we are talking. The idea is not just create talking show but bring together these two parts that in other case wouldn’t even meet.

Does it broadcast for whole country or just in Riga?

It is broadcast for whole country, for whom use basic package of tv.

How do you decide which initiative is worth to proceed?

When each initiative comes in to the platformwe take a look at it and we help author to shape it so it can be publish. We set 8 quality criteria. The initiative should follow all this criteria in order to be publish. The criteria are that initiative should be somehow put in as a law. It cannot be something that is not possible to introduce. That’s one. Second one I that cannot be against basic values of Latvian Republic, it’s also about basic core Constitution of Latvia and laws. The third is that is should provide concrete solution and solution that is realistic. In lot of cases people ask for more money either it’s for family or children or whoever. And we say: ok, but how much this change will cost the country, how many people need this money. The authors usually sit down and try to make a calculation. Of course it’s never precised but at least if you are signing you know what they are talking about ant what is the impact of it. The initiative cannot be against democratic values, against human rights against minority rights. The fifth is that initiative should be for not against. It cannot be against specific person, ideas. For example some group of people wanted to stop Baltic Pride happening in Riga and we said: sorry, this is initiative portal and if there is some problem please give us some kind of solution but not just shout that you are against something. Number six is one of the newest criteria. The initiative cannot be based on disinformative argument or facts or disinformation or fake news. Every fact that are mentioning we are checking or either we ask where did you get sources. Is some cases people come back with the sources that we know there are fake news portal. We check it because it is really important in Latvia, really topical thing because of informative wars and people really trust in those fake news. Also we ask authors to declare if it is fact or their own opinion so the people who sign it they understand. We have this rule that initiative should be submitted in latvian. But actually we also receive initiatives in rusian language because we work with rusian community and we want rusian speaking community to be involved. That’s why we are not against but we are always publishing in latvian and then translating into the rusian. And the last one is finding the proper image for your initiative, image heading, so it’s understandable for people, what it is about. A lot of people try to submit their own photos and we are saying leave it in your personal archives, that’s not for publish. These are the main ones. When we receive initiative we check these rules and also we try to work with the content if it is really necessary. If it is tricky initiative or a little bit complicated we send out the text to our voluntary law experts to ask about their opinion. If there is something for example about fish regulation, and we have no idea, we send out to some experts who work in the field or some NGO and we ask: hey can you give us some conclusion, if it is realistic, is that a problem, what do you think, if it is a right solution. We collect different opinions and we have a chance to give extra information to the author. In some cases they obligatory need to change it, if it’s really something against the law or in some cases they can just look at it and take the information into their knowledge and decide if they want somehow shape it and make it better or it is already good enough for them.

So it’s not just like only you decide which initiative will be proceed, you have experts?

It’s we how decide but we take their opinion in matter because as a NGO actually we have no obligation to publish anything. Basically we can publish what we want, because we are independent, we are not state, we do what we want but we are strictly following this 8 rules, steps. Yes we decide but mostly decisions are based on experts opinion and people who are working with law.

Is your activity controversial in some point?

I believe not. I have to mention that people in Latvia are different with different opinions, with different views how the world works. We are called in a lot of names what we are and what we do and sometimes for example when we are not publishing initiative that is against introducing 5G internet, I don’t now if it is topical in Poland.

Yes, it is

All the documentation is based on fake news and disinformation. People were trying to submitted and we did not let it through. We wrote two articles why we do not publish it but still people were like: somebody’s paying you to not publish it, you are in some kind of conspiracy, You are working for Americans, You are working for Russians. But as I’ve said yesterday as long as these critics come from all of the spectrum we believe that we are still neutral, in the middle, just as infrastructure not some kind of political organization. We are infrastructure and we are not going into political opinions and taking political stands, we are not doing that.

We should talk about legislative citizens initiative. We know that in your country there is possibility to do that and could you tell us more about this.

Yes we have this possibility to submit legislative initiative. I would say that is another, higher level of citizens involvement but in my opinion it is really complex, really hard way for usual citizen how to make any changes. This system also work online, but as I know they can also collect signatures in some specific points, like by hand. Either you submit you signature online or you go to specific institution in the country. Basically the Constitution says that 10 percents of electorate has a possibility to submit legislative proposal or legislative initiative and that is actually fully finished bill, fully completed. 10 % in Latvia is around 150 000 people, it depends of the year probably. They have one year to collect this amount of signatures and the collect them online in national online system. The authorization is really similar as we have through internet banks and e-signatures, eID system. As we open list of legislative initiatives that are active then for example, one is really similar to the one that we have. It is about tax reliefs and property. Another one is really controversial, is about to reject opportunity for people to this kind of referendums and European citizens initiative. They want to close it. These are two that are topical at this moment. they are collecting signatures and they are no more then 2500 signatures. If we look at the past collecting signatures, the most of them collected just few thousands. The one with the biggest count of signatures is 24 000. This is also about property tax and for example in our portal almost the same proposal had 50 000 signatures. It ended because the ran out of time.

What do you think, why people don’t use it?

I think they don’t use it because they have no actually any kind of community management system. The only possibility way to attract signatures is from the authors’ networks. Because in our platform we really work with authors, with media, deputies. All the time we meet with deputies, parties, with government. We have a “cake fridays” where we sometimes ask policy makers and usually we talk about those initiatives that are still in process. Sometimes we say: please move it forward somehow. We also work with our social network and it takes more than one people to do that, it is full time job. To build up this system of volunteers and partnerships, also within NGOs it takes a lot of work. But here you have only a national platform and opportunity to submit it.

But all the work is on you.

Yes. But some of the parties use this national system. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to submit it with us because we ask for 1000 euros donation but also because they know how to make a legislation and they can submit their initiatives here. Of course it is a question for them what are the right reasons why do they use this citizens engagements’ toll. But that is for another conversation.

As far as I know this legislative initiative has to be proceed, because your is optional for the politicians but this one has to somehow be done, either they have to rejected or…

the referendum comes into the force. Maybe this is the reason why you have to collect so many signatures in so limited time. Because 150 000 in one year for Latvia is huge number. Because if the collect these signatures and parliament reject this bill as it is, then the referendum comes into the force. And you know the referendum costs and that’s why maybe there are high borders how it is not so available for the citizens. Something had collected the total number but it was few years ago. It was maybe with a different rules, I will check it. Also what is important the deputies, the ministries know space for some compromises. In our initiative they get the initiative, they see the problem if they don’t like the solution, ok they don’t take it bout they understand: oh we didn’t know that is this a problem or we didn’t know that this problem is for so many people, ok we cannot accept your initiative but we will work to resolve this problem. In this legislative initiative they can do nothing. If there is some small mistake, they cannot make any change. They cannot establish a dialog with other side. Imagine the idea is really good, it collected all the signatures and was rejected because of some stupid mistake.

Or there should be provided some support for the authors in legislative initiatives to prepare a better bill or there in your case there should be some exact times of procedure.

I believe that this (legislative initiative) can become a good instrument but you need to understand that you cannot so easily compare this two systems because this is a fully worked out bill, of course it is not for everybody. This is for those who have money, connections, knowledge and it is a good way how to be involved. And of course we would say you need some kind of community management, some support for authors, maybe make a longer period (for collecting) and bring down the numbers, maybe introduce stronger quality system but you can’t really compare it to Mana Balss. We give a chance to everyone, to the lady working, living in small latvian region we connect to bring out her idea without any knowledge of politics, media. There is no case how she would able to start legislative initiative because that is totally other level. It is a good way, good idea how to give more democracy and rise how to be involved but it’s different we give a chance to everybody to be involved.

Maria Jaraszek

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