“minsak.no”, founded in January 2013, is an online petition tool that can be used for the submission of petitions at the regional and municipal level within the framework of §39a of the Norwegian Municipal Act. Paragraph 39a guarantees the citizens of Norway that local and regional legislative bodies have to deal with the petitioners’ proposal if at least two per cent of the population signed a petition. If the municipality has 15,000 residents or more, 300 signatures are sufficient, whereas in regions, 500 signatures are required to submit the petition. minsak.no can be used in any municipality and any region in Norway. The proprietor of the tool is the Norwegian ‘Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation’.
The use of information and communication technology (ICT) in petitioning shall simplify the use of the rights granted by §39a of the Norwegian Municipal Act. minsak.no is intended to be a low-threshold way for citizens to voice their interests to local governments via computer, smartphone or tablet. The portal aims to make democratic processes at the municipal level in Norway more attractive and to increase the interest of citizens in (local) democracy. Scientific findings suggesting positive effects of e-petitioning, motivated politicians to commission a nationwide portal, through which citizens of all Norwegian municipalities and regions could submit a petition online. The decision to initiate such a portal was therefore primarily a normative and political one. Moreover, the need to deal with the concerns of citizens is intended to increase the responsiveness of local democratic bodies.
The input side of democratic legitimacy (citizens’ input) is rather difficult to assess, since the responsible ministry does not systematically evaluate the website based on performance indicators, such as the number of submissions. Similarly, no monitoring has been conducted on the number, frequency, or substantial scope of transmitted petitions. Consequently, no figures are available on how many petitions were submitted to the municipalities before the launch of the platform and after. Also the analysed city administration (Oslo) collects no figures on the number of petitions, but municipal officials reported an increase since the introduction of ‘minsak.no’. From the data on the website itself, however, it can be seen that the number of petitions opened in Oslo after an initial peak has stagnated, at least since the introduction of the tool. Since no demographic factors are requested from the users of the website, it is also not possible to conclude whether the signatories are representative for the population.
With regard to throughput legitimacy (processing within the administration), it can be said, that the procedure is highly institutionalised both at state and municipal level. The clear legal framework and the pre-existence of an almost identical analogue process facilitated both the design, creation and launch of the platform as such but also its implementation and use across Norway. The platform does not compete with or question existing routines. Instead, it merely automates individual, and previously time-consuming steps in administrative procedures. The highly institutionalised process as guarded by the platform leads furthermore to a reduction of uncertainty among administrative employees when dealing with petitions. For the politicians in the city councils, no changes compared to ‘handwritten’ petitions occur. One could certainly also note critically that minsak.no or e-petitions in general only use “well-trodden paths”. Nevertheless, this ‘path dependency’ leads also to a highly efficient and well-functioning system, which reduces uncertainties and is easy to implement without much resistance.
Concerning the output dimension of legitimacy (benefits for citizens) an increase in successful petitions is expected but not observed yet. In turn, higher demand for direct participation via ICT tools such as minsak.no may shape the responsiveness of local and regional politics. However, it is highly unlikely that the platform will lead to greater representativeness in participation. This refers to two different yet interconnected aspects: On the one hand, the nature of the issue matters and proposals that are precise and easy to accomplish have a better chance to get implemented. On the other hand, the petitioners resemble to a large extent those citizens who have been engaged in analogue participation before and thus do not necessarily represent the Norwegian electorate. A further problem is the lack of traceability of what happens to petitions in the political-administrative process after submission. The platform minsak.no does not provide any tools or means to assess the consequences of submitted petitions on actual policy design in the respective municipality or region. However, political action is dependent on consent and therefore also requires justification.
Since only one person is directly responsible for the website, the personnel costs for operating the website are relatively low, so the platform has no major impact on the organisational budget. However, the petitions are processed elsewhere – in the municipalities and regions. But since the ICT tool mainly digitises existing routines, the process is not a major novelty compared to already established organisational routines. Yet, further processing is much simpler, as municipal administrators do not have to digitise handwritten signature lists, as it is the case with ‘traditional’ petitions. But the potential increase in the number of petitions means that municipalities and regions may (in the future) incur additional effort – administrative and political – regarding e-petitions.
Since the ministry itself only provides the website and moderates the discussions with regard to the netiquette, the remaining responsibility for processing the (successful) petitions lies with the administrations and political decision-makers of the municipalities and regions themselves. They receive the successful petitions and then deal with them further. The local administrations also act primarily as “service providers” who process the petitions into decision papers and then forward them to the political decision-makers. In this respect, the tool does not lead to any substantial changes in the politics-administration and state level-local level power relations, with the exception of the potential increase in participation procedures at the local level, initiated by the state level.
To read more about the case study, see D5.1 – Comparative case studies on e-participation report.
- Website of the eParticipation portal “minsak.no”.
Andree Pruin, University of Potsdam