Can you imagine being able to launch a public initiative through an online network and that the parliament of your country comes even to hear the proposal? Can you imagine that it can even become a new national law?
This imaginary scenario is actually something for real in Latvia, where a group of youths launched the portal “Manabalss.lv” -“My voice” – earlier this summer. We are talking about an online tool that allows citizens of this small Baltic country to be part of the policy making process.
Members of this virtual community have in this tool the possibility of launching their social and political proposals that can later be heard in parliament, as it has happened twice since early summer.
In just three months, Mana Balss has gained a lot of popularity among Latvians.
“The truth is that we are a little overwhelmed by how quickly it has all gone. We did not expect to have such hectic first months, but it reinforces our idea and its utility. In Latvia there was a lack of citizen involvement in politics, especially because of the lack of results and the absence of a bridge to connect them to the political elite,”said Kristofs Blaus, one of the founders of this project.
The first steps of Mana Balss were taken in summer of 2010, but it took almost a year for it to see the light.
At this time, this online tool has had a great media coverage in the country thanks in part to the former president, Valdis Zatlers, who used his influence to bring up one of the initiatives launched at Mana Balss. The result, a new law that requires the information about the owners of foreign companies to be disclosed. And it only took the proposal three weeks to become a law.
Now, the founders of this project are waiting to see if the government approves another initiative launched in the website, an initiative which in fact would legitimize the work of Mana Balss.
Latvians who want to make their proposals to change the laws of the country have to collect at least 90,000 signatures in order to be heard by the Parliament. At the moment, authorities are considering reducing this figure to 10,000. “We do not know whether it will arrive on time, since the country is holding parliamentary elections in mid September,” says Janis Erts, one of the founders of Mana Balss.
Anyone can sign up and give their support to the proposals that are being discussed in it. However, there is a difference in relation to other socio-political tools like this; all users are tied to their real identity, since to register you have to provide your bank details.
Kristofs says: “It is just a way to ensure that no one has multiple identities, is trying to disrupt the process and fill Mana Balss with scam. We ensure that the identity of the user is real.”
Most of the banks that operate in Latvia are now supporting the project, but “at first it was hard to convince them of the potential future the project hides.”
Once registered, anyone can launch their proposals – no matter what type of initiatives they are – or campaign to improve something in the country. The process then gets started.
It takes about a month to see these proposals available online, for a group of up to 15 experts in different fields (all volunteers) get in touch with the authors and offer their knowledge for the cause.
Then, the proponent must collect 100 signatures by themselves, showing that there are people supporting it. If they make the cut, different lawyers give a legal shape to the initiative. It is only then that the proposal makes it to the website. And from there, anyone can support it just by giving their electronic signature.
This whole process does not ensure that the initiative would be heard by Parliament, but according to some political experts this online tool helps to reduce the distance between the public and politicians. In addition, you can track the evolution of the proposals at all times.
Mana Balss had over 100,000 visitors in two months and just over ten initiatives are currently available online. Altogether, it proves the success of the idea in Latvia. And now its founders want to export the idea to other countries. Lithuania will join them soon, Estonia may also, but the icing in the cake could be the UK.
Blaus Kristofs said: “We hope to see Mana Balss in Lithuania by the end of the year. And we are also in talks with people in the UK to launch this tool there. Although it will take time, given the country’s legislative complexity, we are optimistic for the future. “