And then what…? The Aftermath of the 2009 Iceland National Assembly

March 2012 / Notes from the Field

Bjarni S. Jonsson

Bjarni S. Jonsson

In November 2009, Iceland residents were invited to engage in a dialogue on issues facing the nation following a total collapse of its financial system and resulting in a severe national crisis. The challenge was that of a general visioning for the society and to establish a desirable evolutionary pathway. The event was organized by a grassroots organization that called itself The Anthill. Public decision makers were wary of the idea and didn’t want to participate openly. As it turned out, however, they ended up giving direct support to the Anthill and participated in the event. Subsequently the Parliament of Iceland decided to organize a similar event to kick off the revision of the Iceland Constitution.

The experience from the 2009 Iceland National Assembly was outlined in Integral Leadership Review Vol X no. 1, January 2010, http://www.archive-ilr.com/archives-2010/2010-01/2010-01-notes-jonsson.php.  Clearly the 2009 National Assembly was an experiment in that it had neither been tried before in Iceland, nor elsewhere in exactly the same form. In the former ILR article, a detailed outline was offered as to how this came about and how the process was organized. In this article, some important learning points, as revealed by experience during the last two and a half years, are outlined.

The Learning

When looking back, it can be said, that the main learning points from this experiment were the following:

  1. To create a trusted or authentic environment, it is important not to have a predetermined agenda for the meeting. The wording of the questions put forward will have to be carefully formulated in order to secure authenticity in the data generated and avoid any tendency for polarization or dialectical discussion based on the need to produce only one view
  2. To harness and understand the diversities generated by the vast amount of different data, a general framework is needed that would incorporate the common elements of a social system and that forms a holistic intelligence system needed to facilitate cohesive transformation.
  3. The data pointing to a specific strategy is high level and stated in general terms. Further work is needed to formulate a strategic pathway. Given that human thought is the force shaping communities and nations, the critical path will have to be identified based on the prevailing worldview that is necessary to secure  natural design and sustainability.
  4. The event itself creates an urge on behalf of participants for further deliberation and implementation of ideas. It seems to be a strong base for creating momentum for change.  Therefore, securing channels for cooperation at the outset will be an important task in organizing such an event, if it is to produce any form for change.
  5. It is necessary to identify and involve multiple stakeholders who would have to act in parallel and be coalesced in terms of authority, power and influence.  These elements will have to be “earned” in the sense that stakeholders will have to operate out of trust and common interest. Careful analysis and planning of stakeholder participation is therefore required for any cohesive action.

The Impact

The above points all relate to the learning points associated with the process itself. There is, however, another side of the learning that is no less crucial. An event like the Iceland National Assembly creates a lot of expectations and desire for things to happen. As it turns out, people expect “somebody else”, i.e., authorities to act on their views and get easily disappointed in the absence of an immediate and tangible change process as a result. This was very much the case with the National Assembly. The perceived change was seen as minimal, if any. The sentiment was that the outcome and conclusions were both vague and offering nothing new. It would be difficult to act on the results. All in all, this was a “feel-good” sort of event – good in itself but not really producing any breakthroughs in the restoration efforts facing the nation.

These and similar views, were based on a misunderstanding of what an event like the Iceland National Assembly was really capable of delivering. The question therefore remains:  Did this event make any difference at all?

Two main points stand out in that regard:

  1. The process is important in itself, where people share each others’ views and experience in a way that leaves no participant untouched and has the potential to create strong impetus for change and action.
  2. The fact is that a general vision was stated through a structured inquiry process involving a random sample of the population in attempt to provide input from a group with a demographic profile similar to the total population

It can be argued, that the former item has already proven itself. A year later, the number of people participating in a similar process had multiplied more than10 times. Still, events using the process developed at the National Assembly are still taking place involving up to several hundred participants each time.

What is perhaps the most significant contribution is related to the current constitutional process going on in Iceland. In mid 2010 the Parliament of Iceland made a decision that would have been unthinkable had the 2009 National Assembly not taken place.  It was decided to call for a similar event, involving 1000 people randomly sampled from the National Registry of Iceland to engage in a public discourse about a new Constitution for Iceland.  This was to mark the kick-off of a ground up revision of the Constitution that was originally handed to the nation by the Danish King, and then ruler of Iceland, in the year 1874. This time the desire was to write a constitution that could be considered the Icelandic nation’s own constitution. The most natural step was to start with harnessing the collective wisdom of the nation through a similar process as experienced a year earlier.

The second National Assembly organized in November 2010 had an altogether different purpose, although the process was identical to the previous one and organized by the same people. The purpose was focused and stated clearly that it was to be a “public sounding board” for the upcoming revision of the Icelandic constitution so as to ground it to the general public. The Assembly thus produced base material from which a publicly elected constitutional council, comprised of 25 members from the general public, could refer to in their discussion of the various subject matters.

The context was more specific, i.e., giving input to the revision of the Icelandic Constitution, but the process was the same. Members of the Anthill took on the task to manage the organization and facilitation of the meeting.  This time, the event was called “the National Forum,” and proved no less a success as the former one, as can be seen at http://www.thjodfundur2010.is/english/.

An interface was set up between the Assembly and the Council.  An expert committee was elected by the Parliament of Iceland to prepare the event, and to process and prepare the data from the 2010 National Assembly for the constitutional council, to make it more comprehensible and easier to gain oversight of the main themes and points.  In the end, the compilation of the data resulted in a document of about 700 pages.  It is argued, based on comments from several council members, that reference to earlier work was no doubt a significant contributor to the fact that this 25 member council closed unanimously with a full draft proposal for a new constitution for Iceland in 4 months.

The Significance

Although the purpose of the original 2009 National Assembly was to demonstrate the Wisdom of Crowds in formulating guidelines – general, yes, but constituting a crucial factor in establishing WHAT to do in the prevailing social context and WHY it would be of importance.  It was also clearly articulated that this should be seen as a beginning of an arduous process in a highly complex environment and needed to be carefully planned.  Societies today are fragmented and not naturally equipped to deal with holistic change processes.  An intervention process would therefore have to serve epistemological and ontological purposes, i.e., foster learning and build capabilities for greater cohesiveness in social evolution, on one hand, and to bring about actual changes that would lead to individuals perceiving their needs being met in a satisfactory manner.

There are of course still limitations to the process, which will benefit from further experience and research. On the other hand, some promising areas leading to greater citizen accountability and social evolution also seem evident, providing opportunities for further research and development.

The model which emerged from the data analysis could have potential to be applicable without requiring any pre-programming of the agenda that might compromise the authenticity of such an open forum and discussion, bearing in mind that this applies to a holistic picture on a national scale.  It could also be applicable to smaller scale communities, given that the discussion is limited to factors within the realm of that particular community.

Based on this experience I argue that the National Assembly demonstrated that:

  1. An event like this  could successfully elicit meaningful participation by a cross section of a whole population, providing an opportunity for constructive dialogue and resulting in tangible data to form a picture of a desired future
  2. Furthermore, it was possible to develop a new way of conversing by creating a shift from a dialectic and polarized traditional discussion to a values based constructive dialogue based on possibiities and diverse interests.
  3. Lastly, it demonstrated that we are able to create a publicly available open space methodology and guidelines for organizing social dialogue with the purpose of using creativity and constructive dialogue to develop a shared vision.

One of the most important claims made by the organizers of the Iceland National Assembly was that it would harness the wisdom of the nation for a better future.  In order to do so, certain basic rules and processes were strictly enforced to create an authentic public sphere that would lead to a constructive flow of thoughts and meaning between participants to produce a vision of the nation based on its needs and to change the awareness of participants in that respect.  Tom Atlee‘s statement is appropriate: “To our normal awareness a room filled with people is just a crowd.  But arrange those people in the right way, with the right processes, and they can generate wisdom“[1].

As earlier stated, over 100 known events have been organised in Iceland since the first National Assembly in November 2009.  Probably the most significant legacy of the Assembly was to stimulate citizen engagement in social matters, as recently outlined in the Internet publication “The Raw Story“, in a newsclip about the presentation of the draft Constitution proposal by the Constitutional Counsel. A group of 25 ordinary citizens on Friday presented to Iceland’s Parliamentary Speaker a new constitution draft. They had compiled it with the help of hundreds of others who chipped in online to the Parliament of Iceland, as stated by the President of the Counsil, Salvor Nordal: “What I learned is that people can be trusted. We put all our things online and attempted to read, listen and understand and I think that made the biggest difference in our job and made our work so much better”.[2]

An event like the Iceland National Assembly not only generates ideas for action, but more significantly it opens a real potential to generate a core group that has the common desire to turn these ideas into action. This means that for the Assembly Process to be effective as a catalyst for change in a social context multiple assemblies are needed, including a diversity of shared purposes.  The potential to generate momentum for change originates with the participants themselves and is difficult to transfer to people not present at the event.  Therefore, one National Assembly will not suffice, except for being a sounding board for public policy making as described above.

Notes


[2] http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/07/29/iceland-citizens-write-a-new-constitution-through-online-collaboration/

About the Author

Bjarni S. Jonsson is a Management consultant and focuses primarily on large-scale systemic change. He is a partner at Capacent, a Nordic consulting firm with about 500 specialists in Denmark, Iceland Sweden and Finland. Bjarni is a Doctoral Candidate at the Adizes Graduate School in California, His doctoral research is on Prescriptive Diagnosis of Social Systems. His doctoral committee is chaired by Adizes faculty member, Dr. Bruce LaRue. He and Dr. Don E. Beck, also a committee member, and the Adizes faculty are mentoring Bjarni in his dissertation research. Bjarni is currently living in Iceland, is married with three children and one grandson. Prior to his current position as a partner within Capacent Iceland, he was CEO of Capacent Denmark. bjarni.jonsson@capacent.is