Estonians have been looking for possibilities for collaborative thinking analogical to DEMOS since 1991. Lennart Meri, the president of Estonia from 1992-2001, initiated this process. As a charismatic politician he founded the President’s Academic Council to bring together scientists in order to analyse problems of the Estonian society. The council meets four times a year and discusses the pain spots of the society: integration, the role of mass media in creating an “inter-connected” society, education reforms etc. Unfortunately as already the name of the council tells, only scientists and academics are involved in these discussions. Organizers of adult education and other citizen organizations have been left out until today. Currently the council consists of 24 men and 1 woman, which is another telling fact.
Public Understanding Foundation (PUF)
In 1991 Aadu Luukas, the managing director of the Estonian Business Association, came up with the idea to found the Public Understanding Foundation. This foundation would help to ease the conflicts and diminish contrasts between the rich and the poor, to assure work peace, and find solutions for society problems. Arnold Rüütel, the president of Estonia was supportive of the idea and in 2003 38 founding members signed the contract. In 2006 there were already 63 parties involved. Mainly the Estonian leftwing and conservative parties have joined the contract, as well as vocational unions and public universities (but not private universities). PUF consists of education, culture, family, nature-care, country life, economy and health units.
But several political parties and civil organizations have decided not to join PUF because they consider it an alternative parliament. PUF has indeed acted analogical to a parliament, discussing social questions and making specific propositions to the government and parliament in order to better the situation.
In 2006 PUF published a collection of articles written by sociologists that analyse the current situation of the Estonian society and compare it to other countries. At the presentation of the publication it was noted that Estonia has made good progress in terms of economic development but as to civil society there is still a lot to be done. This may also mean that PUF has not been extremely successful during its initial period.
Estonian Civil Society Development Concept (ECSDC)
In December 2002 the government signed the Estonian civil society development concept. This serves as a frame to facilitate partnership between the public powers and civil organizations. A similar concept developed in Great Britain served as a model. According to this concept Estonia has to create a strong citizen initiative based system, involving citizens and their organizations into conceiving, developing and analysing political and legal acts; involving the less represented or acknowledged citizen organizations, develop participatory democracy and volunteering.
In October 2003 the Estonian government and the representatives of civil organizations created a joint commition to implement the Civil Society Development Concept. They assigned workgroups for the different areas and created a detailed work plan for the years 2003-2006 and 2007-2010. Much has been done but never the less the “Estonian human development report 2006” states that no significant progress is evident in this area.
The concept and the implementation process of ECSDC are in accordance with the principles of the White Paper of European Commission as well as with the suggestions in document 19 of the European Ministers Commission about citizens’ participation in the local public life.
Today I Decide - TID
In June 2001 the Internet portal “Today I Decide” was launched. TID is a place where all inhabitants of Estonia can make their suggestions about how to make life better in this country. Every written proposition goes under voting and when it gets at least one vote besides the author’s the proposition will be sent to the appropriate ministry.
I remember how in 2001 one of the authors of the Estonian Civil Society Development Concept made the proposition in TID for the government to accept this concept faster. He organized co-voters and eventually the government did accept the concept. TID is a kind of an open think tank where many different propositions have been made. Creating biking roads in Tallinn, increasing the amount of private schools, banning private sponsoring for political parties, better protection for salmon spawning grounds, legalizing euthanasia, free public transport for pregnant women, legalizing polygamy to name just a few.
In 2006 a new analogous Internet portal was conceived where every ministry would have their own TID. This is an initiative that facilitates free and active involvement of citizens in society even though not every minister may be delighted by it.
In such a dialogue common interests as well as problematic spots in society are revealed. TID users’ suggestions may not directly affect governmental decisions but never the less the discussions arising from this can give extra information and also new ideas to solve certain problems in the ministries. In any case it is an opportunity for the citizens to express opinions and to get open feedback about concrete questions from the government.
Estonian Education Forum
Problems concerning adult education are discussed at yearly meetings of the Estonian Education Forum as well as, on a daily basis, on the Forum’s mailing list. Experience shows that bright ideas are born and actualized only when politicians (minister of education) are also open to this kind of collaboration and partnership. Unfortunately several ministers have shown little or no interest in this. Which indicates that in Estonia such democratic think tanks incorporating all levels of society are still not self-evident parts of the general political culture.