The following piece is about the future. The year is 2027 and NGOs have managed to achieve all their wildest dreams. ALARI RAMMO compares the Estonian civil society in 2027 to the situation ten years before and recalls what has been accomplished in this regard by the parliaments elected in 2019 and 2023.
Looking back on the past decade, the main success story has undoubtedly been the community democracy programme launched in 2020 that managed to reconnect the people with those who govern them. After the administrative reform of 2017, there were only 15 local government units left, but they are governed from bottom up and people feel that their voice truly matters. Even the Estonian capital Tallinn has managed to become more people-centred and all across Estonia, municipal governments now consider their village or neighbourhood associations as essential partners, just like umbrella organisations and networks are for national ministries.
Ministries that used to operate in silos don’t exist anymore and NGOs are seen as strategic partners without ever using the concepts of engagement or participation because their cooperation has become truly collaborative, relying on deep-seated trust and working hand-in-hand from policy inception to implementation. What is more, all decisions are based on scientific knowledge and analysis and government officials serve mainly as meeting facilitators.
Due to increased public confidence, governance has become more transparent. People can follow everything related to policy implementation online in real time because public management is grounded in top quality open data. In addition, the government finally put an end to charging people for the data that has been collected on them (e.g. commercial registry data), instead enabling people to use all available data to create new value. As a result, the Internet is now full of cool homepages with innovative data applications and visualisations. What is more, by enabling to look more systematically into links between people and money, open data has also lead to the uncovering of several crimes.
The legislative decision-making process achieved complete transparency already during the last governmental term, enabling people to follow the whole process online from inception to publication in the online legislation database. The new system allows for everyone to see and understand the logic behind each decision, regardless of whether the proposed idea or amendment came from an interest group, government agency, popular initiative or the parliament. All public information systems that used to be confusing and scattered all over the Internet have been combined into a coherent platform that is envied by half of the world, with the other half already following in our footsteps. That’s right! Even the online system for legislative drafting and the parliament’s own webpage are now user friendly.
A decade ago, entrepreneurs set up a couple of impact funds in order to find solutions to problems faced by the Estonian society, and nowadays we have dozens of them. That’s because the government lifted restrictions on donations from companies and offered an additional tax carrot to those whose annual donations exceed 100 000 euros.
But things have also changed for regular people. Charitable habits have evolved way beyond a Christmas-time telethon donation to support the Children’s Hospital. Nowadays, people who donate up to 10% of their salary receive a tax return. Furthermore, thousands of people have already signed up for innovative regular donation schemes, such as the ones set up by Swedbank, Telia and several start-ups. They were among the first employers to set up joint philanthropy strategies together with their employees, contributing monthly to the joint pool of donations by complementing the amount donated by the employees. This kind of doubling down is motivated by the social tax exemption offered by the government.
The way we spend taxpayer money has also been overhauled. Today, our NGOs and political parties look back on the abandoned public grant scheme with sheer embarrassment. What is more, the activity-based budgeting coupled with the framework provided by the “Estonia 2035” strategy, has made public governance more coherent and logical. As a result, the funding of NGOs is now much fairer, more transparent and goal-oriented.
Instead of subsisting on small-scale project-based grants acquired from various funds, hundreds of NGOs now have contracts securing them five-year operational grants and subsequent reporting does not entail rummaging through invoices but focuses on tangible outcomes and impact assessment instead. For the most part, instead of collecting reports for each individual grant contract, the government takes a wider approach by evaluating the development of the whole sector, including the contribution made by NGOs, every five years. Activists are no longer overwhelmed with tedious bureaucracy, e.g. smaller NGOs are released from the obligation to submit annual reports and communication with the commercial register has also become much more convenient.
There are many things that we now take for granted that seemed inconceivable only ten years ago. Does anybody remember that we used to divide the society into three sectors? The elimination of those distinctions between companies, cooperatives and non-profits was actually quite revolutionary. Today, all grants and benefits are based on the achievement of objectives not arbitrary formal criteria.
The civic sector remains a highly-regarded partner in the provision of public services, receiving fair compensation with additional grants for further development and investments. What is more, environmental and social criteria have finally been elevated above the cost and are becoming more and more ubiquitous as award criteria in public procurement projects.
In a couple of months, in March 2027, Estonia will hold parliamentary elections and for the first time, there are no manifestos prepared by interest groups for political parties. Not that Estonia has reached completion, but rather because our democracy that is grounded in participation and discourse operates smoothly without it and stakeholders are working on finding common ground around the clock, not only during the months leading up to elections. People’s positive outlook and confidence have also increased and there is much less one-upping between business and public interest, urban and rural, us and them or young and the old.
Even the interim economic crisis couldn’t manage to get us back at each other’s throats. We were probably saved by the fact that the populist wave that swept the world at the end of the 2010s didn’t manage to damage Estonia too severely and liberal democracy withstood the challenge.
Of course we weathered a minor identity crisis when the analysis by the national genome project revealed in 2020 that there has never been such a thing as indigenous Estonians. We even summoned a national assembly, attempting to define what makes a true Estonian, but our discussions resulted in the recognition that the essential foundations of our culture are not found in enthusiastic mushrooming but rather in everyday common sense and kindness. Everybody understood that it might be even better.
The NGO Wish List for the New Government
Make e-democracy work. Currently, interested individuals or groups do not have a convenient way to provide input for governance processes, not to mention having access to information, because the online system for draft legislation, the parliament’s webpage, other online platforms for public participation and petitions, not to mention the online legislation database itself, are scattered all over the web and function mainly as document registers. In order to ensure the efficient functioning of e-democracy the system should have a uniform user-friendly platform and tools for officials, stakeholders and regular people. Additionally, all data collected by the public sector must be made available in machine-readable format without any extra cost (incl. commercial registry and annual reports), enabling people to use them for creating their own thematic analyses or applications.
Improve the quality of legislation. Rushing policy decisions through fast-track procedure without any discussion reduces legislative quality and on a wider scale, erodes trust in government. It is important to ensure that policy decisions are based on scientific knowledge, impact assessments and public participation coupled with the transparency of the decision-making process and an opportunity to observe the implementation of those decisions.
Improve strategic partnerships. Legislative quality can also be improved by maintaining sustainable relations with knowledgeable and specialist advocacy organisations by fostering strategic partnerships, including multi-year contracts for operational grants and shared information field.
More focus on local democracy. All active citizens want to take part in the discussions affecting their communities and influence the decisions that concern them. After the recent administrative reform, local municipalities, as well as village and neighbourhood associations, need extra support and attention from the central government in order to ensure the effective functioning of relations grounded in open governance and partnership. One way of doing that is by launching a support programme for local democracy.
Encourage contributions from the private sector. There is significant interest on the part of the private sector to contribute to the development of culture and sports, as well as the society at large. However, the promotion of donations and philanthropy through tax policy has decreased over the years. Private donations should be supported with clear-cut tax deductions, coupled with the elimination of taxes on donations from business entities.
Overhaul NGO funding. The allocation of public resources must be fair and transparent, without compromising efficiency in the process, i.e. similar objectives or activities must be supported from the same sources, not with negligible handouts from parallel funds. Reporting must be focused on the achievement of objectives and the assessment of impacts. Services procured from NGOs must be fairly remunerated. In addition, the public procurement act should allow for the consideration of social criteria as well.
Reducing bureaucratic red tape. The government should interfere less in the personal autonomy of individuals and organisations. Smaller NGOs should not be required to submit comprehensive annual reports and updating registry data should be made easier as well.
Estonia should be a good and safe place for everyone. We must always carefully consider the impact that each choice has on the society at large. Government policies should not exacerbate social divisions, they should have the opposite effect instead. Business versus public interest, Estonians versus Russians, cities versus the countryside, us versus them, young versus old – these are just a couple of examples of rival interests that, when heightened, will not only tear the society apart, but will erode trust in public institutions and on a larger scale, the government itself.