New tool for seeing through political promises

Agaate Antson
, reporter
The tool created by Sven Sapelson (left), Tanel Teinemaa, Tarmo Jüristo and Patrick Abner should be completed at the same time as next year's budget
The tool created by Sven Sapelson (left), Tanel Teinemaa, Tarmo Jüristo and Patrick Abner should be completed at the same time as next year's budget Photo: Maido Parv

The Koolimäe Creative House in West Viru County hosted a unique prototype workshop called Democracyhack over the weekend where brilliant businessmen, programmers and activists, including Skype co-founder Ahti Heinla, businessman Indrek Kasela and VP of Engineering at Veriff Tiit Paananen, worked with another few dozen people to try and find practical solutions to problems plaguing democracy.

Over what amounted to nearly 30 hours, six teams searched for practicable solutions for containing false information and troll armies, boost an individual’s social responsibility or verify what politicians are saying.

“We wanted to see what happens if we bring together people who are accustomed to solving problems, have run companies or are otherwise socially active and task them with finding solutions to modern problems,” said Liis Narusk, one of the people behind Democracyhack.

Narusk explained that because the event attracted ambitious and responsible people, it was not necessary to turn the hackathon into a competition or have a prize. People came together because they wanted to think of ways of improving democracy, she explained.

“If just one of these six projects manifests, we have been 100 percent successful as it didn’t exist before the hackathon,” Narusk said when asked how many ideas could work. She believes at least three projects will take off.

Probably the most promising project is the “Our Money 2019” system developed by the team of Tarmo Jüristo, head of the Praxis Center for Policy Studies, the aim of which is to render the state budget more transparent and legible for ordinary people and politicians alike.

“We hope it could, to some extent, help answer the question of what the hell are we paying for,” Jüristo said.

The team took an existing interactive state expenses and revenue platform developed during a hackathon in 2011 and added a way to check the impact of politicians’ fiscal promises. For example, the real-world impact of cutting VAT by 2 percent. In short, the tool helps people see through populist or ill-considered promises.

If in the initial version users could simply add or remove sums in the expenses and revenue sections and see the effect this would have in various walks of life, the new version adds context. “For example, we can now change the VAT rate and see what the budget would be like should certain political promises be realized,” Jüristo explained.

He said that while lowering VAT to 18 percent would lower the price of a yoghurt cup from 1 euro to 98 cents, the effect of the decision on the state budget would be €250 million.

It has also been said that the Riigikogu could do with half its current members; however, the move would only save €12 million a year. Shutting down the social ministry’s gender integration and equality program that has been talked about would yield saving of €2 million, Jüristo said.

“These figures constitute a different universe for the ordinary person because there is no realistic comparison,” he added.

Jüristo emphasized that because the state budget is one of the main pillars of public policy, understanding it is crucially important, while neither the voter, politicians nor often ministers themselves can make sense of it right now.

“People cannot tell the difference between fundamental things, such as how structural deficit is different from nominal deficit. I find it is a rather unjustifiable situation when people tackle a topic and make decisions without really understanding it. But that is how it is,” he said.

Jüristo said that the aim of the prototype is to give people a better tool for navigating the budget. He said he hopes the tool will be finished soon after the 2020 activity-based budget is made public. “I will take the prototype to the finance ministry this week or the next,” he promised.

Deputy Secretary General of the Ministry of Finance Sven Kirsipuu said the ministry is interested in the idea.