Iceland

   

Executive Accountability

#10
Key Findings
With monitoring reinforced in the post-crisis period, Iceland scores well overall (rank 10) in the area of executive accountability. However, its score on this measure has declined by 0.2 points since 2014.

Parliamentarians have limited resources, but sufficient oversight powers. Some documents related to pre-crash financial policy have been unavailable to legislative investigators through ordinary channels. The audit office and ombudsman are independent and well regarded, with audit-office resources now nearly restored to their pre-crash levels.

Despite a generally well-informed public, voter turnout has dropped significantly particularly among young people, in parallel with a decline in policy interest and trust in politicians. The media provides in-depth information on state policy, but reporting can be affected by owners’ financial interests.

Party decision-making is typically driven by conventions attended by local party representatives, although recent sudden elections have forced alternative methods. Economic organizations are skilled and influential, with a small number of other sophisticated interest organizations also holding strong public profiles.

Citizens’ Participatory Competence

#5

To what extent are citizens informed of government policymaking?

10
 9

Most citizens are well-informed of a broad range of government policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many citizens are well-informed of individual government policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few citizens are well-informed of government policies; most citizens have only a rudimental knowledge of policies.
 2
 1

Most citizens are not aware of government policies.
Policy Knowledge
8
Iceland’s citizens are generally well informed about government policy. In local surveys, most citizens demonstrate familiarity with public policies, especially with respect to policies that either interest them or directly affect them. This is more true of domestic policies than international politics, because the complexity of Iceland’s political landscape is comparatively low. By international standards, it is relatively easy to develop a comprehensive overview of the politics, parties, and policy issues in Iceland. Extensive interpersonal networks between citizens and Iceland’s distance from other countries contribute to the domestic focus of Icelandic politics.

The immediate response of some voters to the 2008 economic collapse demonstrates an ability on the part of some to quickly adapt to changed circumstances. In surveys connected to the 2007 and 2009 parliamentary elections, the percentage of voters agreeing with the statement that Iceland was mainly governed in accordance with the popular will declined from 64% in 2007 to 31% in 2009. Furthermore, the defeat of the four traditional national parties in the 2010 local government elections followed a dramatic decline in public trust in politicians and political institutions. In two of the biggest municipalities, Reykjavík and Akureyri, non-traditional parties were elected to power. This trend was accentuated by the publication of the highly critical Special Investigation Committee report six weeks before the elections. Even so, in the 2013 parliamentary elections, the Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn) made the largest proportionate gains, increasing its vote share from 14.8% to 24.4%. This increase was due to the party’s election pledge to write off up to 20% of homeowners’ mortgage debts at foreign expense. In the same election, the previous governing coalition lost more than half of their combined seats. The cabinet that came to power in 2013 was led by the Progressive Party.

Public debate surrounding two national referendums, in 2009 and 2011, concerning the so-called Icesave dispute, suggests strong public interest in the issue. Similarly, the 2012 national referendum on the constitutional bill secured a turnout of 49% of the electorate, despite the disparaging attitude of the traditional political parties. Declining levels of public trust in politicians and the associated increase in political apathy coincide with a noticeable deterioration in how well-informed citizens are about national and international affairs. In the 2014 local government elections, voter turnout declined further from 2010. In 2006, voter turnout had been 78.7%. In 2010, it declined to 73.5% and in 2014 it dropped to 66.5%. At 79%, voter turnout in the parliamentary election of 2016 was the lowest recorded since the early years of the 20th century. Turnout among people aged 18 to 25 years old is especially low. Most current electoral research indicates that a significant proportion of young people do not vote due to apathy and lack of interest in politics.

Citations:
Önnudóttir, E.H. and Hardarson, Ó. Th. (2009): Óánægðir lýðræðissinnar: Afstaða Íslendinga til lýðræðis. (Dissatisfied democrats: The Icelanders’ attitudes toward democracy). In Gudmundsson, H.S. and Ómarsdóttir, S. B. (2009) Rannsóknirí félagsvísindum X. Reykjavík, Háskólaútgáfan.

Eythórsson, G & Kowalczyk, M (2013): Explaining the low voter turnout in Iceland’s 2010 local government elections. In: Samtíð. An Icelandic journal of society and culture. Vol 1. 2013. (http://samtid.is/index.php/samtid/article/view/2)

Eythórsson G T, Önnudóttir E H, Hardarson Ó T, Valgardsson V O, Jónsdóttir G A, Björnsdóttir A E and Birgisson H E (2014): Sveitarstjórnarkosningarnar 2014: Hverjar eru ástæður dræmrar kjörsóknar? (What are the main reasons for the low voter turnout in the Local Government elections in 2014?).

Eythórsson, G T and Önnudóttir, E H (2017): Abstainers reasoning for not voting in the Icelandic Local Government Election 2014. In: “Íslenska þjóðfélagið” Vol 8, No 1 2017. http://thjodfelagid.is/index.php/Th/article/view/86

Legislative Actors’ Resources

#21

Do members of parliament have adequate personnel and structural resources to monitor government activity effectively?

10
 9

The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for monitoring all government activity effectively.
 8
 7
 6


The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for monitoring a government’s major activities.
 5
 4
 3


The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for selectively monitoring some government activities.
 2
 1

The resources provided to the members of parliament are not suited for any effective monitoring of the government.
Parliamentary Resources
3
Parliamentarians have access to experts employed by parliament. While the 30-person Committee Department (Nefndasvið) is tasked with assisting the parliament’s standing committees, individual members can also turn to this department for assistance. However, the limited capacity of the Committee Department, combined with its primary mandate to assist the parliament’s standing committees, restricts its ability to effectively assist more than 50 of the total 63 members of parliament. Ministers also have access to resources in their ministries. The 2007-2009 government enabled members of parliament whose constituencies are located outside of the capital area to hire half-time personal assistants. The aim of this was to improve members of parliament’s access to information and expertise. However, this policy was withdrawn after the 2008 economic collapse due to parliamentary budget cuts and is still to be reintroduced.

Citations:
http://www.althingi.is/um-althingi/skrifstofa-althingis/skipurit-og-hlutverk/nefndasvid-/

Are parliamentary committees able to ask for government documents?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may ask for most or all government documents; they are normally delivered in full and within an appropriate time frame.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to ask for government documents are slightly limited; some important documents are not delivered or are delivered incomplete or arrive too late to enable the committee to react appropriately.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to ask for government documents are considerably limited; most important documents are not delivered or delivered incomplete or arrive too late to enable the committee to react appropriately.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not ask for government documents.
Obtaining Documents
6
The Information Act from 2012 (Upplýsingalög, No. 140/2012) grants standing parliamentary committees the right to request government documents relating to their work, with the exception of classified documents. Exempted documents include: minutes, memos, and other documents from cabinet meetings; letters between the government and experts for use in court cases; and working documents marked for government use only, excluding those containing a final decision about a case or information that cannot be gathered elsewhere. The government can restrict access to documents if it can make a case that there is an exceptional public security risk, such as national security, international relations, or business agreements. The Committee on Foreign Affairs has a special legal status, which allows it to request government documents that would enable it to fulfill its legal obligations. The chair of the committee and the foreign minister can decide to keep the discussions and decisions of the committee confidential. The Budget Committee can also request the government documents it needs to fulfill its legal obligations.

In a case relating to the most infamous telephone call in Icelandic history, the central bank refused to comply with a parliamentary committee request to release the recording or transcript of a telephone conversation, which took place shortly before the 2008 economic collapse, between the prime minister and the central bank governor. This dispute remains unresolved demonstrating that the right of parliamentary committees to request access to information is not the equivalent of a right to obtain information. Further, a leaked transcript of the telephone conversation, reported on national television (RÚV), suggests that the bank may have committed legal violations. Even so, the governing board of the central bank, appointed by parliament and tasked with ensuring the bank operates in accordance with the law, is not known to have discussed the issues arising from this leak as the minutes of its meetings are not open to the public.

An internet newspaper, Kjarninn, sued the central bank in 2017 in an attempt to gain access to the coveted recording of the telephone conversation. Then, all of a sudden, a transcript of the recording was published in Morgunblaðið. The editor of Morgunblaðið is the former central bank governor who, according to the transcript of the telephone conversation, declares to the prime minister that the €500 million loan to Kaupthink Bank just before the financial crash will not be recovered. The legal ramifications of this exposure remain to be seen.

Citations:
The Information Act (Upplýsingalög nr. 142/2012)

Are parliamentary committees able to summon ministers for hearings?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may summon ministers. Ministers regularly follow invitations and are obliged to answer questions.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon ministers are slightly limited; ministers occasionally refuse to follow invitations or to answer questions.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon ministers are considerably limited; ministers frequently refuse to follow invitations or to answer questions.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not summon ministers.
Summoning Ministers
9
Parliamentary committees can legally summon ministers for hearings, but seldom do so. The foreign minister is summoned and usually attends meetings of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The relative representation of each party across and within parliamentary committees reflects the relative representation of each party in parliament.

The Special Investigation Committee, appointed by the parliament in December 2008 to investigate the processes that led to the collapse of Iceland’s three main banks, summoned several ministers and ex-ministers during 2009 and 2010.

The most notable example of a prominent politician being held accountable was the 2010 indictment of Prime Minister Geir Haarde by parliament, which led to a trial in 2012 before the High Court of Impeachment. Haarde was found guilty on one count of negligence relating to his tenure as prime minister before the 2008 economic collapse. He was found guilty of neglecting to hold cabinet meetings, during the first months of 2008, on important issues relating to the economic collapse. This obligation is stated in paragraph 17 of the constitution. As a first-time offender, Haarde was not given a custodial sentence. He is now Iceland’s ambassador to the United States.

Are parliamentary committees able to summon experts for committee meetings?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may summon experts.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon experts are slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon experts are considerably limited.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not summon experts.
Summoning Experts
10
Independent experts are frequently asked to appear before standing parliamentary committees. Following the 2008 economic collapse, committees have more frequently summoned experts, particularly lawyers, economists, and finance and banking experts. Furthermore, political scientists and other experts were asked to give advice relating to the drafting of a new constitution. However, no substantive minutes are recorded of expert testimonies before parliamentary meetings. There have been examples documented of experts making outlandish statements in their testimonies (Gylfason, 2014).

Citations:
Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2014), Tvöfalt líf — Allir segjast vera saklausir …, samtal við Þráin Bertelsson (Double Life – Everyone proclaims innocense …, a conversation with Thráinn Bertelsson), Tímarit Máls og menningar, 4. hefti.

Are the task areas and structures of parliamentary committees suited to monitor ministries effectively?

10
 9

The match between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are well-suited to the effective monitoring of ministries.
 8
 7
 6


The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are largely suited to the monitoring ministries.
 5
 4
 3


The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are partially suited to the monitoring of ministries.
 2
 1

The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are not at all suited to the monitoring of ministries.
Task Area Congruence
5
When the Gunnlaugsson and later Jóhannsson cabinet (2013-2016) came to office in 2013, only four of the eight standing parliamentary committees fully coincided with ministry responsibilities: the Economic Affairs and Trade Committee (Efnahags- og viðskiptanefnd) coincides with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs (Fjármála- og efnahagsráðuneytið); the Industrial Affairs Committee (Atvinnuveganefnd) coincides with the Ministry of Industries and Innovation (Atvinnuvega- og nýsköpunarráðuneytið); the Foreign Affairs Committee (Utanríkismálanefnd) coincides with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Utanríkisráðuneytið); and the Welfare Committee (Velferðarnefnd) coincides with the Ministry of Welfare (Velferðarráðuneytið). Others do not coincide. The Ministry of Welfare was then split between two ministers in 2013 and later the Ministry of Interior was split between two ministers in 2017.

Two of the standing parliamentary committees have a special role vis-à-vis the government. The committee responsible for financial issues and budget preparation has the authority to request information from institutions and companies that ask for budgetary funding. The Committee on Foreign Affairs has advisory status vis-à-vis the government regarding all major international policies and the government is obliged to discuss all major decisions concerning international affairs with the committee.

Parliamentary committees rarely oppose the ministries, as party affiliation of committee members reflects the parliamentary dominance of the governing parties. Thus, even if the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries nearly coincide, that does not guarantee effective monitoring. Minority members from the opposition benches can, however, use the committees as a venue to voice their opinions.

To what extent is the audit office accountable to the parliament?

10
 9

The audit office is accountable to the parliament exclusively.
 8
 7
 6


The audit office is accountable primarily to the parliament.
 5
 4
 3


The audit office is not accountable to the parliament, but has to report regularly to the parliament.
 2
 1

The audit office is governed by the executive.
Audit Office
10
Iceland’s National Audit Office is fully accountable to parliament. Considering its substantial human and financial resource constraints, the National Audit Office performs its functions quite effectively. These constraints, however, mean that a vast majority of the agencies under its jurisdiction have never been audited. No significant strengthening of the office’s financial resources occurred for several years, as its staff numbers were reduced from 49 in 2009 to 41 in 2015, a total of 16%. Though, in 2016, the staff number was increased to 45.

Citations:
Ársskýrsla Ríkisendurskoðunar 2016. (Júní 2017). https://rikisendurskodun.is/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Arsskyrsla-RE-2016.pdf

Does the parliament have an ombuds office?

10
 9

The parliament has an effective ombuds office.
 8
 7
 6


The parliament has an ombuds office, but its advocacy role is slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


The parliament has an ombuds office, but its advocacy role is considerably limited.
 2
 1

The parliament does not have an ombuds office.
Ombuds Office
10
The Parliamentary Ombudsman (Umboðsmaður Alþingis), established in 1997, investigates cases both on its own initiative and at the request of citizens and firms. It is independent, efficient, and generally well regarded. The office has 11 staff members, including six lawyers. In February 2017, Gallup reported that 51% of respondents expressed confidence in the Parliamentary Ombudsman compared with 22% in parliament.

Citations:
http://www.umbodsmaduralthingis.is/category.aspx?catID=30

http://www.gallup.is/nidurstodur/traust-til-stofnana/

Media

#17

To what extent do media provide substantive in-depth information on decision-making by the government?

10
 9

A clear majority of mass media brands focus on high-quality information content analyzing government decisions.
 8
 7
 6


About one-half of the mass media brands focus on high-quality information content analyzing government decisions. The rest produces a mix of infotainment and quality information content.
 5
 4
 3


A clear minority of mass media brands focuses on high-quality information content analyzing government decisions. Several mass media brands produce superficial infotainment content only.
 2
 1

All mass media brands are dominated by superficial infotainment content.
Media Reporting
6
Iceland’s main TV and radio stations provide fairly substantive in-depth information on government decisions. Radio analysis typically tends to be deeper than that found on television since the small size of the market limits the financial resources of TV stations. However, in-depth analysis on TV increased significantly when the private TV station Hringbraut increased such analyses in their program in 2016. Critical analysis of government policies by independent observers, experts, and journalists is a fairly recent phenomenon in Iceland.

The Special Investigation Committee report had a separate chapter on the media before and during the 2008 economic collapse. The report criticizes the media for not having been critical enough in their coverage of the Icelandic banks and other financial institutions before the 2008 economic collapse. The report argues, on the basis of content analyses of media coverage of the banks, that the media was too biased toward the banks. This bias, well known in the United States during the 1920s for example, was associated with overlapping ownership of the banks and media companies.

Parties and Interest Associations

#4

How inclusive and open are the major parties in their internal decision-making processes?

10
 9

The party allows all party members and supporters to participate in its decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and agendas of issues are open.
 8
 7
 6


The party restricts decision-making to party members. In most cases, all party members have the opportunity to participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and agendas of issues are rather open.
 5
 4
 3


The party restricts decision-making to party members. In most cases, a number of elected delegates participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and agendas of issues are largely controlled by the party leadership.
 2
 1

A number of party leaders participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and agendas of issues are fully controlled and drafted by the party leadership.
Intra-party Democracy
8
In the 2013 parliamentary elections, four out of 15 parties gained more than 10% of the votes. These four parties constitute Iceland’s traditional four-party system, sometimes called the Gang of Four. These four parties all hold their national conventions, which are the supreme decision-making forums for the parties, every second year. The conventions issue resolutions on major public policy issues, which oblige the members of parliament of the respective party to abide by these directives. Representatives from the regional and local party units of all parties have the right to participate in party conventions. The number of representatives attending is proportional to the number of party members in each unit. The nomination processes vary slightly among parties. Most parties have a tradition of primary elections in which only party members have the right to vote. For example, in the case of the Social Democrats, a signed declaration of support is required, rather than the stricter and more common requirement of party membership. The Progressive Party has different rules, under which most constituencies have a constituency board (Kjördæmisráð) that selects candidates to a constituency congress (Kjördæmisþing). The number of representatives of each local party unit is equal to the proportion of each unit’s membership to the total membership of all units. At these congresses, candidates are elected one by one. The recently established party Bright Future (Björt Framtíð), which won six seats in 2013, four in 2016 and zero in 2017, did not nominate candidates by primary elections before the 2016 election, but thereafter developed its procedures for internal decision-making. Regeneration (Viðreisn), a liberal party founded in 2016, also does not hold primary elections. The Pirate Party (Píratapartýið), which won three seats in 2013, 10 in 2016 and seven in 2017, was the largest party according to opinion polls from 2015 onward. The party held electronic primary elections in every constituency in autumn 2016. Further, the Pirate Party uses internet platforms to conduct open debates on many policy issues. Due to the limited time for election campaigning in 2016, the traditional parties skipped primary elections in some constituencies and used alternative nomination methods within the party organization. The time factor was even more important in the very sudden parliamentary elections held on 28 October 2017. After the cabinet coalition breakup of 15 September 2017, there was little time for selection procedures. Therefore, all parties except the Pirate Party used the most effective nomination method – to just propose lists and put the decisions in the hands of the constituency congresses. Meanwhile, the Pirate Party held electronic pre-elections countrywide.

To what extent are economic interest associations capable of formulating relevant policies?

10
 9

Most interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 2
 1

Most interest associations are not capable of formulating relevant policies.
Association Competence (Business)
8
The main interest organizations in Iceland continue to have considerable influence on public policymaking and engagement with political parties.

The Confederation of Icelandic Employers (Samtök atvinnulífsins, referred to as the employers’ association) has close, informal ties to the right-wing Independence Party. Likewise, the Icelandic Confederation of Labor (Alþýðusamband Íslands) has close links to the parties on the left, although its formal ties to the Social Democratic Party were severed in 1942. Until its breakup in the 1990s, the cooperative movement, with its strong ties to the agricultural sector, was closely linked to the Progressive Party (Framsókn), which has its origins in the farmers’ movement.

Closely associated with the Confederation of Icelandic Employers is the Iceland Chamber of Commerce, which continues to dispense advice to the government.

All major interest organizations have a staff of skilled employees who create research-based policy proposals that are usually well grounded, coherent, and in line with the organizations’ goals.

After the 2008 economic collapse, the employers’ association, the employees’ union, the government, and the Federation of Municipalities signed an agreement intended to promote economic stability (Stöðugleikasáttmáli). The agreement proposed a restructuring of the economy through wage and price freezes, among other issues. Then, in autumn 2015, the representatives of the government, employers and labor unions signed the so-called SALEK agreement, a framework for collective agreements in the labor market. This agreement applies now to approximately 70% of employees. Some public-sector unions have so far refused to agree on SALEK. This situation continues to be the case at the time of writing.

Under the Sigurðardóttir cabinet of 2009-2013, the Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners resisted government plans to change the regulation of fishing quotas. However, the federation was unable to prevent a considerable increase in the fees paid by owners of fishing vessel owners to the government. Nevertheless, the group was able to help prevent a broader overhaul of the system, as promised by the government.

The 2009-2013 cabinet failed to realize its goal of restructuring the management system for Iceland’s fisheries, despite raising fishing fees significantly. However, the 2013-2016 cabinet lowered the fees already in 2013, against IMF advice.

Citations:
Gunnarsson, Styrmir (2009), Umsátrid (The Siege), Veröld, Reykjavík.

To what extent are non-economic interest associations capable of formulating relevant policies?

10
 9

Most interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 2
 1

Most interest associations are not capable of formulating relevant policies.
Association Competence (Others)
9
Iceland has many active, non-economic interest organizations in various fields. Although many have a reasonable level of prominence, only a few have the capacity and competence to exert significant influence on public policy. The largest are the Organization of Disabled in Iceland (Öryrkjabandalagið), with 41 associated organizations and a staff of 13, and the Consumers’ Association of Iceland (Neytendasamtökin), with a staff of 7 and 7,300 members. The Nature and Wildlife Conservation Organization (Náttúruverndarsamtök Íslands), with one staff member, is also influential. This group has managed to feature prominently in public debates about hydro and geothermal power plants, and expressed reservations about further construction of aluminum smelters around the country. Landvernd, the Icelandic Environmental Association, also has some influence. Its CEO, Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson (2011-2017), was appointed extra-parliamentary minister of the environment and natural resources in 2017.

Citations:
http://www.obi.is/is/um-obi/starfsmenn

Neytendasamtökin. Skýrsla um starfið 2014 - 2016. https://www.ns.is/sites/default/files/gogn/4._skyrsla_um_starfsemi_neytendasamtakanna_sept_2014-_sept._2016.pdf
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