Hille Hinsberg: T-shirts I didn’t have

8. Nov 2023

If you want to show you’re a fan, wear a T-shirt. With a right image on your blouse, you can also protest. For or against – but the T-shirt’s job is to convey a message and a passionate attitude. A civic activist wants to share their message with the world. But it seems to me that behind a few words or a picture, everyone has a story. Here are three keywords that stand for me for the different roles I have played in civil society for the last 16 years.

Talk to people

If you say the word “government communication” nowadays, the first thing that probably comes to mind is Prime Minister speaking on TV. It was no different in 2007 when I joined the Chancellery. Nobody knew anything about tweeting, and politicians were not yet in the habit of posting important government news on their social media. Communication was through official channels and was one-way: “We’re letting you know that…”

Therefore, it was necessary to convince the ministries that the water in the information river can also flow backwards and that it is therefore necessary to collect from NGOs (i.e. non-governmental actors) informed ideas on draft laws and development plans. That’s how this good practice of engagement and participatory channels came about – in consultation with NGOs and public administration experts.

As a civil servant, I wore my activist T-shirt to invite colleagues to take part in the Let’s Do It Clean up, which took place for the first time in May 2008. The following year, I was one of the organisers of the My Estonia think-tank (Minu Eesti mõttetalgu). From there, it was a logical step to go to the think tank Praxis, where I had the opportunity to contribute to initiatives such as the Guardians of Governance (Valitsemise valvurid), the People’s Assembly (Rahvakogu) and others. The common aim of these different forms of participation was to show that in a free society, ‘democracy cannot be made’ by power alone.

21st century village square

This T-shirt would mark the forerunner of the Open Government Partnership (AVP), a now global network that began with the arrival of President Obama. He formulated three whales on which governments, parliaments and NGOs alike rely to sustain and develop an open society. These principles are transparency, inclusiveness and accountability (see here for a more detailed explanation).

I was fortunate to have been present at the launch of the AVP in Estonia, as well as to have evaluated the results of other countries’ Action Plans over several years. I could have worn the T-shirt in Washington D.C., in a hotel with the emblematic name of the Mayflower, where US democracy builders – organisations that had been engaged in shedding light on the country’s activities for years – had gathered. They had planned to draft a letter to Obama to let him know their ambitious expectations of what they wanted to achieve through AVP (read more here). I was invited there by the 21st Century Town Hall Meeting team, who were known for conducting civic engagement events – town halls. It was at this gathering that I realised how influential is a role the third sector can play when it cooperates with each other and with the state.

Show data!

I would use this T-shirt to confirm my belief: you make the best argument when you can prove it. You have to present your message in such a way that complex things become understandable. To do this, you can use storytelling, visualisation – and truth based on data.

That’s why I’m interested in the information available to the state, and in particular what else can be done with it that is useful. Information is power. Sharing information is therefore about sharing power, because the more people who are empowered to make data-driven decisions, the more new value is created. I can confirm this from my own experience. Turning national budget figures into a single image that fits on a web page, or presenting the result of a policy analysis as a picture – I was lucky to meet people who taught me to think pictorially. Now I can use this skill in my work as an open government consultant and, of course, in Open Knowledge Estonia, an association of people interested in open data.