This article was originally published in Apolitical on July 27, 2018. Available online here.
While many pay lip service to the aspiration of government of, for and with the people, few understand how participation can produce more than criticism and complaint. We live in a world beset with ever more complex urban and global challenges, where public expectations of what government should deliver have risen — from climate change, to ageing populations, to forced migration. Paradoxically, citizens’ trust in public institutions tasked with addressing these challenges is at an all-time low.
Redesigning our governing practices to solve the complex policy challenges of the 21st century and to repair the social contract urgently demands creating a two-way conversation between government and the governed. This will inject a greater diversity of information, innovative ideas and creative thinking into the law and policymaking process.
“New technology offers the opportunity for public institutions to learn from our collective wisdom”
At the same time, new approaches — the result of innovations in science and technology — offer the potential for improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of our institutions of governance. Governments at every level, for example, are using big data to pinpoint or predict anything from health issues to crime rates to mobility needs. New technology also offers the opportunity for public institutions to learn from our collective and distributed wisdom and experience and facilitate more informed but also more legitimate problem-solving. But we need more.
Enter CrowdLaw, the simple but powerful idea that public institutions work better when they encourage citizen engagement by leveraging new technologies. Tapping into diverse sources of opinions and expertise at each stage of the law and policymaking cycle can improve the quality and effectiveness of the resulting laws and policies.
Around the world, there are already many examples of local legislatures and national parliaments turning to the internet to involve the public in legislative drafting and decision-making.
“Public institutions work better when they encourage citizen engagement”
In Taiwan, the vTaiwan experimental e-consultation platform enables the broader public to participate in an ongoing process of problem identification. So far, 26 national issues, including the regulation of telemedicine, online education, telework, company law and Uber, have been discussed with over 200,000 people participating, a small but auspicious start.
In France, Parlement & Citoyens is an online platform that brings together representatives and citizens to discuss policy issues and collaboratively draft legislation. At the end of the process, a conclusory report explains if, when and how citizen input was incorporated into the resulting draft law. In the same country, Madame Mayor, I Have an Idea, is a participatory budget program through which Parisians can submit budget proposals online.
In Malaysia, Penang Hills Watch involves the public in recording cases of illegal hill clearing by developers. It enhances public awareness, and it fosters cooperation between civil society and the government in evaluating and improving current policy and enforcement. Observers take a photo of the activity and send it via WhatsApp or Facebook with a GPS location.
These technologies, especially big data and collective intelligence, have the potential to change how institutions learn, enabling cities in particular to govern with a much more granular and real-time understanding of on-the-ground conditions, in collaboration with the “bottom-up” intelligence of their residents.
“How can incentives be created for people to participate well, especially in a hyper-partisan climate?”
Yet, the value of citizen engagement as a strategy to improve effectiveness is not well understood. What tools, platforms and processes should be used and at what points in the process to improve the effectiveness of lawmaking? How to do so efficiently? How can CrowdLaw create channels for informing lawmaking without overwhelming politicians and their staff? How can incentives be created for people to participate well, especially in a hyper-partisan climate?
To help legislators and policymakers take advantage of public engagement at every stage of making laws and policies, The Governance Lab at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering developed the CrowdLaw Catalog, a compendium of 100+ real-world examples from 39 countries and six continents demonstrating how legislatures, parliaments, city councils and public bodies around the world are leveraging technology to involve more people in the process of governing.
It is a living repository and the first comprehensive collection of its kind. It joins a growing roster of CrowdLaw research and resources under The GovLab’s CrowdLaw initiative, launched in late 2017.
CrowdLaw implies rethinking democracy, from small to big, shifting our attention from the legitimacy of decision-making to its effectiveness. Engaging the public in law and policymaking also means asking citizens not only for their opinions but also for their expertise, ideas, actions and evidence. Let’s start now! —Victòria Alsina Burgués