Constituent Engagement Tools in Brazil: A Conversation with Paulo Henrique

By Ayushi Roy and Kajol Char

On July 6, 2018, the GovLab’s Ayushi Roy and Kajol Char spoke with Paulo Henrique, the Chief of Technology for the HackerLab within the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, about e-Democracia – the HackerLab’s suite of constituent engagement tools.

Henrique and his team have built the e-Democracia portal with the goal to “promote an evolution of our representative model in Brazil.” The portal currently hosts four main constituent engagement tools and one of them, WikiLegis, is driving the conversation around crowdlaw in Brazil. It is focused on crowdsourcing constituent addendums to legislation and in the near future, will be able to analyse and sort the thousands of edits, additions, comments, and upvotes on each sentence of the legislative text. The portal was built as as open-source platform and it is freely available to other institutions on http://edemocracia.leg.br. The website also makes available about 80 scientific articles on e-Democracia portal history and cases. Apart from WikiLegis, the portal hosts Audiências Interativas an interactive broadcasting tool, Expressão an online discussion forum, and Pauta Participativa a platform to help the Chamber define the voting priority of its projects.

Screenshot of the E-democracia platform

Screenshot of the E-democracia platform

WikiLegis has allowed constituents to contribute to the text of laws since 2011. When e-Democracia was founded in 2009, the Chamber of Deputies sought to tackle the widespread discontent that Brazil’s representative democracy was no longer truly representative. HackerLab needed to provide more opportunities for their constituents to be more connected to representatives. Today, E-Democracia amasses a total of 60,000 users.

Henrique and his team have scaled open-source tools for citizen engagement that allow people to participate in public hearings and legislation-writing from anywhere in the country, without facing the prior burdens of cost and time that typically come with participatory democracy. The e-Democracia portal broadcasts live sessions of Chamber of Deputies committees and then digitally gathers and poses the most upvoted questions to representatives in live time. Other governmental agencies on aviation and food and drugs have used the open source platform to crowdsource information on which sections of their regulation helped or hurt constituents and employees. One sector of the army is looking to use WikiLegis in the near future for supporting institutional purchases.

The impact of e-Democracia is already undeniable. While some representatives simply see the tool as a threat, others have improved their performance and abandoned their previous habits of inattentiveness to become more active participants. Henrique notes that the behavior of representatives in Parliament is now more transparent than ever before to their constituents. Furthermore, they are continually responsible to their constituents’ concerns through a tool which allows them to ask questions during live broadcasts, as well as suggest and vote on House agenda items. While only a couple dozen bills have been altered by the online contributions of WikiLegis so far, HackerLab has noted inbound interest from municipal, state and even private players in scaling WikiLegis’ open source code. Brazil’s e-Democracia is witnessing the onset of a new political culture of constituent empowerment and engagement.

With the general election quickly approaching in October 2018, HackerLab and the Chamber of Deputies looks forward to observing  if online participation on WikiLegis translates to increased voter turnout. Ultimately, Henrique told us, we’re looking to change the culture of representation “not just in the Chamber but also in the country.”