Expanding Insights – #Crowdlaw Session 2 Highlights Need for Experimentation & Collaboration

Last week, The GovLab Academy hosted its second #Crowdlaw session, bringing together thinkers and doers designing and running initiatives to empower and engage citizens in the process of legislation- and constitution-making from around the world. If you missed it, you can watch the full session here or review all of the Tweets from the event here:

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What Did We Learn?

Featured #Crowdlaw Participants & Projects

This second session focused on sharing insights from case studies underway in five different countries and the European Union. Platform developers, lawyers, government employees and research scientists shared what they’ve learned and seek to learn and develop together to assess crowdlaw’s impact and promote its successful adoption.

Participants included:

  • Natalia Carfi (@naticarfi), the Open Government Coordinator for the Chilean government, discussed work underway in the new administration to crowdlaw the drafting of regulations to support a lobby law passed under the previous administration. She noted that the government has created a platform for citizens to discuss the proposed regulations, which enables users to comment on any article or on the text as a whole. So far, about 500 people have logged in to the platform, though commenting has been minimal. Natalia noted that the Chilean President is committed to constitutional reform and that her goal is to help develop a wider strategy to get citizens involved in this effort moving forward. She particularly highlighted the need to help find new ways to simplify the legislative text to ensure opportunities for participation are accessible to all.
  • Johannes Pichler, the Chair for European Legal Developments at the University of Graz in Austria and Director to the Austrian Institute for European Law and Policy, presented on his emerging project “The European Citizens Open Senate Online,” which is designed as a political self-education and self-organizing lab aimed at implementing a tool, from the bottom up, that enables the European Union’s 400 million-person electorate to connect around existing and emerging local and regional dialogues throughout Europe, and to cooperate and collaborate in a strictly issue-based way, rather than based on any political or philosophical arrangement.
  • Seamus Kraft (@seamuskraft), the Executive Director, Co-Founder & Vice-Chairman of the Board of the OpenGov Foundation, discussed his work on Madison – an open-source software that was developed within the U.S. government to break through the “great government firewall” to involve more people in the legislative development and drafting process. Seamus highlighted that work on Madison began with the Stop Online Piracy Act, when citizens outside of government wanted to rally around technical and fact-based opposition to the bill. The Madison software enabled the PDF legislation to be broken up into open, interactive pieces that individuals could comment on, annotate, and up- or down-vote. Madison 1.0 saw 2433 users sign-up and engage on 11 official policy documents, submitting 1420 comments and 749 edits.  Since its early iteration, the platform has grown into a robust policy document authoring tool, which legislators and staffers inside government can use to create open data policy in a collaborative way and then share easily with those outside government to refine, expand and comment on. Madison 2.0 is under development for congress and is currently in use by the Washington DC City Council.
  • Sean Deely (@sxean), the former Deputy Director of the Postwar Reconstruction and Development Unit (PRDU), University of York, and currently Senior Advisor for the United Nations in Libya, discussed his work for the UN Development Program, particularly around promoting participatory constitution-making in the post-authoritarian Arab state. Focusing on civic engagement in the political transition process in Libya, Sean described his work with civil society organizations, academia and political actors to design a platform for use by Libyans in the constitution-making process – a process that is to be facilitated by a 60-person Constitutional Assembly over the course of four months. Deely explained that the civic engagement platform, which contemplates leveraging the extensive use of Internet and mobile technology, particularly by young people in Libya, was designed with the following five prerequisites in mind:
    • Information – the platform will provide a way to learn about the constitution-making process (i.e., who is preparing the draft, how long it will take, etc.);
    • Online Education – the platform will enable users to learn about constitutional-related topics through short tutorial videos (e.g., what a constitution is, what it does for citizens, and examples of different systems of rights protected therein);
    • Blog & Online Q&A – the platform will include a blog with posts from experts offering informed opinions around different constitutional issues;
    • Upload Your Submission – the platform will enable users to submit their own opinions into the process. Notably, the platform will allow video uploads from smartphones taken by individuals talking about particular issues or priorities that matter to them or from civil society groups that have helped to capture the perspectives from those with limited access (e.g., minority groups, the disabled or the elderly); and
    • Wiki Contributionsthe initiative also envisions a one-month process after a draft constitution is developed, during which the citizenry will be able to review and share insights on the draft constitution, article by article; vote for or like/not like particular articles; and propose alternative formulations for the constitutional language.
  • Joonas Pekkanen (@joonaspekkanen), Founder and Chairman of the Open Ministry and a Civil Society Representative on the National Open Government Committee, described the crowdlaw initiative underway in Finland following a March 1, 2012 amendment to the Finnish constitution that allowed for proposals supported by at least 50,000 Finnish citizens to be put before the Finnish Parliament, and to be afforded the same procedural protections given to government-initiated bills. Joonas noted that the Open Ministry was founded to help support and build campaigns for these citizens’ initiatives submitted to Parliament. It provides a website, which allows people to brainstorm ideas and begin to collaborate around ideas that may get deepened into proposals. The Open Ministry also provides assistance, through a network of volunteer lawyers and marketing experts, to citizens wishing to formulate good quality law proposals and campaigns. He noted that Open Ministry serves as a powerful tool that helps break the politicians’ monopoly on setting the policy agenda. Finally, Joonas noted that the Ministry works to aggregate lessons learned from previous citizens’ campaigns, for leveraging by citizens in the future.
    • Joonas also explained the six initiatives that have passed the 50,ooo threshold thus far. They include:
      1. A ban on farming animals for their furs (voted down, but established precedent for procedural guarantees for citizens’ initiatives);
      2. Energy certificates for houses (voted down);
      3. Same sex marriage initiative (still being debated within Parliament. Was very widely supported, garnering more than 100 thousand people in support within the first day);
      4. Copyright reform initiative (still being debated);
      5. Giving up mandatory status of Swedish language in Finnish school systems (still being debated);  and
      6. Initiative for stricter drunk driving legislation (still being debated).
    • Joonas also highlighted that the Open Ministry uses/promotes the piloting of a variety of tools to citizens and opts not to design around the technology first. The Open Ministry offers a fairly basic website where users can post ideas, comment and vote in favor or against, but they have used other tools on an ad hoc basis to see what works in different situations, including:
      • Collaborative editing tools like Etherpads and Google docs, and
      • Virtual collaboration tools like Google Hangouts and Skype.
  • Stephen Ozanne (@sozanne), a corporate lawyer for CrowdLaw.org and Martyn Dorey (@TigGuern), an investment actuary, the Managing Director of Dorey Financial Modelling, and chair of the Finance Tax and Legal subcommittee for the Chamber of Commerce in Guernsey, presented on their work with the Crowdlaw.org (@CrowdLaw_) initiative in Guernsey, Channel Islands. The Guernsey crowdlaw team aims to combat years-long legislative backlash and a lack of innovation and backing from the technology industry in the legislative process. They have begun their work initially by designing and running a hackathon around the development of driverless car legislation.  They ran the hackathon to put together principles for the legislation using a specialist event facilitator and “world cafe techniques” to create an environment to help software developers, lawyers and the general public to brainstorm and build on each others’ ideas together. The team also used Google Moderator as a platform to outline over 50 discussion points related to the issue and gave participants the ability to vote, comment on and add new suggestions. They also offered a video to describe the crowdlaw process and ultimately made a concept document/mini-green paper with the principles. They plan to move forward with development of a white paper of draft legislation, along with a document that citizens can read to understand more specifically how the law will or will not affect them. The team highlighted how fortunate they have been working in Guernsey, where many government entities want to leverage the commitment and outputs of this emerging crowdlaw initiative as a means of supplementing what can be done within the small, resource-strapped government.
  • Juliet Lecchini (@Lecchini), the Web Foundation’s Lead Magna Carta Program Manager, and Harry Halpin (@harryhalpin), W3C/MIT Research Scientist (Technology and Society Domain), spoke about their work developing the Magna Carta Project, at the direction of Web Foundation founder and WWW creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Juliet noted that the project aims to launch a global charter – a Magna Carta for the Internet – hopefully by September of this year. The Web Foundation team is in the very early stages of planning how to go about developing this charter; their goal is to leverage existing open-source and available platforms and tools and to make the charter available in all or many languages.

Key Takeaways

Following these presentations, the session devolved into discussion among participants and a Q&A with the viewing audience around four themes: 

  1. Design: What makes for successful crowdlaw projects: what works, what doesn’t?
  2. Incentives: How to encourage people to participate?
  3. Impediments: What are the legal, cultural, technological and other obstacles?
  4. Metrics: How to measure what works and demonstrate both legitimacy and effectiveness?

Some of the key lessons shared and learned along these themes include:


  • Designing crowdlaw projects well requires that practitioners understand the audience or audiences they want to engage and provide the education and guidance necessary for empowering contribution at different levels of need and interest. Designing crowdlaw projects in phases can be useful, especially when there is a need for deep capacity building before drafting opportunities could be truly understood and accessible to the public.
  • Designing crowdlaw projects around polarized or mainstream topics can prove beneficial for getting people and the media engaged; however, this can also threaten the institutionalization of crowdlaw, as those with entrenched or highly political views are often quick to challenge the legitimacy of projects around such issues.
    • Furthermore, complex legal issues may prove more challenging for crowdlaw. Legislation that has many different components and complexities to reform or develop (e.g., copyright reform in Finland) prove difficult to condense and simplify enough to make understandable and engaging.
  • Fluctuating priorities and/or unclear deadlines can make sustaining participation and political focus challenging. Failure or delay in performing or improving on issues identified can also pose barriers to successful implementation.
  • Local participation and ownership proves valuable. When local civic organizations get involved, this can help garner support from the wider community – both technical and design.


  • Creating links, especially around data, between those inside our existing policy- and law-making institutions and outside may prove useful for encouraging use and adoption of crowdlaw. Establishing a direct connection for those inside of government for how crowdlaw can supplement their work and make their jobs easier may prompt adoption and buy-in.
  • Using both push techniques (in-person convenings and meetings – generally better with older demographics) and pull techniques (social media approaches – generally useful for the younger, more digitally-literate generations) can help inspire participation and serve as means to ensure you’re describing participation opportunities to different demographics appropriately.
  • Motivating the crowd to engage seems more fruitful when “personal payback is high.” Personal payback is contextual and need not be financial.
  • Economics may play a role in motivating participation. Some initial ideas from the Crowdlaw.org Guernsey team included experimentation with the creation of legal marketplaces, or awarding prizes or financial/tax breaks for engagement in crowdlaw.


  • Crossing the “innovation-chasm” –  i.e. taking ideas from crowdlaw innovators or practitioners and crossing over to early adopters and beyond proves to be a big but very important hurdle to overcome.
  • Ensuring the public can understand and access the subject matter of crowdlaw. Some design ideas heard around making legislative language more engaging include:
    • Bringing in experts and staff to help translate and simplify language on a platform or at a convening can be useful.
    • In addition to promoting the use of plain language, direct annotation tools, diagrams, and other tools to help simplify may enhance crowdlaw projects.
    • Note: The Good Law project is an initiative in the United Kingdom that offers a good case study to follow for crowdlaw supporters; it is working to make legislative vocabulary more engaging and understandable for the UK citizenry.


  • We need more research around how generalizable “crowdlaw” results are, especially given the differences in government, social context and culture that exist around the world. We need to study and do A/B testing to figure out whether results from these crowdlaw case studies can actually be successfully leveraged and replicated across jurisdictions and geographies – from platform design/UI/UX considerations to incentive schemes and beyond.
    • The OpenGov Foundation has begun testing what prompts use of annotation vs. commenting vs. up- or down-voting across different venues, though it’s still too early to say any generalizable best practices have emerged.
  • Unless we can start sharing metrics and working with different open-source code bases, it will be hard to develop a “science of crowdlaw.”

Tools Highlighted 

In addition to the customized platforms and open-source software (e.g., Madison) highlighted in this session, participants also mentioned a variety of tools that have proved useful for different aspects of crowdlaw, including:

  • Blogs and forums – for capacity building and online education around constitutional or legislative issues.
  • Google Moderator – for group discussion and debate.
  • Google Docs, Etherpads and wikis – for collaborative drafting.
  • Skype and Google Hangouts – for virtual convenings and Q&As.
  • Annotator.js – for in-line editing.
  • Hackathons – for community and issue-building.

Resources & Next Steps

As Open Ministry’s Joonas Pekkanen noted in his closing remarks during the session, “people are not uninterested in politics if you can provide them tools and processes that promise actual possibility to change, if not the policy, then at least the agenda.”

To help promote sustained dialogue around developing best practices and learning from each other to develop crowdlaw going forward, the GovLab invites you to:

  • Stay tuned for future sessions and developments in the field by following our growing list of crowdlaw practitioners and leaders via The GovLab’s Crowdlaw Twitter list.
  • Check out articles and platforms highlighted as part of our online unconference series via The GovLab’s Crowdlaw Zotero Folder.
  • Share ideas for other practitioners, crowdlaw projects, and/or topics we should focus on in future sessions. Additionally, we invite you to write to us with ideas for how to elevate the development of best practices in the comments below or @TheGovLab on Twitter, using #crowdlaw.

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