From October onwards, Finland will use a “citizen’s initiative” that requires the Eduskunta (Parliament) to vote on any citizen-drafted law that garners 50,000 votes of support through the Open Ministry platform – which is open-source and available on GitHub. The initiative is the latest effort to incorporate more popular participation into the the law making process through crowdsouring – allowing for the widest range of input, viewpoints and ideas. It provides yet another example of what Steven Johnson calls “Peer Progressive” in his latest book.
Most efforts start from the assumption that the quality of the laws we create and presumably the legitimacy of their eventual implementation would benefit from more diverse participation from a wider array of non-professionals. In his recent TED talk, Clay Shirky called for creating such a “Git Hub” for lawmaking to transform the legislative process and enable ordinary citizens to have direct input.
Till date, the “crowdsourcing law” experiments have focused on more bottom up approaches to the work of lawmaking, including: 1) proposing topics for new laws; 2) writing drafts of law; 3) commenting on drafts; 4) expressing support or dislike of proposed laws.
Consider for instance these example :
- The German Pirate Party uses open source software called Liquid Feedback to facilitate direct democracy 2.0 by empowering citizens to quickly poll online as to inform their representatives about their preferences.
- Following Internet users’ concerted efforts against the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), Reddit users created r/fia, a collaborative space for drafting “The Free Internet Act.” Also inspired by the SOPA and PIPA protests, Representative Darrell Issa is encouraging citizens to collaborate on the Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) and Digital Citizen’s Bill of Rights on his Keep the Web Open website.
- Iceland’s Constitutional Council, tasked with creating a more modern constitution, solicited citizen feedback throughout the drafting process. Each week, the council posted a new proposed clause online, allowing citizens to comment or wholly rewrite the selection. The completed constitution also stipulates that any future changes will be put to a vote among all eligible Icelandic voters.
- Latvia’s Mana Balss (My Voice) gives citizens a chance to set the debate agenda for their representatives. Latvian politicians agreed to debate any citizen-created petition submitted to Mana Balss that receives over 10,000 votes of support from other users.
- WikiVote!, a Russian initiative, includes citizens in the drafting of laws and development strategies. To avoid simple, unproductive commenting, WikiVote! breaks each document into smaller components and encourages users to draft their own improved versions of each selection. The different versions are then voted on by the community.
- Brazil’s e-democracia portal is dedicated to creating discussion and finding solutions to public problems. Citizens have the opportunity to call attention to an issue that should be addressed by the government, propose possible solutions, debate with other citizens and even draft bills.
Unlike Latvia’s Mana Balss, which only requires lawmakers to debate widely supported issues, or the United Kingdom’s Direct Democracy program, which could lead to the discussion of an issue in Parliament, Finland’s program forces representatives to officially take a stand for or against proposals demonstrated to be important to a large portion of the population.
As such, Open Ministry could lead to not only more immediate direct democracy, but greater accountability for government representatives. Despite the promise of crowdsourcing towards more participation, transparency and accountability of the law-making processes several challenges remain. More importantly, broader questions exist on whether these efforts aim to fix a process designed for a previous era or should go beyond what we currently mean by legislation.
Matthew Ingram at GigaOm concludes that “the laborious process of putting together a comprehensive piece of legislation — which would require hundreds of pages, legal footnotes and cross-checking with existing laws if it is to succeed in any real way — may simply not be compatible with existing crowdsourcing methods”. Much more experimentation and research is needed to turn crowdsourcing into a tool that can improve or even transform the legislative process. New interfaces are needed. The development of tools such as IBM’s Many Bills which focuses on offering an easy way to reading legislation could provide for improve the public’s understanding of key components of a bill and and subsequently have them weigh in on the issues they care about most. Stay tuned.