How do we maximize and sustain participation in the #CrowdLaw process?

Co-authored by Julia Root

This post is second in a series of four “reports from the field” on #crowdlaw

First blog

On September 24,The GovLab hosted it’s third online global conference on #CrowdLaw. This event is designed specifically for field practitioners and advocates to share experiences and connect with others who share similar goals but work in diverse international contexts and experiment with different technology and tools. GovLab presented several research questions to drive the conversation: What are the best ways for CrowdLaw advocates to communicate the importance of a CrowdLaw process to the public? What have practitioners learned about citizens’ motivations to participate? How can practitioners continue to expand the diversity of their country audience?

Crowdlaw, or open, collaborative crowdsourced lawmaking, is a tech-enabled approach for drafting legislation, regulations or constitutions, that offers an alternative to the traditional method of policymaking, which typically occurs behind closed doors and with little input from the people it affects.

The aspiration of practitioners is to create laws that are:

  • more effective because they bring in more diverse ideas
  • more legitimate because they are done with broader participation
  • more accountable because the lawmaking process becomes subject to greater scrutiny

As an action-research center, The GovLab seeks to reflect with and learn from practitioners about the participatory lawmaking projects that are happening all over the world. Below we share the major takeaways that surfaced regarding trying to involve citizens in this process.

What works:

  • Going beyond online outreach:
    • Reaching out to people face-to-face can encourage online activity and more meaningful participation. The Chilean project, La Constitución de Todos, commented that the visits to their site increased significantly after in-person events.
    • Outreach to specific social groups that are already involved in the issue being discussed can drive participation, as these groups are already engaged. For example, when discussing a regulation guaranteeing civil rights of people with disabilities in Brazil, E-democracia contacted groups who advocate for citizens with disabilities.
  • Providing an opportunity for real impact:
    • Practitioners highlighted that one of the most important incentives for participation is the possibility of having real impact: When people’s proposals become a part of a political programme, end up as a motion, a law or as language within a new constitution, citizens can experience the concrete results of their participation.
    • Having a clear understanding of the process, including deadlines with a known feedback loop in terms of results can help to set clear expectations and motivate participation. One of the most successful outreach experiences presented at the #CrowdLaw conference was the constitutional crowdsourcing in Morocco in 2011. During the process, 200,000 users provided 10,000 comments on draft legislation. The number of users was larger than the members of any political party in that country. Today, 40% of the citizens’ recommendations exist in the new constitution.
    • When developing and launching a project within government, high-level buy-in from legislators is a major a driver for participation. Choosing the right “early-adopter” can be crucial to the project’s success, as it boosts confidence among participants that they will be heard.

What are the challenges?

  • Engaging Politicians: Practitioners highlighted the difficulty of dealing with politicians and congressmen that are not so open to crowdsourcing legislation. Since people want to interact with decision makers, they must be on board with the project for it to work. In Brazil, for example, just a few members of the congress are really engaging in this process. In the Philippines, participants stressed the importance of finding a topic that’s easy closely personal to the legislator, and that he or she feels is a quick win.
  • Managing Apathy: Global platforms, like LegislationLab, have observed that there is a higher appetite for participation in countries that are going through political transition, versus established democracies, where there are a lot of different issues competing for people’s attention.
  • Getting Active Participation: It can be difficult to get visitors to the site to do a more committed action such as vote, comment or propose content. For La Constitución de Todos achieving high visits to the platform didn’t necessarily mean people engaged further by voting, commenting or suggesting an article.

What’s next?

The CrowdLaw field is still learning from doing and formulating pathways to circumvent major challenges regarding citizen engagement in the collaborative lawmaking process. In future posts we will share more insights from the session specifically focusing on designing to overcome challenges and measuring impact.

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