Almost five years ago, President Obama launched an open government website that asked for average citizens to suggest the most pressing public policy issues and then vote on the relative importance of those issues. In the words of IdeaScale, the company that has developed the software platform for these kinds of crowdsourcing activities, these efforts at Internet-based collaboration are intended to bubble up the best ideas.
So it was with some embarrassment on the part of the White House that the subject of the legalization of marijuana came out as one of the top issues in 2009. The opponents of the President took him to task about letting a tiny fringe minority dominate his Open Government efforts. As reported in an article “Clay Shirky: online crowds aren’t always wise”, this resulted even in one of the leading scholars and advocates of crowdsourcing discussing checks and balances on full national scale popular engagement on public policy.
Various explanations were given and there was lots of hand-wringing by the digerati and open government advocates, including this one in Wired and this one on the Personal Democracy Forum blog. The White House ultimately responded only to those important issues it thought politically acceptable to respond to – not including marijuana.
Then all this passed into arcane history. But I was reminded of this history when Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana in the elections last year, various governors announced their reduction in enforcement of anti-marijuana laws or even effective decriminalization and, indeed, even the Obama Administration has softened its stance.
Whatever you might think of these decisions as matters of public policy, it seems that the rush to negative judgment about the marijuana issue “bubbling up” in 2009 was perhaps inappropriate. It may well be that these crowdsourcing efforts, while not perfect and potentially manipulated, can act as a kind of leading indicator of public opinion. Clearly the supporters were a bit more than a tiny, fringe minority.
For now, we see that public opinion on marijuana laws is the opposite of what the media commentators would have had us believe in 2009. For example, there have been two stories this past year about the survey work of the respected and non-partisan Pew Research folks:
- “Americans skeptical of value of enforcing marijuana laws” (August 13, 2013), in which they found “roughly three–in-four Americans say government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth” and
- “Majority Now Supports Legalizing Marijuana” (April 4, 2013) which seems to indicate the shift to the majority was identified in a 2010 survey.
In 2009, this was apparently still not a majority but on its way to becoming one. That is perhaps one reason that the organizations who use crowdsourcing also have found it to be a valuable means of developing innovative ideas and solutions – which are not yet, but will be, conventional wisdom in a few years.
So we do indeed need to get smarter about open government efforts, which is not the same thing as saying they don’t work. As leaders represent ever larger constituencies and thus have more difficulty understanding what’s on the minds of those constituents, crowdsourcing can be a useful instrument.
It is also something that voters will very much appreciate as a promising countervailing tendency to the disengagement from civic affairs that many have felt in recent years.
On top of that, leaders may also realize how much wisdom there is “out there” and look smart for adopting it early.
© 2014 Norman Jacknis