[This blog is a slightly early contribution to the dialog of the annual Personal Democracy Forum to be held tomorrow, June 5, 2014, in New York City. See http://personaldemocracy.com/conferences/nyc/2014 .]
In a previous post, “Is The Voice A Model For Crowdsourcing?”, I noted that crowdsourcing can be a modern manifestation of the civic involvement that is the foundation of successful democracies – by providing public officials a good sense of the priorities of citizens, in addition to giving them new ideas.
When he took office in 2009, President Obama made crowdsourcing a key element of his open government initiative, using the IdeaScale platform. So did other elected officials in national and sub-national governments around the world.
In some respects, it is surprising that public officials with executive responsibilities have taken to crowdsourcing more than those in legislative positions. Most legislative bodies in democracies have encouraged petitions and testimony from the public as they consider new laws. The National Conference of State Legislatures of the USA prominently features the importance of citizen engagement, mostly focused on ways this has happened for decades.
So, in the Internet age, crowdsourcing would seem to be a natural extension of that traditional pattern. But that’s happening slowly.
I would expect this to pick up as legislators realize it is in their professional interest to better engage with their constituents. That engagement helps to even the playing field in the frequent contests between legislators and public executives – a situation where most voters have much less awareness of their legislators than of the executives and so can provide less support for the legislative side.
There are two interested examples of crowdsourcing in the legislative arena.
Last year, the Ministry of Environment in Finland used crowdsourcing to draft a new law on off-road traffic, a subject with conflicting public priorities so it was good to encourage wider involvement in the debate than would normally occur.
A GovLab report, at the end of last year, noted these ways in which this was a positive experiment:
- Almost all the comments were constructive, with a very small percentage weeded out.
- Participants as a group were realistic about their expectations and the fact that their input would need to be refined.
- The participants learned from each other which helped to elevate the level of the debate and presumably made it easier for the government to arrive at a reasonable compromise.
- The “crowd preferred commonsensical and nuanced ideas, while rejecting vague and extreme ones”
Clearly the experience of the Finnish would indicate that some of the fears public officials have had about crowdsourcing haven’t come about. The public is trying to participate as reasonable adults in a governmental process; they’re not attacking officials with their “virtual pitchforks”.
Earlier this year, in what he said was a first for the USA, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Los Angeles did the same for a proposed new probate law. The number of people who took advantage of the opportunity was relatively small, not surprising considering that probate law is perhaps not the most exciting topic for most people. Nevertheless, he plans to shepherd the ideas from the crowd through the legislative process as part of a larger effort to modernize the way that citizens interact with government.
As crowdsourcing in legislation – both big and small – continues to develop a good track record, I would expect to see many more legislators and legislative bodies begin to use the modern tools for gathering ideas and priorities from the public.
©2014 Norman Jacknis