Crowdsourced Legislation & Policy

Crowdsourcing is going to revolutionize how government legislation is drafted and how policy is created and executed. And why not? The very nature of government crowdsourcing is involving the people in government. Whereas open data initiatives are one way – government publishing info to the masses – crowdsourcing enables two-way collaboration. Citizens will have the ability to actively comment on and shape legislation and policy. That sounds a lot like democracy to me.

How will this revolution occur?

IBM recently produced an excellent series of articles on government crowdsourcing and the co-design and co-production of government services.

If you have 18 minutes, Clay Shirky has an excellent TED talk about how Gits could be used to comment on and revise legislation. This is a brilliant idea that I examine in more detail below.

OpenCongress.org implements a variant of this model, publishing legislation and allowing the public to comment on it. But there’s one major flaw with OpenCongress – Congress isn’t participating. It’s citizens talking to themselves.

John Boehner led the charge to publish legislative data in xml as well as other openness reforms, but why not go all the way and adopt an OpenCongress model, where pending legislation is posted online for public comment, and proposed changes or amendments are tracked and referenced to the legislator making the change?

Why not? Accountability. But hiding from accountability is not Congress serving the people, its Congress protecting its own interests.

I’ve often wondered whether the Department of State will ever crowdsource policy development and execution. DoS could theoretically publish its current or proposed policies in an OpenCongress style forum, (perhaps PolicyHub.State.gov?) and allow the public to comment on and edit them. Quality control could be enforced by the crowd itself, with the best ideas and information upvoted and highlighted. This would certainly provide policy-makers with a much wider diversity of opinions and presumably richer data inputs. Who doesn’t want more high quality policy options?

Our Embassies could also post information online on policies towards the host country as well as proposed development/ foreign assistance programs. Posting this information in a collaborative forum would engage a broader swath of host country society and would presumably encourage valuable feedback that might not otherwise be available (e.g. an Embassy might discover that development assistance in particular region is disproportionately guided towards one particular ethnic group by government officials). International visitors could be proposed and voted on by the people. Policy initiatives could be generated by host country nationals. It seems like a great way to actively engage a wider swath of society in the kinds of dialogues we want to engage in.

These moves would inevitably generate criticism of our policies, of course. But if we want to create the best policies based on the best available information, shouldn’t we be willing to place our ideas into the public domain so they can be honed by criticism and feedback? If our ideas can’t survive the public crucible, then I believe they probably weren’t all that wonderful in the first place.

The world is increasingly a marketplace of ideas, and if we want our ideas to survive and thrive, they have to be hearty enough to survive a rigorous public debate. These collaborative forums would also provide us outstanding feedback before policies are actually implemented rather than after, when it will be too late to avoid blowback. Also, audiences are far more likely to forgive bad ideas placed into a collaborative forum where they’re expected to be shaped and critiqued, than bad ideas which never go through critique and debate but are simply announced and implemented.

One other concern is that the crowd is sometimes, well, a mob. NASA offered the crowd an opportunity to name a new space station module. Comedian Stephen Colbert hijacked the effort and his followers ‘won’ the contest for him. NASA declined to name the module ‘Colbert’ but they did name a treadmill after him. Still, it demonstrates that there is the risk that special interest groups could hijack particular issues or the mob could promote frivolous ideas (like petitioning the White House to build a Death Star.)

Nevertheless, the idea of crowdsourcing policy inputs and execution IS going to be implemented, it’s just a matter of when. Will DoS do it proactively in an effort to shape discussions with non-state actors? Or will it do it reactively in response to our foreign policies being debated in open forum without State input?

I hope it’s the former. Ditto for other departments and agencies.

In a future article I’ll go into more detail about exactly how a Git-style policy collaboration tool might work. Until then, you can check out this innovative effort by the NY Legislature to serve up legislative data using an open source platform.

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