Category Archives: Politics

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. 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 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.

Why does DoD get all the cyber dollars?

Interesting article in FP about how diplomats can and need to do more in the cyber realm.

Diplomatic Code – By Tim Maurer | Foreign Policy.

I think Romney just handed Obama the election.

I was hiking in Great Falls yesterday when my cell phone binged with the news alert of the day – Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running-mate. My first thought was “Romney just handed the election to Obama.”

This feels like 2008 all over again. Romney probably ran the numbers, realized the odds are against him and decided to throw a hail mary pass. With the electoral college leaning Democratic, Romney’s team understood they just couldn’t win unless they inspired the conservative base, and the Tea Party especially, to turn out in big numbers for the election.

Romney’s campaign attempted to make the campaign a referendum of Obama’s handling of the economy, but that strategy has failed. The American electorate is smarter than people think, and everyone understands that Obama was handed a very bad hand. He’s probably played it about as well as anyone could have, and the economy is improving, slowly but surely. And in light of the economic troubles in Europe and China, the US economy looks positively vibrant.

With the economic strategy failing, Romney’s choice of Ryan seems to make sense. Ryan is young, charismatic and bright, and his budget proposals are a beacon for the Tea Party. He’s an ideological purist who feels that over dependence on the U.S. government undermines the liberty of  its citizens. Romney believes that Ryan’s presence on the ticket will sooth the far right, which has always been suspicious of his conservative credentials, and drive the Tea Party to support him on November 6. And he’s right – Ryan will probably draw significant support from the Conservative base. Ryan will also solidify Romney in Wisconsin, a key swing state in 2012.

However, in doing this, Romney has stepped into a trap. Paul Ryan is such a polarizing figure he’s actually going to rally more support from the Democratic base than anything Obama could have done. Whether the perception is correct or not, Ryan is viewed as a symbol for gutting domestic social programs in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy. This will likely shift states leaning towards Obama into the solid Obama camp. Ryan is seen as favoring a dismantling of Medicare, so toss-up states with a high percentage of elderly voters will start to lean Democratic. Most critically, Ryan isn’t going to play well in Florida with its high proportion of retirees.

Adding Florida’s 29 electoral votes to his ‘solid Obama’ total of 237 electoral votes will give Obama 268 – only two shy of the number needed to capture the Presidency. With Florida, Obama only needs to win one additional state from the remaining seven toss up states. For the Obama camp, that’s pretty good odds.

But in fact, Romney faced long odds when he failed to make a centrist turn after the Republican primary. The center-right Romney, the one who governed Massachusetts with pragmatism, fiscal conservatism and a social libertarian bent – that Romney could have beaten Obama handily. And so its a mystery to why Romney, after making a hard right to sew up the Republican nomination, didn’t then take a hard turn back to center after he became the Republican candidate.

The ‘real’ Romney, the Massachusetts governor who seemed to favor whats right over what’s Right, was the one that held the promise of real change from the outside. The current version of Romney looks like a failed upgrade – one that is beholden to the far right, and has now selected a career politician with exactly one year of private sector experience, to be his running-mate. Ryan is the ultimate Washington insider. The private-sector pragmatist Romney now looks very much like the torchbearer for the Republican base.

I think Romney just handed Obama the election.