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Charting a course to government by the crowd, for the crowd

It is a bitter irony that politicians lament the threat to democracy posed by the internet, instead of exploiting its potential to enhance the existing system. Hackers and bots may help to sway elections, but modern technology has allowed the power of the multitude to positively disrupt the world of business and beyond. Now, crowdsourcing should be allowed to shake up the lawmaking process to make democracies more participatory and efficient.

The crowd clearly can be harnessed, whether it is Apple outsourcing the creation of apps, Wikipedia amassing an encyclopedia of unprecedented magnitude, or National Geographic searching for the Tomb of Genghis Khan. If we can agree that the most important factor of a responsive democracy is participation, then there must be a way to capitalise on this collective intelligence.

In fact, political participation hasn’t been this easy since the first days of democracy in Athens 2,500 years ago. Modern social media can turn into a reality the utopian vision of direct civic engagement on a massive scale. Lawmaking can now be married to public consent through technology. The crowd can be unleashed.

A colourful crowd… Thomas Hawk/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Sharing a platform

Governments haven’t completely missed out. Iceland used crowdsourcing to include citizens in its constitutional reform beginning in 2010, while petition websites are increasingly common and have forced parliamentary debates in the UK. US federal agencies have initiated “national dialogues” on topics of public concern and, in many US municipalities, citizens can provide input on budget decisions online and follow instantaneously whether items make it into the budget.

These initiatives show promise in improving what goes into and what comes out of the process of government. However, they are on too small a scale to counter what many believe to be a period of fundamental democratic disenchantment. That is why government needs to throw its weight behind a full online system through which citizens can easily access all ongoing legislative initiatives and provide input during periods of public consultation. That is a challenge, but not mission impossible. Over 2016/2017 a little over 200 bills were introduced in the UK’s parliament.

Taking democracy beyond voting. European Parliament/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

It could put the power of participation in the hands of the people, and grant greater legitimacy to government. Through websites and apps, the public would be given an intuitive, one-stop shop for democracy, accessible from any device, and which allowed them to engage no matter where they were – on the beach or on the bus. Registered users would get notifications when new legislation was up for consultation. If the legislation were of interest, it could be bookmarked in order to stay updated.

Users would be able to comment on each paragraph of a draft. Moderators would curate the debate by removing irrelevant and inappropriate content and by continuously summarising the most important and common comments to head off an overflow of information. At the end of the consultation period, the moderators could summarise suggestions, concerns and praise in a memo available to policymakers and the public.

Clearly, such an ambitious project would be a learning process, subject to refinement and expansion. Later versions could include more complexity, enabling users to directly comment on others’ remarks, as well as backing the input of others through a rating system. The main relevant interest groups affected by legislation might be able to publish concise summaries of their position on the platform, as they do on ballot propositions in California or in submissions to parliamentary select committees in the UK.

Innovative lawmaking

The hope is that a platform like this can activate citizens’ voices and increase their sense of ownership in government. As far as direct democracy goes, referendums are blunt, divisive tools: this system could actually improve the quality of all laws – and all through the parliamentary system.

Sceptics may consider this optimistic. Can input from citizens really improve laws in this complex, data-driven age? I argue that it is precisely this complexity that requires input from more diverse sources than is the case in the current system. Properly targeted, crowdsourcing could deliver access to hundreds of thousands of experts: why not ask nurses about medical practice reform? It could also draw on insights from interested non-experts, who often hold the key to disruptive solutions in policymaking. Why would any government decline to unlock this potential?

Who you gonna call? Andrew Bowden/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The broader ambition would be to create more engaged citizens. That raises the tricky question of rewarding participation. Hard cash won’t be an option, and so governments would need to focus on spurring citizens’ intrinsic motivation. Research on corporate crowdsourcing shows that intrinsic motivation is best encouraged when participants can choose topics freely and according to their interests. This is why the platform should include all ongoing legislation, allowing citizens to find what resonates with them.

People used to just casting a vote every few years or reading the news would be given a completely new channel to engage with, even shape, the political system of their country. Ideally, something that has the appeal of a playful simulation would also give people the chance to truly grasp a law proposal, rather than relying on soundbites delivered through the media. That might prompt a more realistic appreciation of the work carried out by policymakers, not to mention a more informed public discussion. Another positive side effect may be that policymakers are forced to communicate their proposals more understandably, and make clear the intentions and goals.

But let’s not get carried away with the potential positives. Crowdsourcing democracy is not a sure-fire success. Politicians could turn this project into a shiny but insubstantial Potemkin village of participation, or as one crowdsourcing scholar puts it, a “benign, but meaningless” way of attracting some good headlines. One way of preventing this would be for an independent public body to run the platform and hire the moderators. They would team up with experts from within government to ensure discussions on the platform were kept relevant. Costs could be kept under tight control.

Crowdsourcing holds the potential to activate citizens’ engagement with democratic processes and make laws more innovative. Instead of solely discussing social media as a threat to democracy and a catalyst of extremism, governments should finally start to harness the potential in collecting input from citizens.

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