Power from the people: crowdsourcing the constitution

April 18th, 2012 by

microtask_crowdsourcing_constitutionTo a crowdsourcing evangelist like me, the idea of a crowdsourced nation sounds like heaven on earth. Just think: a country where the wisdom of crowds trumps the ulterior motives of politicians, and the people rule supreme. But despite my limitless optimism, I can’t help thinking that the people are also responsible for littering, traffic jams and the career of Justin Bieber. Just how effective could a crowdsourced constitution be?

Rip it up and start again

Last year we reported on Iceland’s plans to crowdsource a new constitution. The official Facebook page has received an almost Bieber-worthy 16,000 comments, and the constitution could be ratified as early as June 1st. Now it looks like the idea is spreading.

The Scottish Assembly has invited members of Iceland’s Constitutional Council to speak at a special event held by the policy group Nordic Horizons. This group leads Scotland’s efforts to emulate the success of, well, Nordic folk like me I guess (oh, and Nordic-style education, healthcare and equality, but mostly me).

Crowdsourcing constitutional change was, of course, big news in North Africa and the Middle East last year. The rash of revolutions in these areas created new states in need of new constitutions (and probably tripled Bashar al-Assad’s life insurance premiums). As we have previously discussed, it’s nice to think that you can use the same suite of apps to help topple a tyrant or build a nation. Sadly, it also takes a lot more than a Facebook page to rebuild a whole country’s infrastructure: the efforts of the crowd in these regions had only limited success.

But a country doesn’t have to need a whole new constitution to take advantage of crowdsourcing. Shortly after his election, Barack Obama set up the We The People site, which gives citizens the chance to post petitions online. If a petition gets 25,000 signatures in 30 days, the White House must issue a response. However, critics have pointed out that no matter how much support an issue gets, the most voters can expect is a courteous reply from the President. It offers no direct influence on policy.

No, the friendly kind of CIA

Meanwhile (and more importantly) in Finland, the Citizens’ Initiative Act has been in effect since the beginning of March. The Act allows any citizen to propose a new law to Parliament, as long as they can get the support of 50,000 eligible voters. Aiming to help Finns make the most of the Act, a group of volunteer activists, software engineers and researchers created the Avoin Ministeriö (Open Ministry). There, voters can present their ideas to the crowd, offer support for policy initiatives which catch their eye and join in debates.

While the US has dipped a toe into the warm, radiant waters of crowdsourcing, Finland has plunged straight in. Unlike the We The People programme’s arms-length approach, the Citizens’ Initiative Act allows citizens direct access to policymaking, and it will be interesting to follow its development (and see how soon it is before someone suggests declaring war on Sweden).

The current crop of constitutional projects represents a new frontier for collaborative reasoning. Though Iceland’s constitution has yet to be seen in operation and the Finnish CIA is in its infancy, those of us at the commercial end of crowdsourcing will be able to learn valuable lessons from these large-scale initiatives. Let’s just hope those lessons are more ‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ than ‘Oh no, how can we avoid that?’

  • http://serendipolis.wordpress.com/ Marta Poblet

    I agree with you in that these projects represent a new frontier for collaborative reasoning. Nevertheless, to have more “Wow!”-type lessons they will need to adopt the analytical tools required to structure, classify, and filter meaningful content from multiple conversation threads. I hope that semantic web technologies can be successfully leveraged here.