Monday, May 11, 2009

Can we use crowdsourcing to reshape democracy?

Beth Noveck, director of President Obama’s open government initiative, said in a recent essay,
Our institutions of governance are characterized by a longstanding culture of professionalism in which bureaucrats – not citizens – are the experts. Until recently, we have viewed this arrangement as legitimate because we have not practically been able to argue otherwise. Now we have a chance to do government differently. We have the know-how to create "civic software" that will help us form groups and communities who, working together, can be more effective at informing decision-making than individuals working alone.
(Quote from P&P, Beth Noveck: Wiki-Government | Democracy)

The internet is reshaping the relationship between government and citizens.

For example, the practice of 'crowdsourcing' involves using online technologies to ask a distinct group, or an entire population, to answer questions, provide insights on issues or develop solutions.

The approach is being used in increasing numbers of ways by governments to better hear their citizens, formulate more effective, consensus-based solutions, manage expectations and drive innovation.

One crowdsourcing exercise that I've previously mentioned is the New Zealand Police Act wiki, where an NZ Act of Parliament was developed by placing a seed version on the web using a wiki and allowing the public to edit and comment the Act directly for a period of time. The Act was passed by New Zealand Parliament and from all accounts it appears to have been as effective as any legislation developed by a small group of policy experts.

Similarly the US President has made use of crowd sourcing as a suggestion and prioritisation approach. Prior to his administration taking power it created an idea-sourcing site that allowed the public to suggest priorities for the new government and vote on previous suggestions in an online Citizen Briefing Book. This resulted in tens of thousands of suggestions prioritised by 70,000 participants.

President Obama's Virtual Town Hall has continued this approach, this time attracting over 90,000 participants asking and casting 1.7 million votes on 103,000 questions.

The impact of crowdsourcing isn't simply as a feedback mechanism. It offers the ability to reshape the entire governance process.

A range of local governments in Australia, New Zealand, in UK, across Europe and South America are beginning to actively engage their populations in crowdsourced discussions regarding civic priorities and improvements. For example the state capital city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil (2.3 million inhabitants) has used participatory voting since 1993 for determining civic priorities and in 2006 shifted to a digital participation model to broaden the level of involvement, with 10% of voters participating compared to 1.5% in the previous offline model.

Another example is the Future Melbourne consultation, which attracted over 30,000 comments by 7,000 visitors (and not one instance of spam, off-topic or offensive content).

One possibility for crowdsourcing would be for every piece of legislation currently on Australian books (Federal, state or local) to be placed onto wikis or similar tools to allow Australians to publicly review, comment, suggest edits and plain english translations.

This step could also be taken with all proposed legislation. President Obama has already committed to making all US Federal legislation available for the public to comment on for a few days prior to it going to the house for approval. The next step is employ a co-creation process online.

Naturally this would need to be done in a staged approach - there's simply too much legislation and different groups would be interested in different pieces (and some pieces would have little or no interest).

It relies on changing the copyright approach taken by government. From all rights reserved to some rights reserved (handled admirably by Creative Commons licensing which is already in use by the QLD government and the ABS).

It also relies on the public being able to understand some of the complex legalities of legislation. However if the public cannot understand a piece of legislation, isn't it probably too obtuse anyway?

Of course some might say that the public simply isn't interested in reviewing and commenting on legislation, or that it would be distorted by interest groups or individuals with axes to grind.

However those doing so have not yet tried the experiment and have no evidence on which to base these claims.

I'd love to see any government in Australia - at local, state or federal level, commit to starting this process with a pilot program. Make a few pieces of high profile legislation available online in a wiki-based format. Support comments and edits from any individual, restricting it to those who register with a valid email address.

Moderate the wiki to ensure that no-one misuses their privilege of participation in the democratic process under a clear set of guidelines, and then take on board the suggestions and edits of the public in the final drafting of the legislation.

This approach would lead to the democratisation of policy development and increasing participation by the public in the democratic process.

It may also lead to better policy, and therefore better outcomes for Australians.

Here are some examples of crowdsourcing in action, and here is a slightly contrarian view arguing that Government Needs Smart-sourcing, Not Crowdsourcing.

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