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California Experiments with Crowdsourced Legislation

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, has used Wikispaces to involve citizens in drafting probate law changes.

From fundraising efforts to searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370, crowdsourcing has quickly become a popular trend over the last few years. But a California legislator may have broken new ground with the concept, using it to potentially alter state law.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, created a Wikispaces account to experiment with letting people draft their own legislation. Working under the Wikipedia format, users can log in, make changes to the bill, offer suggestions and self-police their work. Probate law was chosen as the topic, and the project has helped craft language that may allow a court to assign a guardian to a deceased person’s pet.

In an interview with Government Technology, Gatto said he believes this is the first time crowdsourcing has been used to directly allow citizens to draft legislation. He’s committed to introducing a bill based off the experiment and seeing it through the California legislative process.

“We wanted the first time to pick a topic that, first of all, everyone experiences at some point, which is the probate process – death and taxes,” Gatto said. “But we also wanted something where there was a sufficient body of experts, and by experts, we mean non-special interest groups and non-capital lobbyists. Lawyers and people who live this everyday who might weigh in and offer their expertise.”

Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the idea of using crowdsourcing to draft potential laws is pretty novel. He noted that the experiment favors a more progressive view of government that requires a more “politically active” population to be successful.

The idea to crowdsource bill language came from Gatto’s passion in reforming the way citizens interface with state government, and his frustration with California’s current ballot initiative process. Gatto explained that ballot initiatives were created to try and diminish the role of special interest groups, but ironically, it now requires millions of dollars and the work of those groups to make it happen.

Conversely, online petitions such as the federal government-hosted “We the People,” have no real “teeth” in order to be effective. For example, readers might remember that Uncle Sam turned down a petition to begin constructing a Death Star by 2016.

Gatto’s “Wiki-bill” is an attempt to find a middle ground between the two mediums. It is a platform where experts can contribute their knowledge about an issue and citizens can voice concerns effectively and take part in the drafting process.

“I’m trying to offer the ability to weigh in on a law to all residents of California, and then also do it in a totally transparent way where everyone can see what people are proposing and they can comment on it,” Gatto said. “Nothing will be done in a smoke-filled backroom somewhere.”

Next Steps

The final day to submit draft language to the Wiki-bill was March 7. At press time on March 18, 63 revisions and 49 comments were made on the probate bill. Although the participation group was small, the experiment received much of its media attention after the comment period had ended.

Gatto admitted he may have miscalculated by going with a topic that was so narrowly focused and may look for something a little more polarizing next year. Although taking on a more expansive topic runs the risk of special interest groups getting involved, Gatto wasn’t concerned. He said he envisions those taking part in the next Wiki-bill he runs will self-police it to ensure the language is appropriate and not favoring a specific group.

McHugh, however, doesn’t think using crowdsourcing to draft legislation is a sustainable method of lawmaking. While he’s supportive of the idea as an engagement tool, he called the notion that you can somehow chase special interest money out of the political system a “fool’s errand.”

“Look, we can’t get the money out of it,” McHugh said. “All we can do is squeeze a balloon. If we squeeze it here and constrict the money, it bulges out somewhere else.”

Despite the criticism, Gatto declared his Wiki-bill experiment a “victory” for public engagement, and giving citizens a little belief in the political process and the knowledge that elected leaders are listening. He believes as many as five California legislators are going to try a Wiki-bill next year and thinks it could catch on and become a trend throughout the U.S.

“We get 20 bills a year that each of us can author, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to let the public participate very closely in the drafting of one of them,” Gatto said. “Too much up here is run by the special interests. We represent human beings, and I would love it if my colleagues adopted this type of idea. I bet you they will.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.