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Is Crowdsourcing the Future for Legislation?

Lawmakers are experimenting with allowing citizens to propose and edit legislation online, and it’s likely to continue.

Remember dancing the Macarena? How about collecting Beanie Babies? If you were alive in the 1990s, some of you are guilty of following those pop culture trends. In most circles, they faded from popularity fairly quickly. But one recent government trend could be here to stay – using online crowdsourcing as a means to create and edit proposed laws.

While drafting legislation is traditionally the job of elected officials, an increasing number of lawmakers are using digital platforms such as Wikispaces and GitHub to give constituents a bigger hand in molding the laws they’ll be governed by. The practice has been used this year in both California and New York City, and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, experts say.

Trond Undheim, crowdsourcing expert and founder of Yegii Inc., a startup company that provides and ranks advanced knowledge assets in the areas of health care, technology, energy and finance, said crowdsourcing was “certainly viable” as a tool to help legislators understand what constituents are most passionate about.

“I’m a big believer in asking a wide variety of people the same question and crowdsourcing has become known as the long-tail of answers,” Undheim said. “People you wouldn’t necessarily think of have something useful to say.”

California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, agreed. He’s spearheaded an effort this year to let residents craft legislation regarding probate law -- a measure designed to allow a court to assign a guardian to a deceased person’s pet. Gatto used the online Wikispaces platform -- which allows for Wikipedia-style editing and content contribution -- to let anyone with an Internet connection collaborate on the legislation over a period of several months.

The topic of the bill may not have been headline news, but Gatto was encouraged by the media attention his experiment received. As a result, he’s committed to running another crowdsourced bill next year -- just on a bigger, more mainstream public issue.

New York City Council Member Ben Kallos has a plethora of technology-related legislation being considered in the Big Apple. Many of the bills are open for public comment and editing on GitHub. In an interview with Government Technology last month, Kallos said he believes using crowdsourcing to comment on and edit legislation is empowering and creates a different sense of democracy where people can put forward their ideas.

County governments also are joining the crowdsourcing trend. The Catawba Regional Council of Governments in South Carolina and the Centralina Council of Governments in North Carolina are gathering opinions on how county leaders should plan for future growth in the region.

At a public forum earlier this year, attendees were given iPads to go online and review four growth options and record their views on which they preferred. The priorities outlined by citizens will be taken back to decision-makers in each of the counties to see how well existing plans match up with what the public wants.

Gatto said he's encouraged by how quickly the crowdsourcing of policy has spread throughout the U.S. He said there’s a disconnect between governments and their constituencies who believe elected officials don’t listen. But that could change as crowdsourcing continues to make its impact on lawmakers.

“When you put out a call like I did and others have done and say ‘I’m going to let the public draft a law and whatever you draft, I’m committed to introducing it … I think that’s a powerful message,” Gatto said. “I think the public appreciates it because it makes them understand that the government still belongs to them.”

Protecting the Process

Despite the benefits crowdsourcing brings to the legislative process, there remain some question marks about whether it truly provides insight into the public’s feelings on an issue. For example, because many political issues are driven by the influence of special interest groups, what’s preventing those groups from manipulating the bill-drafting process?

Not much, according to Undheim. He cautioned policymakers to be aware of the motivations from people taking part in crowdsourcing efforts to write and edit laws. Gatto shared Undheim’s concerns, but noted that the platform he used for developing his probate law – Wikispaces – has safeguards in place so that a member of his staff can revert language of a crowdsourced bill back to a previous version if it’s determined that someone was trying to unduly influence the drafting process.

Gatto explained that if a special interest group proposes a law or changes legislation in a blatantly biased way, people would see right through it. At that point he said two decisions could be made. The first would be to get involved and cancel the changes, or, if the crowd working on the bill liked the ideas, perhaps the changes would remain, regardless of how the language was influenced.

“I think as long as there is sufficient participation, and that’s the big key, then I don’t think anyone can pull a fast one,” Gatto said.

Reward Your Users

While Gatto was pleased at the reaction his crowdsourced probate bill received, he admitted only a handful of people really got engaged on the bill. To increase participation, he plans to select a more riveting topic next year. But Undheim had another suggestion – offering rewards.

Undheim said Gatto and other policymakers who are considering crowdsourcing legislation may want to give tangible recognition to the most active participants. Adding gamification elements to the legislation drafting process could spur excitement and boost engagement.

But he added that lawmakers need to proceed cautiously with rewards and not promise more than they can deliver.

“You have to think very carefully about what you are promising them [because] you are basically farming out work that would otherwise be done by constituents that have very clear reasons for helping you out,” Undheim said. “And here, you’re opening it up to people who perhaps aren’t being compensated, but they do want to be compensated – it’s just the compensation package is intangible.”

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