Why crowdsourcing should (and maybe will) be the future of government


You may have seen the marvellous news that Iceland is crowdsourcing its new constitution.

Draft clauses are put up on the Internet for people to comment on below, or on the Council’s Facebook page. Council meetings are open and streamed live, video interviews with council members are posted on YouTube, and they interact with citizens on Twitter. Since the constitution will be put to a referendum when it is completed, they very rightly thought citizens should be involved from the outset.

A similar but less ambitious project was the public redrafting of New Zealand’s Police Act, which was done on a wiki in 2007.

These examples represent the future of government, though the path forward will be long and slow.

At the heart of democracy is the idea that we all have an equal voice in shaping how we are governed. However most democracies distort that, not least in representative democracies, in which individuals (who usually represent political parties) are voted to represent groups of citizens. The first-past-the-post nature of these elections, combined with the fact that voted representative are often swayed by financial or other persuasions to support their own interests rather than those of their constituents.

Of course a pure direct democracy, in which all government decisions are made by everyone, is impossible, through the time required to have an informed opinion, and the reality that many people don’t care and want to delegate these difficult decisions. Representation of some kind is necessary.

As I wrote in Living Networks in the context of distributed innovation, the key is selecting and defining the elements that are taken to the crowd.

In the case of a constitution that will be taken to a referendum, it is blindingly obvious that voters should be involved earlier in shaping the document, rather than being given a binary choice on whether to approve the final version.

One of the biggest shifts over the last decade is that we have built not just the foundational tools and mechanisms of crowdsourcing, but also the attitudes and understanding that enable us to use them. People may be surprised by Iceland crowdsourcing its constitution, but it is not amazing. It is something that people intuitively understand, not least through having seen social media at work in many other contexts.

There is no question that it will take years, decades, or in some cases possibly even centuries to shift how government works as an expression of the will of its citizens. However we are now in entirely different territory.

The role of government today is build the mechanisms of effective crowdsourcing in fulfilling its role. We are yet early on that journey, and there is much work and experimentation to be done.

Certainly many issues are not currently well suited to crowdsourcing, but many others are. Many in government will push against it, but there we can only hope that there are enough politicians that actually believe in democracy for this trend to prosper.

There are plenty of people who will disagree that government should be crowdsourced, sometimes with good reasons. But now that the potential to crowdsource significant elements of government is there, the debate and discussion (itself a precursor of crowdsourced government) needs to begin.

Personally, I believe the future of government should, and hopefully will, be crowdsourced.