Crowdsourcing policymaking brings a new era of democracy

By Bruce Muirhead

Wednesday July 6, 2016

As the Information Age continues to transform itself into the age of networked intelligence, crowdsourcing continues to bloom as one of the mega-trends of the future, uniting crowd with power and thereby, strengthening democracy. Crowdsourcing brings a new era in democracy with societies exploring open government and business approaches, and empowering the public to develop and improve innovative applications that aid in the betterment of civic life.

“Iceland’s crowdsourcing triggered a democratic renaissance and raised awareness of the constitution across the country.”

“Born” in 2006, crowdsourcing would have an impact which its founder Jeff Howe could not predict at the time. While Wikipedia and MySpace stood as the glaring examples of crowdsourcing at the time, Howe, a professor at Northwestern University, predicted a future that would be designed and ruled by the power of the crowd and which is increasingly becoming a reality.

When the crowdsourcing movement began to take up its own pace, there were no more predictions as the world focused on analysing and interpreting the present developments. Crowdsourcing passed through major evolutionary stages between 2006 and 2008, making a holistic entry into every domain of human endeavour and leaving intellectuals and analysts wondering about what the next big development would be.

There was a day when Howe was asked, “What couldn’t be crowdsourced?” and he said, “A restaurant”. And there came another day when Howe was asked what he thought about a newly launched crowdsourcing restaurant. Since then, the answer to such questions has been pretty simple — Everything can be crowdsourced. And today, we can proudly claim that this “everything” includes policymaking within its purview.

This is the era of technological dominance and harnessing the power of the technological innovations remains one major way to boost citizens’ participation in policymaking.

From democratic recession to energising boom

Iceland used crowdsourcing in 2010 and 2011 to facilitate constitutional reforms. Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir and other bureaucrats solicited public participation by inviting citizens to join the consultation on a scale never before seen in modern democracies. The citizens’ knowledge, expertise, and ideas were the key ingredients in the reform process and this helped the nation to bring new perspectives into its constitution which it might have otherwise overlooked.

During this time, Iceland was in the throes of a financial crisis, suffering from not only an economic but also a democratic recession. Citizens openly expressed their doubts as to the abilities of the policymakers in mass protests and demonstrations. Iceland’s use of crowdsourcing to reform its constitutional framework represented a watershed moment on the nation’s socio-political-economic front as it worked to re-build trust on the nation’s leaders.

Icelanders were encouraged to comment on the recent versions of the constitution which were published online, this pulled thousands of comments from enthusiastic citizens who responded via email, by uploading comments on the website, by sending letters to the reform board, and by approaching the board members directly in traditional ways.

The crowdsourcing process introduced fresh air into the policymaking process, not so much opening a door as letting a genie out of a bottle. Beyond representing an ideal in transparency and open government, the process delivered concrete policy outcomes. One such outcome was a tip to include a concept for segregation on the basis of genomics, which was then a major concern due to the extensive deployment of consumer genomics tests. On the whole, the process triggered a democratic renaissance and raised awareness of the constitution across the country.

Open processes promote citizen empowerment and this has the potential to fortify the political system of a nation. Use of crowdsourcing in policymaking allows citizens to earn ownership over the processes that impact their lives.

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5 years ago

Iceland’s population is about the same size as Canberra’s. Participants in this process could have met in the proverbial phone booth. Also government only listens when it hears what it wants to. Let’s all remember Boaty McBoatface!

5 years ago
Reply to  Grandma

Definitely agree that Iceland’s smaller population is a big factor – but given the qualitative value of the responses it’s quite the achievement.

Definitely still holds lessons especially when we can’t even get jurisdictions (such as canberra) to go virtual with simple ‘yes’ ‘no’ propositions.

Not sure if i’d advocate a full blown return to direct democracy, democracy has definitely evolved past this point in my opinion however I think that increased involvement in policymaking and deliberation rather than a simple nominal endorsement every three years is the way to ensure more satisfying involvement and satisfactory political outcomes.