Exciting developments in citizen lawmaking and technology have enlivened the last several weeks. These efforts suggest that in the coming year, more and more of the Web’s democratic promise may come to fruition:
Respecting ePetition and eConsultation:
- Beginning in 2011, UK citizens will be able to propose legislation on the Direct.gov.uk Website. Proposals receiving a threshold level of popular support will form the basis for legislation which will be introduced in Parliament.
- Rules have been finalized for the European Citizens’ Initiative, a direct online democracy mechanism for the European Union. Initiatives receiving a certain level of support must be considered for action by the European Commission, though the Commission is not obliged to act on them.
- ExpertNet is a new, online citizen-consultation platform of the U.S. federal government. On ExpertNet, officials of the U.S. federal executive branch will pose policy questions on which they seek input from citizens who have in-depth knowledge of the relevant subject matter. These consultations could enable citizen involvement in the earliest stages of the development of new legislation or regulations. ExpertNet is based on an idea proposed by Professor Beth Simone Noveck of New York Law School in her book, Wiki Government.
All of these programs require eParticipation technologies capable of addressing difficult problems of online communication, document and user authentication, security, and privacy. These programs are also likely to borrow from or integrate to some extent existing innovative platforms, such as Legislation.gov.uk and the European e-Justice Portal. They may also integrate new technologies being developed through endeavors such as the EU project IMPACT: Integrated Method for Policy Making Using Argument Modelling and Computer Assisted Text Analysis. The IMPACT team is creating a suite of innovative tools for enabling automated processing of comments that citizens contribute on eConsultation platforms.
In the area of eRulemaking, the coming year may see substantial activity, on three fronts in particular:
- We could see more inspiring technological innovation, building on the prodigious accomplishments of initiatives such as Princeton CITP’s FedThread system, Cornell’s Regulation Room, and WestEd’s GovPulse.
- We are likely to see more valuable scholarship about the effectiveness of eRulemaking systems, from the University of Albany’s National Science Foundation-funded DeER (Deliberative E-Rulemaking) Project, led by Professor Peter Muhlberger of the Texas Tech University and Professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley of the University of Albany.
- The recently revived Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) may well issue novel policy proposals — as well scholarship and technological recommendations — respecting the U.S. federal eRulemaking platform, Regulations.gov.
Online voting pilot projects — testing technologies that could be implemented in states that permit citizen lawmaking — are likely to be launched in the U.S. in the coming months, pursuant to the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. Dr. Joseph Hall of Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley has written a persuasive commentary on these efforts.
Two other innovative U.S. state-level projects concern voter guides, the information resources on which many citizens base their direct-democracy lawmaking decisions:
- The Living Voters’ Guide — a National Science Foundation-funded collaboration between the University of Washington’s Center for Communication and Civic Engagement and Design – Use – Build Group; City Club of Seattle; and Reinspire Me LLC — is a crowdsourced commentary on direct democracy proposals in the state of Washington. It allows citizens to get involved early in the process of considering citizen-proposed laws, and to consider those laws with the aid of information provided by their fellow citizens.
- The Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) convenes small groups of Oregon citizens to learn about, deliberate about, and vote on proposed Oregon ballot initiatives. Statements expressing the groups\rquote votes, and the reasons for their votes, are then included in the voters\rquote guide distributed — in print and online — to Oregon voters before the election concerning the ballot initiatives. Oregon voters, as they make up their minds about proposed ballot initiatives, can consider the insights and votes of the CIR participants, who are their neighbors. Professor John Gastil of the University of Washington Department of Communication and his National Science Foundation-funded research team recently completed a study of the Oregon CIR which found that the CIR’s statements influenced voters’ views of direct-democracy proposals. The coming year may see more valuable research from Professor Gastil’s team.
These examples demonstrate that, all around the world, there is a wealth of technological and policy innovation and insightful research currently underway in the area of citizen lawmaking. This activity involves creative partnerships among programmers, policymakers, technology administrators, scholars and their universities, government funding agencies, philanthropic organizations, for-profit firms, and the nonprofit community. Through cooperative efforts like these, the promise of technology-enabled citizen empowerment is becoming a reality.