Column

Crowdsourcing Lawmaking With LexPop

A key trend in eGovernment today is enabling more public participation in policy- and law-making. One very meaningful way to increase the public’s involvement in lawmaking is by crowdsourcing the drafting of legislation, as the Brazilian Câmara dos Deputados has done through its e-Democracia platform.

Now, crowdsourcing of legislation has come to the U.S., through LexPop, a new wiki created this month by Matt Baca and Olin Parker, both students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. [Baca is also a law student at New York University.]

As its first effort, LexPop is hosting the drafting of a net neutrality bill, to be introduced in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. State Representative Tom Sannicandro has announced his commitment to introduce the bill when drafting is complete.

Recently I spoke with Matt Baca about the development of LexPop, and the LexPop vision for empowering citizens through technology.

The Big Ideas

Key to the LexPop approach is collaborative government, an idea similar to Professor Beth Noveck’s concept of collaborative democracy: government that actively seeks and uses input from the public, meaning ordinary citizens, not lobbyists. LexPop cites the U.S. federal government’s Gov 2.0 projects ExpertNet and Peer to Patent — both Noveck’s ideas — as inspirations for LexPop. Baca also cited Dr. Joshua Tauberer‘s POPVOX project as a model for LexPop.

Another concept informing LexPop‘s approach is lightweight policymaking, an idea derived from Tim O’Reilly’s concept of lightweight programming. As the LexPop team explained in a recent post, in lightweight policymaking, after a new statute is enacted, the public reviews the law, monitors its implementation, discusses its effects, and, if the law proves to be flawed, the public uses LexPop to quickly draft amendments.

Two other ideas are basic to LexPop. First, circumventing special interests is a fundamental goal of the project. As Baca wrote last week, today in the U.S., political participation is

[...] a game of power in which the public is losing. There’s no secret about the amount of money spent by big companies on lobbying. Just today, Nicholas Deleon of CrunchGear suggested it has cost ISPs about $1 million to defeat net neutrality legislation. That’s no fun, at least if you think discussion and debate, rather than dollars and cents, should drive policy creation. This is what LexPop is all about. It provides a forum for the public, rather than lobbyists, to write the policy legislators will introduce.

Second, LexPop seeks to enable contributions by citizens who have any level of time, interest, and knowledge, including both novices and experts, as the team explains in this post.

How It Began

Baca explained that LexPop began during a course at the Kennedy School that he and co-founder Olin Parker both took during fall 2010. As they read about Web 2.0 initiatives in government (or Gov 2.0, in Tim O’Reilly’s terms) Baca and Parker concluded that “eventually this will result in the co-creation of laws.” They explored Brazil’s e-Democracia site, but could find no analogous service in the U.S. So they decided to experiment themselves.

In November 2010, they started a wiki called writethebill, on the Wikispaces platform. writethebill was designed to enable anyone to launch the crowdsourcing of any bill on any topic. According to Baca, writethebill was “a free-for-all wiki,” whose activity was largely unstructured.

After some drafting had been accomplished on a total of thirteen bills — on topics ranging from campaign finance reform to the improvement of teacher quality — Baca and Parker began to seek a different platform that would enable a more structured approach to crowdsourced bill drafting.

How It Works Now

Earlier this year, Baca and Parker decided to move their project to the MediaWiki platform, and to rename the project LexPop. LexPop premiered earlier this month.

The desire to provide more structure to the bill-drafting process is evident from the LexPop homepage. There, the visitor learns that LexPop offers two options for bill drafting: “WikiBills”, the original unstructured approach used at writethebill [and "WikiBills" includes all of the legislation originally drafted at writethebill]; and a new, more structured method, called “Policy Drives”.

In the “Policy Drive” approach, the drafting process occurs in three stages, paralleling those used in most legislatures: “Hearing,” “Markup,” and “Build the Bill.”

During the “Hearing” stage, wide-open information-sharing and public discussion about the issue take place, and participants try to find a legislator who will agree to introduce the bill once it has been drafted. [LexPop's Massachusetts net neutrality bill is currently in the "Hearing" stage.]

During the “Markup” stage, participants choose which policies to adopt, and express these in an outline of the content of the bill.

Finally, during the “Build the Bill” stage, participants draft the legislation.

Although the first LexPop Policy Drive concerns Massachusetts legislation, LexPop can be used to crowdsource bill drafting for any jurisdiction. Indeed, several of the draft bills in LexPop‘s “WikiBills” section are federal.

Team and Research

According to Baca, the LexPop team currently consists of him and Parker. Neither is a programmer, and so they hope that civic-minded coders, developers, and designers will be among those who volunteer to contribute ideas about functionality and features to LexPop.

When asked about the role of formal research in LexPop, Baca replied that the team does not currently have a formal research program focused on LexPop, but they are currently using Semantic MediaWiki to gather usage and other data about the site.

Getting the Word Out

Respecting marketing, to date the team has created a YouTube video, issued a press release, promoted the service on Twitter and Facebook, created a Google Group, launched a LexPop Blog, and presented the service at Harvard’s 2011 Social Enterprise Conference Pitch for Change.

What’s Ahead

Baca said that LexPop does not currently have outside funding, and is not seeking funding at the present time. However, LexPop is currently seeking volunteers. LexPop is looking for volunteers to participate — by such means as contributing content and suggesting/creating new functionality — as well as to spread the word about the LexPop approach to crowdsourcing lawmaking.

According to Baca, since both he and Parker complete their current academic programs this coming May, the LexPop team intends to devote Spring 2011 to publicizing LexPop, facilitating the first LexPop Policy Drive about net neutrality, and growing the LexPop team and community with volunteers. Baca said that longer-term planning for LexPop will take place this summer.

How to Be Part of It

Baca encouraged readers who would like to participate in LexPop to contact the LexPop team at the LexPop Website.

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Comments

  1. Put me down as a sceptic, though I have not (yet) read all the literature cited in this post. Some sources of scepticism may arise from differences between Canadian and American legislative systems and traditions.

    1. Legislative drafting is a technical art, subject to a lot of very useful conventions to ensure that legislation is internally consistent and consistently meaningful. I work closely with Legislative Counsel, who do drafting in Ontario, and I am consistently impressed with their talent and perceptiveness and the value that they as professionals add to policy development.

    2. The process described here seems to include policy development as well as drafting. While the drafting process inevitably leads to further thought about policy, they are largely distinct processes. There is probably more promise in crowdsourcing policy development, though someone eventually has to be the definitive decision-maker: that’s what we elect legislators to do.

    3. The distinction between lobbyists or ‘special interests’ and ‘the public’ is not at all a bright line. People affected by legislation (or non-legislative policy, for that matter) have a legitimate interest in saying what the legislation should do. To the extent that crowdsourcing or other new media can open the process to the voices of those who will benefit from the legislation, not just those who will be restricted by it, that is to the good. The post mentions the net neutrality debate. In the US, that debate has had very wealthy ‘special’ interests on both sides. (It is not accurate to describe opponents of net neutrality as ISPs; consider the ‘usage-based-billing’ debate in Canada that opposes smaller ISPs to the giants.)

    4. The attitude that seems to me to be reflected in the description here is that regulation is good and anti-regulation is bad. It’s not that simple. Getting regulation right is hard, and there are a number of inconsistent theories about the best approach in different circumstances. Are crowds better at sorting such matters out than experts?

    5. What guarantees are there that crowdsourcing cannot be captured by ‘special interests’? Money can buy influence, but it can also buy crowds if crowds are where the influence is. (Consider the Tea Party movement, the broad-based result of very narrow financing by very special interests.) ‘Populist’ ideas are not necessarily good ideas.

    6. The system needs broad input, watchdogs, and referees, and ultimately legitimate decision-makers. Technology can help in some areas but legislators should not abandon their responsibilities to the crowd.

  2. David Collier-Brown

    I’m a hopeful skeptic, and so find this very initiative interesting, although I have some concerns.

    My experience with computer-mediated discussions echoes Mr Gregory’s concern with capture by special interests. A poorly-though-out process can be captured by a noisy minority and quickly rendered ineffective. Conversely, an over-rigid process can drive away people with interesting, if sometime eccentric, points of view.

    I’m hopeful, though: this is exactly the kind of initiative that can bring out the policy questions that we haven’t heard in the run-up to the most recent copyright bill, but did hear in the 2009 public consultation.

    I agree that it’s more likely to have the flavor of a public policy discussion rather than a drafting discussion. The participants will surely need to engage with legal draft-persons, if they’re not to make novice mistakes.

    The proposal is also topical: my own computer users’ group has been discussing writing a mock Copyright Act as a way to make our concerns more concrete.

    It’s too bad this isn’t a Canadian initiative: a widely-based initiative to draft a bill, or more likely the skeleton of a bill, would be intensely interesting, and might well draw a large and enthusiastic community if it were launched in time for the next round of Canadian copyright amendments.

    –dave

  3. This is a long-overdue response to David’s comment. The short answer is absolutely this could be done in Canada. In fact, it wouldn’t take much at all. David, if you’re interested in helping to set this up, feel free to contact me. The truth is that there is good reason to be skeptical about a proposal like this, as John and Dave both highlight. But there’s also, at least in the US, reason to be skeptical about the current state of our democratic process in general. Is LexPop the answer to all our problems? Surely not. But if we can learn a little about making democracy work better, then mission accomplished.

    We’ll certainly need legislative drafting experts and will have to work to stave off industry/interest group capture. But there are examples to work from and build on in e.g. Wikipedia’s history and progress.