It is a bitter irony that politicians lament the threat to democracy posed by the internet, instead of exploiting its potential to enhance the existing system. Hackers and bots may help to sway elections, but modern technology has allowed the power of the multitude to positively disrupt the world of business and beyond. Now, crowdsourcing should be allowed to shake up the lawmaking process to make democracies more participatory and efficient.
The crowd clearly can be harnessed, whether it is Apple outsourcing the creation of apps, Wikipedia amassing an encyclopedia of unprecedented magnitude, or National Geographic searching for the Tomb of Genghis Khan. If we can agree that the most important factor of a responsive democracy is participation, then there must be a way to capitalise on this collective intelligence.
In fact, political participation hasn’t been this easy since the first days of democracy in Athens 2,500 years ago. Modern social media can turn into a reality the utopian vision of direct civic engagement on a massive scale. Lawmaking can now be married to public consent through technology. The crowd can be unleashed.
Governments haven’t completely missed out. Iceland used crowdsourcing to include citizens in its constitutional reform beginning in 2010, while petition websites are increasingly common and have forced parliamentary debates in the UK. US federal agencies have initiated “national dialogues” on topics of public concern and, in many US municipalities, citizens can provide input on budget decisions online and follow instantaneously whether items make it into the budget.
These initiatives show promise in improving what goes into and what comes out of the process of government. However, they are on too small a scale to counter what many believe to be a period of fundamental democratic disenchantment. That is why government needs to throw its weight behind a full online system through which citizens can easily access all ongoing legislative initiatives and provide input during periods of public consultation. That is a challenge, but not mission impossible. Over 2016/2017 a little over 200 bills were introduced in the UK’s parliament.
It could put the power of participation in the hands of the people, and grant greater legitimacy to government. Through websites and apps, the public would be given an intuitive, one-stop shop for democracy, accessible from any device, and which allowed them to engage no matter where they were – on the beach or on the bus. Registered users would get notifications when new legislation was up for consultation. If the legislation were of interest, it could be bookmarked in order to stay updated.