Did you know that crowdsourcing is more than one thousand years old? Just think about the direct democracy of Athens developed around the fifth century B.C. As an example, once a year citizens were encouraged to participate in the process called ostracism. Through a formal procedure, anyone could submit a name of a politician who they believed posed a threat to the state. Two months later, anyone could vote, using ostrakas (or pottery shards) in lieu of today’s smartphones, in favor or against exiling given politician.
The term democracy is derived from the Greek words δῆμος (dêmos) “people” and κράτος (krátos) “rule.” The concept of the “rule of the people” very much reflects what a crowdsourcing is at its core. It is based on the idea of empowering people and providing them the venue to express their opinions. While businesses are increasingly reaping the benefits of crowdsourcing, whether finding innovative ideas internally or externally, it is interesting to consider applications of this concept in organizations that have traditionally been more insulated from technological advances; the government is a great example.
Could crowdsourcing be applied to tackle complex decisions at the national level?
Icelanders attempted to resurrect the idea of democracy in its pure form. The rewriting of the constitution in Iceland between 2010 and 2013 through the use of crowdsourcing was an unprecedented event on a global scale. The idea was a consequence of a general distrust towards political parties in Iceland following the disastrous effects of the collapse of the country’s financial system in 2008.
The Icelandic constitutional approach was based on three steps: i) selecting the National Forum comprised of 950 quasi-randomly selected citizens; ii) organizing an Assembly of 25 constitutional drafters with diverse professional backgrounds, notably excluding politicians; and iii) soliciting feedback on 12 successive drafts from the citizens through social media, including Twitter and Facebook (see an example below), as well as email and mail. While the resulting proposal was approved in a 2012 referendum by two-thirds of voters, it did not pass through Parliament.
Why the Icelandic crowdsourcing initiative failed?
- Poor planning: The process felt rushed and improvised. While there was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea, there was also a lack of direction and confusion among citizens as to the extent of their involvement.
- Questionable procedural design: Insufficient planning led to some dubious procedural choices that opened the opportunity for criticism and undermined the validity of this approach.
- Mismanagement of expectations: It was unclear what would happen once the draft is completed. Would the Parliament be obliged to vote on it?
- Lack of proper resources: The Constitutional Assembly was overwhelmed by the amount of data. It lacked sufficient infrastructure and manpower to properly process and respond to suggestions.
- Lack of focus / legal complexity: The task of drafting legal documents requires skills and training to assure quality that is at par with international standards. While the Assembly managed to draft the constitution, the text still needed to be improved by experts.
- Ignored the incumbent: The crowdsourcing process ignored the voice of legally elected representatives. As a result, none of the parties was supportive and most simply ignored it altogether. Yet it was the incumbent (i.e., the Parliament) who ultimately was the gatekeeper (i.e., voting in the Parliament).
How could legislators and governmental organizations benefit from crowdsourcing while avoiding potential pitfalls that marred the bold Icelandic experiment?
- Plan, plan, plan: The success of crowdsourcing hinges on user participation. Create user engagement. The rules need to be clear and the process seamless.
- Develop transparent procedures: Be clear what are the next steps. Make sure the campaign complies with current laws, not to risk any invalidity claims.
- Data processing: Assure that the organization can deploy trained resources to manage the process. Have a solid analytics approach in place before the launch.
- Focus: Be realistic about the scope. Aim for quality responses to a limited number of key issues.
- Ideas screening: Structured discussion with clear expectations from participants and check points by experts along the way.
- Incumbents: Use the process to aid rather than circumvent legally elected officials, if they are the gatekeepers; it should be a partnership not a competition.
- Timing: Decide on a realistic timeline. Provide real-time feedback.
- Minorities: Avoid populism, i.e., the loudest voice; assure there is a mechanism to consider minority rights.
While the effort to implement the crowdsourced constitution ultimately failed, Iceland created a precedent on a global scale and disrupted how citizens and politicians approach democracy. Iceland opened the discussion about how modern business practices can be applied in the context of government to improve national governance and policymaking, and to re-engage citizens in national matters.