Crowdsourcing Changes To The U.S. Constitution?

Iceland’s bold move to adapt their constitution based on feedback gathered through various social networks has the international community perking up and taking note. Here we debate the relative merits of the process.

Iceland is a small island nation that achieved independence from Denmark in 1944. In 2008, it achieved global notoriety due to the systemic failure of its banking system. Of late, it has been in global news headlines again for a completely different reason – the Icelandic government’s decision to change the original constitution based on suggestions posted by citizens via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. CNN Host, Editor-at-large at TIME Magazine, and arguably one of the most influential foreign policy advisers of this generation, Fareed Zakaria, ┬árecently suggested that the U.S. Constitution be amended based on similarly crowdsourced suggestions from the American populace, and was met by a storm of vitriol.

Before we decide to support or deride Zakaria’s suggestion, let’s take an objective look at what crowdsourcing means, the impact it has had on business and whether it can be similarly used for government. The term was first coined by Jeff Howe in a 2006 article in Wired magazine but there have been examples of its usage throughout history. As a distributed problem-solving mechanism, the term means using the power of the (faceless) crowd in an open call to submit ideas, funds and even votes as a cost-efficient way to solve problems. The term has increasingly become associated with Web 2.0 and subsequent technologies.

First the more negative aspects of the proposition. Crowdsourcing most often involves getting free advice i.e. those sharing ideas and solutions are not compensated for their efforts, therefore there is less of a filter on scope and utility of the suggestions. There is also the unpredictability in the quality of results, susceptibility to malicious group efforts, lack of suitability for complex projects and the difficulties involved in managing large-scale group projects.

That said, there is undoubted appeal to the model that is particularly suited to the following instances:

  • It’s a great way to get direct feedback from customers for a business enterprise, or for government organizations. New York City agencies have taken advantage of this to obtain feedback from New Yorkers on improvements they’d like to see in the City. In fact, some of these suggestions were successfully incorporated in the NYC Digital Roadmap presented by Chief Digital Officer, Rachel Sterne. It can also be used to garner widespread contribution on problems in science, manufacturing, biotech, medicine and other fields
  • Users as participants is a great way to get broad-based and thorough input on new software services
  • Creative projects such as web design have been much enriched by the crowdsourcing model. Crowdspring is a good case in point
  • Crowdsourced art projects are a wonderful way to democratize art

Possibly one of the biggest benefits for government is that crowdsourcing is one of the best ways to get up close and personal with the people being governed and help reify the notion of democracy that we all hold dear.

Despite having the world’s oldest Parliament, Iceland’s innovative approach and openness in changing the constitution has lessons for other nations. The world will no doubt be watching this experiment closely, as will we.

Originally published on Seedwalker

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