Author: Jocelyn Fong
What if citizens could write the constitution for the society in which they live?
Legislation Lab — a new product of GovRight launched this spring — asks just this question. Dedicated to increasing public awareness and discussion of upcoming legislation, the platform offers citizens easy access to legislation and provides a participatory model to collect their feedback. Citizens can read through drafted legislation, compare it internationally, and then vote, comment, and propose changes to the very language itself — citizens can re-write the fundamental systems and laws that govern their lives.
The world of feedback sees new tools emerging all the time, with only some built to address an actual need. The makers of Legislation Lab are building on years of experience and know that the demand for such radical, open governance not only exists, it thrives.
In the wake of mass demonstrations calling for political reform in Morrocco, Tarik Nesh-Nash (Ashoka Fellow and GovRight co-founder/CEO) launched Reforme.ma to collect the opinions of average Moroccan citizens on proposed changes to the constitution. Little did he know that he would be tapping into a groundswell of citizens eager and determined to share their voices. Within two months, Reforme.ma had over 200,000 visitors from diverse backgrounds, representing all regions of the country. Those 200,000 visitors made over 10,000 comments and proposals to the constitution — 40% of which were included in the new, official draft. In July 2011, Moroccan citizens voted in a referendum and overwhelmingly approved the new constitution.
But Legislation Lab is only GovRight’s latest of many efforts to create channels for better e-governance. Previous endeavors have focused on open legal text, open budgeting, corruption reporting, and citizen-government direct communication — all of which have primarily focused on improving governance in North Africa.
In regions that do not have the history of vibrant democracy, Tariq believes these platforms all work together to create a more informed, engaged, and empowered citizenry–one who is able to participate fully in its government. “Including voice in our laws takes three steps. First, there’s access to information. Then, citizens have the capacity to monitor their government. The last tier is citizen participation in government.” It’s a step-by-step process of building transparency, and then accountability, such that citizens can be involved in the very decision-making that structures their day-to-day lives.
But Legislation Lab is not only relevant for countries transitioning to more democratic styles of governance. Though still in beta, the platform has been asked to replicate its model in Chile for an open consultation on the constitution; New York City has recently approached the organization to help include public opinion in the city’s upcoming housing policy changes. Especially with the platform’s real-time, automated data analysis broken down by demographics, both governments and civil society organizations are yearning to see what the platform can enable.
While global clients may be clammering to use the platform, Legislation Lab is finding that it’s more difficult to get other local citizens as engaged. “In Kurdistan, people are just excited this platform exists. In a more mature democracy, people don’t care,” Tarik explains. When citizens feel political fatigue from false promises and continued negligence, an online platform isn’t going to be a comprehensive fix.
To hone their model — especially for this global audience — the GovRight team is currently exploring several questions the feedback field knows all too well:
- How can the platform be more inclusive, especially to older age groups? How can it ensure proper representation?
- How can more people use the platform? How can a concurrent outreach strategy help?
- How can the platform ensure that the feedback loop is closed? How can it help build trust and long-term relationships between governments and citizens?
For Tarik and the GovRight team, these questions are essential to staying true to their mission — especially when the governments who hire them are not always as invested. “Some are too busy to engage, so they hire us because it’s cheap to build the platform,” Tarik shares. “Working with people long-term is both difficult and expensive. Some will even ask, ‘Can you guarantee that they are going to vote for us?’” Done wrong, trust could be broken and civic relations could be damaged; but done right, power could be shifted to the people permanently.
The team continues to grapple with such core feedback debates, in the hopes of realizing its incredible potential to radically transform the political process. No longer excluded by explicit force or continued negligence, citizens discover their own power to be changemakers in building a better society, together.
Jocelyn Fong designs and develops tools to help Ashoka Changemakers’ social entrepreneurs realize their potential to create social impact in the world. She sees her role as a facilitator of shared learning experiences that increase innovators’ self-awareness and encourage connections across sectors, borders, and walks of life, including online living toolkits, storytelling workshops, and collaborative trend mapping. A firm believer in the power of individual voice, Jocelyn is also working with youth refugees from Burma to publish a collection of their personal narrative stories. She holds a BSFS from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.