Composing a constitution that is more indicative of the needs of the people it is meant to govern seems at face value to be something that everyone can agree upon. Who wouldn’t want more transparency and inclusivity? However, Iceland’s failed attempted at developing a crowdsourced constitution serves as a cautionary tale as to the limits of effective crowdsourcing, while at the same time providing important learning as to how to more effectively use this tool in the future.
Following the financial crisis of 2008 that led to the collapse of Iceland’s banks and government and amid a climate of distrust for politicians, Iceland’s parliament undertook a process to revise its constitution. In a radical departure from anything ever before seen in politics at this level, Iceland decided to crowdsource the document by allowing citizens unprecedented access and input. In order to accomplish there were several different processes in place. A National Forum of 950 random citizens was asked to list the values that were most important to them and what they hoped would be included in the Constitution. Additionally there was a group of writers that was selected from 522 citizens (with politicians explicitly excluded from eligibility). Gender and professional diversity were emphasized to ensure that all groups within Iceland felt represented. From this group of 522 citizens, 25 were selected to be the actual drafters of the constitution. The drafters then chose to use various social media elements to gather ideas and opinions of the electorate. They used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to solicit feedback on existing clauses and even live streamed meetings. In this way, the Iceland citizenry did not directly write the constitution (the drafters did), but they were able to submit feedback about what they wanted to see included and excluded. This led to about 4,000 comments being submitted and about 400 unique suggestions. While these numbers may seem small in absolute terms, with a population of only about 300,000 people, it represents engagement of about 1% of the population.
While the Constitution ultimately stalled in parliament and did not pass, this social experiment should not be classified as a total failure. It represents an innovative way to ensure citizens feel heard and represented, which is especially important after periods of duress or economic failure. This process provides valuable lessons to any other government looking to emulate this process in the future. Primarily the fact that completely excluding politicians (or any other category expert) is probably not a recipe for long-term success and viability. While the climate in Iceland at the time was rightfully distrustful due to the government’s failure in the 2008 financial crisis, there is still valuable knowledge and experience to be gleaned from politicians to write a better constitution, Additionally, given the document ultimately has to be passed in parliament, their buy-in and support of the process is important, thus completely bypassing them is largely ineffective. Another way the process could have been improved is for it to have been more fully understood by all beforehand. Given this was a new experiment, before actually beginning the process (and seemingly handing over the reigns to those without much knowledge about how to write such a document to begin with) more time could have been spent upfront fostering agreement about the processes in place to both write and amend the document. Transparency is not just important for the actual document itself, but also as to how you arrive there. For example, if you have differing feedback from your community, how do you proceed? How do you decide how many people are constitutional drafters? Process improvements are never the fun part of any meeting or project; however, they are often a huge reason behind the failure of an initiative.
The attempt at a crowdsourced constitution is an interesting extension of the power of crowds and the value that can be extracted from differing opinions, backgrounds, and incentives. While this particular case was not a success per se, it does change the landscape for how government can interact with its citizenry to maximize engagement.