An Open Source Legislative Process

we the peopleI‘ve been a member of the Green Party for many years, but I’ve frequently duelled with them over their preoccupation with getting candidates elected rather than getting good legislation passed. In Canada, although ‘private members’ bills’ have an uphill battle to get time on the legislative agenda, they are often introduced and occasionally even passed into law.
I can appreciate that, a hundred years ago, it may have been necessary for elected politicians to hammer out legislation in smoke-filled back rooms. Communications and travel were slow and law-making is an iterative process, requiring not only consensus-building but also multiple redrafts to incorporate matters that the original draft forgot to consider.
But today there is no reason why the legislative (law-making) process cannot be completely transparent and draw on the collective wisdom of many citizens. In order for that to happen, I would propose a radical change to the way in which that legislative process occurs:
  1. Each jurisdiction would have a wiki where any citizen or group of citizens can post, contribute to and comment on proposed new legislation. Such draft legislation would begin, as is the tradition, with the ‘whereas’ clauses that lay out the policy and rationale for the proposed legislation. The drafts would include both the legislation and the regulatory enforcement mechanisms that would assure that, if it were passed into law, it would be properly enforced. The drafts would have to meet standards of simplicity (as short as possible), clarity (understandable language, not legalese) and consistency (each bill for one purpose, with no pork or other irrelevant riders attached).
  2. Political parties and independent candidates would be required to commit in writing, prior to any election, precisely which draft legislation they would propose to pass into law if they were elected. Once in office, they would be bound to vote on all draft legislation in accordance with these commitments: There would be no need for votes. The purpose of elected officials would be simply to carry out their mandate, to ensure the legislation that they committed to approving is passed and that the resources and budget necessary to ensure enforcement of such legislation are put in place.
  3. Individual elected officials would be able to break ranks with their party on a specific piece of legislation if and only if they had committed in writing prior to the election to do so.
  4. If an emergency situation required the passage of additional legislation that had not been committed to in advance of the last election, a new election would have to be held within 60 days of its passage to ratify and/or amend the legislation. During this time, the wiki would be used to discuss and amend the legislation. The first order of business after this emergency election would be to ratify or amend the emergency legislation in accordance with the commitments of those elected, failing which the emergency legislation would expire.
  5. Failure to provide adequate resources for enforcement of the law (as determined by government auditors) would constitute a breach of duty and be an indictable offence.
Such a process would have a number of benefits:
  • It would drastically reduce the power and authority of elected officials, and therefore the value of lobbying and other anti-democratic activities. Pork-barrelling would be impossible, as would subsidies to big corporate oligopolies.
  • It would drastically reduce the cost of legislature, the salaries and sizes of staff needed to draw up legislation and to respond to lobbyists. Through citizen participation this would become a zero-cost, more inclusive process. The cost savings could be used to ensure proper enforcement of laws, which are now routinely and conveniently ignored by governments that don’t like them.
  • It would engage citizens, think tanks, unelectable minority parties, scientists and others in the legislative process, and lead to a great deal more reasoned, evidence-based legislation, instead of legislation designed to respond to knee-jerk reactions of citizens, to get re-elected, and to pay off political campaign contributors.
  • It would educate citizens in the political process and reduce the propensity of citizens to abrogate their responsibility to be informed and involved in the process.
  • It would direct the majority of political energies towards the drafting of legislation instead of towards the influencing and election of candidates to do so without proper oversight.
  • It would democratize the legislative process without the use of oversimplified, emotionally-charged and ill-conceived referendums.
  • It might well eliminate the need for presidents, cabinets and prime ministers, and reduce the need for the judiciary to have to interpret (and the propensity of ideologically-driven judges to distort and misinterpret) ambiguous, poorly-formed, politically-motivated laws.
This proposal is directly analogous to the Wisdom of Crowds process I’ve recommended to devolve authority and decision-making in organizations from overpaid, isolated executives to a much broader, more informed (collectively) and more representative groups of employees and customers.
It’s not a panacea. It would reduce but not eliminate the need for comprehensive, real campaign finance reform towards a fully publicly-funded system. It would not reduce the need for the elimination of partisan, gerrymandering redistricting groups in favour of independent electoral boundary commissions. It would reduce but not eliminate the need for single transferable voting or other proportional representation systems of election.
I know, it’s a radical change and one that will be loathed and opposed by politicians and big political parties because it strips them of power. But it would not be at all difficult to do, if there was the political will to do it. We might even get groups like the NRDC and the Green Party to start the ball rolling by setting up sites to collectively draft scientifically-supportable, concrete, workable environmental laws and regulations, and get political candidates of all parties to announce where they stand on adopting them before the next elections. If that worked, such that instead of debating vague and emotionally-charged policy planks we were debating real legislation, we just might find that this becomes the way a true 21st century democracy operates.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to An Open Source Legislative Process

  1. Tracy Puett says:

    Sounds in line in some ways with Wisdom Council proposed by Jim Rough ( for this. Maybe some day we will mature towards a more collective governance structure. Until then, the US STILL has the Electoral College (now THAT’S a broken way of doing thinhs!).

  2. All great ideas. However, would this also reduce the cost of getting elected? Part of what drives our political process is (a) the ability of candidates to raise tons of money and (b) the ability of corporate donors and wealthy individuals to write big checks and give away the kind of money that comes with expectations and accountability attached. Until we take care of that problem, making elected officials accountable to the voters is going to remain an uphill battle.

  3. Martin-Eric says:

    Funny, I have been saying that ever since I was a kid, looking at people’s disgruntled face whenever a politician would back-peddle on an electoral promise:

    Politicians should be legally bound by their promises and consider it a mandate, to which they are contractually liable for delivering the goods. This also implies that failure to do what they were elected for would effectively place them in breach of contractual agreement, subject to payment of hefty compensations to their constituents. It should also permanently bar them from ever being candidates again and from ever being employed in the public sector or by government-owned corporations.

    That this would place an extremely high burden on voters to be careful of what they demand from their politicians and require becoming deeply familiarize with a variety of issues, in order to make an informed decision about what they demand and who is the best qualified to represent them in Parliament is a whole other issue.

  4. David says:

    I would be willing to help out with the creation of a new political party drafted along these lines. The party would designate and elect figurehead representatives who would simply submit the legislation and amendments worked out by the party at large. The party would eventually take over our current government which could then be restructured. There are a few issues to be solved however. 1) Identity on the internet is complicated. 2) Without proper safeguards, interested technocrats (and corporations) would have a much greater say in shaping laws then they do now. (e.g. by paying large numbers of citizens to modify wikies / vote for certain ammendments, etc.) 3) Who’s to say that the graft and corruption in our system is the only reason that it works. If there aren’t ways for powerful interested parties to get the things they want, who says they would continue to support the system. Why do we elect puppet presidents who are controlled by the corporatocracy who puts them in power?

  5. tim says:

    Dave,Yes. Wikis are perfect for this kind of thing. It can hardly be worse than the present situation.

  6. Corey Reid says:

    While this suggestion offers a lot of promise for one of the main purposes of government (sharing resources), it defeats the other main purpose: providing people who want power with the chance to feel like they have it. Without some kind of mechanism to satisfy those people, no governing system can last, because eventually those people will turn to methods outside the system and undermine it.How would this system handle such people? Or would they perhaps seek to satisfy their power needs in other arenas such as private enterprise?I worry that without a strategy to manage this need, such a system could never survive.

  7. Dar says:

    This is creative and interesting, yet would need safeguards. Also, for the 21st century democracy, it does not address global collaborations of millions of groups but rather is regional. How can collaborations work and yet sovereignty is protected? The regional government must have constraints.

Comments are closed.