A couple of years ago, as the Internet Goliath continued to drain news consumers away from newspapers and television, old media’s desperation to find a way to fight back led a few bosses to experiment with allowing readers to pick what news stories should be covered. It seemed like a cool way for the old guard to show some digital chops: upend the “legacy” way of doing things — otherwise known as using editorial judgment — by letting the public essentially “vote” on what’s news. Many journalists hated it.
The model has yet to take over news coverage. While crowd-sourcing has shown excellent promise in raising money for a charity or to finance a movie or business, news editors have so far resisted outsourcing their daily decisions to their readers. But digital evangelism knows no bounds, and the desire to use the tools everywhere is moving into the policy process. At first, politicians were predictably interested only in how crowd-sourcing could help them raise money. But now there are signs that they’re willing to show their digital cool by asking the public to submit policy ideas.
In September, the Ontario Liberal Party launched Common Ground, a Web platform that allows anyone — Liberal or otherwise — to help the party craft its next campaign platform. Like a Reddit page, the most popular ideas rise to the top of the page, leading critics to sneer that a policy-by-popularity process is a gimmick. But by late October 1,400 ideas had been submitted. Some reflected special interests (the number two idea called for an end to the province’s ban on breeding certain dogs). Others highlighted a public interest in issues that aren’t always on the radar. There was a push for higher speed limits on highways, to ban gay conversion therapy for minors, and to legalize — and tax — marijuana use (could there be a more defining Liberal policy than legalizing a social behaviour and taxing it at the same time?).
This still doesn’t look like the full fix for modern politics. As Benjamin Barber points out in his book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, we are simply applying technology to age-old democratic participation. Technology can help the process. But, as with deciding what’s news, the answer depends on intelligence and good judgment. The solution to better government policy won’t be found in a better app, but in people taking their civic responsibilities seriously.