College of Liberal Arts

Out of the Smoke-Filled Room and Onto the Internet

Wed, Sep 12, 2012

The concept of crowdsourcing — soliciting information from a wide range of people responding to an open call over the Internet — is drawing some interest at the Capitol and could play a significant role in the way Texas lawmakers handle a key issue next session.

“The more people that can be involved, the better the legislative outcome,” says Senator John J. Carona, whose committee plans to solicit public opinion online.

“Let’s say you want to take drafting legislation out of the smoke-filled room and turn it over to the hands of the populace,” said Steven Polunsky, floating the idea of drafting a bill through crowdsourcing to a group of developers at a meeting of Social Media Club Austin.

It wasn’t a hypothetical scenario.

Mr. Polunsky is the director of the Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, which is presided over by Senator John J. Carona, Republican of Dallas. In anticipation of the next legislative session, in 2013, the committee intends to try to crowdsource legislation addressing the issue of payday lending.

Payday lending is a divisive topic, and legislators are vigorously lobbied by the business community. Mr. Carona believes that the new electronic forum will help bring forward the experiences of people who may not have access to representation at legislative hearings. “You really have to be careful in the legislative process that you’re not guided or overly influenced by special interests,” he said.

The committee is still determining what form the project will take. For example, it could operate like an entry on Wikipedia or incorporate communication tools like Twitter. The committee may team up with transcription services that would allow contributions over the telephone.

“We think the more people that can be involved, the better the legislative outcome,” Mr. Carona said. “I’d rather be making policy based upon what I know to be strong public sentiment than to leave it to guesswork here at the Capitol.”

His committee has been at the forefront of incorporating new technologies into the legislative process. One practice other legislators have adopted is maintaining a committee blog and updating it during hearings with testimony and background materials in real time. Mr. Carona’s most recent committee hearing was paperless, relying on the public blog.

The crowdsourcing experiment poses challenges. “One of the problems is that everybody needs to be almost literally on the same page,” Mr. Polunsky said. And because writing legislation requires substantial knowledge of current laws, he said, it might be easier to put together a white paper that informs legislation.

Erine Gray, the founder and developer of AuntBertha.com, an Austin start-up that connects people to nearby social services, and one of the Social Media Club Austin panelists, also supports the idea. “The benefit of crowdsourced legislation is that changes can be tracked down to the person. So it isn’t an anonymous process,” Mr. Gray said, later noting that it would take a major success in a major city or state government for the idea to take hold.

That success, he said, would hinge on how widely the idea was promoted and who got involved. It may not be the people who are currently considered the experts on the subject, he said, “and maybe that’s a good thing.”

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