Iceland is Crowdsourcing their Constitutional Convention

Here’s a truly remarkable piece of news few people seem to have heard about: Iceland is creating its new constitution with mass online participation. These three short articles give the exciting details.

Iceland’s initiative is a very sophisticated form of what is known as “public input” or “consultation”, in which ordinary citizens offer individual comments to an appointed or elected entity, who then decides whether or not to respond to or use the comments. We could also say that Iceland’s innovation is an exceptional example of transparency and participatory electronic democracy. An added feature is that the online crowdsourcing that is getting most of the attention “follows a national forum last year where 950 randomly selected people spent a day discussing the constitution” and that the draft constitution “will be put to a referendum without any changes imposed by parliament.”

In other words, this is a very sophisticated, leading-edge, multi-dimensional process. I’d love to know where the idea came from.

I also want to add some notes for improvement — not as a critique, but definitely to promote more empowered public wisdom (my particular focus). More could be done in a process like this to ensure that there is in-depth deliberation by randomly selected people representing a legitimate cross-section of the population. For one thing, when you convene 950 people for only one day to address a complex document like writing a new constitution — or when you invite hundreds of people into online discussions about it — precious little truly high-quality deliberation is possible. There simply isn’t time to take in and process enough information and creatively utilize the diverse ideas of hundreds of people. Furthermore, although the randomly selected group of 950 can be said to fairly represent “we the people”, those who happen to show up online do not. Finally, a referendum (which is a true source of citizen power) is only as good at generating public wisdom to the extent that the preceding public discourse on the issue was fair and clean of “spin”. 

So I wonder: How much simpler and more direct would it have been to convene a publicly visible citizen deliberative council — a Citizens Jury, Consensus Conference, or Citizens Assembly — made up of 20-100 randomly selected citizens. This council could have been advised by (or partnered with) the official Constitutional Council. The randomly selected citizen deliberators could have augmented their work with internet searches and crowdsourced input from the broader public. If it had been given a month or two to do its work, this citizen deliberative council could have done some pretty impressive deliberation. Its findings would have truly represented what the whole public would have come up with had the whole public had a chance to thoroughly examine the issues involved with each other. To engage a broader mass of citizens before the referendum, all the deliberators and the Constitutional Council could go out in public forums to talk about the draft constitution, answer questions and participate in mass public engagements — for example, using World Cafes or Study Circles — to help citizens get educated on the proposed constitution, to discuss it and to give further input. With good media coverage of the process, you would end up with a popular constitution that had been generated by truly empowered public wisdom.

It is unfortunate that more people are not aware of citizen deliberative councils. But I strongly suspect that approach would have been cheaper in the long run, and produced even better results. I hope this perspective reaches the eyes and ears of the next country to decide to take a leap into collective intelligence and wisdom when they create or revise their constitution.

Blessings on the Journey! It is certainly generating surprises!


PS: Here are two other interesting notes about Iceland’s process:

1. The official Constitutional Council’s 25 members were originally elected in November 2010, but Iceland’s Supreme Court invalidated their elections in January 2011 due to improprieties. So a committee convened by Iceland’s Prime Minister to study the matter recommended in February 2011 that the government offer each of those elected a legislative appointment to the Constitutional Council. This was done and they apparently accepted. So they were sort of elected and sort of appointed. Strange, but it worked, but it could raise some questions… (Source)

2. Consider this fascinating pair of facts: “Meetings of the council are open to the public and streamed live on to the website and Facebook page. The latter has more than 1,300 likes in a country of 320,000 people.” Pretty impressive, no? Now hear this: “Iceland’s population [is] among the world’s most computer-literate. Two-thirds of its people are on Facebook.” That’s impressive, too. But wait a minute: These three facts together — a population of 320,000 of whom about 200,000 are on Facebook, of whom 1,300 “liked” the constitutional process — mean that considerably less than 1% of Iceland’s Facebook population — and only about half a percent of the whole population — “liked” the constitution process that was set up!! So far I’ve seen no one else comment on this. It definitely raises questions about “public participation”. It seems to me that use of a citizen deliberative council would help counter potential challenges to the legitimacy of the process. (Source)  


Their Facebook page

Their Twitter page  

Their YouTube channel

Their Flikr photostream

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.