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Lawmaker Turns to Crowdsourcing to Create Legislation

Office of Mike Gatto

There’s a bit of a political experiment underway in Sacramento. An assemblyman is attempting to use crowd sourcing as a way to craft legislation.

Often, when groups want to weigh in on the lawmaking process, they’ll hold rallies at the Capitol. Crowds of people will march, chant and wave signs trying to draw lawmakers’ attention.  But not everyone who wants to be heard can make it to the Capitol.

That’s where crowd sourcing comes in.  You may familiar with the concept. A large group of people, generally through the Internet, gets together and offers up ideas, money, services, whatever is needed, to meet a goal.  Wiki-pedia is a good example. Anyone can edit and contribute to the online encyclopedia.

Now, California Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto is experimenting with that concept to create legislation.

Mike Gatto: "I take the position that special interests drive bills in Sacramento too much. But at the same time, there are a lot of problems with direct democracy," Gatto says. "So we thought this was a wonderfully happy medium, pun intended, for the public to get involved, to directly affect a bill."

Gatto’s idea was to choose a topic and then let anyone who wanted weigh in on creating legislation around that topic. Being a newcomer to wiki-bills, Gatto wanted to choose something that was relatable, yet not too inflammatory.

“As I was thinking about it, the old Ben Franklin maxim came into my head,” he says, “which is, the two things that everybody will have an experience with in their life is death and taxes.”

Gatto opted to stay away from taxes. Instead he decided to take on the state’s probate code, which regulates wills. People could log onto the wiki-page his office created and add or edit language to revise the code. Gatto pledged to introduce whatever bill the crowd came up with. He is now considering two proposals that came out of the experiment.

UC Davis political science professor Amber Boydstun says this is a win-win for Gatto.

"He's able to get people involved and he's able to give his constituency a sense of ownership over the process," she says. "And, at the end of the day, he's not responsible for the legislation itself. The Assembly will vote the way it votes."

But while the concept may have promise, the wiki-page shows only about 12 people made contributions to the bill.

Tim Bonnemann is the founder and CEO of Intellitics, a company that helps organizations connect and interact with people through social media. He’s been observing Gatto’s wiki-bill process and says there are a few flaws that need to be worked out. For instance, he says there should have been more outreach and guidance.

“They also started at the most difficult part, which is writing legislative copy,” Bonnemann says. “When maybe they should have invited people more to share stories and indentify challenges and develop solutions together.”

But as for keeping special interests out of the mix, Bonnemann says wiki-bills might actually help.

"In general, the more public, the more transparent the process is overall, the more difficult it becomes for people to slip things in unnoticed," Bonnemann says.

Gatto is already looking toward his next wiki-bill effort. He says he may pick more than one topics, or go with something more timely to help spur involvement.

“We picked a stodgy topic the first year and we’ll see how it goes,” Gatto says. “But, maybe we do need some of the good old fashioned inflammatory topics that would really get people excited about this.”

And he says he shouldn’t be the only lawmaker experimenting on the crowd sourcing front. He says every member of the legislature should introduce at least one wiki-bill a year.


Copyright 2014 Capital Public Radio