In one of my earliest posts, I briefly speculated on the method of crowd-sourcing being used in the construction of Iceland’s latest constitution. I shared my thoughts on the system of contribution from the general public, and how I hoped the direct-democractic route would be successful in the end. I hadn’t been keeping track of the project lately, to be honest, but I was saddened today while scrolling through my twitter feed to find that the experiment has come to a standstill. So, what happened?
With Iceland’s elections closing in (they start on April 27th), The Althing closed without approving the constitution in question, that is, after lawmakers made key changes to the already agreed upon system.
Now, once the new parliament approves the constitution with a super-majority, it will be put out in a referendum and Iceland’s people will have to pass it with at least 40% of eligible voters approving it, implying an 80% voter turnout. The same parliament can then put the constitution into effect, without having to be dissolved. [source]
The process was changed non-unanimously, and many of the members involved in the original project are very disgruntled with this outcome. Icelandic blogger Baldur Bjarnason, after criticizing recent foreign misreports of Iceland’s crowsourcing project, had this to say:
The problems began with the election for a constitutional parliament. First, those running weren’t given nearly enough time to promote and canvass, meaning that the list tat voters could choose from consisted mostly of strangers. Second, the ballot itself was extremely confusing, requiring extensive explanations. Thirdly, and most importantly, a lot of people didn’t believe any of it mattered. [source]
After looking at how low the participation to the general assembly in late 2012 was reported to be (36.77% participation), its clear that the allegations of lack of interest from the general public are, unfortunately, very real ones. Bjarnason also had some colorful remarks about how the Icelandic Government was at fault as well:
One thing that most foreign reporters omit is that there is considerable resistance to constitutional reform by a lot of influential groups in Iceland. Another thing omitted is the fact that the government at the time was a mess and couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the election was challenged in the courts and that Iceland’s High Court declared the election, and its results, null and void because of serious issues with voter privacy—that the secrecy of the individual vote had been compromised. (You can get more details at the Icelandic Wikipedia page on the election which is pretty accurate. Of course, as with most data and references on the subject, it’s in Icelandic.)
And finally, in his most important point, he argued that the constitution was never a ‘crowdsourced’ project to begin with:
The government responded by ignoring the High Court and passed a law establishing a constitutional council composed of the exact same people as those who would have been members of the constitutional parliament. That council then decided to do what most bloggers do: post their ideas online; listen to feedback on twitter, facebook, and in comments; and make sure that changes, drafts, and edits were noted online as they went along.
This is what the news outlets labelled crowd-sourcing. It’s no more crowd-sourced than boing boing is. Open, sure. Transparent, absolutely. But, crowd-sourced? No. Not by a long shot. If the draft constitution was crowd-sourced then this blog is crowd-sourced as well and the term is meaningless. The draft constitution was written by a committee using a transparent process. It was a good thing that didn’t need to be spun into something it wasn’t.
Through all his cheekiness, Bjarnason is correct. Its possible that there was never even a fleeting moment where the politicians took the feedback from the citizens seriously, and there is surely nothing now that makes the project remotely crowdsourced.
When it comes down to it, I was one of the foreigners Bjarnason warned about. I was duped into following the story that the rest of the papers in the states plastered into their world news sections. I was too intrigued by the idea of group-think being involved in such a paramount document. While the drafting of the constitution was put in the hands of citizens on Facebook and other social media platforms, I as many failed to internalize and stress that it would just end up back in the hands of parliament afterwords. That’s not a crowdsourced constitution, its a democratic one, with a little input here and there from you’re average Icelander.
Journalists and activists alike, we need to make sure that we clearly define the processees behind legislations and law. We need to learn to differentiate actual shaping of law by a majority of the population occurring from a parliament or other institutional body telling us that’s the case. As a former reporting professor used to say to the class I attended every week, “If your mother says she loves you, you better look into it.” Affirmation is key.
So as many rightfully angry Icelanders continue to protest this week over the death of what could have been massive progress in direct democracy, don’t let that idea die in vein. Instead, bury the jumping to conclusions in the ground, right next to the use of that empty buzzword. Do not mourn them. Let lay false examples of crowdsourcing, and maybe go read some Evgeny Morozov over a cup of tea.