Stanford study on crowdsourcing democracy

Hi Tanjaa. I loved your publication ‘Crowdsourcing for Democracy’ Although it doesn’t include examples of bottom up crowdsourcing (where there is no pipeline to established decision makers), I would appreciate your opinion of the following idea regarding bottom up crowdsourcing to reform our political process in the United States as well as any advice or resources you can offer:
The obvious challenge of using crowdsourcing to implement true reform and improve any political process is that the established powers (elected officials) make the final decisions and are often beholden to the moneyed interests that put them in power. But at the end of the day it’s voters that put people in power in a democracy, not moneyed interests. My view is that historically money has controlled the media/message and therefore ‘bought’ the vote, that’s why so many corporations back both candidates (either way they win). But if we can use technology to empower citizens to get involved and become part of the solution  – which your examples prove is possible when they are invited into the opportunity – then we might have a chance to rewrite the entire political landscape by mobilizing voters. It is my contention that in the United States we are living in a post party era – one in which the majority of the public feels frustrated with all political parties and with the entire political process. Most Americans feel money has co-opted and corrupted our democracy and feel powerless to do anything about it. Democracy gives us the vote to solve this problem, and technology gives us the promise of having people’s voices truly heard and using their collective wisdom to forge a solution – to re-write the rules and elect people to Congress that will adhere to these new rules. The question I have is how do we inspire and empower people to get involved in this process? How do we crowdsource the creation of a social contract that reflects the collective will of the people that all aspiring members of Congress would be pressured into adhering to in order to get elected? It might be the only way we can usurp the almighty dollar of the moneyed interests and take the reigns of our troubled democracy back and head in the people’s direction.
I was blown away by your work and can’t thank you enough for focusing your talent on this topic as it is so vitally important to empowering people all over the world. It might be our only shot at solving critically important global problems. If we don’t use technology to hold power accountable and marshall global resources for the common good of humanity – which I have faith is the collective will of the human race – then I am afraid for us. The good news is that there is so much glaring corruption in the world and such a disconnect between elected officials and the will of the people (even in our troubled democracy) that creating a simple and effective social contract that redefines the political landscape shouldn’t be rocket science. I can envision tens of millions of inspired voters changing the course of history for the better.
I very much appreciate any thought/advice/resources/contacts you have to offer in this area.
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‘Crowdsourced Democracy’ – a social contract for Congress.

I spend most of my time immersed in Edtech but my other great passion is the potential of using technology and the power of the crowd to fix our broken democracy. A must read in this area is Lawrence Lessig’s ‘Republic, Lost’, as well as watching his TED talk( Larry is a Harvard law professor and the founder of, and is completely dedicated to ending the corrupting influence of money on our democracy. The tagline of his book is ‘How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It’, but when it comes to real solutions to this problem here is what Larry himself says:

“The changes that would accomplish this are not hard to describe. How we effect them, however, is. The gap in the Framers’ original design is obvious enough. The types of reform that would fill that gap are obvious as well. But how one motivates a potilical response sufficient to fill it is incredibly difficult to imagine. I am not convinced it is possible, even though the next chapters map four different strategies we could try. I have my favorite among these four, but none are probable’ (‘Republic, Lost’ Part IV page 249).

This seems to be the prevailing feeling of both scholars and the American public in general. We have a plutocracy (government by and for the wealthy), not a democracy – and we feel powerless to change it. Politicans are bought and paid for by corporations and the moneyed elite and there’s nothing we can do about it. Why even vote? The framers of the constitution were very worried about this issue – that’s why we have checks and balances. They did their best to avoid concentrated power in our government, but what happens when the majority of the politicians we elect to represent our interests are trapped in a completely broken system that requires them to raise incredible amounts of money to even run for office (a form of indentured servitude to the people/companies giving them the money)? Whose interests are they representing? It’s an obvious problem and one that isn’t easy to fix, but the framers of our constiitution gave us the ultimate solution to this problem – the vote. At the end of the day Exxon/Mobil and Monsanto can’t elect someone to Congress – only the American people can. The problem is that we aren’t voting because we feel powerless. I hear lots of excuses – the public isn’t educated, the public doesn’t care, the media/money controls all of the messaging, etc. I give more credit to the ‘uneducated masses’ – something I’m sure the framers of our Constitution would agree with. The problem is not that we aren’t educated or that we don’t care, it’s that we haven’t had the ability to have our voices truly heard in the past – until now.  We are living in an incredibly different time than ever before in human history – a time when technology has enabled us to hear people’s collective voices and effect real change. In my opinion the solution to the problems our democracy is facing is tapping into the collective wisdom and power of the crowd, which is what true democracy is all about. We can use crowdsourcing/crowdfunding to control who gets into office and to hold them accountable for what they do while they are in office – plain and simple. We can re-write the rules on our terms – what we expect of our elected officials – and if they don’t comply we can throw them out. That is the ultimate power of the crowd. Isn’t crowdfunding/crowdsourcing at it’s core really about democritization – the power of the many instead of the few?

It’s a simple, almost naive sounding proposition but I can’t think of any other way (outside of a revolution) to combat the billions of dollars that are currently spent buying, controlling, co-opting and corrupting our democracy. At the end of the day we still have the ultimate say. We put these people in office, not special interests. What we need is a framework for re-inventing and revolutionizing this process – for taking back our democracy.

I am envisioning a ‘Contract for Congress’ – not a legal contract, but a crowdsourced social contract that details exactly what we expect from everyone running for Congress. They would sign on to it in order to be elected and be accountable for delivering on it while in office. It wouldn’t be difficult to create a simple report card (thanks to technology) that tracks their behavior and if they don’t deliver on their promises while running for office we don’t elect them. If they don’t deliver while in office then we throw them out. Politicians will never limit their own power, but we can. Hopefully we can harness the power of the crowd to re-invent and revitalize our democracy – to empower the American people to get involved in creating the country they want. The real question is what should this document/process look like? We can re-write the rules, but we need a clear vision of what we collectively want – important changes that the majority of the public agrees on. Should politicians have term limits? Should Congress live by the same rules as the American people? Should all campaigns have a set amount of money and/or media access? This is the conversation I’m hoping to facilitate with the concept of ‘crowdsourced democracy’.

I had a front row seat to the complete re-invention of the music business thanks to technology. The lessons were simple – listen to your customers, empower your customers, utilize technology to better serve your customers, be open to re-thinking and re-inventing the economics of your business, put everything in one place and make it simple and easy to use. Steve Jobs accomplished this for music with Itunes. Jeff Bezos accomplished this for shopping with Amazon. Mark Zuckerberg accomplished this for connecting people with Facebook. Craig Newmark accomplished this for classifieds with craigslist. Sergey and Larry accomplished this for search with Google. Why not democracy? I can see a future where an app on my Iphone will tell me who to vote for based on this system. We simply need to collectively design the right framework for this process and get enough momentum behind it to make it work. The timing couldn’t be better. The problems are obvious, the tools are available, and the American people are begging for a solution. People all over the world are begging to be empowered. Isn’t that the ultimate use of technology – empowering people to make the world a better place? I can’t think of a more important use of ‘crowdsourcing/crowdfunding’.

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