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Crowdsourcing the Constitution: New Trends in Political Engagement

Australian National University professor and international studies scholar Joanne Wallis argues that public participation may play an essential role in state building and stability in a region. In her most recent book, Constitution Making During State Building, Dr. Wallis calls for a constituent process in which “public participation in constitution making plays a positive role in state building by providing fragmented and divided societies with the opportunity to resolve their grievances, agree upon common values and norms, and work out how they are going to be best accommodated and adjust to the transition to statehood.”

Two such constituent processes have been planned for 2015. Activist and education groups in Libya and the United Kingdom are both seeking to engage the public in the constitution making process through a modern channel: crowdsourcing.

In early January, Agora Libya launched a pilot site that invites Libyan citizens to discuss constitutional provisions in online moderated discussions, which the website calls “town halls.”

These discussions allow Libyans to discuss a wide variety of constitutional topics, including: public services, education, freedom of religion and the role of sharia in legislation, and political structures and institutions. Agora Libya has two goals: to educate people about the constitutional process and the potential of the new constitution, and to facilitate debate between people of differing views and backgrounds. Libya has been governed by rival factions since 2011, and crowdsourcing the constitution provides Libyan citizens with a safe way to assemble in debate to reconcile their political disagreements.

The political situation in the United Kingdom is fundamentally different from that of Libya, but the London School of Economics’ Institute of Public Affairs launched a similar crowdsourcing strategy in January. The UK has never had a formal constitution, but is governed by a series of documents that include the Magna Carta; therefore, UK citizens are generally not familiar with constitutionalism or constitutional law. LSE is inviting citizens to participate in drafting a consolidated UK constitution with goals similar to Agora Libya: to educate citizens on the constitution drafting process, and to engage the public in discussion and debate on constitutional provisions. The top 20 participants on the UK forum, Hacking the UK Constitution, will be invited to a Constitutional Convention in March, and the draft constitution will be presented to Parliament in June.

In addition to these specific crowdsourcing instances, the Comparative Constitutions Project partnered with Google Ideas to create a user-friendly, comprehensive constitutional database called Constitute. Through the Constitute interface, users can search and sort the world’s constitutions in both Arabic and English. The Comparative Constitutions Projects hopes that constituent assemblies and scholars alike will use Constitute to inform their constitutional drafting and study processes, and that governments such as Libya and the UK can draw upon international constitutional provisions to create more informed documents. The recognition of the value of public participation is growing globally, as are the platforms through which the people can communicate with their governments. Perhaps we shall soon see if Dr. Wallis’s public participation thesis is correct.