THE BLOG
11/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Future of Gov 2.0: Law by Wiki?

The health care bill, we've been told, runs to more than 1000 pages. Who can read all that? I know who: Wikipedia editors.

Bills are crowdsourced already. Legislators collaborate on bills, it's true, but lobbyists, lawyers, legislative assistants, and others have their pens out -- and their contributions, unlike Wikipedia editors', go unattributed and, often, unnoticed.

Moving toward a Wikipedia-style legislative process serves three main goals of Gov 2.0. It makes the legislative process more transparent and more participatory. And whenever you increase transparency, you always increase accountability.

In a follow-up post, I'll detail exactly how I think writing a law by wiki can work, but let me outline the process here so I can talk first about how doing so can help increase transparency, accountability, and citizen participation.

So here's how law-by-wiki could work. The page layout would look like Wikipedia, where each article would have a main page, history, discussion, and edit tab. A table of contents would accompany each page, so visitors could navigate the bill more easily. Two key departures from Wikipedia include:
  • Users who want to edit actual bills would need to register under their real names (users who want to edit the discussion pages only could register under pseudonyms); and
  • All edits would be vetted by Wiki-Law staff, who themselves would register under their real names.
Aside from that, the site would operate pretty much as Jimmy Wales' site does.

Transparency

Even more than the bill itself, the discussion and history pages would allow citizens to see who is writing their laws and how bills change after they pass under various pens. By recording that process, (in the history panel) people could compare bills' versions and see whose edits are beneficial, and whose are merely self-serving.

Accountability

Citizens will be able to hold their elected officials accountable much more effectively when they see not only how they vote on bills, but whose language they are voting for. And groups will be held more accountable when their language is included in legislation that wins approval.

Citizen Participation

A wiki is only as good as its contributors and editors. But if Wikipedia has proven that hundreds of thousands of people are willing to donate time to an academic endeavor, think how many would be willing to donate their time to a project with much more immediate and concrete effects. Even requiring users to register under their real names (sorry, Y2kcrazyjoker4), I'm willing to bet we would see more than enough people to read, research, edit and improve 1000+ page bills.

What would the site look like? Why should there be a two-tier registration system (pseudonyms for discussion editors but real names for bill-editors)? Who would vet the edits to the bill and why?

I'll answer those and other technical/process questions in my next post.