The idea of the Madison project, spearheaded by a member of the US House of Representatives, is to apply the crowdsourcing approach to the drafting of legislative bills.
In January 2012, around 7,000 US websites, among them Wikipedia and Reddit, ‘went dark’ to publicize their opposition to the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) bills, aiming to curtail copyright infringement and intellectual property theft on the web, which had been laid before the House of Representatives. On the heels of this online action, which reflected a lack of understanding between some sections of the political class and the Internet world, Project Madison was born. Launched by Darrell Issa, republican Congressman who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the project is hosted on the OpenGov site. The project is an experiment to make the drafting of legislative bills more democratic by harnessing the power of the Internet – and the wisdom of crowds. Project Madison, however, is particularly aimed at the Internet community; so far only bills that have the potential to affect the openness of the Web are being crowdsourced.
Interactive, collaborative lawmaking
Project Madison is a platform designed to make legislation more interactive. On the site, users can find several draft bills which they can modify, annotate, and comment on. All they have to do is highlight a passage in the text, and then make their comments, which will then appear in the margin on the right. Users can also simply suggest an alternative wording, which others can then ‘like’, ‘dislike, comment on, share suggestions on social networks or put specific questions to the Internet community. The most popular suggestions are automatically moved to the top of the list. Madison “has grown up” since its early beginnings, “becoming open source software free for anyone to use while opening policy documents previously off-limits to individuals and the Internet community,” claim the founders, who would like to see Madison “become a free turnkey solution so that anyone can both unlock the policy documents they want and advance (…) truly open, accountable government.”
User-generated improvements to legislative process
This ‘crowdsourcing’ approach to legislation is not about submitting all draft bills to Internet users. The basic aim is to bring transparency to the legislative process by making documents easy to access online, readable and simple to navigate and process. Another objective is to encourage collaboration between government and the web community, since dialogue between these two has not always been smooth and easy. The initiative is supported by major players on the US Internet scene, including GrubHub and TechCrunch and the site is currently inviting comments and suggestions on the phrasing and terminology of the Internet American Moratorium Act (IAMA), a bill sponsored by Darrell Issa, whose purpose is to stop further restrictive legislation frustrating the needs of an open and free web. Of course legislative amendments suggested on platforms like Madison have no official status in the lawmaking process but Congressman Issa seems ready to take up suggestions on IAMA and the experiment may well lead to greater public enthusiasm for grass-roots participation.