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Iceland Writes the World's 1st Crowdsourced Constitution

Some U.S. cities have dabbled in crowdsourcing -- asking citizens to help solve problems via the Internet -- but replicating Iceland’s approach on such a large scale may be hard.

Social media is connecting citizens to elected officials in unprecedented ways. But can that direct connection result in real legislative change? In Iceland, apparently the answer is yes.

Following the massive social unrest from Icelandís 2008 banking collapse, the country's political landscape changed drastically. Many officials left office, and the lack of political leadership dovetailed with a growing general distrust of legislative leaders. So when the country decided to modernize its outdated constitution (an effort that's been in talks for years), officials went straight to the citizens themselves. As a result, Iceland's new constitution is the first ever to be composed through crowdsourcing.

In a 10-month process culminating last fall, Iceland elected a 25-member Constitutional Advisory Council from more than 500 candidates, sought feedback through social media sites, and then drafted a new constitution based on that input. The document was approved by national vote in November. Parliament is expected to affirm it this spring.

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Thorvaldur Gylfason, a professor at the University of Iceland and a member of the council, says the council's diversity led to many spirited debates. But the members developed a respect for one another through camaraderie and a common purpose, even ending many of their meetings in song. (One of the council members happened to be one of Icelandís premier entertainers.)

"Even so, it seemed possible a couple of times or so that the final vote on the bill as a whole might not reach 25 against zero, but we always found a way to keep everyone on board," Gylfason says. "We did this not by watering down the bill but rather through respectful argument, resulting in amicable agreement."

Some municipalities in the U.S. have dabbled in crowdsourcing, albeit on a much smaller scale. In Seattle, Budget Director Beth Goldberg enlisted the public's opinion during the budget writing process through an online game that challenged residents to pick funding priorities and then close a $31.7 million gap in the 2013 budget. Unlike in Iceland, the process served more as a way to compare the administration's budget proposal with the publicís thinking. "The results ended up kind of mimicking what was allocated [in our budget]," Goldberg says. The city is now considering crowdsourcing policy decisions on issues like environmental action plans and greenspace planning.

Fully importing Iceland's experiment could be hard. In theory, says Gylfason, Iceland's approach could be replicated by any city or county considering major changes, such as school reform. "Whether the same process would work as a model for revisiting the U.S. Constitution is another matter," he says. The problem isn't just that the U.S. is so much bigger than Iceland, and has a much more heterogeneous population. "But rather perhaps because U.S. politics have become so polarized."

One commonality between the American constitutional convention and Iceland's online experiment? "From start to finish, the drafting of the bill took four months," says Gylfason, "just as in Philadelphia in 1787."

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Liz Farmer is a GOVERNING public finance writer.

Twitter: @LizFarmerTweets
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