A recent article in Quartz ran with the phrase “crowdsourcing its new constitution” in the title, which immediately caught my eye (bravo to effective headline writing). Unfortunately, as is all too common in the realm of political design (designing governance systems), the headlines are either conscious hyperbole or the result of misunderstanding true novelty in political history.
The thrust of the article is that Mexico City is in the midst of a constitution-making process and the various organizing authorities (largely the mayor, in this case) have in some cases permitted and in other cases encouraged greater citizen participation in the process. The two featured mechanisms in the article are Change.org, through which citizens can submit petitions for ideas for the constitution, and PubPub, a Google Doc-like platform through which citizens can annotate existing proposals being drafted by a small drafting group organized by the mayor and working ahead of the formal constitutional assembly.
As the article points out, of course, this is not actually an experiment in genuine crowdsourcing but rather a “public-consultation” effort encouraged by the mayor (who is said to be the only one who can submit a draft to the constitutional assembly). The “big catch” is that the actual constitutional assembly is under no obligation to use any of the submissions. This is hardly a surprise to anyone familiar with the history of constitution making over the last 229 years and is in fact a development that should be completely expected.
Based on a reading of the article, in many respects the current constitution-making effort in Mexico City falls well in line with what one should expect for any constitution-making effort. Among the characteristics that it shares in common with “typical” practice:
- The highest authority puts in place structures to ensure that it retains a fair degree of control over the final output (the constitution document)
- The authorizing entity creats structural controls (or constraints, depending upon your perspective) to ensure that the citizens and lower-level officials don’t have too much prerogative (yet have the appearance of providing input)
- One of the organizers (in this case, the mayor) creates a group outside of the official constituent assembly to draft what I term a straw model: a draft intended to shape subsequent deliberations within the actual constituent assembly
Reflecting on the mayor of Mexico City’s attempts at increasing citizen participation, these are all efforts at what I term sustaining political innovations: they are attempts to improve the performance of the existing system of governance along established dimensions of performance (e.g. citizen consultation or participation). They are certainly admirable and we should encourage other political communities to at the very least emulate these modest improvements.
In the longer run, however, if we are to effectively address the rising governance challenges facing political communities at every scale around the world, then what is needed in the realm of political design is a number of disruptive political innovations, developments built on new concepts and new technologies that either overhaul our expectations for political life or serve entirely new populations that have been traditionally unserved or dramatically underserved by the current system – and thereby effect dramatic changes to political life over the long term.
Sad note: the recent “constitution-making” efforts by a small assemblage of Native Hawaiians lacked even the modest sustaining innovations being used in Mexico City, and certainly has lacked its more obvious constitutional and representative legitimacy.