Engineer and congressional Republican firebrand Darrell Issa is leveraging his supporters' collective outrage against a contentious anti-piracy bill, SOPA, to showcase his new experimental crowdsourcing legislative platform. "Project Madison" invites the legions of angry technology firms and policy wonks to construct their own version of an alternative anti-piracy bill on a new online platform.
Project Madison is just one of a handful of ideas bubbling in Issa's laboratory of open government: Over the last six months, he's launched an interactive subcommittee livestream, published a new form of online polling, and sponsored a bill to make government spending trackable.
To be clear, his experiments often serve to advance a brazen political agenda. And Issa could be seen as an unlikely champion of transparency. And digital democracy has had a difficult time gaining traction. And yet Issa publicly pledges to open the halls of Congress, at least some of them, to America's netizens.
Crowdsourcing Rage Against Anti-Piracy Legislation
The smooth ride to victory for a pair of anti-piracy bills, SOPA and Protect IP, hit a debilitating roadblock after a clever grassroots effort drew attention to the potential unintended consequences of allowing the government to shut down websites that trafficked (even unwittingly) in pirated content. "You could have Yahoo or Google or any of these sites shut down, even though 99.9% of their material was completely legitimate," argued Issa, at a Facebook co-sponsored "hackathon" in the U.S. Capitol Building earlier this month.
Issa, unconvinced, and frustrated by his colleagues' exclusion of SOPA's technology critics from expert testimony, launched the interactive legislation platform Project Madison to give an unconventional voice to his supporters outside of Capitol Hill. Speaking about the website, Issa tells Fast Company, "Effectively what you have is a hearing with every single one of the individuals who wants to participate there. You would have had every tech company able to weigh in with their comments and potential changes in the bill."
Project Madison is a stripped-down interactive blogging platform, which allows citizens to select individual passages of legislation, and strike or add their own language, with comments for each suggestion. Citizens are encouraged to like or dislike each change, with the most popular suggestions rising to the top. Each page also has embedded Facebook and Twitter buttons that link to individual amendments.
Crowdsourcing policy has been attempted around the world, from Iceland's new constitution to federal legislation in Brazil, but such one-off experiments are yet to find a sustainable balance between lawmaker interest and citizen expertise. Brazil's wiki-legislation experiment, for instance, was largely dismissed by lawmakers who felt that citizens could not fully understand the legal ramifications of the laws they proposed. Issa is hopeful that the crowd can bring attention to the very best amendments, helping his staff sort through the inevitable torrent of suggestions.
Thus, Madison-inspired amendments have no legally binding authority. "We're a Republic. We're supposed to be responsible for the final product," admits Issa. However, "better input will make for better legislation by members."
Additionally, given the inconspicuous financial backing of SOPA, Issa hopes that the transparency of Madison will reveal the once-hidden influence of influential lobbyists. "Today, very powerful interest groups weigh in on all legislation." He told the hackathon audience, "Under our Madison initiative, those groups...will be tracked. They're input will be noted and appreciated, but the world will know see what their input was in real-time."
A Poll That Mandates Consideration of Trade-offs
The postal service is on the brink of bankruptcy, and trying to figure out which solutions the public supports is a nightmare of contradictions. A recent Gallup poll found:
Just over half of Americans (54%) are opposed to closing some Postal Service offices, while 44% support that idea. At the same time, 88% are opposed to closing their own post office—indicating that the customary "not in my backyard" mindset could very well limit the political feasibility of broad-based branch closures.
"Polling is asking people what they think in the abstract," says Issa, who argues that most survey questions don't ask respondents to actually to consider difficult trade-offs. As a result, "their input's not going to be well thought out."
Issa saw a politically expedient opportunity to experiment with interactive polling in his fight with the financially beleaguered postal union to reduce the size of the USPS.
He launched Savingthepostalservice.com, which includes a game-like poll where users make a series of difficult cuts to the postal service.
Any failure to solve the budget gap ends in a depressing "game over"-like screen that reads, "You elected to use taxpayer money to subsidize the Postal Service and address massive operating losses."
While budget games have been around for a while (and are usually less biased), Issa is the first to see games as a new method of polling, one which has the potential to overcome notoriously contradictory opinion polls.
An Interactive C-Span for Calling "B.S."
Project Madison's sister project, an experimental interactive livestream from the subcommittee Issa chairs, will likely get her 15 minutes of fame if Issa follows through with his threat to investigate how Homeland Security shut down five online music sites without much explanation.
The Oversight Committee, which acts like an internal affairs for the government, has given unprecedented online access to its meetings via YouTube.
"We've had atrocious access to video of what congressional committees are doing," says John Wonderlich, Policy Director for the Sunlight Foundation, who argues that video transparency helps keep tabs on lobbyist influence. "A bill can be incredibly contentious and all the decisions are made beforehand."
Issa's next step is to open up the livestream to commenters online, so that excluded third-party groups and citizen experts can warn congressmen of factual errors or grave oversight during testimony.
The problem with invite-online subcommittee testimony, says Issa, is that congressmen often come to testimony with something "he or she got from a lobby group that isn't true, or that is half true." The depressing result, he concludes, is that after only a few hours of investigation and relatively limited expert testimony, a bill "is often marred with facts that can't be reconciled properly and you end up with a party-line vote instead of the best effort."
If all goes well, instead of lobbyists passing suggestions to congressmen via staff whispers during congressional hearings, influence could come from the comment of a pajama-clad citizen expert, calling "B.S." on an assumption aimed at making its way into law.
"Ultimately, the people who don't want to go on to our site and want to lobby behind the scenes, they will be diminished," Issa says. "It increases the power of those who, in a transparent way, are willing to make input."
Intentions and Next Steps
Congressional digital democracy has often fallen victim to politics. Even as the Internet has opened up opportunities for greater access and transparency, citizens still do not have access to complete legislative data, their internal research service requires a congressman's permission to access public reports (earning kudos for members each time they grant a request), there is no easy method to track earmarked spending, and promises to put bills online for 72 hours have, in the past, been sidelined for political expediency.
One of the remaining participatory projects is explicitly partisan: YouCut, a Republican-led initiative that allows constituents to vote by SMS for which federal programs ought to be cut from the budget.
Thus, while Issa's intentions are anyone's guess, his embrace of the political beast may be the most realistic bet for his (relatively) radical digital democracy experiments.
His colleagues will take note that Project Madison is off to an attractive start, with 157,000 unique visitors the first day, dozens of very specific suggestions, a growing Twitter following and praise from popular tech blogs.
The publicity headwind will be a big help as his DATA Act comes up for a vote, which will attempt to make federal spending trackable online.
Political realities do not escape him. When asked whether he thinks his initiatives will gain widespread adoption, Issa is confident that they will as long as he can answer his colleagues' question, "What did you get for this effort?" He concludes, with a bit of humility, "We think we're going to do okay, but we're going to learn."
[Image: Flickr user Congressman Darrell Issa]