Crowdsourcing the Constitution


Since mid April a group here has been working on preparations for the creation of the worlds first crowdsourced constitution. The idea is to have the nation build its own constitution on a participatory basis, and then have a general referendum on the validity of the proposal. There are a lot of open variables still, as it’s early days, but we’ve got weekly meetings and a fairly active group behind it.

Nobody has ever, to my knowledge, written a how-to guide for making a constitution, but people have a fairly strong feeling for what a constitution is and what it stands for, so we’re making up the rules more or less as we go along.

In mid April we had a meeting of about 50 people at the University of Iceland, where over the course of four hours we went through several iterations of a deliberative process known as the “anthill method”. It originally comes out of corporate goal setting practices, but has been developed further and opened up, in part by the startup company Agora, to support a highly dynamic group type (the Icelandic National Assembly last November had about 1300 people at it; the smallest meeting using this format that I’ve been to had three people). While this method doesn’t produce particularly deep results, it is alarmingly good at creating overview, engagement, and producing penetrating statements that can be used for further scrutiny.

After this initial meeting which helped flesh out the basics, there was a followup meeting that presented the results after they had been entered into a computer and some basic statistical aggregation had been performed. By then a basic website had been set up with the information created at the meeting both as a spreadsheet and a mind map.

The fourth meeting was yesterday. At this point in time we’re actively setting up an organization to encourage and support the creation of a new constitution for the Icelandic people. The group of people involved is diverse although a lot of them are well known from the “alternative political scene” – people who participated in the protests last year, people who’ve been actively engaged in democracy movements for a long time, and the occasional “constitution geek” who is fascinated by armchair lawmaking.

One of the questions that came up at yesterday’s meeting was “on whose authority does a constitution come into existence?”

There was some debate about whether it would be necessary to somehow force the government to legitimize the act of running a referendum. My stance is on the contrary. If we organize a referendum and get a high enough level of participation – say, roughly 85%, which is typical attendance to general elections here – then it is legitimized by the people. Bypassing the existing authority is entirely possible because the existing authority governs on the basis of the existing constitution, which is legitimized by the will of the people. If the people will a new constitution into existence, the stance of the existing government towards that act is entirely besides the point.

In reality though, the government does bend to the will of the people if the will is strong enough. This is why the government called for the election last year, at the end of the “revolution”. Of course there was a high level of disdain for the popular will in this, and the people participating in the election by and large elected the exact same government again, reducing the potential for a real revolution with strong political reform into a 360 degree “revolution”, plus or minus a degree of indifference.

It can’t be helped, I suppose. The problem wasn’t with the people – the current government is to a large degree manned by wonderful people who are doing good work. There are a few people in the government that are absolutely abhorrent to freedom and democracy, but it’s improved by leaps and bounds since the reign of Davíð Oddsson (also known as Ubu Roi, Comrade Dao, or the Editor of Morgunblaðið). The reason they were by and large reelected reflects this: the problem isn’t with the people, it’s the structure. More specifically, it’s the power structure, as laid out by the constitution.

And that will change.

Finally, here are some impromptu video interviews I did with some people at the first constitutional assembly meeting, in English for your benefit: