Open source politics?

September 8, 2011 | Leave a comment

Rick Perry

Today’s debate between Republican Presidential hopefuls underlined how broken the current accepted political systems are. Real change, real hope, is very hard to find. I shared the following thought in a few places:

Party politics has to be the next major model to be disrupted by the Internet. If you want to change the world, that’s the big fish.

What might an Internet-informed political framework look like? How would it interact with legacy parties like the Republicans and the Democrats?

The term open source politics was bandied around in the 2004 US election, but at no point did anyone really mean open (policy decisions were always closed to deep participation from the outside world) or source (the underlying decision-making processes were fixed).

But what if we had a political party that really did work like an open source project? Software developed under an open source methodology is typically written in the open, with each changeset published to the world. The code is secure; it can’t be edited by just anyone. Instead, users can fix problems or suggest new features by submitting issues – text descriptions of bugs or new feature requests – or patches – actual code that implements these changes. A user can easily submit a patch that fixes another user’s issue. It’s then up to the project team to merge in the patches and accept or reject issues.

The same processes could work in politics. We already have organizations like mySociety and the Sunlight Foundation that effectively maintain issue lists for localities (see FixMyStreet) and shine light on the legislative process. If those things were formalized and not just endorsed but embraced by government, I believe the result would be a significantly fairer system.

For example, imagine if lobbyists were forced to propose changes to legislation in public, as a patch. Imagine if the Startup Visa campaign could have submitted their legislation as a patch in a centralized place. Imagine if local issues could be linked across a centralized platform to show patterns in public, and if people could submit legislative solutions.

A lot of things would need to be done before this could even begin to be viable. Open source projects suffer a reasonable amount of trolling; imagine what a government would have to endure. There would need to be a good way to filter submissions while ensuring that everyone had a fair chance to be heard. It’s probably a naïve idea; certainly one that isn’t likely to be implemented any time soon. But I can dream.

Photo credit: Rick Perry (who I’m pretty sure compared himself to Galileo today) by Gage Skidmore, released under a Creative Commons license.