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Crowdsourcing the Common Good

  • Louis Doctor
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When asked, “What is a special interest group?,” most people are quick to respond with answers similar to, “It’s a group funded by a company or industry to advocate for their interests”. So when I’m trying to explain the mission of our newly formed, non-profit organization, Wethepeople.org, I let them try to tell me. “If that’s what a special interest group does, what do you think a common interest group would do?” That generally evokes a brief moment of thought and then almost without exception the correct answer emerges, “Advocates for the common interest”.

It’s a simple idea but a difficult challenge to put into practice for one reason only. In order to advocate for the common interest, one first needs to determine the common interest. The problem of finding the common interest is easiest when all members of a group have joined for the same reason.

If I joined a group called, “Americans for lower taxes”, I’d reasonably expect that all group members want taxes lowered and we would be debating the best way to accomplish this common objective. Ideas would be floated and we’d have a spirited discussion about which are the most practical and actionable by the group. As a member, I might not think all of the ideas were equally viable and I’d want a way to voice my opinion as to which I believed was best. When all of the members of the group have been heard, we’d use a voting method such as ranked choice to determine the most popular. We could adopt one or more of the most popular ideas and be on our way to aggregate our member resources to advocate for those. We will have started with basic agreement about what we wanted to accomplish, explored and finally decided upon the best way to accomplish it. However, this is not the same problem we are trying to solve.

What happens if you were a member of group of people wherein some want their taxes lowered and others want to fund programs or reduce the deficit which would require that require taxes be raised? And others think their taxes are just right where they are. Is there any common interest among these members, and how would you find it? That’s the challenge Wethepeople.org faces on a national scale and the problem we set out to solve.

As Americans, we are often labeled based on our political leanings. Some identify as ‘conservative’, others as ‘liberal’ and those that don’t identify with either are often termed, ‘moderate’. Polling data suggests that the American voting population is roughly equally split between these three self-identified groups. We think of these groups as the three blocs of our member base. If we advocated for a policy which was decidedly unpopular among one of more blocs, it’s likely we’d permanently alienate those members and they’d ‘vote with their feet’ to leave our organization. So one essential principle is that every position we take as an organization must have the support of all three (conservative, moderate and liberal) blocs.

Another factor to consider is that a policy which was only marginally popular with everyone would serve to divide our group along a different axis; those that were for the policy and those that were against. So any policy that the group adopts must be highly popular with everyone.

When we embrace both of these requirements; that every policy must appeal to at least a simple majority of each bloc and also appeal to a supermajority of everyone, we get a vetting process that keeps each bloc satisfied that they are never going to be outnumbered and outvoted by the other two. We’ll have a member base that is generally pleased with most (but likely not all) policies and (hopefully) willing to have their collective resources expended to advocate for a list of policies that they are largely in agreement with.

Another founding principle of Wethepeople.org was that all of these prospective policies would originate with our members and not with our staff. We call these ideas Propositions. Any member can author a Proposition and if it is properly formed (complete, actionable, fact-based, etc..) will be brought to our members for their feedback. Members can upvote a Proposition that they agree with in its current form, or downvote a Proposition that they disagree with. A downvote must be accompanied by comments or specific counter-proposals (sent directly to the author) as to how the Proposition could be modified to make it more appealing to that member. Since each member has self identified into one of three blocs, and every Proposition must appeal to at least a simple majority of each, the author may or may not need additional support from the faction that the downvote and negative feedback originated from.

As the author of a Proposition, if I already have a comfortable majority of one bloc on my side, I’ll want to de-prioritize negative feedback from that bloc and modify the proposition to incorporate the feedback from those blocs where I still lack a simple majority of support. We think of this process of successive refinement as analogous to when a piece of legislation is ‘in committee’ and is being ‘marked up’ by members from opposing political parties. The goal is to move toward a compromise that both parties (or in our case, all three blocs) can support. No matter where it began, the Proposition no longer represents the liberal, conservative, or moderate interest, it emerges representing the ‘common interest’.

Once a Proposition has demonstrated that it is supported by a simple majority of members in all three blocs (net positive upvotes from all three blocs for 30 consecutive days), it leaves this open committee-like process and we take the Proposition to a full member vote to see if it will secure a supermajority of support and if so, becomes adopted as a part of our platform.

We are satisfied that the above ‘algorithm’ works in theory, but as the old saying goes, “In theory, there’s little difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is”. So we need to bring a large group of citizens to bear on this crowdsourcing problem and work out the inevitable unintended consequences to create the first fully functioning and powerful ‘common interest group’ in America.

In the last 50 years, America has developed a very sophisticated and effective set of special interests. These operate freely within our representative system of democracy to achieve their narrow goals, which often run counter to the common interest of the majority of voters. WeThePeople.org does not seek to change the basics of a system of government which has delivered more than 200 years of real progress towards the goals set out in the Declaration of Independence. Rather, we believe that The People need to better organize around a clear set of ‘common interests’, laid out in a specific, actionable, and comprehensive platform. Such a platform, and the means to advocate and hold our representatives accountable to it, could help drive the change we need to continue to create the more perfect union that our founders envisioned.

We hope you will consider joining us and participating in this exciting journey.

Author: Louis Doctor

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