Efforts by the Police to involve the public in reforming the Police Act with the aid of a wiki have been hailed as a big step towards electronic democracy internationally.
The animated discussion that followed the launch of a wiki version of the new act, which is in draft form, went far beyond questions about the law itself and has embraced the idea of participatory law formation via wikis and other electronic information exchange mechanisms.
“What better way to govern a group of people than [by] saying, ‘Hey, what do you think should be fair?’ and letting the people police themselves,” says Alabama-based student Clay, on his blog, “The IT Life”.
“Yeah, there is the possibility of people attempting to add bogus laws, but wikis are self-correcting for the most part. As soon as bad info goes up, someone is out there taking it back down.
“I’d like to see more of this, but maybe we should watch New Zealand as a test case first,” he writes.
Prominent Australian blogger Laurel Papworth, a university lecturer who comments on the evolution of social networks (www.silkcharm.blogspot.com) was approached by the Sydney Morning Herald to comment on the NZ Police wiki idea. She compares it with the more broadly focused Australian Government Consultation Blog project, suggesting the centralised structure of the latter is preferable to the public having to engage separately with each agency.
But, starting a discussion on e-democracy “wasn’t what was in our minds”, says Superintendent Hamish McCardle, who is in charge of the Police Act amendment exercise.
“We were just using the electronic channel as a way of getting a wide sample of people to contribute their ideas.
“We got some real outside-the-box thinking,” he says. This included the idea of a minimum age of 25 for police recruits. The person who suggested this backed up his proposal with a good deal of evidence from scholarly works in psychology, and had obviously thought about it deeply, McCardle says.
The tendency to append long-winded justifications proved a slight disadvantage — this was not how the exercise was originally conceived, he says. But McCardle’s team fixed this by creating a separate “notes” section on the site, to house detailed reference material, so leaving only the essential ideas in the main body of the wiki.
But they also “got some real crazy stuff” that clearly wouldn’t work in practice, McCardle says. There was a nightly process of “boiling down”, where the good ideas of the day were combined, and inconsistencies weeded out or put into separate threads. A number of alternative versions of parts of the proposed act were often running in parallel.
Could the Police then be accused of managing the discussion and setting themselves up as a filter in the parliamentary process, and deciding what ideas will go through to the select committee submission? “Nobody raised that with us,” McCardle says. “As far as possible, the team worked on the assumption that “there’s no such thing as a bad idea.”
And the wiki is not the only route the public has when it comes to influencing the amendments, he points out. People are still free to make personal submissions when the matter comes before the Select Committee.
Other electronic routes were also opened-up early in the process. Discussion papers on various areas of the law were prepared, and put up on the site, and email submissions on these were encouraged. The wiki exercise has now finished, but the emails continue, McCardle says.
The original plan was to remove the wiki once it had done its job. But public comment, led by Papworth, has persuaded the Police to put the final version back up on the site, as a permanent record and a seed for further discussion.
However, the wiki team wasn’t prepared for the amount of sheer vandalism that occurred on the site, McCardle says. “It must be very discouraging, when you’ve spent a long time painstakingly crafting your idea, to have it taken down and replaced by obscenities.”
Fortunately, a running “forensic record” was kept of the state of the wiki and such damage could be repaired and reasonable moderation exercised.
“My gut reaction is that this process is a bit looser than what might be put to a Select Committee,” he says. Some ideas were expressed in an “earthy” way that might not come through in a conventional parliamentary process.
“A lot of people have one burning issue they want to discuss and they don’t care much about the rest of the legislation.” Such people would probably feel more comfortable inserting that one idea in the wiki, [rather] than preparing a formal submission in which they might feel duty-bound to cover other clauses in a proposed amendment.
Media coverage also fed back into further participation. There was a rise in the hit-rate on the site following media stories and online discussions. And there was a particularly pronounced spike when the wiki exercise was first mentioned on the technical discussion forum, Slashdot.