Perhaps the wisdom of crowds might help shape better legislation. It’s worth a shot.
[Steven] Polunsky is the director of the Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, which is presided over by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. In anticipation of the next legislative session, in 2013, the committee intends to try to crowdsource legislation addressing the issue of payday lending.
Payday lending is a divisive topic, and legislators are vigorously lobbied on it by the business community. Carona believes that the new electronic forum will help bring forward the experiences of people who may not have access to representation at legislative hearings.
“You really have to be careful in the legislative process that you’re not guided or overly influenced by special interests,” he said.
The committee is still determining what form the project will take. For example, it could operate like an entry on Wikipedia or incorporate communication tools like Twitter. The committee may team up with transcription services that would allow contributions over the telephone.
“We think the more people that can be involved, the better the legislative outcome,” Carona said. “I’d rather be making policy based upon what I know to be strong public sentiment than to leave it to guesswork here at the Capitol.”
Let me say up front that I think this is a worthwhile idea, I hope it works out, and I commend Sen. Carona for his efforts. I will be very interested to see how this goes.
Having said that, I have two concerns. One is that I’m not sure that a payday lending bill is the best vehicle for this. To my way of thinking, crowdsourcing works best when nobody really knows what the best practices are and there’s no good examples of how other entities have tackled the problem to study. But as we saw in the 2009 Lege, the policy wonks have a pretty good handle on what the specific problem is in Texas and on what needs to be done to fix it. I’m absolutely not saying there isn’t value in soliciting input from the public, especially from those who have direct experience with payday lending. By all means, that should be done. What I am saying is that this doesn’t seem to me to be a real test of the concept of crowdsourcing legislation because we’re far from starting from scratch. I expect the input that this may generate will help at the margins, but is unlikely to change the 2009 bills in a way that will make anyone say “We never would have thought of that”. That’s the sort of thing I’d love to see get thrown to the crowdsourcers. Which is easier said than done, because off the top of my head I can’t think of such an example.
The other concern is more fundamental and more mundane. The reason that a good payday lending bill didn’t pass in 2009 wasn’t because the bills that were put forward were somehow insufficient. The problem was that the good bills were beaten back and watered down by industry lobbyists, aided and abetted by a single unethical member of the House, Rep. Gary Elkins, working in his own self interest. Crowdsourcing isn’t going to help with those problems, unless you’re talking about something like Kickstarter as a tool for unseating the likes of Elkins. Again, this is not to say that the idea isn’t a good one. It’s just that the experience will have nothing to do with the ultimate fate of the bill it produces.