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MakeLaw: an app trying to redefine public participation in drafting laws

Nothing scares me more than the thought that one day I might wake up and everything will be illegal. That my every move, however insignificant it is, will be subject to a full disclosure to the government because government has drafted a new law without consulting with me. If, like me, this brings you great discomfort, a tech app might put us at ease.

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MakeLaw, a non-profit software initiative by Cape Town-based legal technology developer Brendan Hughes seeks to increase the level of public participation in shaping government laws. Though still in its development and funding stage, it appears to be, following the Secrecy Bill that has exposed government’s public participation process, carving a worthwhile cause. The app is designed to give ordinary citizens a more direct say in legislation that affects them. It will enable governments to engage directly with citizens and generate meaningful reports on their views. Something that’s very welcome considering South Africa’s current affairs.

Many governments around the world get their public participation wrong. It reaches a few and the rest have to abide. Even when it reaches those few, the process is restricted. There is often not enough time for a thorough participation.

Public participation is crucial to drafting laws and it forms the base of the rule of law. Robert H. Jackson, an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, succinctly sums up the importance of public participation in this sentence:

“It is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”

The absence of thorough public participation breeds rebellion whilst a thorough public participation creates a public that feels like their government cares about their views.

Other tools we’ve seen trying to further public inclusion in South Africa include People’s Assembly and Code for South Africa’s Know Your Hood.

MakeLaw seeks to strengthen the public participation process, both in its reach and transparency. The value of public participation is in increasing accountability and transparency and broadening the involvement in which the public can make and influence decisions. It is also to build civic capacity and trust between government and the public.

The app according to Brandan Hughes will help government bodies reach wider audiences leveraging digital tools:

“Enable governments to use widely adopted social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to run targeted ads and obtain feedback from ordinary citizens on draft laws, including through large-scale anonymised reports that can be analysed by social-demographic markers. It will be available to citizens as a free web tool as well as a free mobile device application across all major mobile phone operating systems.”

Hughes further stresses the significance of thorough data gathering to enable better decision-making:

“Due to the basic demographic information known about the users’ social media accounts, lawmakers and citizen advocacy groups are able to build and generate reports highlighting the views of different people regarding proposed laws. Strict privacy policies and controls will ensure that user feedback is aggregated and anonymised for statistical-based reporting, rather than individualised feedback.

To function, MakeLaw will make use of social media. When a user clicks for the first time on social media advert asking for their feedback on a draft bill or legal issue, the user will be automatically diverted to the MakeLaw website. The user will then have the option to choose to either makes use of the free web-hosted version or to download the app for free for their mobile devices. And also users can log in to their MakeLaw app with their social media log in details.

Hughes also suggests that what has also contributed to the public participation process to be inconvenient is that it is cost intensive. He says that MakeLaw, will alter how costs are involved in the process by using a pay-per-click media advertising and mobile technology. It will be possible for governments to obtain feedback at a cost of approximately 13 US cents ($0.13) per respondent.

The citizens will not fork out a single cent, as it will be freely available to citizens who want to participate and comment on particular legislative issues. It will make use of a regional IP address to ensure that citizens can only engage on legislative issues within their own regions.

What is unclear about MakeLaw is how it intends to access sensitive legislation that government might attempt to hide and make it available to the citizens. For it to be completely successful, I feel, it needs to operate, even if slightly, as an advocacy tool. Transparency is key. The success of this product lies within the cooperation between government and MakeLaw.

Image by Mr.TinDC via Flickr.

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