Where do we want to go with public consultation?

Yasodara Cordova
Feb 6, 2015 · 8 min read

We are, in this exactly moment, in the middle of an effervescent public consultation fashion in Brazil. Having many issues related to the Internet to deal with, people decided to make it happen, and it's nice. Despite the existence of other kinds of public consultation, using interactive resources and social network characteristics seems to have importance now. Meanwhile, the questions we asked while uploading code to the 1st public consultation (taking advantage of social media tools) in 2009/10 in Brazil still remain open:

How can systems track contributions, summarize and merge content after the consultation, without throwing out important parts?

And how can a website for a public consultation remain open, transparent, trackable, properly archived and preserved for future research?

When we made the Marco Civil consultation, we had no choice but use WordPress. The culturadigital.br was used to upload the consultation at that time and it was built upon WordPress + buddypress. In one weekend a small team designed, developed and implemented a series of "gambiarras", containing a theme and a plugin in to the social network.

The main requirements were:
1. store paragraphs separately,
2. collect comments by sub paragraph and paragraph,
3. keep everything associated throught an intuitive interface,

We only had success in the 1st criteria, and many problems appeared during the consultation such as:

  1. the threaded comments hided discussions in their hierarchic levels;
  2. people where inducted to contribute in the 1st paragraph by the interface,
  3. people could not search only in comments or group them by issue or paragraph,
  4. there was not a systematic view on the contributors data,
  5. no anonymization to contribute (it was inside a governmental social network!) and so on.

This problems were the basis for the next version, made almost six months later.

In the second public consultation that the team worked, we had different inputs due to the nature of the proposed changes in the National Copyright Law. The platform included top-down taxonomy, statistical analysis and an horizontal-oriented interface design so that the user could maintain all the necessary references in the screen while collaborating at the platform. This requirements made possible a better systematization after the debate, but it was made mostly manually by humans. It also had an API and people could search for interesting aspects of collaborators while the consultation was available. A group of hackers worked on this data and made a report, showing many inconsistencies with certain participants. Great! But at some point another human assumed the feud and dropped the consultation that should be here.

The third consultation was made for the regimentation that the government uses to classify entertainment according to the age of audience. However, we had a little throwback: no taxonomy nor API. With a more playful (than useful) website, we experimented making two consultations at the same time, using a different architecture at a different server (this servers stays at Ministry of Justice). This consultation is not alive also. In its place theres a blog, which is good, but the entire process of collaborative law-making was thrown thru the window, unfortunately.

Classificação Indicativa Website

At this stage of the game, regardless of the fact that we still had the old issues with the processes to integrate all suggestions and observations at the final text, the seed of a public consultation portal was already planted at Legislative Affairs Secretariat. This Secretariat is in charge, among other things, of the elaboration of analysis and reports of bills. Except for the consultation on the Copyrights Law, the other consultation were in charge of their work also.

Almost at the same time, we uploaded the public consultation for the Personal Data and Privacy bill, and this led the team to consider integrating the network of people who were contributing to the Project “Pensando o Direito” (a UN project, which was my real work) with those who contributed with public consultations, since we were using the same technology for both of them (Wordpress + Dialogue plugin).

Personal data protection bill — proposed at 2011

An important change at the fifth public consultation that was made using WordPress was that we established a set of icons and kind of a visual library for the process of collaboration. The public consultation on the updates of the Civil Code was the first to have subtitles and a big menu with the paragraphs of the Law. This was a huge step because the interface allows the website to become an object of consultation for further analysis and research, lending aspects of continuity to the Website. Paradoxically, now it is not online anymore.

The sixth public consultation at the Ministry of Justice within the Legislative Affairs Secretariat was about to start when I went to another project. But, in this instance the symbols and User Interface was already incorporated at the website and that’s why I saw a spark for an entire system to work with public contributions at interactive and social platforms. Unfortunately, this public consultation isn’t online anymore also.

Commercial Code Law public Consultation

By now we have two important public consultations running at the same scope, in the same place: the Marco Civil regulation and the Privacy bill (again, and with rough English translation here!)

Despite all this experiences, all the technology in disposal and a starting point to drive the interface, nothing was sufficient, or efficient, to solve the initial problem: systematization of the contributions and preservation of content.

Why this are relevant problems? Law-making processes are not linear, nor follow exactly the same protocols and methods. That’s why it usually ignores many of the involved or simply lead to errors of representation. Also, there is many comes and goes with the bills (at least in Brazil). Just like the Marco Civil, that now needs regulation (basically, another bill to make the law effective) and the privacy and data protection bill, that is in its second round of public consultation, other bills can enter in a loop for many years before being published. After being published they can follow judges interpretation (that is not included in any place or book until it is announced) and this interpretation will become the effective way to implement the law.

That's precisely why it is important to keep the track of additions, deletions, forks and any other kind of action that affects the way that the law will be applied, because the impact of the law occurs exactly at this points.

It sounds familiar for me. Law-making processes are already something performed in collaboration (between congressists and lobbysts, even that sometimes not for good) and there are many actors that manipulate and suggest, add, fork etc the bills. Seems like Git flows, and there is many good discussions about this, many apps that follows this thoughts, like GitLaw itself, and it is easy to notice why:

Figure from https://blog.nelhage.com/2010/01/git-in-pictures/

This graphic shows some of the branching logic at git. I never saw a better interface to represent human conversation at Web, because it is nonlinear, represents dialog evolution and it is scalable. Git also preserves logs and keep track of authors that made modifications. You can insert part of a comit inside another part of the text and still know who contributed, when and how. Furthermore, if it is made with heart and the comments at the commit are good, you can keep track of the changes and be wiser about the content reading those additions.

Git is a nice alternative, but the learning curve it's not affordable for most governments today. It still need heavy interface design enhancements, and since there is a huge ignorance about preservation of governmental content (at least in Brazil), I do not believe that it has chance to be adopted for the next 100 years in this context.

In terms of collaborative construction, the interface of the Anarchist Library is the simplest example I know. The user can fork a book and submit change, although it is moderated and the books are presented with option to see what was modified.


There is another alternative to present better solutions to preserve the value of public consultations, although I think it is somewhat more expensive, because it requires more expertise.

Governments could use linked data to present interfaces that crosses information reducing the complexity of a system for contributions. Metadata is a powerful tool to keep the track of what happens within an interface, or of an entire chain whose inputs are made using the Web.

We can imagine a distributed system using the same ontologies to show where content connects and why. Resources can be identified, which means that lobbysts could be easily tracked and monitored, such as other similar situations. Also, final documents of Laws could include provenance about who proposed what, and why (if the interfaces allows it). Finally, with a distributed system, preservation would be guaranteed.

I know it is difficult to imagine such a system but this only shows that public consultation is part of an ecosystem, not an isolated action. I can envision a future where governmental identification can be used more wisely, not only to track citizen but also to give options so the humans can participate in their own governance.

If it is inevitable for me to have 5 numbers that track my actions every time I make something (like going thru a public transportation system or going in to a doctor at public health system), then I would like that this numbers also give me more in return while I use them.

Bonus track — let's replace judges and lawyers by algorithms.

If there is something that makes me angry it is technicism. BUT, I'm going to rely on this philosophy because it's a special occasion — a bonus track of this big post.

Imagine that every entry made at this Git for bills and laws (in a far away future) is tracked by a system that reads, annotates and build correlations between the case laws and other cases. Within time, it would be possible for this system to become more intelligent than the judges. Some may argue: “ but, Yaso, no machine or algorithm can substitute human sense of justice”.

Yeah, the same sense of justice that keeps black and poor people in jail and condemn people just because they are with vinegar in their bags. There is something clearly dysregulated in the “human’s sense of justice”. Having a system composed by pieces of software that correlate sentences and learn with that can make the system more equal and I defy anyone to argue the opposite with me.

Elysium scene where Matt talks to a robot. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elysium_%28film%29

Moreover, there's the financial argument. Given the numbers of spent with judicial system at Brazil, I'm pretty sure that it would be more cheaper to maintain machines than humans in charge of it.

Said that, I can point now that technicism arguments do fit sometimes…

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