A legislature is a small group with a big impact. Even for people who will never be part of one, the mechanics of a legislature matter — when they work well, we all benefit, and when they work poorly, we all lose out.
At the same time, with several hundred participants, legislatures are large enough to face some of the same collective action problems and risks that happen in larger groups.
As an example, consider the U.S. Congress. Many members might prefer to reduce agricultural subsidies (a view shared by most Americans, in polls) but few are eager to stick their necks out and attract the concentrated ire of the agricultural lobby. Most Americans care more about other things, and since large agricultural firms lobby and contribute heavily to protect the subsidies, individual members face a high political cost for acting on their own (and their constituents’) views on the issue. As another case in point, nearly all Congressional Republicans have signed Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, promising never to raise taxes at all (not even minimally, in exchange for massive spending cuts). But every plausible path to a balanced budget involves a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Some Republicans may privately want to put a tax increase on the table, as they negotiate with Democrats to balance the budget — in which case there may be majority support for a civically fruitful compromise involving both tax increases and spending cuts. But any one Republican who defects from the pledge will face well-financed retaliation — because, and only because, with few or no defectors, Norquist can afford to respond to each one.
These are classic collective action problems. What if, as in other areas of life, we could build an online platform to help solve them?
Many of the most important new online platforms of recent years share a similar story. They unlock a surprising amount of new value by making it easier for people to coordinate. The simplest examples, like Groupon, LivingSocial, or Gilt, let consumers flock together to get better pricing for the things they want to buy. “Crowdfunding” sites like Kickstarter have harnessed a similar logic to more powerful ends, unleashing new creativity and innovation: Kickstarter attracted almost a hundred million dollars in pledges last year and funded more than 10,000 projects, ranging from documentary films to a new model of electric bicycle. The Kickstarter model has also inspired a number of civic sites, including Neighbor.ly, Citizenvestor, and Patronhood.
These existing sites have often used thresholds or triggers to make sure that no one has to go first: No one has to commit before critical mass is achieved. A user who pledges support on Kickstarter providers her payment details, but knows she will only be charged if enough other users also sign up to fund the project’s whole budget. And when a merchant offers a coupon on LivingSocial, she knows that she will only have to provide the coupon if a threshold number of people sign up to buy it (causing the deal to “tip” and become activated).
The right online platform might be able to work similar magic inside a legislature.  The users would be the legislators, each of whom could propose new bills or high-level policy commitments. Members could anonymously sign up to support a legislative proposal, with the proviso that their names will only become public if a threshold level of support is reached. If too few sign on, the supporter list stays private. If enough sign on, the supporter list becomes public — all at once. With no first mover, this could be a great way to unlock hidden consensus inside of the legislature. Members commit their political capital, in the same way as Kickstarter users commit their funds.
This kind of conditionally anonymous voting wouldn’t be natural to do on paper. The closest historical model in U.S. federal politics may be the House of Representatives’ discharge petition process, which until 1993 allowed members to add their names anonymously to a petition to consider a bill that had been bottled up in committee – and made the names public only if a majority of the House signed on. However, even then, the petition’s sponsor knew who all the signatories were, subject to an imperfect gag rule, and members could not be confident that their signatures would actually remain anonymous. 
With a computerized system, it is at least possible to appoint a neutral intermediary to keep the system up and running, and to configure that system so that individual initiatives can be considered without anyone, including a proposal’s sponsor, knowing who stands where. Using advanced cryptography it might be possible to design such a system so that even the system’s operator would be incapable of violating members’ anonymity. The more confidence members can have that their anonymity will stay protected (even if the petition process lasts a long time) the better the chances will be that the system can unlock hidden consensus.
There are a number of different ways to explore this idea. The online platform might feed directly into the legislative process, or might operate in parallel as a kind of sounding board. The platform’s policy proposals (and the eventual named lists of supporters) might be globally reachable, or might be publicized only within the legislature itself. Creators of new proposals might be kept anonymous, be required to identify themselves, or be given a choice. Members might, or might not, be given an option to change their minds after signing up to support a proposal. In any event, it would be important for the underlying technology to be secure — legislators would need to trust, and would need to be well-justified in trusting, that their support decisions would remain private until the threshold of support is reached.
A system like this would likely reduce the power of organized interest groups, since coordinated, simultaneous action by legislators could be much harder for outsiders to regulate. One way to look at this would be to say that legislators would become less accountable, since pressure groups would be less able to hold them to account. But it’s ultimately citizens themselves, rather than advocacy groups, that hold the franchise to keep legislators accountable. I’d argue that the kind of system I’m proposing here would create a bit more freedom of action for legislators — giving them slightly more room to exercise independent judgment on particular policy questions — and would increase the power of elections, and of citizens themselves, at the expense of the professionalized advocacy community.
Different legislatures undoubtedly have different norms and legal requirements — this idea would need to be tailored to fit them. But it might be piloted at any level of government, anywhere the world — as long as a legislature has more than a handful of members, these mechanisms have a shot at working well.
Given the overall level of frustration with legislative processes — and given the surprising magic that similar platforms have been able to create for larger groups — I think the idea is well worth exploring. A legislature willing to try it out could be a real pioneer.
 There is also an exciting family of new technologies for gathering public feedback on policy proposals — MADISON, We the People, and others among them. But this would be different: a tool targeted specifically at legislators themselves.
 For example, the very last time the anonymous discharge process was used, ironically to end the anonymity of future petitions, the sponsor eventually violated the spirit of the gag rule by revealing the names of the 223 House members who had not signed, effectively deanonymizing everyone in the chamber.