Although the UK is one of very few countries without a single written constitution, we believe they are of vital importance to nations around the world and fundamentally shape the everyday lives of billions. That’s why we’re delighted to have awarded a grant of £30,370 to the Constitutional Excerpts Project, which will run out of University College London’s Constitution Unit. The money will pay for the salary of an XML tagger, whose job it will be to cast an expert eye over constitutions from Africa and beyond to identify which parts of which constitutions relate to what. This will make it easier to find and compare constitutional provisions from places as diverse as Australia and Zimbabwe and China and Canada. Since I’m not a constitutional expert, though, I asked the Constitution Unit’s Dr. James Melton if he wouldn’t mind writing the text for this post, explaining the vital importance of constitutions and some of the ways in which the Project could help constitutional drafters, citizens, software developers and others:
Constitutions are the foundation for government in virtually every society around the world. They simultaneously create, empower, and limit the institutions that govern society. In doing so, they are intimately linked to the provision of public goods. Outcomes, like democracy, economic performance and human rights protection, are all associated with the contents of countries’ constitutions. It is little wonder, then, that constitutions are often blamed for poor economic and political outcomes or that such outcomes commonly result in constitutional change. Both domestic and international actors view constitutional change as a means to spur economic, political and social development.
The result is a surprisingly large amount of constitutional change each year. On average, 30 constitutions are amended and 5 are completely replaced each year. Despite this high level of constitutional change, there is no country that changes its constitution often enough for public officials to gain much experience as constitutional drafters. Instead, drafters of new constitutions and constitutional amendments are typically engaged in a task that they have never done before and will never do again. They lack systematic information on the contents of other countries’ constitutions (and perhaps even previous constitutions in their own country) that could help them decide what topics should be addressed in their constitution and how to address those topics. Even external advisors, who are frequently asked to consult on constitutional drafting processes, are able to draw on only anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of particular approaches and tend to rely on a relatively small set of well-known models.
The primary purpose of the Constitutional Excerpts Project is to address constitutional drafters’ need for systematic information on the contents of other countries’ constitutions. The project will draw on data collected by the Comparative Constitutions Project to provide free, online access to virtually every constitutional text within each country’s series of constitutional laws. Both the full texts of these constitutions as well as a tool that allows users to access excerpts from those texts on particular provisions (e.g. freedom of religion or executive decree authority) will be made available on ConstitutionMaking.org.
We anticipate that the project will improve constitution-making by allowing drafters, and their advisors, to consider the full array of possible choices when determining the contents of their country’s constitution. We also anticipate the tool will empower domestic actors not directly involved in drafting the constitution but who are, nonetheless, integral to the success of that process. Increasingly, constitution-making processes ask the public to participate, for example by submitting suggestions to the constitutional drafting committee or approving the completed draft in a public referendum. The Constitutional Excerpts Project will facilitate participation in these aspects of the constitution-making process by allowing groups in civil society, academia, and the general public to inform themselves about how other countries have tackled particular problems.
More generally, the plain text constitutions made available through this project would be of great interest to a wide variety of domestic actors in countries all over the world. Many constitutions are not available in digital form and tools to organize their provisions for a non-specialist are rare. However, there is substantial demand for such tools from public officials, lawyers, non-governmental organizations, students, etc. For instance, the Nigerian Constitution App created by Zubair Abubakar (more information here) has been downloaded over 530,000 times, making it one of the most downloaded apps from the Google Play store in Nigeria. The plain texts generated by our project will facilitate the creation of similar projects in other countries, which will empower citizens in those countries to challenge public officials who violate their constitution’s tenets.
In summary, the Constitutional Excerpts Project will increase transparency in countries throughout the world by ensuring universal access to the texts of those countries’ constitutions. Although constitutions are highly public documents, this is information that is rarely accessible by the general public. We expect that its provision will improve constitution-making as well as empower the general public to play a more active role in their country’s governance.
With thanks to Dr. James Melton for providing the text for this post.