At the heart of a new reality in governance is decentralized power and participatory decision-making. To illustrate governance in a new reality, I highlight a newly proposed model, two working models and the historical model of Athens, Greece, which selected legislators and juries by lottery for almost two centuries.
- Athens, Greece, beginning about the fifth century B.C., was the first democracy. It was an inspiration to the founders of the U.S. Constitution, although they changed the method for choosing legislators, from selection by lottery to competitive election.
- Deliberative Polling is an effective and truly representative means of engaging citizens in democratic decision-making, developed by James Fishkin and his colleagues at Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy.
- The Lottocratic Alternative is a proposal by Alexander Guerrero at Rutgers University, that democracies select citizen legislators by lottery as an alternative to elections.
- Community Processing is an effective new approach to participatory, stakeholder-based decision-making, developed by Anke Siegers and Gert Jan Slump in the Netherlands, which brings together all stakeholders to solve complex problems, conflicts and disputes.
A Crisis of Trust
When Benjamin Franklin, a founder of the American republic, emerged from Independence Hall in Philadelphia after the secret deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was asked by Mrs. Elizabeth Powel, who was in the crowd outside the hall, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
Franklin responded, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
“Keeping it” is still the basic challenge for the United States, and for all democratic republics that have arisen since. So, how’s it going?
- In the United States, more than 40% of eligible voters don’t vote in presidential elections.
- Over 70% don’t vote in presidential primary elections.
- Over 60% don’t vote in state and local elections.
- Nearly 80% don’t vote in state and local primary elections.
If most Americans don’t vote in most elections, do we still have the government that president Abraham Lincoln famously described as “of, by and for the people?”
Voting in elections is also declining in European democracies and elsewhere. Increasingly, people do not trust their elected representatives to speak the truth. Politicians in democracies around the world have sacrificed truth on the altar of power. Truth has become irrelevant. Winning elections is all that matters.
Citizens see their elected representatives as primarily concerned with enriching themselves. A Transparency International survey of 114,000 people in 107 countries found that only 23 percent believed their governments were effectively dealing with corruption.
In 1958, about 75% of Americans expressed trust in their country’s government “most or all of the time.” Now only 19% of Americans trust their government “most or all of the time.”
Most elected officials in democratic republics represent the interests of those wealthy individuals and powerful organizations that fund their election campaigns, more than they serve the needs of the general public.
Alvin O’Konski, a U.S. congressman for 30 years, asserted that most lawmakers “are bought, sold, signed, sealed and delivered.” Campaign donations have become another form of bribery that corrupts representative government. In the U.S., repeated attempts to limit the influence of money in the election process, including campaign finance reform, have failed.
Citizens lack true representation.
“True representation” is the essential goal of democracy, yet that goal has proven elusive.
The American republic created in 1787 was not democratic by today’s standards. In its first decades—just as in ancient Athens, credited with being the first democracy—it allowed slavery, and limited voting to men with property. But as Martin Luther King, the American civil rights advocate, suggested, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” By the 1920s, the evolving republic had freed the slaves and given all adults the right to vote in elections.
In the United States and throughout the world, we have defined democracy by the act of voting. But as David Van Reybrouck, the Belgian author of Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, points out, voting in elections means that each citizen has power for only one minute every few years. You give your vote and you delegate your power.
Van Reybrouck and many others have suggested that we might be better served by letting people participate more directly—selecting ordinary citizens by lottery to serve in legislatures, instead of professional politicians. The process is called “sortition” or “lottocracy.”
The ancient Athenian democracy selected juries and legislatures by lottery, using elections to choose only ten percent of their officials. Administrative officials were elected and were chosen for their ability to carry out the policies that the legislatures had decided, not to make the policies—contrary to the approach now used in most governments.
The Athenian experiment with democracy persisted for almost two centuries, with some ups and downs. It ended not because of weaknesses in the Athenian democratic process, but because Greece was conquered by Phillip, king of Macedonia and father of Alexander the Great. And so, the civilized world returned to its reliance on the rule of kings and queens for many centuries.
However, when a newly independent America ended the rule of the English king, the founders who wrote the constitution did not use the Greek tradition of choosing legislators by lottery, which had been the norm in the original Athenian democracy. Sortition was ignored. Instead, legislatures have been elected by ballot since 1790, so that selection by lottery is unfamiliar to us.
Such a strange idea as citizens’ legislatures selected by lottery may seem radical, but it has the potential to remedy the greatest threat to modern representative democracies: the funding of expensive election campaigns by the wealthy and powerful, which gives them more influence over legislation than voters have.
How citizen legislators find the time to serve, and how they can make good decisions, will be addressed later; but demonstration projects have shown that—given the right process and staff support—large groups of ordinary people can make smart decisions about complex issues.
Choosing legislators by random lottery dramatically reduces the influence of political parties, while guaranteeing that a truly representative cross-section of the public makes the decisions.
If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to watch or read “Let’s Choose Legislators Randomly from the Phone Book.”
The Flaw in Elections
Aside from the corrupting influence of money in elections, there is a fundamental flaw in the election process itself, making it vulnerable to well-organized, single-issue minority groups who impose their will on the majority of the electorate.
The Anti-Saloon League first perfected this disruptive technique in the early 1900’s to enact Prohibition (an American Constitutional amendment that outlawed alcoholic beverages for 14 years, until it was repealed), intimidating politicians across the United States with its ability to direct its supporters to swing an election one way or the other.
Exploiting this same flaw, the National Rifle Association today obstructs even the most minimal gun control measures, such as basic background checks, despite support for them from 90 percent of the public.
If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to watch or read “How the Flaw in Elections Foisted Prohibition on America.”
In parliamentary democracies, where political parties are usually more fragmented than in bicameral, U.S.-style, two-house legislatures, small extremist political parties get disproportionate clout by providing a larger party with the few votes they sometimes need to form a government—so that in a place like Israel, religious extremists are able to force the enactment of policies that are outside the mainstream of public opinion.
Ironically, this same vulnerability—that most elections can be decided by a small percentage of single-issue voters—might be used effectively by those of us who want to get government to experiment with selecting legislatures by lottery.
Mobilizing a disciplined group of single-issue voters would allow reformers to achieve legislative goals disproportionate to their numbers.
Driving Out the Good Guys
The founders of the American republic ignored the Athenian democracy’s use of lottery and chose instead to use the election process to select most of its public officials; with the exception of jurors, who are selected by lottery.
In doing so, they established a precedent followed by every American state and every democratic republic since. Political parties arose immediately in the new American system of governance, because candidates realized the best way to win elections was to coordinate among like-minded candidates and attack the other party’s candidates.
Political parties bought newspapers to wage political warfare, and set the tone for the coming centuries. Without regard for decorum or truth, the new political parties in the United States vilified their opponents as “monsters, goats, wicked, arrogant, lewd, lustful, adulterous, fraudulent and without virtue.”
From the beginning, intelligent, considerate people who didn’t have the stomach for political dogfights were discouraged from bringing their thoughtful, cooperative perspectives to the process of governance.
If you have a single flaw or have ever made a mistake, your opponents will find it out and humiliate you with it. As a result, people who are willing to run for public office, whatever their motives, must want power enough to either pay a high ethical or a high personal price to get it.
Imagine the difference if America’s founding fathers had chosen to form their legislatures using the Athenian lottery method, resulting in legislators who care more about addressing the issues than becoming professional politicians.
George Washington, in his farewell address as the first American president, warned the nation that political parties threatened the nation’s future as a democracy.
If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to watch or read “How Elections Drive Out The Good Guys.”
The Wisdom of Crowds
Author James Surowiecki, in The Wisdom of Crowds—which both Forbes and Business Week magazines picked as the “best business book of 2004”—explains the three critical conditions for good large group decision-making:
- Diversity of opinion
- Independence of judgment
- Decentralized decision-making
How ironic that political parties promote exactly the opposite conditions. They don’t want diversity, independence or decentralization because then they could not control the decision-making.
In terms of diversity, the average state legislator in the United States is a white male Protestant in his sixties, with a graduate degree and a business background. In the current U.S. Congress, more than half of all Senators and more than a third of all Representatives are lawyers.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties are highly centralized and demand conformity from the lawmakers they support. In every legislative body in America, there is a specialized party official called the “whip,” whose job is to keep individual legislators from exercising their own judgment and straying from their political party’s position on any issue.
Because of the dominance of political parties, no American legislature—and presumably no legislature anywhere in the world—meets the three critical criteria necessary for good large group decision-making.
If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to watch or read “Guessing an Ox’s Weight and the Future of Democracy.”
Are ordinary people competent to serve as legislators, given that so many voters seem to make their choices based on superficial knowledge and the influence of attack ads?
James Fishkin’s Deliberative Polling research brings people together in what might be described as “weekend legislative sessions,” and demonstrates how Surowiecki’s three conditions allow large groups of ordinary citizens to make thoughtful and informed decisions about complex issues.
While it is unlikely that we will choose our legislatures by lottery anytime in the foreseeable future, greater use of Deliberative Polling can move governance toward true representation. Two stories illustrate the potential and the limitations of Deliberative Polling in developing public policy.
In 1996 in Texas—a leading gas and oil state—Fishkin was asked to organize a Deliberative Poll within eight rural electric districts, surveying a randomly selected sample of customers on their opinions about wind and solar power.
First polled by telephone, each respondent was invited to a gathering, in which they heard from speakers with varied contrasting views on alternative energy, and had the chance to ask questions. Then they met in small groups to have discussions.
In advance of the event, they were sent briefing books that gave them time to study a variety of perspectives, and at the end of the weekend, they were asked to vote again. What was remarkable was that participants—once they had a chance to study the issues—shifted their opinion in a way no one had anticipated: They favored paying higher rates for electricity if it comes from alternative energy. Their unexpected response so impacted public policy, that Texas has since gone from next-to-last among the fifty U.S. states to number one in wind power production.
On the other hand, a 2012 Deliberative Poll about nuclear energy in Japan was ignored when the political party that sponsored the poll lost the next election. This illustrates the limits of public opinion when professional politicians stay in control of the decision-making.
Having conducted more than 70 polls in more than 20 countries, Fishkin believes that Deliberative Polling would be a productive way to move beyond America’s polarized politics.
“It works best when you have hard choices,” Fishkin says. “Despite what you see and read, this is not a nation of extremists. “What you see on TV, and in most polling, is an impersonation of public opinion.
The actual public isn’t really like that, especially when it is given something more than sound bites and distorted political messaging. If you give people real choices and real consequences, they will make real decisions.”
Using Deliberative Polling to Break Legislative Impasse
Government officials often appoint commissions to make believe they are dealing with controversial issues. Usually the commission’s recommendations, no matter how expert its members, are ignored—for the very same political reasons that prevented the officials from having the courage to come to their own conclusions.
More and more, public officials are intimidated into paralysis by the polarization of politics, further skewed by the use of gerrymandering to manipulate electoral districts in favor of one political party.
A Deliberative Poll, if provided with adequate staff and funds and the necessary authority, could serve as a commission and provide a thoughtful method of breaking political impasse, without individual politicians having to make tough choices with high political risk.
Unlike a small group of appointed commissioners, a Deliberative Poll has the moral high ground, truly representing the citizenry more accurately than the legislature itself. A national parliament, Congress or state legislature struggling with a controversial matter could delegate its authority to a temporary legislature, randomly selected from the appropriate jurisdiction.
Although there may be legal constraints on giving a citizen’s assembly the last say, lawmakers might retain the right to a no-amendment, up-or-down vote on the poll recommendations, thereby limiting their political exposure to controversy. In a similar situation, a 2005 commission deciding on closing U.S. military bases only offered Congress the option of a “yes” or “no” vote on the commission’s proposed list.
Though not as meaningful as if it were a legislature with the final say, a televised Deliberative Poll would allow the public to see the “wisdom of crowds” in action; when the deliberation can be truly diverse, independent and decentralized, free from the constraints of party politics and the influence of money.
The Lottocratic Alternative
Alexander Guerrero, in his article, “Against Elections: The Lottocratic Alternative,” suggests a series of single-issue legislatures focusing on different areas—agriculture, consumer protection, defense, education, environmental protection, financial services regulation, healthcare, tax policy—rather than trying to deal with all of those areas in a traditional general legislature.
The 300 legislators in each single-issue legislature would be randomly selected for three-year terms, with 100 retiring and 100 replacing them each year, just like the U.S. Senate that changes one-third of its members every two years.
The primary advantage of the single-issue focus is that it enables citizen legislators to more readily learn what is needed to thoughtfully legislate in a particular area, rather like the strategy used in Deliberative Polling. Although Guerrero uses this model to present his case, he recognizes that there could be many other variations; but the critical element is the selection of legislators by lottery.
His concern with elections is that, “In the presence of widespread citizen ignorance and the absence of meaningful accountability, powerful interests will effectively capture representatives, ensuring that the only viable candidates—the only people who can get and stay in political power—are those who will act in ways that are congenial to the interests of the powerful.”
Professional staff, including lawyers, would support each single-issue legislature through a series of stages—agenda setting, expert presentations, consultation, deliberation, drafting, voting—in a process similar to Deliberative Polling; but it would last weeks or months, rather than just a weekend.
Guerrero discusses financial compensation for legislators, and strategies to ensure that participants do not take lucrative jobs or other kinds of bribes from those who want to influence legislation.
There are a range of practical considerations that would need to be explored and decided, such as:
- how to insulate citizen legislators from undue influence by family, friends and others
- how to provide peer support in coping with the pressures they face while serving
- how to take advantage of technologies to reduce the need for travel by supplementing face-to-face sessions with virtual meetings
Guerrero’s single-issue legislature offers another way that states and nations can experiment with an alternative to elected legislatures and try innovative variations, using single-issue legislatures for certain issues, without changing everything.
Given how strange and new the whole idea of lottocracy is to all of us, we should proceed thoughtfully and evaluate each step. But to do nothing leaves us stuck in the corrupt world that democracies now inhabit, dominated by party politicians beholden to the wealthy and the powerful.
“Authority” is the official side of governance. Authority is inherent in those who have designated decision-making roles, from parents to presidents.
“Influence” is the unofficial side of governance. Even the strictest parents and the most powerful dictators must contend with influence, the inherent ability of their children and their citizens to support or defy authority and influence others to do the same.
Governance works best in any setting where authority and influence are aligned in support of shared goals. That’s what democratic elections are supposed to achieve: Citizens exercise their influence by voting into authority decision-makers who share their goals.
Sadly, the majority of citizens in democratic republics around the world no longer believe that is true. However, we can realign influence and authority by decentralizing governance; allowing people more voice and more choice, in exchange for taking more responsibility. Selecting legislators by lottery means that citizens do not merely vote for decision-makers. They are the decision-makers. Influence merges with authority.
Other sections of this website will offer ways to decentralize governance in learning, care, justice, enterprise and spirit. In this section, which focuses on government, we have presented the concept of the citizen legislature; but that’s not the only way that people can take responsibility for their own governance.
To be specific, I’ll end this section with a story about how a complex problem was solved, not by government, but by people themselves, coming together to make their own decisions.
Scionsberg Hospital went bankrupt in 2014, much to the dismay of the 650,000 residents of Northeast Friesland, a province on the Netherlands’ northern coast.
The bankruptcy involved conflicting interests among a wide range of stakeholders, but none were more deeply affected than local people, who relied on having the hospital for convenient and competent regional healthcare. People were concerned that they would have no say in the services and plans for the hospital, with different stakeholders having widely varied opinions.
Anke Siegers was hired to mediate among the varied interest groups because there was a crisis and no apparent solution. She resisted the idea of simply surveying opinions in an advisory capacity. She long ago had realized that the “top-down” hierarchical route of decision-making repeatedly produced outcomes that failed to satisfy many of the stakeholders.
To ensure that the negative spiral of public opinion could be broken, she insisted on a “bottom-up” process, so that all stakeholders were directly involved, in a way that allowed everyone to participate in and to observe the process.
In December, 2014, Siegers and her colleagues prepared 2,300 people to participate in a decision-making process. In January 2015, they created 22 interest groups based on needs and values, including hospital administration, insurance companies, local government, staff and community.
Technology made it possible for 300 people from the various groups, who were interested, to watch the negotiation by video at offsite locations. The sites were nearby, so the 22 representatives directly involved in the negotiation could visit with their respective groups to caucus as needed, then return to the meeting. Approximately 16,000 people were able to follow the process by livestream.
Critical to the success of the group process was the fact that it was not advisory, but had the authority to conclude a legal agreement on behalf of all interest groups. After a 14-hour marathon negotiation, the group produced a detailed plan, signed by all parties.
The transparency of the process, with everyone able to observe the negotiation by video, prevented the kind of rebellion that all too often occurs, for example, among the members of a union, who reject the decision of their representatives because they were not privy to the ups and downs of the negotiation.
This is called Community Processing. With a website in English and Dutch, Anke Siegers and her associate, Gert Jan Slump, in 2017 are planning to train a number of negotiators to provide this process for disputes in communities throughout the Netherlands and the United States.
Siegers has authored a new book (in Dutch) called The New Route, which explains her perspective on “organizing contradiction:” When leaders include opposing viewpoints in decision-making, they get better outcomes than through the old route of limiting participation to those with whose views they agree.
On January 26, 2015, the hospital reopened with the positive support of all of its stakeholders; a remarkable outcome in a world where conflicting views are rarely reconciled in a satisfying and lasting way.