By Kerra L. Bolton
Americans are addicted to the idea of voting.
Voting represents ownership of the public policy and lawmaking processes. It denotes exclusive (citizen) membership in the American experiment of democracy. African Americans and women have died for the right to vote.
Recently, however, voting has become performative. We like to be seen doing it. We snap selfies wearing “I Voted” stickers and post to social media to brag and encourage others to vote. But once the sticker peels and our post fades into Facebook memory, we hand over important decisions about healthcare, education, public safety, and the environment to a handful of winners of a high-stakes popularity contest.
What if public policy and decision-making could be truly democratic and inclusive? What if you didn’t delegate public policy making to a chosen few? What if you had a direct say what kind of community you want to live in?
Brett Hennig, Anke Siegers, and Gert Van Slump presented intriguing possibilities for participatory decision-making at the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) Europe Conference held in May in Kortrijk, Belgium.
IIRP is the world’s first accredited graduate school dedicated to the research and promotion of restorative practices. Its conferences take a multi-disciplinary approach to discovering the common threads for improving civil society. The role of restorative practices in developing resilience and supporting well-being in communities and organizations was the focus of this year’s conference.
Hennig, Siegers, and Slump are making important advances to foster participatory decision-making, one of the chief aims of Building a New Reality (BANR). We are a non-partisan, evidence-based social movement that employs restorative practices in addressing societal needs.
We highlight their work here as a means to start a conversation about redefining how governance is done. We believe that under the right conditions, large groups of ordinary citizens can make thoughtful, informed decisions about complex problems. The following sections feature two examples.
All Politics Are Local
Community Processing is the brainchild of Siegers and Slump, experts in the fields of organizational change, conflict resolution, and restorative justice.
“In Holland, we have a lot of governments that say, ‘we make the decisions and you deal with the consequences,’” Siegers says.
Community processing helps large groups with divergent and opposing interests come together and work collectively toward positive solutions. It creates a safe space for people to tell their story and be heard. It also cultivates shared ownership and responsibility for the outcome, because everyone has an opportunity to be involved in the decision-making process.
Groups can range from 50 to 600 people.
“We are not afraid the group will be too large,” Siegers says. “We leave a lot of people out of (most) decision-making processes. If you ignore the minority voice, it is said you plant the seed for resistance.”
Here’s how community processing works: Siegers and Slump help the group define the issue with a central, overarching question. The group decides the legal and financial boundaries of proposals.
Independent facilitators ask questions for further information gathering, such as “who else needs to be involved” and “what information needs to be presented at the gathering.” They use this information to gather in circles to discuss the issues, make concrete agreements, and establish follow-up appointments.
Siegers and Slump recently used the process to help a community in The Netherlands faced with a local hospital closing. It took facilitators six weeks to prepare the 2,300 people who would participate in the decision-making process. After an intense group discussion, the group spent 15 hours devising a solution that addressed the underlying issues of healthcare and shared values.
Do Democracy Differently
Co-founded by Hennig, the Sortition Foundation proposes to “do democracy differently,” by using random selection to populate assemblies or fill political positions.
“Everyone thinks voting equals accountability, but that’s not true,” Hennig says. “Accountability is much more complex.”
Sortition is the selection of political officials through a random sample from a larger pool of candidates. It is designed to empower citizens and remove the toxicity of politics from public policy-making.
“An assembly that uses sortition would be composed of people just like you and me,” Hennig says. “It would be a representative random sample of people, making decisions in an informed, fair, and deliberative setting.”
An assembly of 100 Irish citizens, for example, met in recent years to address the challenges and opportunities of the local aging population, climate change, and fixed-term parliaments. Conclusions and recommendations reached on each topic were compiled in a report and submitted to lawmakers for further debate.
The challenges of sortition as a deliberative decision-making process include convincing lawmakers to concede their power, recruiting interested participants, ensuring diversity and inclusion, and keeping lawmakers accountable to citizens’ assemblies.
“The people who go through this (sortition process) are very honored,” Hennig says. “They come out transformed in the short-term. They come out more politicized. They say, ‘my voice matters, now what?’”
*For more information, Ted Wachtel, BANR founder, has written extensively about participatory democracy in his free e-book, “True Representation: How Citizens’ Assemblies and Sortition Will Save Democracy”, available on our website.