Political reform: sortition and policy juries

In one of his comments DV82XL recommended two proposed enhancements to the structure of representative government. Like Charter Cities, both of these proposals have powerful appeal:

I’ve always thought that sortition, from a pool of pre-qualified candidates would be the best way to select representatives. I would also see the use of policy juries, where the pros and cons of a particular piece of legislation would be examined by adversarial debate among the interested parties, with the jury (again randomly selected) deciding if the bill was passed or killed.

However it is unlikely that any real overhaul of government will occur in my lifetime. Good enough is always the enemy of better.

The Czech Citizen Commissions are a relative of the policy jury concept (see the draft 2002 Citizens Constitution of Czech Republic, where regular and ad hoc citizens commissions were proposed). One of the endearing features of that Czech draft constitution was the method for setting compensation of politicians by citizen commission:

Chief Principles: The Citizion Commissions´ function is only advisory. Decisions are made in representative bodies and referenda. The only exception are Administrative Citizen Commissions organized once a year, to make irrevocable decisions concerning salaries and other prerogatives of politicians and high civil servants on all levels. Both politicians and civil servants are the citizens´ employees. Their salaries are paid by the citizens through taxes. In all other situations, it is the employers who decide salaries, even if mostly after negotiations with unions. It is inadmissible that politicians, as the only employees in existence, are allowed to use taxes for deciding the level of their own salaries and prerogatives. This right must be reserved for the citizens as taxpayers, through the intermediary of regularly organized Citizen Commissions.

A democracy that switched to selection by sortition would be called a demachy . Sortition has been proposed for selection of representatives from the general voting-qualified population (resources). I.e., a draft for MPs or congresspersons. I’ve always liked the abstract idea but have not thought about it in many years. Possibly more to follow… Back to the DV82XL comments on sortition

from a pool of pre-qualified candidates

What is the qualification procedure? And what is the selection pool and selection context? E.g., for the legislature, I have stumped for a return to part-time and very term-limited service, which means that the representatives must have a function in society other than spending other people’s money. An obvious consequence of a part-time legislature is that for society’s productive people, service is more feasible if one knows that the piece of your life sacrificed is small, for discussion let’s say two six-month terms over two years. Of those terms perhaps only half of the time requires physical presence, as in a fully-transparent process most of the real work is best done virtually.

Though short, the economic consequences of service are still severe, so I would expect a need for the equivalent of maternity benefits to compensate for some of the loss (women are rarely able to recover their economic loss over their lifetime).

The qualification procedure is probably less sensitive given a pool of self-selected part-time candidates. Even so, the consequences of government are so profound for resource allocation and economic development that I strongly favor basic competence criteria for critical thinking, economics, risk/reward analysis, and life-cycle-analysis (understanding, not necessarily the skills to do LCA).

STV: Single Transferable Vote was brought up in the comments. Here are resources at Accurate Democracy, and a well-done page at Wikipedia.

17 thoughts on “Political reform: sortition and policy juries

  1. “Policy juries” is a term used in Canada for bodies created by several Providential governments, varying powers, mostly advisory, although some wield authority in certain cases. However they are not necessarily run on the practices,and form of a legal trial by jury.

    They are particularly useful for setting, serving as a local heath board, as these do not have to meet regularly, and this saved the cost of elections, and small cliques hijacking the process. Also, lack of interest in serving on boards was so bad in some jurisdictions, that members had to be drafted from the electoral lists, so there was some president for this in place

    “Citizens’ jury” is the term used in the UK, and indeed these are run as trials, however they are regarded as participatory action research, and have no legal, or constitutional standing. These have fallen out of favour, however, as they had a tendency to return verdicts that did not agree with the ruling party’s position.

    While several countries have tried these, there is little hope that they will see widespread use as authoritative bodies.

  2. The Canadian province of British Columbia held a citizen’s assembly on electoral reform a few years back with roughly citizens 2 from each riding selected at random. The process took a couple of months, many hours of sittings and the members were paid a stipend. At the end the assembly came together with a large majority voting in favor of the STV (single transferable vote) system used in Ireland.

    In two subsequent referendum’s, STV was rejected in a general vote after most politicians and big media lined up against it. The STV mechanism was apparently too complex for the populace to understand after watching a 5 minute newscast on their teevees. Confused they turned it down.

  3. This is part of the problem: entrenched interests are not going to follow these things if they don’t align with what they want. The citizen’s assembly on electoral reform had sometime to consider and understand the idea of STV, that was a mistake that the party in power was not going to make when it came to a referendum.

    Like regular trial juries, they only really work when the have authority granted by law.

  4. Thanks for the British Columbia history. The main parties are never going to support true electoral reform because it will damage their estate. Any form of Sortition would mean the end of the power of the party elites.
    So I appreciate that using the existing electoral system to “elect” a new system is a non-starter. Still, it’s good to dream.
    Electoral changes do sometimes happen, but not radical change. E.g., when we lived in New Zealand we went through a similar process, with the voters choosing to switch to MMP in 1993 (a related form of proportional representation). Parallel to the 2011 general election there will be another referendum “do we keep MMP?”. Polls show “yes” votes trending down below 40%. Wikipedia says the referendum questions has been decided and SVT is on the ballot so to speak:

    The proposed questions are:

    Part A Should the current MMP voting system be retained?

    I vote to retain the MMP voting system

    I vote to change to another voting system.

    Part B Regardless of how you voted under part A, if there was a change to another voting system, which voting system would you choose?

    I would choose the First Past the Post system.

    I would choose the Preferential Voting system.

    I would choose the Single Transferable Vote system.

    I would choose the Supplementary Member system.[8]

  5. The major issue I have with proportional representation and preferential voting in parliamentary systems, is that often they have the tendency to render the back-benches even less important, relative to the front-benches, and in congressional systems lead to a multiplicity of single-issue parties. To me, nether of these makes for good governments, although there are exceptions.

  6. One of the problems people have with demarchy is that it is assumed that sortition would simply replace the current voting system, leaving the existing legislative bodies intact. Of course this would likely result in a total disaster, particularly in the case of responsible government schemes (those systems where the executive sits in the legislature) and would only be marginally better in a congressional system.

    Looking at a possible structure of system integrating the the principles of demarchy, I think that one would want to keep an elected (by universal suffrage) executive, and use sortition to create a legislature who’s powers are somewhat more restricted than most are now. In short, the legislature’s function would be only to hear arguments for and vote on initiatives brought before them by the executive, with no, or very limited, power to initiate bills themselves.

    I base this on the observation that much that comes before the Parliament that I am most familiar with, is in my opinion, unessential and unnecessary. That which is, is often subjected to partisan machinations, and posturing, and in any case the majority party will eventually force it through regardless.

    This is because governments have to be seen as governing, or face the accusation that they are incompetent or ineffective. As a result there is less management and more leadership than is necessarily healthy for a polity. An assembly, more geared to oversight, would in my opinion elevate this problem of “governance by theater” we see in many places.

    The fact is that even now, important and critical legislation is conceived and written by civil servants, and elected officials do little but vote the party line, if the cabinet has approved it.

    One could integrate into this system some mechanism to permit bills to be put forward by the public, as they do with the propositions that appear on the ballots of some US states. These would be given weight and considered by the assembly as well.

    When one looks at it closely, the fact is that very little of substance would need to change to bring a system like this in.

  7. “Looking at a possible structure of system integrating the the principles of demarchy, I think that one would want to keep an elected (by universal suffrage) executive, and use sortition to create a legislature who’s powers are somewhat more restricted than most are now. In short, the legislature’s function would be only to hear arguments for and vote on initiatives brought before them by the executive, with no, or very limited, power to initiate bills themselves.”

    Whilst I agree with the second sentence, the first one strikes me as fundamentally confused. The role of the executive is to govern; the role of the legislature is to legislate (this is what the words mean). If the organising principle of the executive is competence then they should be appointed. Given the modern view that legislation should reflect the popular will then by all means have elections for policy advocates and then judge their bills in an allotted assembly. But it’s a conceptual error to refer to policy advocates as the “executive”.

  8. When one looks at it closely, the fact is that very little of substance would need to change to bring a system like this in.

    Thanks heaps for your ideas – I’m ready to sign up for the campaign. I’ve been thinking about your proposed redesign — I agree that an assembly narrowly charged with oversight would be less inclined to “governance by theater”. An assembly selected with an element of sortition could be re-coupled to the population and decoupled from the rent seeking machinery that normally determines electoral outcomes. But your executive seems to be directly at risk to all those bad incentives (?)
    I’ve recently read Sigmund Krag’s little essay “Let’s Toss for it“, that suggest several examples of smallish tweaks to break up the chain that leads to spending-determined, party-elite-protecting outcomes. The smallest perturbation might be to select a larger number of ‘selectees’ by the vote, with the winner(s) then chosen randomly from the electorally approved pool. That would work for your proposed executive or for your assembly.
    Have you given much consideration to the Swiss design? To me it seems to have many positive features, such as part-time legislators, who consequently must be both connected to their district and experienced in the affairs of the real world. As an alternative to your proposed direct election of the executive, the Swiss legislature elects its 7-person executive council. That would seem to enhance both competence and legitimacy.
    The Swiss emphasize the ‘amateur status’ of the legislators to an extreme – by denying them any funding for support staff, even an assistant. Proposals to provide support funding have been repeatedly defeated by referendum – which to me is compelling evidence that the Swiss voter is VERY attached to their amateur legislature.
    A feature I don’t detect in your design are intrinsic incentives favoring a lean, efficient government. Citizen commissions might be a powerful tool to control both compensation and functional budgets. But what about the sheer overwhelming burden of what seem to be exponentially growing pages of law and regulation? Every new page attracts a new swarm of rent seekers who benefit and protect forever “their pages”. I don’t have a proposal on that — beyond a non-serious wish for a “conservation of pages” rule. Enacting new pages requires retiring existing pages.
    Light weight is usually a Good Thing. How do we create the incentives so that government naturally tends to be light weight?

  9. @Keith Sutherland – Yes perhaps I should have been more careful with nomenclature. What I meant that the head of state and vice head of state should remain elected positions. They would (or one would) select a cabinet to act as the administration, the appointments being subject to approval by the assembly.

    @Steve Darden – Well I’m flattered that you think my ideas have any merit.

    Your criticism is a valid one, however I cannot see how a polity could function without an individual head of state, and the position is such that selecting someone for it by lottery runs the risk of choosing a person totally unsuitable for the task. While this is also possible for individual members of the assembly, one would think that the impact of such an individual would be minimized through simple dilution. At the same time, having a head of state appointed by some means runs the risk of politicizing the process in a smaller, and more easily manipulated arena.

    Although I have always thought Thomas More’s dictum valid, there are times when one must have a person who wants the job installed in a position, rather than drafted to it. At any rate as long as the executive is responsible to the assembly, the scope for abuse is minimized. Furthermore the job of head of state, itself could be constitutionally limited to powers that would make the office more one of oversight as opposed to leadership per se.

    Certainly one could, especially for the assembly, develop a nomination system that would create a pool of candidates, perhaps by subscription, as it is done to place names on the ballots in many places. Frankly I am not too keen on this idea as it means that the pool would not necessarily reflect a good cross-section of the population, and again Thomas More’s objection crops up.

    The Swiss system would seem to be an improvement on other forms of government, and I would very happy to see it spread. How it would scale is the only question I would be concerned with.

    The density of regulation I believe is one that might take care of itself in a demachy. At this point pandering to special interests is often at the root of these extra layers of regulation, and freed from the need to seek reelection, I suspect that these groups would not find a sympathetic audience in an assembly chosen by sortition.

    On the other hand, while I too am a minarchist by disposition, it must be understood that we live in a very complex society and perforce there is a need for regulation in areas that there was not before. As I said, I am not happy about this, but I recognize that minimal government is an ideal that may never be met.

  10. I’m puzzled as to why anyone would want to continue with the failed American experiment of electing the head of state. As Hegel pointed out, the “elected monarch” is the worst of all possible options:

    “In an elected monarchy, the nature of the relation between king and people implies that the ultimate decision is left with the particular will [ie Bush, Obama or whoever], and hence the constitution becomes a surrender of the power of the state at the discretion of the particular will. The result of this is that the particular offices of state turn into private property” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, $281).

    If the cabinet is selected on merit, then why not the head of state? Then it would be down to Congress to legislate, rather than this strange hybrid creature created by the corruption of the original intentions of the founders.

  11. @Keith Sutherland – Your premise rests on having the office of the head of state a powerful one. In most Commonwealth nations the head of state is the Crown, as represented by a Governor-General who’s only real power is prorogation. In other words the position of head of state does not imply unrestricted authority.

    Now I would see a head of state with more powers than a Commonwealth Governor-General, but less than a U.S. President.

    As to strange hybrid creature created by the corruption of the original intentions of the founders. you do understand that Steve and I are not Americans, don’t really care what the Founding Fathers intended, and that this is a discussion of hypotheticals.

  12. The trouble is that when the head of state is a figurehead (as in the UK) then the prime minister takes on an equivalent role to the US presidency, so you still end up with an elected monarch, just with a different name. The historian M.H. Hansen has an interesting article in the last issue of our journal, History of Political Thought, where he refers to the role of Bush, Blair and Rasmussen (the Danish PM) in the decision to invade Iraq. He refers to all three as “elected monarchs”, irrespective of their formal constitutional role.

    My reference to the American founders is because they introduced the notion that elections would be the way of ensuring that the legislature was not corrupted by the executive. However they were wrong (and Hegel was right).

  13. Keith – Well again I would see the powers of that office adjusted somewhere between that of the English Crown and the U.S. President, and that is the difference.

    You are right in that the PM of a Commonwealth country is the de facto head of state, while not having the title, however they simply do not have the same prerogatives and powers as a U.S. President. As well their grip on power is at the both the whim of the Crown, the sufferance of their party, and the confidence of the legislature, all to whom they must answer.

    However I envision an office with a very select suite of powers and responsibilities, perhaps more along the lines of a corporate chairman of the board, than a chief executive officer.

    I reiterate that my system is not a method of selecting individuals for positions in the current system, but an overhaul of the mechanism of governance itself, in which sortition is but one element.

  14. Unfortunately the reign of King Tony I has given the lie to the notion that parliamentary government is limited. The academic advocates of the “presidential” thesis for UK politics are now arguing that this underplays the very real checks and balances on the US presidency (just ask Clinton or Obama). It would be more accurate to claim that Blair had equivalent powers to Stuart monarchs.

    I agree that the corporate analogy is the right one, but neither the chairman or CE are elected.

    In my books on this topic I have advocated an appointed government to work alongside a legislative system in which political parties compete in elections for the privilege of presenting manifesto bills to a randomly-selected “People’s Parliament”. This is an update of James Harrington’s 1656 constitutional proposal.

  15. @Keith Sutherland – Blair did not die in office and he had to answer to the electorate who returned him in three consecutive general elections, the Commons, and ultimately his own backbenches who quietly forced him out. Your analogy fails.

    BTW corporate chairman are elected, by the shareholders.

  16. I’m no expert on corporate governance, but I believe the chair is normally selected by the board of directors. To pursue the political analogy, if government ministers were appointed on merit, then they would appoint their own chair (in all likelihood the finance minister).

    Regarding Blair as elected monarch, my authority is M.H.Hansen [the leading historian of sortition and Greek democracy], “The mixed constitution versus the separation of powers: monarchical and aristocratic aspects of modern democracy”, History of Political Thought, XXXI, 2010, 509-531. Interestingly Hansen struggles to find anything democratic in “modern democracy” (only one paragraph, compared with five pages on the monarchical and aristocratic elements).

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