Institutional design power parameters

Not all decision-making bodies are equally powerful. Even when the area of decision making is given, a decision-making body can be designed so as to wield a significant amount of independent power, or so as to be no more than a rubber stamp for decisions made elsewhere.

Here are some design parameters that impact the amount of independent power of a decision-making body:

  1. Most clearly, an advisory body is less powerful than a body whose decisions are binding.
  2. Period of member service: the shorter the service period, the less time members have to study the decision area and make an informed decision, the weaker is the body.
  3. Ad-hoc, or occasionally convened, bodies are more susceptible to manipulation than permanent, or regularly convened, bodies.
  4. Bodies with a mandate which was pre-determined by an outside political agent are less powerful than bodies that can set the political agenda.
  5. Among bodies with a pre-determined agenda, those that can merely select one of several pre-phrased proposed decisions are weaker than those that can write their own decisions.

Athens had allotted bodies of various types.

The Boule was the most powerful allotted body: it was a regularly convened body, in which members served for a year. It made binding decisions on various issues, including setting the political agenda for Assembly.

The Nomothetai were convened regularly and made binding decisions, but could only accept or veto decisions made by the Assembly, and had to make those decisions within a one-day session. Similarly, the Athenian courts made binding decisions within a one-day session but selected from a pre-set menu of decisions: they could acquit or convict and, if convicting,  select the punishment from a set of two options: the punishment suggested by the accuser and the punishment suggested by the defendant.

Modern sortition proposals range from the weak – Dahl’s advisory bodies, Fishkin’s Delibartive Polls and Leib’s Popular Branch – to the strong – Callenbach and Phillips’s Citizens’ Legislature. The former three would keep ultimate decision power in the hands of elected officials (and those political agents that influence them) while the latter would put significant political power in the hands of the allotted representatives.

Perhaps it is not too early to pay attention to such crucial distinctions.