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.

9 Responses

  1. Fishkin’s Chinese experiment refutes most of these claims:

    1. Although its status was informal and advisory, it’s decisions were implemented in full by the executive (even though officials disagreed with them).
    2. Deliberation lasted for only one day.
    3. It was ad hoc but the manipulation was the other way round (officials rubber stamped the decisions of the DP)
    4. The range of infrastructure projects, although pre-determined, was extremely broad.
    5. This means that the DP was weak in theory only. The citizens involved were happy to get their sewage treatment works even if they had no power to set the overall agenda.

    Regarding your contrast of Fishkin’s DPs and C&P’s Citizen Legislature the former has the advantage of having been put into practice over and over again, unlike practically every other proposal. The contributors to the Good Society symposium on Fishkin’s book make the point that the biggest obstacle to the implementation of sortition (other than the vested interests of elected politicians) is the unfamiliarity of the public with its practical implementation. Fishkin’s modest efforts to practice what he preaches are what is needed, rather than speculataion as to what might best constitute the Ideal Speech Situation. You have to walk before you can run.



  2. Keith,

    Of course, as I wrote in a comment to your article on the OpenDemocracy website, I think the experiment you refer to was an example of a theater of democracy rather than an example of true democratic power. At best (i.e., if we make a whole set of optimistic assumptions), it was a case where public input was solicited and acted upon on a very narrow question of public policy.

    As for walking before running – that’s all very well, but in our case Fishkin is telling a person who is crawling on her stomach that this is a great way to get from place to place.


  3. Given the scornful response to any attempt to implement sortition (as illustrated by your Australian post) it’s important that those of us who do believe in it don’t belittle each other by disparaging their work. What you are suggesting is reminiscent of the fragmentation of the political left in the 1970s. As you know I’m a fan of Fishkin’s incremental approach, it’s just that as a practitioner in the real world he has had to make compromises. It’s better to start showing that allotted assemblies can make sensible decisions, albeit on a limited range of options, and then to take it further once the principal has been shown to work in practice.



  4. Keith,

    I am very much in favor of finding and standing upon any possible common ground (on the matter of sortition or any other matter). This doesn’t imply that we should be ignoring important differences. There is a wide variety of opinions even within our tiny community of sortitionists and, as I see it, this diversity should be utilized as a strength by airing differences of opinion and using them as seeds for fruitful discussion.

    As for the specific case of the work of Fishkin: I know that you are frustrated that he does not voice a full throated support for sortition as a tool for democracy. I think that the reason for that is that, like Dahl and Leib, he sees sortition as a tool with a very limited role. The case you are trying to make (that Fishkin’s polls are just a small step and are the best that can be had under the present circumstance) is probably not a case he would make. He seems to promotes his Deliberative Polling (registered trade mark) method as a vast forward step (and possibly the final step) in the technology of democracy. I would be less critical if he presented his experiments in the context of a realistic analysis and indicated how, given the chance, things could be improved. This is not his attitude at all, it seems.

    It is also important to note that even the case for “first steps” (as you make it, but Fishkin does not) should not be accepted uncritically. We could easily get into a situation where sortition is being used as window dressing for non-democratic practices, and thus serves an anti-democratic tool.


  5. If you take a look at Jane Mansbridge’s paper in the seminar on his book (on the Stanford website) she shares my perspective; and the jurist (Sanford something or other) opines that Fishkin is constrained from nailing his colours to the mast by his need to gain the support of potential sponsors and partners. I’m afraid that’s just how life is in the real world. Unless we kleroterians are content to talk amongst ourselves we need to accommodate with the real world — this is why I post mostly on sites like Open Democracy.



  6. Regarding Fishkin: Even if your hopes about his secret radicalism are true, which seems a highly dubious assumption, his silence about those matters makes it unlikely that DPs are paving a way toward achieving radical goals. Willingly or not (the former being the more likely case) Fishkin is being co-opted by the governing elites.

    Regarding “realism”: I don’t think that making false arguments in order to satisfy sponsors or “partners” is a good way to disseminate new ideas. This is not realism – this is corruption.


  7. Softly, softly catchee monkey (Baden-Powell)


  8. […] design parameters of the body make it rather weak. It is an ad-hoc body, with a relatively short term and an advisory […]


  9. […] a previous post I enumerated some design parameters of decision making bodies that affect their power: binding […]


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