Role for Sortition in Selecting the Executive?

Most of the discussion on this site has understandably been focused on the legislative function. What about the executive branch, whether a single president, or full executive branch?

In ancient Athens, we know, the executive magistrates (typically operating in boards of ten) were selected by lot, as was the Athenian president (though this office was primarily symbolic and rotated daily.) We also know that sortition was used as a step in a convoluted process of selecting executives in several medieval Italian City Republics.

Is there a beneficial role for sortition in selecting government executives in a modern democracy?

Some of the ideas that I have come across include:

1. Having an allotted body interview, hire, and fire the state executive, similar to the way that many city councils appoint a city manager.

2. Having a pool of voters selected by lot elect the executive, as a way of overcoming rational voter ignorance in  a mass election.

3. Selecting an executive by lot from among a pool of candidates who achieve a given threshold in a popular election.


29 Responses

  1. >1. Having an allotted body interview, hire, and fire the state executive, similar to the way that many city councils appoint a city manager.

    Assuming that they would be selecting from a shortlist of candidates with the relevant skills and professional qualifications this would be a great improvement on an elected executive.


  2. I think you want some form of meritocracy in choosing an executive. In a democracy popularity is the main merit that gets measured. Of course competence is a key consideration when people vote for leaders so it is not a simplistic form of popularity. I think it is best to prove sortition in the area of legislative review and leave the formulation of legislation and the selection of the executive to be done under established systems of popular vote. That said option one in the article would seem to be quite workable.

    Beyond competence people also vote for ideology. I would rather have an executive focused on narrowing the focus of what government does than competently expanding it.


  3. I wonder if the question might be formulated more productively in another manner. Perhaps it would be better to ask if it makes sense to select randomly officials who are 1) singular (i.e., there’s only one of them at a time) and 2) have significant independent authority. (Keith would no doubt want me to add 3) require significant skills or competence, but perhaps that’s a natural implication of 2).) My initial answer is, probably not. The Athenian executive meets 1), but 2) is very debatable; he only served for a day, and had 29 of his brethren around him to keep him from screwing up too badly. The answer might be very different if the question is, should a random selection play a role in selecting a group that plays a role in selecting the executive. (This would be the Venetian case.) But the answer to that question will look very different from the answer to the first question.


  4. Most of the emphasis so far has been on selecting the executive — when this is down to election then, as TerjeP argues, popularity and ideology come to the fore and there’s no inherent reason to believe that using an alternative mechanism (sortition) to sample the electorate will lead to different outcome — the beauty contest would just be played out in a smaller venue. However executive performance tends to be judged differently ex-post (rhetorical appeals being supplanted by actual performance), so an allotted body would be more likely to perform well in a scrutiny role.


  5. Peter,

    I guess I simply assumed that nobody would advocate random selection of a single executive from the general public (due to a high risk of a dreadful outcome). Since a single person cannot be descriptively representative of a diverse population, that entire line of reasoning, which is so compelling for a legislative body, becomes irrelevant.

    So…I am interested in the question of whether there is a useful ROLE that random selection can play in selecting executives. Like Terje and Keith, I am strongly drawn to option number one. My notion is that this would be in conjunction with soritition in the legislative branch.

    I imagine a representative sample chosen by lot forming an “electoral college” that would act like a large hiring and evaluation committee, which would recruit applicants (I like the idea that any person who seeks to be selected as chief executive is automatically disqualified ;-) An electoral college would be drawn annually and could dismiss a serving executive as well (but leaving the selection of a replacement to a separate electoral college, to avoid the corrupting influence of merely wanting the power of selection.)

    As with the city manager model, my notion is that the legislative branch determines political direction, and the executive merely executes the policy. (No “imperial presidency.”) However, since the electoral college would be fully representative, and could overcome rational ignorance of a mass election, it could also be possible to elect a “leader” of the traditional political sense (who advocates ideology, etc.). Thus the difference between option one and two really comes down to the type of executive, the size of the allotted group making the selection, and whether they act as a group or in isolation as “voters.”


  6. Terry,

    Having officials appointed the AC is indeed the democratic way to go. The crucial point is how to make sure that the executive does not become the real seat of power through its professionalism and better organization.

    Various institutional devices can be imagined. First, it should be clear that any powers that any executive body has are determined by the AC, and are subject to regular re-examination and re-structuring. Furthermore, executive functions can be split between independent organizations, each of which is directly monitored by the AC, rather than reporting to a singular executive bureaucracy and supervisory allotted bodies can be created to closely monitor each executive function.

    In general, however, it should be up to the AC to design the mechanism for determining policy and execution. The AC should be able to, and expected to, correct any situation in which power is being accumulated within non-representative hands. Detailed a-priori design would be contradictory to this goal.


  7. You need to be very clear in advance as to what sort of executive you are proposing — if it’s of the town-hall-manager type then it’s not at all clear as to why you would want to exclude people who want the job and it’s not clear why an allotted group would be the best way of deciding who best possessed the necessary skills. Why is this process any different from, say, the appointment of the chief executive of a charitable foundation?

    If however you are seeking a “political” executive then why would an AC be any more immune from the beauty-contest effect than the whole electorate? The rational-ignorance problem relates to policies not persons. If anything it’s easier for charismatic people to sway a small group than the whole population.

    I would agree with Yoram, however, that an AC would be the ideal body to monitor the performance of the executive once appointed, but the arguments for an AC to make the appointment are less persuasive.


  8. First of all hello to everybody, as this is my first comment on this blog. I’ve been thinking about the use of sortition in politics for a bit, I even started an Italian blog about the subject.

    There are many things I would like to discuss about, but first I want to study a bit more about the topic, and read the old discussions of this blog.

    I’ve thought a bit about how to chose a president, not necessarily limited with executive powers. Having a head of state with more than symbolic powers might give more stability and quicker and more directed political action, and I think that society instinctively want some kind of leader, in history it seems to almost always have sought one. I think that a body drawn by lot can make a much better choice of person that the population at large because it can have more time and resources to be informed correctly, and thus is a lot less likely to be influenced by propaganda. And of course sortition allows for a body that reviews the action of the selected official and can recall him at any time, even though I think that some freedom of action could be usefull, so an agreement of more than 50% could be required for a recall.

    I think that elections (specially when choosing an official, where they can be seen as some kind of direct democracy) have a strong symbolic value, specially in our current society. A way to choose a president could be for a body drawn by lot to choose a number of candidates (say 5), of which the winner can then be chosen by election (by some voting system other than first-past-the-post). Those candidates should be paid by the state for their electoral campaign.


  9. Terry,

    You might want to separate the functions of the selection process, and perhaps not give them all to the same body. For example:
    1. Defining criteria
    2. Finding candidates
    3. Interviewing candidates
    4. Narrowing the pool
    5. Making the final decision

    In particular, I think the question of who sets the criteria is very important.


  10. Fela

    Welcome to the forum.

    Do we really want to do anything to encourage the popular desire for leadership? Leaving aside the historical bogeymen, the world would arguably be a better place without the likes of Blair and Bush barging around and imposing their vision on everyone else. In his introduction to his edition of Bagehot’s English Constitution, Richard Crossman expresses the hope that one day we may “throw off our deferential attitude and reshape the political system”. It would be nice to think that sortition might be a step in this direction rather than propping up the old world of elected monarchs and subjects.


  11. The idea actually wasn’t really to encourage desire for leadership rather to act to a (possible, I’m not an anthropologist) existing desire, seeing as leaders seem to be ubiquitous across societies and ages. It’s difficult to imagine how things would work out in practice, but I think the kind of leaders that would come out of the system I described would be quite different from the current ones. The main reason why it could be good to have a single person in a commanding position is for quicker decisions, although there might be other and perhaps better way. It could also be that I’m just too used to current and past systems. More in general I’m trying to see how elections, sortition and direct democracy can best be combined, I think the way the Athenians did this was quite clever, we should think about something that adapts to current society.


  12. Yes I agree the challenge is to adapt Athenian-style politics to modern circumstances, and that will require a mixed constitution. Why not then revert more literally to the Aristotelian/Polybian model, as an elected presidency involves a confusion of two distinct principles? In M.H. Hansen’s recent essay on the mixed constitution in History of Political Thought he’s pretty scathing about modern presidents which he refers to as elected monarchs. Consitutional (hereditary) monarchs at least have the benefit of being relatively harmless.


  13. The idea actually wasn’t really to encourage desire for leadership rather to act to a (possible, I’m not an anthropologist) existing desire, seeing as leaders seem to be ubiquitous across societies and ages.

    All slaves have masters but it does not follow that this circumstance is a product of their desire to have masters. And the notion that government leadership has been ubiquitous across all societies and ages is a gross exaggeration. There are quite notable exceptions.


  14. The conversation seems to be moving back in the direction of Terry’s first option, which most of us find agreeable:

    >1. Having an allotted body interview, hire, and fire the state executive, similar to the way that many city councils appoint a city manager.


  15. I agree that leadership is pervasive (likely because followership is a convenient heuristic to reduce individuals’ burden of decision making). However, I also agree that mixing leadership and the executive function has been a disaster for society. I also think that the assumed beneficial results of “good” political leadership are mostly illusions (the “halo effect” etc.) In short, I believe leaders, especially charismatic ones, should never be granted institutional power as well.


  16. Absolutely — Oakeshott’s term for your convenient heuristic was “warm, compensated servility”. And I’m still concerned that an allotted group might be just as swayed by charisma as the larger electorate, that’s why I think ACs are better at judging arguments and monitoring performance than selecting between persons. But assuming that the consensus is around your option 1, is it not the case that the shortlist of candidates would be drawn up by professionals, with the council members making (or endorsing) the final selection? If so then the AC replacing the elected council in this role sounds like a sensible compromise.


  17. When people vote for a candidate executive now, they’re actually deciding about two things – the candidate, and the policies that the candidate advocates. If the system is redesigned so that the executive is truly carrying out policies decided by the (allotted) legislature, then the question about policies is no longer an issue, which simplifies things greatly. But if the executive is going to make policy decisions, then whoever chooses the executive will have to choose among policies as well as among candidates.


  18. Okay, it seem the idea of a leader isn’t very popular =) And honestly I don’t really have a strong opinion about it, I just thought it might have its uses and be a natural way to efficiently govern, and might be made a lot better by the selection process I described.

    Anyway, back on topic, what is the exact difference between 1. and 2.? If I understand it correctly “a pool of voters selected by lot” and “an allotted body” are the same thing, and there seem to also not be any real practical distinction between “hiring” and “electing”. So the real difference seems to be the possibility in 1. of recalling the office, which we seem to agree is a beneficial feature.

    If however you are seeking a “political” executive then why would an AC be any more immune from the beauty-contest effect than the whole electorate? The rational-ignorance problem relates to policies not persons. If anything it’s easier for charismatic people to sway a small group than the whole population.

    I don’t think people judge only by charisma, I think political ideas (even for merely executive roles), past behaviour, and curriculum are just as important, and an allotted body would have more time and resources to correctly access these characteristics. And I also don’t quite agree with the last sentence, having less people in front of you won”t make you more charismatic (well, unless you suppose the candidates will correspond privately with the allotted members…), they will however be able to dedicate more time to get to know you a little more beyond the surface.

    I guess it would also be useful to try to make some examples of what powers exactly the executive officers we are trying to select could have. Are we talking for example about the head of the military/police? About the lower position in the those hierarchies? What freedom of action should they have? What kind of competences/characteristics are desirable?


  19. Fela,

    I probably shouldn’t even have listed option 2. I just included it because it is an idea I came across in my reading. Option 2 is something that was offered by some political scientist years ago…I think the idea was to have 10,000 voters selected by lot, such that all of these electors could actually participate in meetings with all of the candidates for president. The notion, I think, was that these voters would have far more incentive to really delve into the pros and cons of the candidates, than in a traditional mass election. I don’t favor this, and doubt it would lead to any real improvement (simply allow for targeted persuasion rather than mass TV persuasion). I think a key is to separate policy determination from executive selection.


  20. I’ll leave it to Terry to respond on the difference between 1 and 2.

    Regarding the powers of the executive office, model 1 would suggest a primarily managerial role. If, say, the allotted legislature decided that fiscal policy required balanced budgets over the economic cycle then the role of the finance minister would be akin to that of the (UK) Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). In pratice this is largely an accountancy function — certainly not a political one — and follows the largely successful outsourcing of monetary policy to the Bank of England MPC in 1997 (prior to 1997, monetary policy was viewed as a highly political area). Similar mandates would be provided to the head of the other ministries — the education ministry might be set targets for literacy, numeracy, examination results etc etc. Ministerial freedom of action would be constrained by the need to achieve the target set by the legislature (the ends) but ministers would have considerable freedom to choose the means — although would be subject to censure and dismissal by the allotted body.

    This is similar to how the role of the chief executive of any large organisation would be conceived and would suggest a professional recruitment process for drawing up a shortlist of candidates, with the final choice in the hands of the allotted body.


  21. Terry, I’m assuming that you also advocate a limited, “managerial” role for the chief executive. Is that right?

    Keith, I can see how the legislature would (more or less) set targets, and the ministers would (more or less) have freedom to choose means to meet them. In your scheme, how would the legislature “direct” the chief executive?


  22. I meant nothing more than the setting and monitoring of goals and targets (ministers who failed to meet them would be censured and/or dismissed; ministers who achieved them would he re-appointed). I’m very conscious of my lack of practical experience in public admininistration, so I don’t think it’s right for people like me to do anything more than make theoretical distinctions and to leave it to others with hands-on experience to flesh out how the distinctions might work out in practice. But to use the UK example, the legislature sets inflation inflation targets and then the Monetary Policy Committee decides how to implement them (interests rates, QE etc). If that works for monetary policy then in principle the distinction should hold in other areas.


  23. In much of the Third World, I see the need for a chief executive without the ability to disband legislatures but nonetheless with these somewhat strong abilities:

    1) Assuming weak or semi-strong veto power, and not strong veto power, from Peru’s model, an exclusively executive ability to deal with legislature-defeated bills and vetoed bills, like those dealing with questions on war and peace, by holding referenda

    2) From the models of Brazil and Chile, an exclusive legislative initiative (reserved for the executive) in policy areas beyond just budget law and international trade affairs

    3) From Ecuador’s model, the ability to force legislatures to explicitly vote down, within a certain number of days (30 in Ecuador), bills submitted by the executive that have also been declared “urgent” (otherwise that bill automatically becomes law)

    [This point, perhaps as well as others here, actually boosts the case for more legislative “free votes,” as the backbenchers, perhaps looking for pork barrelling opportunities, always complain about caucus whips. I think this more or less removes caucus whips.]

    4) From Venezuela’s model, the ability to legislate by decree after a legislative supermajority passes an enabling law

    5) For the purposes of direct monetary and fiscal intervention, including the specific case of avoiding a US-style budget crisis initiated by a relatively stubborn legislature (a la Gingrich), from Colombia’s model, the ability to declare “economic emergency”

    6) From the FDR era, but more extensive, the enforcement of political accountability in those courts dealing specifically with constitutional affairs (as opposed to typical criminal and civil cases) by means of of arbitrary “judiciary reorganization” and “court packing”

    Perhaps also:

    7) From Russia’s model, the power to arbitrarily dismiss and support chief executives of municipalities, provinces, prefectures, and federated states


  24. (Bump) Hmm. There has been no discussion about sortition as it applies to the executive in quite a while.

    In the First World countries, there is the distinct possibility of combining a very large, unicameral legislature with a typical cabinet. Of the “legislature,” I wrote here:

    And here:

    A musing of mine relating the legislative and the executive can be found here:

    Basically, the unicameral body for deliberation should have mixed-member proportional representation, preferrably Probability-Proportional-To-Size Sampling and random selection rules for caucuses.

    Whether it’s one combined body of two dozen or more members, or two or three separate bodies with distinct jurisdictions (separate for state affairs, social affairs, industrial affairs, etc.), the executive should have at least all the powers listed above, and legislative-executive relations should be like in pre-1954 People’s Republic of China or in pre-1976 Cuba.


  25. >There has been no discussion about sortition as it applies to the executive in quite a while.

    That’s probably because it’s such a silly idea. I have a new post pending with Yoram on the distinction between office-holding (arche) and power (kratos) in Athenian democracy. The fact that monarchy and oligarchy depend on the former etymological root and democracy on the latter indicates that even in Athens there was an ambivalence regarding sortition for the executive. Why on earth would we want to appoint flute players, architects and pilots by lot? The modern justification for sortition is statistical representation and this does not apply to individual office-holders.


  26. Flute players, architects, and pilots aren’t holders of office, though. If the office requires a particular expertise, then stratified sampling is definitely the way to go.


  27. Fair point. This is more akin to using the lot as a tie-breaker — an impartial way of deciding between candidates of equal merit — and very different to the argument for a legislature appointed by lot. I think it’s important to point out the particular use of sortition that is proposed in every instance.


  28. > If the office requires a particular expertise

    Offices do not require expertise – they may call for using expert advice, but whose advice and how to use it should be up to the office holders.


  29. The randomness that would be generated by selecting individual office holders by lot would be little better than deciding policy options by lot. Without a prior stratified sample (ie selection by experience and merit), most allotted office-holders would not even know where to turn for advice and would thus be overly dependent on the permanent secretariat and lobbyists.


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