Discussing sortition in Plymouth

Keith Rossiter writes in the Plymouth Herald:

A COMMON cry from some Herald readers is that councillors are corrupt/incompetent/self-serving (delete as you wish), and above all that they should not be paid for their services.


Challenged to step up to the plate themselves, they may say – with some justification – that “it’s all a stitch-up”. You can only get elected with the help of a party machine, and parties only select their pals.

We got the idea of democracy from the Ancient Greeks, and perhaps it’s time to go back to Ancient Greece and borrow the other half of their brilliant concept.

The Athenians used a machine to pick people to hold public office or to do jury duty. The device, called a kleroterion, ensured randomness in allocating important civic positions in much the same way that a lottery ensures randomness in picking the winning ticket. (Of course, we’ve all met conspiracy theorists who claim that’s also a stitch-up.)

The kleroterion, made of stone in Ancient Greece, had vertical columns of holes holding the “tokens” of would-be office-holders.

A jumble of black and white balls was poured through a funnel into a wooden tube fastened alongside the tokens. One of the colours, white say, was used to make the selection, and where each white ball landed, that person was “elected”, neatly handing fate and random numbers the responsibility for the outcome.

You might think that modern life is too complicated for such an archaic system, but it has already proved itself in action in China.

The coastal district of Zeguo, about the same size as Exeter, introduced a variation on the concept to make budget decisions.

In the Zeguo system (devised by an American professor James Fishkin) 175 people are selected from the general population. They are briefed by experts with conflicting views on budget issues, allowed to pose questions and ask for clarification. After a series of questions, meetings and debates over three days they get to vote, and their decisions are binding.

POLITICIANS need thick skins to take the abuse that is hurled their way, and God knows why they do it in the first place. Perhaps there really are some who are in it for personal gain.

A randomly chosen decision-making panel like the Chinese one might neutralise some of the criticism.

Even there, self-interest would play a part, but the random element would ensure that one person’s self-interest balanced out another’s.

People generally are not stupid, and in any case 90 per cent of the brilliance of the best minds is devoted to getting themselves into decision-making positions in the first place.

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