An in-depth study of the “Irish Model” by Dimitri Courant

In “Citizens’ Assemblies for Referendums and Constitutional Reforms: Is There an “Irish Model” for Deliberative Democracy?” Dimitri Courant analyzes the recent Irish citizens’ and constituional assemblies in a nuanced and contexuatlized way. This must be one the better treatments of the subject for anyone intersted in the “trans-localization” of the model itself and for those intersted in the design issues for citizens’ assemblies. To me it is a sober evaluation of the “Irish case” and gives us much food for thought on what might happen going forward.

Among democratic innovations, deliberative mini-publics, that is panels of randomly selected citizens tasked to make recommendations about public policies, have been increasingly used. In this regard, Ireland stands out as a truly unique case because, on the one hand, it held four consecutive randomly selected citizens’ assemblies, and on the other hand, some of those processes produced major political outcomes through three successful referendums; no other country shows such as record. This led many actors to claim that the “Irish model” was replicable in other countries and that it should lead to political “success.” But is this true? Relying on a qualitative empirical case-study, this article analyses different aspects to answer this question: First, the international context in which the Irish deliberative process took place; second, the differences between the various Irish citizens’ assemblies; third, their limitations and issues linked to a contrasted institutionalization; and finally, what “institutional model” emerges from Ireland and whether it can be transferred elsewhere.

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Mansbridge: Beyond Adversary Democracy

An interview with Jane Mansbridge in the Harvard Gazette.

GAZETTE: How might we get citizens who are so polarized to listen to one another?

MANSBRIDGE: One proven practice is the technique of citizens’ assemblies or deliberative polls. These are groups of citizens drawn randomly, through a democratic lottery, from a particular population. It could be an entire country, a state, a city, or even a neighborhood, from which you bring together a group of citizens to talk about an issue that is of concern to their community. For this technique to be successful, the group has to be random, meaning that you have to have good representation from everyone, not just the white retirees who don’t have much to do and would love to come to this sort of thing. To get a random group, you ought to able to pay the participants because you want to be able to get the poor, the less educated, and people who, for one reason or another, would not give up a weekend otherwise to come together with other citizens to deliberate about some major issue.

GAZETTE: Have you participated in a citizens’ assembly? What was it like?
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The best possible system of representation and democracy we can imagine

Reddit user subheight640 has a post presenting an uncompromising argument in favor of sortition:

Why randomly choosing people to serve in government may be the best way to select our politicians

So I’m a huge advocate of something known as sortition, where people are randomly selected to serve in a legislature. Unfortunately the typical gut reaction against sortition is bewilderment and skepticism. How could we possibly trust ignorant, stupid, normal people to become our leaders?

Democracy by Lottery

Imagine a Congress that actually looks like America. It’s filled with nurses, farmers, engineers, waitresses, teachers, accountants, pastors, soldiers, stay-at-home-parents, and retirees. They are conservatives, liberals, and moderates from all parts of the country and all walks of life.
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Proposing and disposing in the real world

A flow chart of the citizens’ jury process for determining compulsory third party insurance in the Australian Capital Territory.

Alex Kovner and Keith Sutherland have written some interesting things on the importance of separating the process of proposing policies and that of deciding which ones are implemented. I’ve not thought as much as I clearly should have about this myself, but I’ve certainly noted it as something I should think more about, and as a fertile and possibly indispensable idea in trying to introduce more sortition into our politics.

But, as readers of my posts will know, I’m also keen to leaven theoretical considerations with the question of how we get there. In that regard I’m interested in approaches to this question that are being tried by practitioners in the field, tied as they are to their own practical and political exigencies. So I was interested to read this case study by my friends at Democracy.co of their participation in helping the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government solve its problem of how to .

The essence of what happened is in the diagram above, though you need to read the case study to fully understand the way things were done. Of course this isn’t life according to the strict logic that I’ve seen proposed. For instance the proposer and the disposer are the same citizens’ jury. But I still think what was done was an interesting step forward in articulating practical options in seeking to inject more sortition into political decision making. I’ll be interested in what comments it attracts from this highly informed community.

Landemore: Open Democracy, part 9

Chapter 7 of Open Democracy presents Hélène Landemore’s assessment of the constitution-writing process in Iceland that took place following the 2008 financial crisis. Landemore describes this process as “the first domino of the classic electoral democracy model to fall toward a more open democracy model at a national level”. This seems to me to be a highly over-optimistic assessment of the significance of the process. First, this process was a dud, its outcomes being eventually dismissed by the Icelandic parliament. But more importantly, this was conceived from the outset as a one-off process, not a fundamental change for how things are done. Furthermore, this one-off process dealt in very abstract subjects – phrasing articles of a constitution. By construction it was clear that would not be able to serve as template for the workings of anything like a sortition-based policy making body. The idea of radical democratization (by abolishing elections or at least creating a sortition-based co-equal chamber) was never on the agenda. Thus, the entire discussion in the chapter – and below in this post – should be understood in this light. This was not a momentous occasion whose outcomes did or could have affected how politics is done. The analysis is therefore mostly a theoretical exercise. (A detailed analysis of the workings of the French CCC – which dealt with setting practical policy – could be much more instructive in this sense.)

With this diminished significance, even a radically democratic process would hardly justify the notion that it would serve as a “first domino”. However, as the analysis below indicates, the process itself is far from living up to an aspiration as serving, if not as a template or a model of a democratic process, then at least as an inspiration. Landemore’s celebratory tone is wholly unwaranted.

As Landemore describes the Icelandic process, it had three innovative “open” aspects: the National Forum – an allotted body that met for one day and “established the main viewpoints and points of emphasis of the public concerning the organization of the country’s government and its constitution”, the assembly of amateurs – a body elected from among candidates that were not incumbent professional politicians and which was to draft a proposal for the constitution, and the crowdsourcing phase – an online platform on which the assembly of amateurs would post drafts of the constitution to which the public could post feedback comments on the platform itself or on social media platforms.
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Rebooting Democracy candidate is running for Cambridge city council

Keith Garrett, co-founder of the Rebooting Democracy party (named after Manuel Arriaga’s book), is running for Cambridge city council. He was interviewed by Alya Zayed.

[Rebooting Democracy] puts forward a system whereby decisions are made by randomly selected members of the public, who discuss and deliberate the issues before coming to a decision, like a jury – a process known as ‘sortition’.

[Garrett] said: “I’ve stood before for the Green Party and nothing has changed. One of the key things in my life is climate change – although it’s not the focus of my party. I did everything I could and it makes no difference because you’re essentially trying to appeal to people in charge who have a set of vested interests. They’re career politicians. They’re interested in keeping their jobs and staying in that party machine.

“But actually, if you directly devolve decisions to a group of people, you give them true power, and it would solve most of our big world ills, like social inequality or climate change.”

He added: “You have deliberation, you talk, and you listen to each other. It’s ‘optimise’ not ‘compromise’. It’s about trying to find the best decision, not just the one that keeps everyone happy.”

If elected as councillor, he plans to use this kind of thinking to change the council’s decision making process.

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Austria’s Climate Jury – A Mixed Effort

Austria has now joined the circle of democratically-minded countries planning a government-sponsored Climate Citizen Jury (“Klima-Bürger*innenrat”) to tackle climate change. This follows a national popular initiative signed by 380.000 citizens of election age. At this stage, the envisaged process and timing is still quite unclear, what little has transpired is a mixed bag of some good and regrettably also some bad.

What is clear is that this mini-public shall consist of 100 random citizens and be “representative” for the general electorate of 6.4 million. Two issues here: the target number is underpowered, for comparison, Austria’s parliament consists of 183 representatives. And seeking “representativeness” in these numbers is a turnoff for those who know about statistical sampling requirements needed for this highly elusive adjective. An unnecessary weakness, the use of the word “representative” is entirely unnecessary when a simply “stratified” jury will serve the democratic purpose perfectly fine.

Clear is that the jury shall be tasked – similar to France – “to discuss and elaborate specific proposals for political measures to reach climate neutrality by 2040”. As I have noted in this forum so often, this fashionable brief is doomed to fail, just as it failed in France. An institution composed of random citizen juries is simply out of its depth with such a broad task and of such complexity. Like in France, well-meant but half-baked proposals will not impress those knowledgeable of consequences or charged to implement them. The elaboration of political proposals should be part of an open innovation competition in which any citizen or organisation is entitled to compete. Only then it is the turn of citizen juries to hear two-sided expert testimony, to judge and select between these, a task to which they are perfectly suited.

For the recruiting plan there is some encouraging information. The ministry’s intention is to recruit these random citizens proactively instead of the problematic oversampling of activists. Proof in point: a hundred of the usual suspects have already knocked at the ministry’s door but were sent away with the promise of some parallel participation process.

Recruiting will be put into the hands of a professional social research institute after a public tender – although rumours have it that SORA Institut will get the contract, anyway. There seems to be awareness of the distortions resulting from low invitation vs. acceptance rates in France.

Whether the future selected institute knows how to ensure the correct stratification for a jury is up in the air. An indicator for methodic accuracy will be that the final jury should seat 6 signatories of the public initiative (380k / 6.4m) and 43 members which see an immediate need to act on climate protection, corresponding to the ex-ante percentage of the general public which do so, according to pollsters.

Nothing is known as of yet about deliberative process design, organisation and moderation.

Finally, the Citizen Jury’s “proposals” will be sent to a committee of national and regional government representatives. There is no information about any commitment or obligation to proceed with the proposals. Sadly, and in light of the unrealistic mission definition, this may be a lesser issue due to the likelihood of failure.

Here is to an article from an Austrian daily newspaper (in German language):

https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000125369666/klimapolitik-als-demokratisches-experiment-parlament-ebnet-weg-fuer-buergerrat

Waserman: What the Convention has brought to us is different from what government or Parliament would have produced

Sylvain Waserman is a representative from Bas-Rhin and the vice president of the French National Assembly. He is a member of Macron’s party, LREM. He published the following piece in the French Huffington Post.

The Climate Convention: a democratic innovation or a sign of crisis of the representative system?

The citizen climate convention tests our democratic model. It was born in an atmosphere of general skepticism, or even worse, a certain condescension. We kept hearing that sortition has no democratic legitimacy and that its place is only in the history books under the heading “Ancient Greece”.

Today the situation is quite the opposite: no one doubts anymore the value of the proposals formulated, and the only question is about knowing how those proposals will be implemented and if they are going to be implemented in full.

When the so-called “climate and resilience” bill arrived at the Assembly, numerous deputies expressed irritation and some opined that this signaled another decline in the status of Parliament and a negation of the role of its members.

Following the example of the citizen members of the Convention

Let’s be clear: what the Convention has brought to us is different from what either the government or the Parliament would have produced in a classic legislative process. Surely it is more audacious and truly different. Let’s have the humility to recognize that and the intelligence to see that as a virtue rather than as an affront. The best example is the text for the amendment of the first article of the Constitution. Few among us would have spontaneously proposed the bold formulation adopted by the Convention: “France guarantees the preservation of the environment and of biodiversity, and the struggle against global warming”. The term “guarantee” is vertiginous and could open the door to questions of constitutional priorities, leading to complex issues and giving constitutional judges wide discretion in invalidating laws which would not respect this guarantee. Indeed: Nicolas Hulot, a sincerely committed environmentalist, had proposed constitutional reforms that are judicially less risky and more convenient legalistically, such as “France acts in order to” or “committed to promote”.
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Chevallier: The chic populism of participative democracy

A column by Arthur Chevallier in Le Point is yet another condemnation of the allotted committee monitoring the French vaccination campaign. The author sees the creation of the committee as a sign of weakness and hesitation. The government, he asserts, must act resolutely and dispose of attempts to over-communicate.

Chevallier is an editor at Passés composés and the author of the book “Napoléon et le Bonapartisme” published by Que sais-je ?.

The chic populism of participative democracy

Jan. 5, 2021

The allotment of 35 citizens to follow the vaccination campaign was aimed to be the perfect exercise in communication. It turned out to be the opposite.

Democracy is not about weakness. It is not about the promotion of amateurism. The creation of a committee of 35 allotted citizens which is supposed to follow the vaccination against Covid-19 invited mockery. What should have been proof of transparency turned into evidence of failure. If criticising the management of the crisis is less a matter of courage than of cynicism, since the matter is not as easy as it may seems, it is still necessary to denounce the unhealthy attempt to compensate for lack of efficacy by populism. Horizotalization of power is an illusion. Democracy did not gain its prominence by getting amateurs to run complex matters, but rather by its successes.

Without being aware of it, progressivism gives way to a stereotype of recationism. Since the 19th century, an ideology which may be called counter-revolutionary mocks democracy for being “feminie”, attaching to it labels such as the well-known “prostitute”, and hurling insults claiming that it is incapable of creating a powerful and harmonious state. History proves the opposite. Democracy is in fact quite often a radicalization of politics. In antiquity, Athens was at its height of power and imperialism at the 5th century BC, being its age where its democracy attained its most sophisticated form.
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Facebook has created an oversight board that includes the former prime minister of Denmark — but how independent is it really?

Matthew Syed’s Sunday Times article led me to think this was a good case for appointment by random selection.

Facebook has long been one of the most powerful actors in the world. It can shut down the communication of presidents, censor information on a network that connects 2.8 billion monthly users, and spread fake news — inadvertently or otherwise — using algorithms that can shift the dynamics of democratic elections. But who controls Facebook?

This is a question that came into sharp focus last month when Donald Trump was shunted off the platform at much the same time that he was dropped from Twitter and YouTube. The companies cited violations of their terms of use and claimed that, as private institutions, they were not bound by First Amendment free speech obligations. Conservatives responded that it was intolerable that judgments on who could access the digital equivalent of the town square were determined by the woke sensibilities of a tiny group of West Coast billionaires.

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