Citizen Assembly for Food Policy in Switzerland

In June Switzerland is going to convene a Citizen Assembly for Food Policy (Assemblée citoyenne pour une politique alimentaire). [Texts quoted below are my translations from the original French. -YG]

With the Strategy for Sustainable Development, the Federal Council has declared its commitment to a fundamental change toward a more sustainable food system in Switzerland. In order to set out strategies for this change, national dialogs have already taken place in 2021. The Citizen Assembly for Food Policy is a continuation of these dialogs with the direct involvement of the Swiss population.

Some details about the process:

The Citizen Assembly for Food Policy convenes 100 allotted Swiss residents who will discuss in an open-forum process what a sustainable food policy in Switzerland in 2030 could look like.

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Expectations of commitment by the allotted, part 2/2

Part 1 is here.

The alternative

The alternative to the path of low commitment, with all its inevitable implications that undermine the democratic potential of sortition, is to expect, indeed, to demand, high level of commitment by the allotted to the political process. In short, political decision making should be seen, both by society and by the allotted, as a full time job. It should be a well compensated, intellectually demanding undertaking. The following attributes should be part of the design of any high powered allotted chamber, such as an allotted parliament:

  1. Service terms should be measured in years – say four years.
  2. Personal initiative and collaboration with other members of the allotted body would be expected. Unless special circumstances exist, frequent physical presence at the workplace would be expected.
  3. The activity of the members would be overseen by an allotted body, with which the members would be expected to cooperate. The oversight body would produce reports about the activities of the members. In cases of clear dysfunction the oversight body could sanction members. The body would refer cases of suspected malfeasance to the courts.
  4. The details associated with the design and the work processes of the allotted chamber, as well as budgets and member salaries, would be determined, and adjusted on an ongoing basis, by the chamber itself or by a different long-term allotted chamber such as the oversight body.
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First Municipal Citizens Assembly in California

The northern California city of Petaluma (pop. 60,000) recently budgeted $450,000 for a Citizens’ Assembly chosen by lot to recommend a plan for the future use of its municipal fairground–a contentious issue that had been plaguing the city for several years. The Petaluma CA is the first municipal citizens assembly in California. The plan passed the city council unanimously.

The panel runs from mid-May to mid-July 2022, will deliberate over 90 hours, and is tasked with providing three policy reports on the question, “How might we use the City’s fairgrounds property to create the experiences, activities, resources, and places that our community needs and desires now and for the foreseeable future?”

The panelists will develop, write, and edit the reports themselves, and will deliver them to the Fair Board and City Council. The reports are advisory, though the council and board are expected to thoroughly consider and publicly respond to them.  

Healthy Democracy, best known for their work on the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review, has been designated moderator for the CA. Their work involves design and implementation of the CA process, and facilitating deliberation.

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Another round in the Herefordshire citizen assembly controversy

A previous post mentioned a letter to the editor of the Hereford Times expressing objections and distrust of the process around the Herefordshire Citizens’ Climate Assembly and in particular asking what the cost of the process was.

Councillor David Hitchiner, Leader of Herefordshire Council, has now responded to the letter. Hitchiner reports that the total cost was £70,000, with Sortition Foundation receiving £8,456 plus VAT and Impact Consultancy and Research, receiving £30,000 (which, Hitchiner emphasizes, is a bargain).

The letter also asked Hitchiner whether he “subscribes to the view that our politics are in fact broken and, if so, what the council has been doing about it?”

Hitchiner answers:

Thankfully we live in a country with a democratic system. I do not consider that it is perfect.

Too few people do not [sic] exercise their democratic right to vote, and the elected are not even close to being a cross section of our society by age or socio-economic groupings.

For this reason consultation in decision making is especially important.

My hope is that more people in Herefordshire will respond to our consultations, and also decide to vote at the next election in response to the way in which this administration has gone about discharging the faith placed in us at the last election.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the commenters, both of them, are not impressed. One of them, letmehelp, writes:
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Small steps

Access to the chamber’s time for dealing with members’ bills is randomised.

Well this is a small step indeed, (perhaps intimated by the picture) but I thought readers might be interested in this little feature of New Zealand’s parliamentary arrangements.

It is usually the proviso of Christmas Day snacking or visits to your nan’s. But in New Zealand – a country with a penchant for on-the-fly problem-solving – the humble biscuit tin has become a mainstay of parliamentary democracy.

There, as in Britain, members’ bills are a chance for MPs to have laws that they have proposed debated in the house.

But unlike in Westminster, in Wellington those bills are represented by plastic bingo counters in a 30-year-old biscuit tin. A curled, yellowing paper label taped to the front helpfully proclaims: Members’ Bills.

New Zealand House Speaker Trevor Mallard bottle-feeds lawmaker Tamati Coffey’s baby while presiding over a debate in parliament

Each plastic counter represents a bill, and when there is space on parliament’s order paper for a fresh round of proposed laws, a member of the parliamentary service digs into the tin for a lucky dip.

“It was what was available at the time,” Trevor Mallard, the Speaker of New Zealand’s parliament said of the tin, adding that it had initially contained “a mixed selection of biscuits”.

The tin was introduced after parliamentary reforms in the 1980s that changed an earlier method for keeping track of members’ bills – a list – to a ballot draw.

A secure and inexpensive method for sortition

Our association (l’APRES) organizes discussions every Sunday either on the internet, in real life, or both. Every Monday, a week in advance, we randomly pick someone to choose the next discussion’s theme. We thus needed a cheap and secure way to carry out this weekly selection. This post demonstrates how this is done.

The first step consists in going to this website. On this page, you need to enter a “seed” number to produce the output. As a seed we use the CAC 40 value at the market opening of that day – Monday. This value is publicly available and easy to determine and verify. Importantly, the same seed produces the same output (i.e., the same selected person) but at the same time two very close by seeds produce different, wholly unrelated, outputs (see why here).

In the demonstration shown in the following images, I employ a few names of people from this blog.


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Austria’s Climate Citizen Council: Broken from the Get-go

Suspicious decisions and coincidences surround the preparations for Austria’s planned “Klimabürger*innenrat” (Climate Citizen Council) hosted by Austria’s Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment and Energy. Worrisome information emerged regarding the award of the organiser’s role and the choice of scientific experts.

Some background: Austria’s Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment and Energy is headed by Leonore Gewessler, a Green Party nominee within Austria’s coalition government of conservative ÖVP (People’s Party) and environmentalist minority partner “Die Gruenen” (Green Party). Their business lobbying sub-branch is called “Gruene Wirtschaft” (“Green Economy”) with its offices located at Seidengasse 25, in Vienna’s 7th “bobo” district.

As an aside, Austria now has the third Chancellor in quick succession since the 2019 elections due to a scandal surrounding fake citizen surveys which boosted the first Chancellor’s political ascent. SMS conversations revealed that a powerful boulevard newspaper was “incentivised” with government funds under the influence of said Chancellor to publish these fake surveys prominently. This matter is currently under investigation by Austria’s Anti-Corruption Agency. My readers will know that easily manipulated and biassed traditional surveys capture the Madness of Masses instead of Wisdom of Crowds, thus acting as a clandestine cause of corruption and many democratic ills in Austria (and other countries with a political party system).

With this background in mind: Gewessler answer to a parliamentary inquiry (the protocol is here) about the preparations to the “Klimabürger*innenrat” (Climate Citizen Council) stated that bids for independent organisation and moderation of the Klimarat were accepted throughout the EU and its 27 countries. Strangely, the Minister received only one single application by a consortium of three partners, PlanSinn GmbH, PulsWerk GmbH, and ÖGUT. PulsWerk is located at ​​Seidengasse 13. What a coincidence! Just six houses up in the same street as Gruene Wirtschaft. PlanSinn is – surprise! – also located in Vienna’s 7th district, in Zollergasse, a five minute walk from Gruene Wirtschaft. According to the Minister’s response, this single consortium’s offer luckily fulfilled all her quality criteria exactly and was thus awarded the contract.

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Neutralizing Self-Selection Bias in Sampling for Sortition

Bailey FlaniganPaul GölzAnupam Gupta, and Ariel Procaccia, Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems (2020). https://arxiv.org/abs/2006.10498

Yoram recently drew our attention to this sortition paper which was highly ranked by the Google search engine. It’s interesting to see that engineers and computer scientists take the problem of self-selection bias more seriously than political theorists and sortition activists.

Abstract: Sortition is a political system in which decisions are made by panels of randomly selected citizens. The process for selecting a sortition panel is traditionally thought of as uniform sampling without replacement, which has strong fairness properties. In practice, however, sampling without replacement is not possible since only a fraction of agents is willing to participate in a panel when invited, and different demographic groups participate at different rates. In order to still produce panels whose composition resembles that of the population, we develop a sampling algorithm that restores close-to-equal representation probabilities for all agents while satisfying meaningful demographic quotas. As part of its input, our algorithm requires probabilities indicating how likely each volunteer in the pool was to participate. Since these participation probabilities are not directly observable, we show how to learn them, and demonstrate our approach using data on a real sortition panel combined with information on the general population in the form of publicly available survey data.

Citing statistics from the Sortition Foundation:

typically, only between 2 and 5% of citizens are willing to participate in the panel when contacted. Moreover, those who do participate exhibit self-selection bias, i.e., they are not representative of the population, but rather skew toward certain groups with certain features.

To address these issues, sortition practitioners introduce additional steps into the sampling process.

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Sortition in 2021

Equality-by-Lot’s traditional yearly review post.

The most significant piece of sortition-related news of the year was, in my view, the findings of an opinion poll run in four Western European countries – the UK, France, Italy and Germany – regarding the place of sortition in government. The survey found that 27%-30% among those asked support using allotted bodies to systematically complement the work of parliament.

As always, sortition has been most prominent in 2021 in the Francophone world. Early in the year, Macron’s administration in France formed an allotted panel monitoring the Coronavirus vaccination campaign. Not much has been heard of it since. The utilization of allotment by the Macron administration has become frequent enough to merit condemnation as well as ridicule. Sortition’s political presence is such that it draws regular criticism from elite writers, but also some support. The journal Raisons politiques devoted a large part of an issue to sortition. In Switzerland, a proposal to select judges by lot among qualified candidates failed at the polls.

However, sortition had some presence elsewhere as well in 2021. An allotted assembly was convened as part of the COP26 UN climate change conference. In Bosnia and Herzegovina a citizen assembly was called to express its opinion on constitutional and electoral questions. Scotland’s Citizen Assembly published its report. One of the recommendations in the report was to use allotted bodies to scrutinize government proposals and parliamentary bills. An allotted assembly about the climate was discussed in Austria as well. Ireland held a citizens’ assembly on gender equality. Washington state allotted a climate assembly. In the wake of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, allotted police oversight commissions were discussed in California. A CS course at Harvard dealt with sortition and an algorithm for quota sampling from unrepresentative volunteers made it into Nature.

The Japanese journal Law and Philosophy devoted an issue to “Just Lotteries”. Hélène Landemore, Yale political science professor and author of the book Open Democracy, has promoted sortition in an interview in The Nation magazine and in an article in Foreign Policy magazine. The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College held a conference about sortition.

Sortition was proposed as a way to create a governing body for the Internet, as tool to counter the allure of the Chinese system, as a way to save the UK and to stop popular but “undemocratic or illiberal” leaders from getting elected, and as a way to appoint public servants. A paper discussed sortition with a focus on India. In Massachusetts a letter to the newspaper introduced its readers to the idea of allotted citizen assemblies. A new book asserted that sortition is the only way to achieve a demcoratic system, while an article claimed that sortition is unable to address the biggest problem of the existing system, citizen apathy.

Landemore in Foreign Policy

Prof. Hélène Landemore has a hard-hitting new article in Foreign Policy magazine. From the outset, Landemore’s subtitle aims right at the heart of modern democracy dogma:

Democracy as it was envisioned was never about real people power. That’s what needs to change.

This radical attack on the electoralist system keeps on coming, paragraph after paragraph. Landemore seems ready now to finally correct the conventional terminology (the unwillingness to do away with this convention was a huge burden for her in Open Democracy):

The systems in place today once represented a clear improvement on prior regimes—monarchies, theocracies, and other tyrannies—but it may be a mistake to call them adherents of democracy at all. The word roughly translates from its original Greek as “people’s power.” But the people writ large don’t hold power in these systems. Elites do.

Representative government, the ancestor of modern democracies, was born in the 18th century as a classical liberal-republican construct rather than a democratic one, primarily focused on the protection of certain individual rights rather than the empowerment of the broader citizenry. The goal was to give the people some say in choosing their rulers without allowing for actual popular rule.

The Founding Fathers of the United States, for example, famously wanted to create a republic rather than a democracy, which they associated with mob rule. James Madison, in particular, feared the tyranny of the majority as much as he disliked and rejected the old monarchical orders.

Another important attribute of the article is that Landemore is making it explicit that exclusion from government is not merely a matter of making people “feel involved”, but rather translates into unrepresented interests:
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