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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Some Problems of Citizens’ Assemblies

Academia.edu have recently launched Academia Letters, a peer-reviewed journal consisting of short articles that are distributed to a wide audience, and Alex Kovner and I were invited to contribute to the first edition. The Academia Letters article is here (along with the reviewers’ comments). It was edited down rather severely, the advantage being that, according to the analytics, most people who received the notification actually read it, the intention being to introduce new work to a broader audience than the usual recipients. A fuller version is available on Alex’s blog: Part 1 and Part 2. We’re currently working on a new Superminority article to directly address the problem at the heart of the US and other deeply polarized political systems — where half the electorate are effectively disenfranchised — that led to the attack on Capitol Hill.

Macron’s vaccine ‘citizen panel’ is doomed to fail

A column by Keith Sutherland and Alex Kovner in the The Spectator:

France has a problem when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine. Emmanuel Macron’s administration has so far only given out around 5,000 vaccines, and France has one of the lowest levels of trust in the coronavirus vaccine in the world, with only 40 per cent of the public saying they want to be inoculated. Faced with this trust deficit, Macron has proposed a 35-member ‘citizen panel’ to oversee France’s vaccination programme. The body, made up of a random selection of French citizens, will be responsible for monitoring and advising the government when it comes to the vaccine roll-out.

Carolan: Ireland’s Constitutional Convention: Behind the hype about citizen-led constitutional change

A 2015 paper by Eoin Carolan, Professor and Director of the Centre for Constitutional Studies at University College Dublin, takes a skeptical look at the conventional claims around Ireland’s Constitutional Convention which led to the legalization of same-sex marriage. (Note that later there was also a different allotted body constituted in 2016 which was called a “Citizens’ Assembly” and which led to the legalization of abortion.)

The article suffers from the standard pro-status-quo bias of showing no recognition of the urgency of the need to address the problems with the existing system. As usual, recognition of problems with the established system is phrased in terms of “public perception”, “disenchantment”, “disillusionment” and a “crisis of confidence”, rather than in terms of the facts of ongoing consistent systemic atrocious policy. Thus, while the paper rightly subjects the Convention process to a series of critical examinations, it seems to assume that the status quo is a legitimate default alternative. That said, I find that the article asks good questions, makes good observations and is generally very useful.

Abstract

Ireland’s Constitutional Convention is one of a number of recent examples of ordinary citizens becoming involved in constitution-making processes. These participatory experiments are often praised by democratic scholars. That has been the case with the Convention, which has already been cited as an example for any future process of constitutional change in Britain. This article argues that the Irish experience has been oversold. The process in fact suffered from a number of serious limitations that undermine its claims to either representative or deliberative legitimacy. The approach taken to its composition, agenda, expert advice and evidence was problematic in several respects: opaque, apparently ad hoc and with inadequate attention to the risks of bias and manipulation by elite actors. The Irish experience provides a warning about how the symbolic value of the ordinary citizen can be exploited for political purposes.

Radio Podcast Series “Democracy in Crisis” on Democracy and Sortition

Last month, with WORT FM in Madison, Wisconsin, I helped organize a three-part radio podcast series “Democracy in Crisis,” that asked what’s wrong with elections and explored alternatives such as assemblies and juries. Thanks very much to those who took part. Additional thanks to Chris Forman, Yoram Gat, Adam Cronkright, Keith Sutherland, and Manuel Arriaga for suggestions and introductions.

We aimed to include differing approaches and points of views in each round-table discussion, and largely succeeded, imho. My own view—that in modern mass politics, characterized by polarization and geographical and intellectual self-sorting, minipublics function as exceptional, pluralistic spaces for the formation of citizenship—was nowhere represented; so, that gives me at least one motive for a follow-up program.

Below are links to the episodes, also found in most podcast applications under the program “8 O’clock Buzz,” published on Aug 27, 28, 29.

Democracy In Crisis, Part 1: What’s Wrong With Elections?
Across the globe, electoral fraud, corruption, disenfranchisement of minorities and the specter of fascism now seem the rule rather than the exception. In 2017, the London-based Economist Democracy Index hit its lowest score ever, including the downgrading of the United States from a “Full Democracy” to a “Flawed Democracy.” Today, we start a three-part series, Democracy in Crisis, which will explore the failures of our current electoral system and perhaps, provide some hope for an alternative model.
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Community Cooperative in Australia Conspicuously Selects Board via Sortition

The Kyneton and District Town Square Co-op set up as an umbrella organization of community groups to democratically manage a historic school building / town square in Australia has a constitution that requires some board members be chosen by sortition.

Scroll down on their home page to see a video of Nivek Thompson speak about sortition and pick five board members out of a hat. Also, several of the activists pose with a placard “Lottery Democracy Lunch” and a sign reads “Lottery democracy arrives in Kyneton.”

Testart on democracy, democratic debate and citizen power, Part 1

Jacques Testart, a prominent French biologist, is a long-time advocate for citizen power, especially as it concerns control of science-related issues. His work in this area stretches back decades. In 2002 Testart co-founded the Association for Citizen Sciences. In a 2017 interview (Le Comptoir, Part 1, Part 2), parts of which are translated below, Testart discusses democracy, public debate, and citizen control of science.

Science, such as economics, could be a carrier of truth because of its neutrality. However, among other examples, the basic axiom of the Work Law forced through, against the opinion of millions of workers affected, rests on a certain “scientific” concept of economics. This law is a good demonstration that this supposed neutrality which economics maintains is in fact such in the eyes of the minority in power alone. When the social contract is under stress, when the decision-makers prefer Capital over the people, it may be necessary to try and consider about how it is put together, in order to be able to improve democracy. Jacques Testart, formerly a research biologist and “father” of the first French test-tube baby, now devotes his time to this goal, notably through the Association for Citizen Sciences. With this in mind, he has recently published “Rêveries d’un chercheur solidaire“, “L’humanitude au pouvoir – Comment les citoyens peuvent décider du bien commun” and “Faire des enfants demain“. We went to meet him. In the first part we discussed the collapse of democracy, in which the flag barriers of Truth are thoroughly involved. The means for making democracy work are discussed in the second part.

Le Comptoir: We hear here and there that democracy is experiencing a “crisis” of representation. Due to the professionalization of politics, the elected are no longer (if they ever were) really representative of their voters, but are rather members of a political-media-financial oligarchy. What do you think?

Testart: That is obvious, yes. The problem is knowing if those who occupy the leadership circles are leaders or representatives. They consider themselves to be leaders because they are elected, and therefore have popular support. But originally, the rules of the game were aimed at – and things must get back to this – them being only representatives. They ability to initiate during their term should be limited by their initial mandate, accounting for unexpected developments. In no case should they be allowed to take decisions that do not conform to the promises for which they were elected. I believe this is a really fundamental point. It is this which dispirits a lot of people, politically, and leads them to abstain. It lead to the rise of the “everything is corrupt” attitude on which the extreme right prospers.

Le Comptoir: May we say that this crisis of representation is also due to an appalling lack of debate regarding issues regarding which there is a consensus among experts in media? I am thinking specifically regarding assisted reproductive technology and the barrage of articles published daily about new “advanced” technologies, presenting all manner of gadgets and announcing “revolutions” to come, from self-driving cars to the bionic prostheses.
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First German National Citizens’ Assembly on DemoPart: the Rise of the “Alloted Citizen”

On September 28 in Leipzig, “Phase 2” of the first ever German citizens’ assembly “Bürgerrat Demokratie” concluded its second and last weekend of deliberation on whether and how to “complete or improve [ergänzen]” Germany’s representative democracy “with elements of direct democracy or citizen participation.” On November 15, a day dubbed “Tag für die Demokratie,” the 160 participants, together with 100s more from the “regional conferences” from Phase 1, will ceremoniously present their recommendations to the President of the Bundestag, Dr Wolfgang Schäuble. I was present in Leipzig on all four days of the assembly as observer along with a few researchers, journalists, and an evaluation team from Goethe University’s “Democracy Innovation” lab. A camera crew filmed the entire event, including the small group discussion at one of the tables. The documentary will be released sometime in 2020.

This was a civil society initiative prompted by the “Grand Coalition” [GroKo] agreement between the SPD and CDU/CSU. Article 13 (pg 136) of that agreement includes a promise to research (via an expert commission) the possibility that “our precious representative parliamentary democracy could be completed with elements of direct democracy or citizen participation.” Nearly two years later, that expert commission has still not even begun to materialize. Seizing the opportunity, a civil society initiative called Mehr Demokratie (more democracy) raised money and organized this even in “four phases” with the help of two institutes that run participatory fora for local and regional governments and organizations: Nexus and Ifok. Of high interest to “sortinistas” will be this brochure about “Losverfahren” (procedure by lot) also handed out to the participants last Saturday at the end of the assembly.
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New permanent sortition assembly in Belgium

Parliament of the Belgian German-speaking community

The parliament of the German-speaking Belgian community (Ostbelgien, 77.000 inhabitants) – which enjoys some political autonomy in the Belgian federal system – has officially and unanimously decided on February 25 to use sortition on a permanent basis, starting after the next elections in the fall.

Two different institutions will involve sortition. First, a permanent “Citizen council” (Bürgerrat) composed of 24 randomly selected citizens serving for 18 months. This council will have the mission to select topics and set the agenda, each year, for several “Citizen assemblies” (Bürgerversammlungen). These assemblies (maximum 3 per year) will be composed through sortition and age, gender and education quotas. The council will decide both their size (between 25 and 50 citizens) and the duration of their work (e.g. 3 weekends over 3 months).

These assemblies will produce recommendations to the German-speaking Parliament, the latter having the obligation to discuss the proposals (provided that they reach a 4/5 majority support in the citizen assembly) and to justify its decision to follow them or not.

Topics discussed in the citizen assemblies will usually concern the competencies of federated communities (culture, education, scientific research, development aid) but could exceptionally go beyond if the citizen council recommends it. Non-selected citizens can easily propose topics to the council, provided that they gather 100 signatures.

The selection method will be the following: First, a mail will be sent by the local parliament to a large number of randomly selected citizens. Second, a new public random selection will be made among those who responded positively, with quotas and a 17 years old threshold. Interestingly (compared to Ancient Athens), participation will be open to non-Belgian residents.
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Chouard: An allotted referendum chamber

Etienne Chouard, who has been the most vocal and consistent French advocate for sortition, is having somewhat of a day in the limelight in the context of the Gilets Jaunes protests. Chouard’s other major procedural proposal is the Popular initiative (in french: Referendum d’initiative citoyenne, often referred to as RIC).

A major issue with the popular initiative process, which is practiced in Switzerland and in various US states, is the ballot qualification process. In order to cut down the number of proposals on the ballot to a reasonable number, some hurdle has to be introduced. This hurdle is usually set as the collection of a large number of signatures. This makes qualification resource intensive and thus much easier for elite interests than for the average citizen.

In an interview (original in French), Chouard lays out an interesting alternative:

Chouard: “The RIC makes it possible for a group of people, or for a single person, to pose a question for the whole of the people. One of the first questions to ask ourselves is how many people can legitimately pose a question. In Italy, in Switzerland, it is 100,000, 500,000. It could be a million. It is for us to decide. […] I would say that a single person should be able to pose a question.”

Of course, the immediate consequence of this proposal, unlimited RIC without a minimal quota, is chaos. To handle this issue, the blogger proposes a “referendum chamber” whose members are allotted ordinary citizens, as in the Athenian democracy.

Also worth noting, and commending, the way Chouard affirms his democratic convictions in response to the standard question about the danger that his proposed system would produce bad policy:

I am a democrat. That means that I support the people deciding their destiny themselves and making the most important decisions themselves. At the same time if we are really democrats and honest, then we must expect that from time to time there would be issues, which can be important ones, about which the people would make decisions that would not be the ones we would make.

The full interview (almost an hour) is available as a video.