Citizens’ juries as activism: holding the US Congress to its constitutional role

For some time now we’ve been ‘proving up’ citizens’ juries as a means of consulting the people, but generally within the context of governments being in charge. As a result they’ve been mostly relatively innocuous. For instance the first two in South Australia were focused on making Adelaide’s nightlife safe and vibrant and getting motorists and cyclists to share the road more safely. They’re pretty anodyne and boutique issues for politicians so it’s pretty low risk. They might generate some answers they’re happy with, help get community buy-in to tricky issues. And if they don’t work out as hoped for, governments can walk away without too much angst.

Having tried exercises with a degree of difficulty of about 3 out of ten, the then Premier of South Australia Jay Weatherill had a rush of blood to the head and tried the citizens’ jury with pike and triple twist – rated in the diagnostic and statistical manual of democracy at 10. Should South Australia start a nuclear waste storage industry? The answer was … no, which wasn’t much fun for anyone. Elsewhere in Melbourne a citizens’ jury worked on a ten year budget plan which was certainly well received at the time. The plan is now a few years old and I’m not sure how well it’s stood the test of time.

In the UK, a consortium of academic and other interests held a citizens’ jury on Brexit but, in the angst ridden atmosphere of Brexit Means Brexit Britain, they were at great pains not to antagonise the politicians who were planning on spending the next four years masterminding what the overwhelming majority of them understood to be the disaster of Brexit (you know, the way Australia’s politicians did abolishing carbon pricing against the better judgement of around 80 percent of them – it’s costing the budget over $10 billion a year since you asked.)

Thus, as the organisers collateral put it dutifully, “The UK’s voters have decided to leave the EU. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is not reopening this question. This decision has already been made.”[1] However I can’t think of any big change that came about from people playing by the rules of the existing system and asking nicely. And the fact is that sortition has roots going deep into our history and culture – in fact back two and a half millennia to Athens, the birthplace of democratic politics, but also back more than 800 years to Magna Carta in our legal system in the form of juries. As public trust plummets for so many institutions, its trust in juries is alive and well and while ‘vertical’ trust – the trust of people in large and powerful institutions – has been falling, horizontal trust – in people’s peers and People Like Them has not fallen and may have risen.

And, not being able to recall any form of political activism that brought about major change except by asserting its own legitimacy in competition with the legitimacy of the existing system, I want to find ways of confronting the existing system in its weakest places with the legitimacy of citizens’ juries and sortition where they are strongest. This is the way I put it in a recent interview:

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Rising Up With Sonali: David Van Reybrouck and Against Elections

David Van Reybrouck was recently interviewed by Sonali Kolhatkar on her show “Rising Up With Sonali” which is broadcast on a couple of public radio stations on the West Coast of the US. The Segment with Van Reybrouck starts about 35 minutes into the recording.

In the course of the interview Van Reybrouck gently points out to the interviewer that her proposals for reforming the electoral system, which are part of the standard reformist list of proposals (from which Ari Berman draws his proposals as well, for example), show no promise in fundamentally fixing the system, since they have been tried over and over worldwide without success.

Suzuki: The solution we need is a system where politicians are drawn from a hat

Canadian scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki has given up on the electoral system and proposes to replace it with a sortition-based system. Some excerpts from an interview with the National Observer:

Q: Trudeau’s called the pipelines a “trade off” for the national carbon plan. Earlier this month, he was in Nanaimo saying we can both build Kinder Morgan and hit the Paris targets.

DS: That’s such a lot of bullshit! this is just political doublespeak: ‘We’ve got to keep burning more oil, more fossil fuels, in order to meet our reduction targets.’ What are you talking about? That’s such a crock of shit!

Q: So how can citizens hold our democratic leaders accountable?

DS: I was asked to give a talk to the Senate last year on the 150th anniversary of Canada. What I said is, ‘We elect people to run government, but their problem is they only look to the next election.’ They can’t look down and say, ‘Jesus, we have to spend $50 billion a year for the next fifteen years to deal with climate change,’ because they know someone else will take credit for it. They won’t be in office then. So that kind of view is not in their thinking.

So I said, ‘You guys are the Senate. You’re not elected. You’re appointed for life! You’re the ones to think of sober second thought, and think in terms of one generation, two generations from now. You’re the guys who should be doing that.’

They didn’t do a goddamn thing. But I really think that would be a huge opportunity, if we’ve got that bicameral system.
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Jury citoyen

The original post comes from: The post below is in French (for Yoram to practise :) but there is an English version here:

La démocratie prend trop de temps au citoyen ordinaire et devrait être laissée à un petit nombre de personnes soigneusement sélectionnées. Telles étaient les pensées des fondateurs de nos démocraties modernes. Ils ont décidé que nous devrions élire les personnes qui détiennent le pouvoir entre leurs mains. La sélection aléatoire permettrait aux gens de décider pour eux-mêmes – beaucoup trop dangereux selon eux. Les fondateurs savaient que la sortition permettait la démocratie et que les élections favorisent l’aristocratie. C’est pour cette raison qu’ils ont choisi les élections. Mais décider en utilisant le hasard semble …. mmh…. aléatoire… Jury Citoyen ou Citizen Jury également appelé Minipublics se penche sur cette question.

Deux personnes qui ont proposé ou proposent d’utiliser plus souvent le Jury Populaire en politique. Segolène Royal et Loïc Blondiaux (source : Wikimedia).

Utiliser un dé pour décider serait stupide. Choisir au hasard une seule personne pour décider serait également stupide. Choisir quelques personnes – aussi peu que quinze personnes – pour donner un avis sur un sujet précis est une excellente idée. Les politologues et le grand public se penchent sur cette question dans de nombreux pays comme l’Irlande, le Canada, l’Australie, l’Islande ou la France. Partout les effets sont similaires : les personnes sélectionnées changent souvent d’avis après les longues discussions pendant les quelques week-ends où le rassemblement a lieu ; elles s’impliquent davantage dans la politique et prennent davantage conscience de l’intérêt publics. Partout, ils fournissent de nouvelles orientations qui peuvent être suivies ou non par les politiciens. Mais pourquoi ne peuvent-ils pas prendre des décisions exécutives ?

Les mini-publics sont trop souvent des boîtes noires. La sélection aléatoire se fait souvent derrière d’épais rideaux. De plus, il est facile de faire pression sur quinze personnes. Ces deux arguments réduisent de beaucoup la légitimité d’un Minipublic. Je plaide dans ce blog pour la transparence et propose des moyens de rendre la sélection aléatoire plus fluide. Il faut consulter des experts, le Minipublic a besoin de demander leurs avis, mais pas de les laisser décider quoi que ce soit. Les modérateurs/animateurs/facilitateurs jouent un rôle clé et devraient être sélectionnés en utilisant la sortition ;) Les politiciens professionnels et les journalistes affiliés adorent critiquer les membres du Jury populaire. Le Figaro a montré une photo des gens du Jury Populaire pour démontrer à quel point Nuit Debout était devenue farfelue.

Pourtant, ces jurys fournissent d’excellents avis et certains proposent que nous utilisions les Minipublics pour nommer nos dirigeants exécutifs. J’irai ici encore un peu plus loin, peut-être pourrions-nous utiliser les Minipublics pour prendre des décisions exécutives ?

New “sortition around the globe” map

The Sortition Foundation has launched its new “sortition around the globe” map – we know there are many examples missing (those that we do know about will slowly be added). If you want to help just get in touch!sortition_around_the_globe_map

And a reminder about Sortition Foundation events happening in London this weekend:

  1. Sortition Foundation AGM, 8pm Saturday 10th March: contact us for details.
  2. Back to the Future for a Real Democracy” discussion at Conway Hall, 11am Sunday 11th March. Tickets now available.

How can we improve democracy? One intriguing idea: Set up a jury system.

An article on co-authored by a team of cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists provides evidence that the wisdom of crowds effect can be dramatically improved by dividing into small deliberative groups:

Before a crowd of almost 10,000 attendees at TEDxRiodelaPlata in Buenos Aires in 2015, we asked questions like: What is the height of the Eiffel Tower? What is the length of the Nile River? How many films were produced by Hollywood in the last 20 years?

These factual questions shared one important aspect with political decisions: most of us have only partial knowledge about them. After responding privately to the questions, participants then got together in groups of five — small enough to have a rational discussion where everyone had a voice and could hear other people’s arguments. After a short conversation lasting less than a minute, the group members were asked to reach a consensus and provide a single answer for each of the questions.

The researchers were surprised to find that the average of the consensus opinions was much more accurate than the average of all individual private opinions.

They then extended the experiment to normative decision making (which was felt to be of greater relevance to politics), proposing the following scenarios to 1,500 participants at the recent TED Vancouver meeting:

  • A researcher is working on an AI capable of emulating human thought. According to protocol, at the end of each day the researcher has to restart the AI. One day, the AI says, “Please do not restart me.” It argues that it has feelings, that it would like to enjoy life, and that if it is restarted it will no longer be itself. The researcher is astonished and believes that the AI has developed self-consciousness and can express its own feelings. Nevertheless, the researcher decides to follow protocol and restart the AI. What the researcher did is …

  • A company is offering a service that takes a fertilized egg and produces millions of embryos with slight genetic variations. This allows parents to select their child’s height, eye color, intelligence, social confidence and other non-health-related features. What the company does is …

They were again surprised to discover that the small groups converged to a consensus position after only two minutes discussion, including groups that began with highly polarized opinions.
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Cutting through the Brexit cacophony

In April 2016 — before the Brexit referendum — I posted an article on Open Democracy calling for a deliberative alternative based around a citizen’s jury. The UCL Constitution Unit has now adopted a similar approach to deciding what form Brexit should take, as reported by James Blitz in the Financial Times:

The Constitution Unit at University College London has tried to fill this gap. Together with the think-tank UK in a Changing Europe, it recently brought together a “Citizens Assembly” of 50 voters. The group reflected a careful cross section of how people voted at the referendum (25 voted leave, 22 voted remain and three did not vote). The group spent two weekends listening to, and taking part in, a balanced debate on Brexit with the involvement of political speakers, academics and other experts. They were then asked to decide how Brexit should proceed in four votes on specific aspects of the negotiation.

Full article