UK government as seen by UK citizens

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in the UK has some new data about the opinions of the UK citizens about their government. The findings, showing low levels of satisfaction and trust in the system, are not surprising, but useful in giving some details and in showing that no significant change in the general negative sentiment has taken place.

Contrary to the supposed polarization, there exist a wide consensus regarding the oligarchical nature of the system. UK citizens across the political spectrum see the voters as having little influence compared to party donors, business, media and lobbyists. There is also a widespread agreement that politicians “do not understand the lives” of typical people and that “democracy in Britain does not serve [their] interests”.


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1,000

The number 1,000 seems to have some kind of charm when it comes to allotted bodies. There is of course the G1000 – “a Belgian platform for democratic innovation” backed by the renown of David Van Reybrouck. But more generally, there is somehow the notion that 1,000 is a good size for an allotted body. Supposedly, 1,000 is how big a body has to be in order to be “representative”. This intuition may be to some extent reinforced by the fact that opinion polls often use (or claim to use) samples of a similar size. There is also the fact that when one is surrounded by 1,000 people there is a feeling of being in the presence of a crowd and one becomes an anonymous, insignificant point in that crowd – and maybe that seems to reflect what membership in a mass community is about.

In fact, the number 1,000 is completely arbitrary. Its use in opinion polling is rather coincidental, and there is certainly no reason to use it when allotting political bodies. Indeed, the feeling of being lost in a crowd of 1,000 people is a strong indication that 1,000 is too many.

As is generally the case when considering the design of allotted bodies (and when thinking about sortition on the whole) it is most fruitful to consider the issue of body size via the model of extending self-representation. For the decision-making body to make policy that represents the interests of the people, two things have to happen:

  1. The body has to be internally democratic. That is, there has to be an equality of political power within the body.
  2. The membership of body has to reflect the population in the sense that its values and world view match those of the population.

Those two conditions generate two conflicting considerations: since large groups of people tend to generate spontaneous inequalities within the group, the first condition implies that the size cannot be too large. The second condition implies that the makeup of the body has to be statistically representative, so that it should not be “too small”.
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Ostracism and EbL

The launch of Jeff Miller’s Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens was marked with discussion threads on academia.edu and Equality by Lot (EbL). Whilst the debate on the former was (on the whole) polite and informative, the latter quickly degenerated into claims that the author was “mistaken”, “confused” and “self-contradictory”, before going off on a tangent. Although EbL (launched in 2009) was the first blog dedicated to sortition, we are currently languishing on the ninth page of a Google search for the term and are struggling to find new posters, commentators and readers (of the 8,423 “followers”, most are on twitter and very few have signed up to the WordPress site). We clearly need to take a long hard look at why this blog is, frankly, a catastrophic failure.

EbL was launched on 14 December 2009 by Conall Boyle, Peter Stone and Yoram Gat, the blog being intended for

  • Academic papers, especially in draft, pre-published form for discussion.
  • ‘Think-pieces’ by group members, preferably which have been published elsewhere.
  • News items about the use of randomness (lottery) in both governance and distribution

But there was also another (paranthetical) goal, namely a “a ‘shop-window’ for our ideas”, which has increasingly been viewed as a consciousness-raising opportunity for sortition activists to encourage the masses to revolt against “electoralism” (which is denied any democratic provenance). This is compounded by an antipathy to academic expertise as just another example of “elitism”, even when the sub-discipline (democratic theory) is of direct relevance. This being the case, most academics (including two of the aforementioned founders) have little or no truck with EbL. What makes matters worse is that differences of opinion have degenerated into vituperative personal attacks, and this is extremely off-putting for new participants.

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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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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.

Escoubès and Proriol: Democracy, differently; The art of governing with the citizens

Frank Escoubès and Gilles Proriol are the authors of the book “La démocratie, autrement – L’art de gouverner avec le citoyen” (Democracy, differently: The art of governing with the citizens). In an article in L’ADN they describe the thesis of their book.

There is no doubt that our representative democracy is in trouble. Humiliated, attacked, sometimes rejected: what is going to be its fate in the period between now and the presidential elections of 2022?

The citizens do not feel represented anymore

This is hardly news – our democracy is flawed. The elected are supposed to create the most faithful, the most accurate representation of the citizens, that which a technocracy cannot achieve. The coronavirus crisis has sunk the nail, in silencing the citizens like never before. In the face of that, populism and demagoguery are rising, claiming that they will provide ways for the people to decide everything, all the time, by themselves. Denial the complexity of reality, political irrealism, ideological naivety. In this context, the risk of “democratic retreat” is real. This could be due to an absence of consultation with the citizens (plowing through) or due to a simplistic consultation without a follow-up (an unkept promise). There is therefore an urgent need to “repair the links of trust”.
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Pew poll asks about citizen assemblies, finds widespread support

A Pew Research poll conducted in November and December 2020 asked people in France, the U.S., the U.K. and Germany about their attitudes toward the political systems in their countries. As usual, there was a lot of dissatisfaction. It turns out for example that in France and the U.S. about 20% of those polled think that the political system in their country “needs to be completely reformed”.

Interestingly, the poll had a question about “citizen assemblies”.

In all four countries, there is considerable interest in political reforms that would potentially allow ordinary citizens to have more power over policymaking. Citizen assemblies, or forums where citizens chosen at random debate issues of national importance and make recommendations about what should be done, are overwhelmingly popular. Around three-quarters or more in each country say it is very or somewhat important for the national government to create citizen assemblies. About four-in-ten say it’s very important.

Surprisingly, in my opinion, support for such advisory bodies is somewhat higher in all countries than support for binding referenda.

(Thanks Paul Gölz.)

Democratic power, outcomes and ideology

This post continues the inquiry carried out in a few previous posts regarding how democracy can be measured. Thanks to various commenters for the discussions that encouraged further thought on this matter.

Dimensions of democracy

In a democracy, political power is distributed equally among all members. This should probably be considered the definition of democracy. However, there are two additional democratic dimensions: democratic outcomes and democratic ideology. Outcomes are democratic when power is used to serve everybody equally. Democratic ideology states that political power should be distributed equally. This normative statement could be justified either directly or consequentially. The direct justification is that equally distributed political power is the only just political arrangement. The consequential argument is that democratic outcomes are the only just outcomes and that democratic power is the only political arrangement that can deliver democratic outcomes. Presumably often those with democratic commitments believe in both the direct and the consequential arguments. The position that political power must be distributed equally even if this leads to undemocratic outcomes seems questionable. For those who adopt consequential democratic ideology, democratic results are a necessary and sufficient condition for democracy (i.e., for democratic power).

A-priori, there are 8 possible situations regarding the presence or absence of democracy along each of the dimensions of democracy. A wholly undemocratic society lacks all three dimensions: the dominant ideology is not democratic, power is distributed unequally and the outcomes favor some at the expense of others. A fully democratic society has all three dimensions present: the dominant ideology is democratic, power is equally distributed and outcomes serve everybody equally. Partially democratic societies could have some combination of situations along the axes.

As pointed out above, however, to believe that democratic outcomes can exist in a non-democratic society, or that non-democratic outcomes can exist in a democratic society we – as observers – need to adopt a non-democratic stance. Accepting that democratic power is uniquely suited for attaining democratic outcomes implies believing that the settings along those two axes must be aligned.
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Significant support in European countries for citizen assemblies as a complement to parliament

A recent poll finds (p. 129 and on) that the public in France, Germany, the UK and Italy is generally supportive of using allotted bodies to discuss and form opinions regarding various matters, with two thirds of those polled supporting using such bodies to address national-level issues.

Most surprising is the finding that about 30% of those polled support having such bodies used systematically to complement the work of parliament. The fact that there is widespread support for establishing a political power which is independent of the elected bodies is most extraordinary since there is no precedent for such an institution in modern times and since there has been no significant advocacy for such an idea by any established political power.

In addition, a large majority of the citizen polled believes that the decisions made by the allotted bodies should be binding: 55% supporting, 23% undecided, and only 15% objecting.

(Thanks to André Sauzeau for pointing out this poll.)

Public Support for Citizens’ Assemblies Selected through Sortition

A new paper explores public opinion in the EU regarding sortition based decision-making bodies. The paper was written by Jean Benoit Pilet, Damien Bol, Emilien Paulis, Davide Vittori and Sophie Panel.

Title: Public Support for Citizens’ Assemblies Selected through Sortition: Survey and Experimental Evidence from 15 Countries

Abstract:
As representative democracies are increasingly criticized, a new institution is becoming popular in academic circles and real-life politics: asking a group of citizens selected by lot to deliberate and formulate policy recommendations on some contentious issues. Although there is much research on the functioning of such citizens’ assemblies, there are only few about how the population perceives them. We explore the sources of citizens’ attitudes towards this institution using a unique representative survey from 15 European countries. We find that those who are less educated, as well as those with a low sense of political competence and an anti-elite sentiment, are more supportive of it. Support thus comes from the ‘enraged’, rather than the ‘engaged’. Further, we use a survey experiment to show that support for citizens’ assemblies increases when respondents know that their fellow citizens share the same opinion as them on some issues.