An unpublished column on sortition and Brexit

From around January this year I’ve tried to get the column below published – in the Guardian UK where my previous column was published. Unfortunately, and even after endless cajoling via the Guardian at this end, I couldn’t get a reply which is piss poor but there you go. Martin Wolf tried for me at the FT. At least they responded – but with a ‘no’, which is fair enough given the oversupply of articles on Brexit. Anyway as it fades into irrelevance and the Brexit Brouhaha Burbles on I thought I’d pop it up here.

The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum looms over the career politicians assembled in the Palace of Westminster as the black monolith loomed over the apes in the movie 2001.

It’s taken over thirty months of thrashing through actual options – as opposed to the wild partisan imaginings in the campaign – for a ghastly, if entirely foreseeable realisation to dawn. Despite the people’s clear instruction to Leave, any specific way of doing so would command far less than the 48 percent vote for Remain.

In the teeth of the greatest crisis of British statecraft since World War II, the institutional imperatives of political combat ensure the politicians perform rather than deliberate. Not only Corbyn, but extraordinarily enough, May has clung to fantasies about getting a better deal, though the end game will presumably see her change her tune.

How did it come to this? Continue reading

55% of the online participants in the French Grand Debate support sortition

Le Monde reports that 500,000 people have participated in the French “Grand Debate” by submitting an online form. Of those, 55% indicated that they would support “involving citizens in public decisions using sortition”.

Hind and Mills: A citizen jury visits the secret castle

Dan Hind and Tom Mills write in openDemocracy:

Entering the secret castle: A small step towards democratic public media?

Last week the BBC gave a representative audience panel control of its Brexit output for one day. Could this ‘citizens juries’ type approach begin to transform our media?

It didn’t receive much attention, but last week the BBC tried something interesting. For one day, Friday 1st March, its Brexit-related output was overseen by a representative audience panel that would, as the BBC put it, ‘control’ coverage ‘across a range of BBC News outlets’. The initiative, branded Brexit: Your Stories, was intended, the BBC said, to reflect ‘how Britain really feels about Brexit’. Kamal Ahmed, the editorial director of BBC News, was quoted as saying:

Not only will it be a very different and thought-provoking way of reporting the news that day, but it will help inform how we shape our news coverage in the future. We want our news rooms across the UK to be less a set of secret castles where, to the public, mysterious things happen. We want to open up the process and this first day is just the start.

Does this unusual step from the BBC signal a genuine interest in organisational change? Will it be a first step in democratising its output, as the statement put it? Or was Friday’s experiment more an exercise in PR?

Time will tell. But the rather narrow focus suggests a significant motivation was to help the BBC navigate the choppy waters of Brexit reporting, which has presented enormous challenges for the broadcaster.

[…]

Lottocracy among 5 ideas to upgrade democracy

NJ.com presents “5 ideas to upgrade democracy” by 5 “of America’s leading political philosophers”. One of those is Alexander Guerrero, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Science, who offers the readers his ‘lottocracy‘:

Maybe America’s problem stems not from the fact that we aren’t picking the right people, but from the fact that we aren’t picking them in the right way.

Maybe — bear with me here — we should get rid of elections. I believe that you — that each of us — has something to offer, and that we can find ways to work together.

I propose we use a new system that uses random selection, rather than elections, to select political representatives.

I call it lottocracy.

For it to work, we must agree that having an elected, generalist legislature has run its course.

We should instead have randomly-chosen citizens selected to serve on single-issue legislatures, each covering specific areas such as immigration, transportation, education, agriculture and so on.

Each of the proposals was evaluated by 3 political scholars from Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics: Ashley Koning, Elizabeth C. Matto and John Weingart. Here is what they wrote about lottocracy:

Why won’t this work?
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Sortition in the press

Some recent media items mentioning sortition:

The Evening Standard: Let a citizens’ assembly sort the mess left by Parliament by Richard Askwith

TruthDig: Extinction Rebellion by Chris Hedges and Mr. Fish

The New Yorker: A New Film Offers a Multitude of Answers to the Question “What Is Democracy?” by Masha Gessen

When is a conversation not a conversation? When it’s a political conversation.

Violence in Bahrain as Democracy Protesters Take to Streets

This essay is cross posted from Quillette

I

It looks like liberal democracy is falling apart. But we can put it back together if we take democracy seriously enough—as seriously as the ancient Greeks.

The chaos of Donald Trump was unimaginable just a decade ago. Brexit was a similar humiliation for Britain’s political class, leading to its bewildered paralysis ever since. How do such things happen? Perhaps because I admire economists’ deployment of very simple ideas to powerful effect, I’ve come to an approach to these problems that I think is simple and compelling.

First, democracy is government by conversation. A political conversation should often be competitive—to sharpen ideas and measure their support. Yet, to remain a conversation rather than a parody of one, it must also be a co-operative search, if not for agreement, then at least for mutual understanding of where positions differ. However, this co-operative foundation for our politics has been largely extinguished by the weaponisation of political communication by professionals operating on the mass media, and, more recently by “trolling” on social media.

Second, where elections bake competition into the operating system of representation, there’s another, even more time honoured way to represent the people. The ancient Greeks built their democracy around it and it hides in plain sight today whenever a jury is empanelled in a court of law. And, whether it concerns legal or political matters, deliberation within such bodies nurtures the collaborative aspects of conversation. Giving citizens’ juries and assemblies chosen by lot a role within our beleaguered democracy could see it renewed.

II

To become a politician you compete for election. You then join party colleagues competing against their opponents. Yet democracy implies limits to competition. We remain safe for now that no substantial political grouping perpetuates extra-legal violence. Yet something more fundamental is afoot.

Though it apes the form of conversation, political communication has become as professionalised, as optimised to the competition to win votes as McDonald’s use of salt, fat, sugar and advertising is to win customers. Meanwhile, responding to similar competitive imperatives, the informational foundations of our democracy were being shorn away by mass media news values long before the internet arrived. Between 1968 and 1988, the length of presidential sound bites on US network news went from 43 to 9 seconds.1
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Lessons of the Australia Capital Territory compulsory third party car accident insurance citizen jury

In March 2018, a citizen jury convened by the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government delivered its decision regarding the design of a compulsory third party (CTP) car accident insurance system. The government’s Chief Minister Andrew Barr had committed ahead of time to implement the jury’s decision, but there are now significant political forces pushing against implementation, including Barr’s coalition partner. Adopting the jury’s decision would have significant economic implications for various parties, and as can be expected the process has been called into question. A timeline of criticisms of the citizen jury process is laid out below.

While the attacks are no doubt motivated by interests, the claims that the process itself was tainted by interests cannot be dismissed. The important, if unsurprising, lesson for those advocating the use of citizen juries for public policy is that an expectation that the fact that a decision was made by a citizen jury would by itself carry enough power to resolve significant political conflicts is unrealistic. If the citizen jury’s decisions are to have political power, the citizen jury process must be evidently democratic, i.e., representative of the population and free of elite manipulation. In the case of the ACT CTP jury, this does not seem to be the case. As a result, the jury’s decision cannot be taken at face value as being well-informed and well-considered. The “deliberative democracy” process, then, has had very little value.

The ACT CTP citizen jury, a timeline of criticisms

Even before the jury made its decision, the opposition claimed the process was rigged:

Canberra Liberals to call for inquiry into CTP citizens’ jury
By Katie Burgess, February 20, 2018

The ACT Opposition will push for higher scrutiny of the citizens’ jury on a new compulsory third party insurance scheme for the ACT after concerns the process has been undermined.

Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe will on Wednesday call for an inquiry into the citizens’ jury on the insurance scheme currently under way.

“The government’s first shot at a citizens’ jury has rightly made Canberrans sceptical of its merits,” Mr Coe said.

“If deliberative democracy is going to become a function of government, Canberrans need to be able to trust that it is conducted in a fair and impartial manner.

“If we can’t trust the process, then deliberative democracy will be nothing more than expensive tokenism.”
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