The Warm, Fuzzy Side of Sortition: When Deliberation Goes Right

Has anyone read Tom Atlee’s Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politics? Chapter 5 is called “Citizenship and Randomly Selected Ad Hoc Mini-Publics.”

Tom’s been an advocate of sortition for decades and it seems there hasn’t yet been a discussion of his thought on Equality by Lot. Beyond being a long-time advocate of “Citizen Deliberative Councils” and other sorts of minipublics, he has deep insights into group dynamics—the conditions under which groups go beyond simple bargaining and reach something closer to creative wisdom.

In my humble opinion, there’s an inadvertent academic bias on this blog that leaves out significant work from activists and non-academic writers like Tom. I think it would serve us well to do otherwise.

To that end I will list some brilliant ideas I’ve gleaned from his latest book, Empowering Public Wisdom (2012), and from reading some of his blog.

What are the kinds of conversations desirable within minipublics? What is the proper size of the group? Does the answer to these depend on the type of minipublic and its function, how? What type of facilitation is necessary in them? How do we get participants to buy in emotionally? How do we achieve a “group synergy” that makes strides on sticky issues?

There is a kind of collective voice (as opposed to opposing voices) that can be achieved when the best kinds of conversations occur. In a nutshell, Tom Atlee—and many or all of us would agree—facilitation is a key issue for minipublics. He says “public wisdom is not mass participation,” but something much more. This is in effect zooming in on deliberation and understanding the crucial social psychology factors at play. [Keith has brought up this concern, but the zooming hasn’t yet occurred.]

“Power-with” comes from agreement and synergy as distinct from “power-over” which comes from control. Some types of conversation (and facilitation) can help find legitimate interests and ways to satisfy them. Participants feel fully heard and their most pressing needs met. “Power-with” is the minimal aim of allotted bodies serving a social or political role. This is Rousseau’s general will made practical, if you wish.

“Power-from-within” happens when the best kind of deliberation brings out leverages people’s passions and natural capacities. It creates a kind of “group flow” where everyone feels not only truly, fully heard but everyone is able to bring out their best—and where true breakthroughs occur. This is the highest aim of minipublics that could probably only happen in small groups.

Tom attaches new meanings to dialogue, deliberation, and solution creation, to highlight what he means by group wisdom. Dialogue is speaking truly and hearing truly everyone’s interests and concerns. Deliberation means learning and exploring possibilities (not arguing) towards solutions. Choice creating occurs when each participant steps outside of her/his role and position to find “collective voice” or “general will.” This, he adds, happens when everyone “feels the integrity of the process in their bones.”

What kind of conversations generate public wisdom?
They take in a full spectrum of both knowledge and perspectives.
They creatively engage different forms of intelligence.
They productively engage with differences and disturbances.
They reveal the true complexity of the situation to all participants.
They go deeper than majority rule because they are truly inclusive.

Is it possible for us (or anyone) to model this type of deliberation in an online forum? I invite your thoughts on the above questions and ideas.

18 Responses

  1. The absence of the deliberative ideals outlined in this post from the conversations on this forum indicates, IMO, their irrelevance to real-world practice, especially when you consider that the original model for minipublics was the agonistic practice of classical Athens.

    >What are the kinds of conversations desirable within minipublics? What is the proper size of the group? Does the answer to these depend on the type of minipublic and its function, how? What type of facilitation is necessary in them? How do we get participants to buy in emotionally? How do we achieve a “group synergy” that makes strides on sticky issues?

    The one thing that doesn’t appear on this list is how to ensure the representativity of a minipublic and the corollary that any active facilitation/moderation has to be ruled out a priori, on account of Juvenal’s objection. Warm and fuzzy procedures have no place in political decision making.

    >In my humble opinion, there’s an inadvertent academic bias on this blog

    If only! It strikes me as more akin to a soap-box rather than a seminar. People post claims and then ignore the challenges made.

  2. > there’s an inadvertent academic bias on this blog that leaves out significant work from activists and non-academic writers like Tom. I think it would serve us well to do otherwise.

    The “bias” of this blog, like that of any forum, is toward what interests the participants. Those who feel that their areas of interests are not being sufficiently addressed are invited to initiate the appropriate discussion.

    As to the substance of the idea presented, I am, naturally, skeptical.

    I am all in favor of understanding others both because it serves the interests of justice and because it serves the interests of efficiency. However, it is a mistake to ignore the issue of conflict. Conflict is inherent in human relations and therefore inherent to politics. Looking for solutions that keep everybody happy is great. It is even possible that this can actually be achieved more often than usually happens with the current arrangements, but this doesn’t mean that this is always attainable.

    > Is it possible for us (or anyone) to model this type of deliberation in an online forum? I invite your thoughts on the above questions and ideas.

    In the specific case of this blog and its commenters and posters, I doubt it. I think we would have disagreements about what those guidelines even mean in practice.

  3. Agreed.

    >Those who feel that their areas of interests are not being sufficiently addressed are invited to initiate the appropriate discussion.

    And, ideally, respond to commentators, rather than just using the blog as a noticeboard to advertise an idea and then walk away.

  4. Before I respond to comments, let me add two contributions of Tom’s that I neglected in my post, perhaps to keep it short.

    1) The usefulness or necessity of iteration/redundancy of minipublics:
    Especially for minipublics convened to deliberate complex, controversial issues (e.g. climate change), repeating the group process where each subsequent group has access to the full report and result of the previous iteration

  5. Before I respond to comments, let me add three contributions of Tom’s that I neglected in my post, perhaps to keep it short.

    1) The usefulness or necessity of iteration/redundancy of minipublics:
    Especially for minipublics convened to deliberate complex, controversial issues (e.g. climate change), it may be necessary or desirable to repeat the group process where each subsequent group has access to the full report and result of the previous iteration.

    2) Distinguishing a position from an interest:
    A position is where a participant stands on a particular proposal. An interest is the underlying need/want of a participant. A good system for facilitation, or deliberation setup, should make participants aware of this.

    3) Current parliamentary procedures based on Robert’s Rules of Order are fine at keeping order, but do little to encourage the kind of quality deliberation that is possible with minipublics. If the minipublic is given little guidance or merely follows traditional parliamentary procedure, it may only arrive at sub-optimal solutions, or ones similar to what elected officials currently make.

  6. That’s all fine and dandy, but in what sense can the decision outcome be held to represent what everyone would think under ideal conditions? The trade-off between deliberation and democratic representation is a tough call, and the procedure that Tom proposes leans heavily in the direction of the former. Assuming some sort of legislative mandate, why should everyone excluded from the process accept the democratic legitimacy of the decision outcome? Or is the proposal only for some kind of brain-storming session — to generate proposals that would then be subject to a democratic decision process? In short the relevant distinction is not between “academics” and “activists”, it’s between deliberation and democracy.

  7. @Keith, re practicality of good deliberation:
    the issue is not ideals in Tom’s book. His goal is implementing practical procedures more likely to bring a group work closer to wisdom.

    As someone who has experienced facilitation both as participant and as facilitator, I can say that the ideas in “Empowering Public Wisdom” would raise the quality of conversation and the likelihood of “breakthroughs” on charged, complex, controversial issues.

    @ Keith, re discussion on E by L and other online forums:
    Part of the reason the quality of discussion here is not to your liking, or to many people’s liking Keith, is probably due to the nature of an online forum. We aren’t all in the same room or have the benefit of body language a whiteboard we can all see. But I have heard on participedia that there is a new forum platform that could deal with some of the issues and improve online conversation.

    That said, a procedure (at least for face-to-face discussion) advocated by Tom involves taking comments and posting them to a board under the labels: i) problem statement ii) possible solution iii) concern iv) data

    How well would this work? We won’t know until it’s been tried, but it will probably do better than no guidance or merely “taking turns.” How well could this be mimicked online, I do not know.

    [Lastly, sometimes responding to all comments becomes too time consuming or seems not worth the effort once a discussion thread runs page after page and the original thought seems lost.]

  8. @Keith, I have to go now, but you are about to bring up a different topic: legitimacy of minipublics. That is not the topic of this post.

  9. >legitimacy of minipublics. That is not the topic of this post.

    OK, but then why waste time discussing the debating style of an organisation that might turn out to be illegitimate? Your use of terms like “Robert’s Rules of Order”, “traditional parliamentary procedure”, and “elected officials” would suggest that you/Tom are proposing a body with some sort of legislative function, hence the need to ensure ongoing democratic legitimacy. Sadly, the rich, wisdom-oriented participative approach that Tom is advocating will result in the loss of the aggregate representativity that legitimises the minipublic. Representative deliberation is a thin (and agonistic) gruel, but that’s the price we have to pay if we believe in democracy. One man’s “wisdom” is another man’s crock of ****.

    As for the (selective) lack of follow-up to the replies to posts on this forum, this was not a criticism that I was levying at you. Some posters ignore all comments or only respond to those of a similar inclination to themselves.

  10. The House of Representatives should be selected by Lot, the second paragraph of the Constitution, states that it is up to each state, to chose a representative, but it doesn’t state HOW! What needs to be done is bring this issue before the Superme Court, if it is Constitutional! This would then make the general public, that they have a choice, and prevent the house of being bought, by Fat Cat republicans! Every Citizen should have a equal right to represent there State. By the way if you split the word Ballot, you get BAL-LOT, how Democracy started, as they wrote their name on a ball, and threw it into a Tub, believing the Gods chose the right citizen.

  11. @Keith and @Jd, again you are off topic,
    but for the record Tom has NEVER advocated for a “people’s legislature” as far as I know. He envisions various kinds of citizen panels–he mentions four or five different varieties for specific purposes–as a way for public education and for discovering proposals that could otherwise never happen in an elected, hyper-competitive body.

    The main idea of this post is that deliberation (in the broad sense) should be put under a microscope by reformists. It is not only the way members are chosen that determines the quality of a group’s output. And what actually happens inside deliberation and improving the process appears mostly overlooked by political scientists.

    Keith I am surprised by your comments here, as you’ve often talked about “illocutionary inequality,” “unequal speaking ability,” etc…This is what Tom and the methods he cites is getting at.

    @Jd, the word Constitution is more a mirror than a text. Everyone finds in what supports their particular interests. I would also add that pointing the finger at one party or one class when analyzing an entire system is not only INACCURATE but also SELF-DEFEATING. The use of sortition can be as much a cause for the right as it is for the left. In fact, that may be its only hope of being attempted on a large scale.

  12. Jd,
    Some (perhaps trivial) corrections to your note… The “LOT” part of the word “Ballot” has nothing to do with lottery, but rather the diminutive suffix in Italian for a small ball. It was the Roman use of colored balls for voting yes or no from which the word is derived (never with a name written on it). In Athens the lottery was conducted using flat tabs (of metal and perhaps earlier wooden) with the person’s name and tribe inscribed, which were inserted into slots in a kelroterion (a random selection machine). The term “BALLOT” has nothing to do with lottery.

  13. Sorry for the misunderstanding, I was misled by the terms you used (elected officials, traditional parliamentary procedures etc). If representatiity is not the goal (notwithstanding the term “minipublic”) then I’m relaxed about warm and cuddly procedures. I’m sure such assemblies would offer a valuable service in civic education.

    >Keith I am surprised by your comments here, as you’ve often talked about “illocutionary inequality,” “unequal speaking ability,” etc…This is what Tom and the methods he cites is getting at.

    But if the minipublic were to be a representative legislature then monitors cannot be allowed, as there is no way of ensuring their impartiality. The only way of maintaining statistical representativity is via the Athenian jury methodology, which was anything but warm and fluffy.

    As for the discovery of proposals and other epistemic goals, we put it to Helene when she visited us in Exeter that random selection is not a particularly good methodology — crowdsourcing, epetitions, competitions, knowledge markets etc would work much better.

  14. >The term “BALLOT” has nothing to do with lottery.

    But I believe the OED lists voting and allotment as alternative balloting mechanisms (even though there is no etymological link).

  15. The issue of facilitator / organizer overreach is an important one, and it’s been addressed before on your side of the pond: http://www.speaksoc.org/2011/11/the-jury-is-out/ It was brought to my attention on the Participedia FB group.

    Perhaps a solution could be to choose the facilitator(s) by lottery and give them a manual and/or brief training only. If done in an open, transparent way, it would help insure the integrity of the process.

    As an aside, I really like the idea of separating contributions to a discussion as: problem statement, solution idea, concern, and data. I wonder of there’s a way to automate that in an online forum!

  16. These considerations are, of course, relevant to the internal workings of any deliberative body (I imagine that Plato’s guardians would have needed them as well); but the concept of deliberative democracy shares, at the least, common terminology with political practice, and the distinctive feature of the latter is authority. Political life is a way of living with intrinsic differences and conflict (which is not just the product of a post-lapsarian state, to be ended by abolishing “electoralism”, and other such millenarian fantasies). Losing minorities will always be under an obligation to do things that they would prefer not to do (and not to do things that they would prefer to do) and democratic authority depends on the popular mandate. If we are seeking to abolish the electoral mandate, then the sortive one must be equally (or more) robust. To my mind this means that each deliberative sample (minipublic in the parlance of this post) would need to come to the same conclusion and that presupposes balanced advocacy, with the jury’s role limited to voting. This isn’t very warm and fuzzy, and includes a strong elite element (in the form of the advocacy) but I don’t see how it would be possible to argue that identical decisions by a number of different samples would not be binding, as it makes no difference whether or not I attend and vote in person, the outcome would be the same.

    This may be sub-optimal from an epistemic perspective, but anything less robust would not deliver the binding authority that is at the root of peaceful governance. As Hobbes observed we should leave the warm, fuzzy bits for our private lives, it has nothing to do with public affairs — which is the domain of authority. Decision making by deliberative microcosm is perhaps the only democratic way that we can all authorise the leviathan, but this has to be an extremely robust (repeatable/verifiable) process, given that the vast majority of citizens would not directly participate. If Tom wants to use the term “minipublic” then he is discussing the public domain, not just a deliberative group.

  17. *** Keith is right, the concept of democracy through use of minipublic or minipopulus, linked to the idea of majoritarian decision through a (statistically) representative citizen jury, needs a strong repeatability.
    Not so much because”the vast majority of citizens would not directly participate”, but because it is not possible to accept a high level of randomness in sovereign decisions. But we must accept some degree of randomness, which exist in any political system, including our current one.
    *** There are two kinds of deliberation: face-to-face deliberation and impersonal deliberation. I think both are useful, each one has its strengths and its drawbacks, and it would be better to combine them.
    Keith wants to exclude face-to-face deliberation, at least the institutional one, because the presence in small groups of “natural leaders” would strongly lower the repeatability.
    *** This argument is valid, but is qualitative. We would have to exclude totally institutional face-to-face deliberation only if, in the existing situation, repeatability would be under the chosen limit. This evaluation will be possible only in a working democracy-through-sortition, in a given society with its specific parameters, including different levels of diversity, different social deference etc (some of these parameters could evolve in time in a modern dêmokratia).
    *** Therefore a modern dêmokratia would have to try, and to correct afterwards the system to allow for a reasonable degree of repeatability. Keith seems thinking that in any society in any time that would lead to cancel any institutional face-to-face deliberation. Maybe he is right, maybe he is wrong with such a general thesis.

  18. Andre

    Happy to put the theory to the test. My concern for repeatability is not the epistemic one (randomness) but the problem of consent. Hobbes wasn’t too bothered as to whether the decisions of the sovereign were random, so long as they were duly authorised and enabled all the Civil War swords to be recast as ploughshares. Rousseau’s concerns were fundamentally the same — all citizens should consent to the laws under which they are governed. Although he phrased the issue in terms of freedom (as opposed to prudence), his emphasis on civic education/conformism/religion etc indicates that at heart he was a Hobbist.

    PS on the testability issue, there was a study comparing three identical deliberative polls (same topic, different samples) and, even with the minimal small group face-to-face deliberation permitted by the DP there was significant variation in the results, so I would be surprised if any face-to-face deliberation was compatible with an acceptable level of repeatability. Given that by “acceptability” we mean perceived legitimacy, then it might be better to start with no face-to-face deliberation and then tentatively try it out once the sortition principle was accepted as a valid form of balloting. So I’m not opposed to it in principle, merely sceptical as to whether it would be acceptable in the eyes of the vast majority of citizens who don’t draw the golden ticket.

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