Mitchell: Democracy has failed! We are being called in like relief firemen, like the Home Guard. Where will it stop?

Victoria Coren Mitchell writes about Ed Miliband’s proposal of having citizens ask the Prime Minister questions every week:

It’s Ed Miliband who is promising that, under his leadership, we would be allowed to go into the House of Commons and ask things. His wheeze is for prime minister’s questions to be extended, every Wednesday, to people who will be allowed to stand up and put whatever questions they like to the leader of the country, on behalf of the rest of us. I love this plan, save only my small confusion that this is what prime minister’s questions ALREADY IS.

I mean, tell me if I’ve missed the concept of our entire democracy; I speak as someone who could only manage grade C in GCSE chemistry (“Draw a picture of a test tube”, “A what?”); but I understood members of parliament to be people who go to Westminster and speak on behalf of the rest of us – specifically, when it comes to prime minister’s questions, in the form of putting questions to the prime minister.

It’s lovely to see politicians come out with clear ideas and policy, but Ed Miliband’s idea here is so massive that it is rather terrifying. Its implication is that our whole system has broken down. If “members of the public” are needed to go in on Wednesdays and ask questions on behalf of the nation, that can only mean members of parliament are not currently doing it. In which case, the entire constituency principle has fallen apart. Democracy has failed! We are being called in like relief firemen, like the Home Guard. Where will it stop? Will I get a phone call saying that, henceforward, I am to be home secretary every other Monday? Will you have to do the budget?

We all know that Westminster’s makeup is not precisely representative: it’s almost entirely white, overwhelmingly male, and filled increasingly with people who have spent their entire lives in politics. But I thought we were still, broadly, trusting them to operate on behalf of their constituencies and ask the questions that we would ourselves.

Should we talk about “mini-publics” instead of sortition?

I’ve had many conversations with people about sortition over the last several years, and I’ve never been happy with the term “sortition.” However, I’ve never found a satisfactory alternative. I suspect other people on this blog have also struggled with this problem.

I know of four terms, in English, to describe the selection process we’re talking about. Here are the problems I’ve encountered with each one:

Sortition – doesn’t have an immediate association with anything that people know about (for example, it’s not clearly related to the verb “to sort,” or to the noun “sort”). Also, it sounds like the word “sordid.”

Random selection – the people I’ve talked to intuitively dislike the idea of “random” anything (except random sampling in statistics) – let alone anything “random” connected to democracy (although, ironically, they do like random selection of jurors).

Selection by lot – sounds archaic, even Biblical.

Lottery (and related terms like Alex Guerrero’s “lottocracy”) – has negative connotations because it’s associated with gambling, and (in the United States) with educational lotteries (a few lucky families win, most lose).

What would be a better alternative? At the moment, I think it would be helpful to talk about “mini-publics.”
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Citizens assembly: Neither fair nor effective

Zool Suleman writes in the Vancouver Sun:

In her opinion article Creating a better community plan, Rachel Magnusson extols the virtues of a citizens assembly that is in the process of recruiting participation by residents of Vancouver’s East Vancouver neighbourhood known as Grandview-Woodland, anchored by Commercial Drive.

Authorized by Vancouver city council, this assembly is in response to a community urban plan process that raised howls of protest in 2013 when, after months of supposed listening, residents heard that multiple towers were to be raised in their neighbourhood, some as high as 32 stories.

With the citizens assembly, Vancouver city council is again embarked on a road heavy on process and light on listening. Magnusson and her fellow consultants, who are being paid $150,000 or more out of a total civic allotment of $275,000, are very enamoured by their credentials. Potent terms such as democracy, insight and community are rhetorically utilized to instil trust in the process. Trust is the main issue. Trust between the city’s planning department and the citizens of Grandview-Woodland is sorely lacking.

Our Community Our Plan, a citizens group based in the neighbourhood, has tried repeatedly to advise Magnusson, members of the planning department and city council of the pitfalls in this process, but to no avail, so in this space let us try again.
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Public integrity reform Texas 2015

At present Texas vests authority for prosecuting cases of official misconduct in the district attorney of one county, now Travis County, which contains the capital city of Austin, and until recently, the additional work was funded by an appropriation by the State Legislature. This is done because the Texas Constitution vests authority for criminal prosecutions in local county and district attorneys. Neither the State Attorney General nor any state-level official has such authority.

Two controversial prosecutions by the Public Integrity Unit in predominantly Democratic Travis County were clearly political and have led to calls for reform. the first was prosecution of U.S. Rep. Tom Delay, essentially for laundering campaign contributions through the National Republic Party. He was convicted in Travis County but the verdict was reversed on appeal. However, it ended his career in the U.S. Congress.

The second case arose after the Travis County District Attorney was arrested, and later convicted, for DWI, and was video recorded acting very badly, trying to throw her weight around. Governor Rick Perry demanded she resign, or else he would veto the next appropriation for the Unit. She refused, and he did. But Travis County kept the Unit going at reduced strength using County funds. It then hired a special prosecutor who obtained an indictment against Perry for making a felonious threat to a public official in threatening to exercise his veto power. As this is being written, that case is still in the Travis County District Court.

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Democratic experimentation meets democratic education in Cochabamba, Bolivia: a case study

Founded in 2013, Democracy In Practice is a non-profit organization dedicated to democratic innovation, experimentation and capacity-building in an effort to contribute to government that is more inclusive, representative, and effective.

We present a case study which collectively examines the three pilot projects of Democracy In Practice’s student government program which ran February through November of 2014 in three schools in the Cochabamba area of Bolivia. This program involved replacing student elections with lotteries in which government members were randomly-selected to serve a given term before being replaced by a new group of randomly-selected students.

Program Overview

Implemented in three separate schools in the Cochabamba of Bolivia, the Democratic Student Government Program involved a dynamic and multi-faceted reinvention of student government. Most fundamentally, this reinvention involved replacing elected student governments with those that were randomly selected and rotated from within the student population. These governments of rotated, randomly selected students therefore operated continuously as standing decision-making bodies within the schools. Accordingly, the implementation of this program involved not only clear institutional change but also complex normative change, challenging conventional notions of governance as well as the regular practices and routines of both students and teachers. In this way, the projects explored here differ from other participatory governance initiatives that are typically temporary and limited to a particular issue.

Sortition and the need for Internal Deliberation

What should randomly selected citizens actually do when they are deliberating? Should the deliberation occur in their heads or should it be talk-based? This internal-versus-external deliberation question is core to any discussion of the legitimacy of decisions reached by randomly selected citizens. In the attached paper, presented at a conference in Dublin last Friday, we suggest, to put it bluntly, that talking is bad and imagining is good. We further suggest, and operationalise, distinct ways of facilitating imagined deliberation and present tentative experimental findings as to their relative effectiveness. This draft paper is very much a work in progress but we would welcome any thoughts (including robust disagreement).

Imaginative Randomocracy: A General Model of Citizen Decision Making Applied to Northern Ireland (and the UK)

Sortition and Legitimate Coercion

In an address called “What is Political Science For?” at the 2013 American Political Science Association’s Annual Meeting, APSA President Jane Mansbridge mentioned sortition as one of the new areas being studied for grounding legitimacy. She referenced Fishkin & Ober in her footnote to the statement. The thrust of her talk is that political scientists (democratic theorists especially) should turn their focus away from preventing tyranny and towards creating “legitimate coercion” because the world is facing rather formidable collective action problems that cannot be solved otherwise. Together with Waldron’s “Political Political Theory” article it leads me to believe that there is some movement in the field towards the questions that we often discuss here on Equality by Lot. Below are some excerpts from the full article found here.

This address advances three ideas. First, political science as a discipline has a mandate to help human beings govern themselves. Second, within this mandate we should be focusing, more than we do now, on creating legitimate coercion. In a world of increasing interdependence we now face an almost infinite number of collective action problems created when something we need or want involves a “free-access good.” We need coercion to solve these collective action problems. The best coercion is normatively legitimate coercion. Democratic theory, however, has focused more on preventing tyranny than on how to legitimate coercion. Finally, our discipline has neglected an important source of legitimate coercion: negotiation to agreement. Recognizing the central role of negotiation in politics would shed a different light on our relatively unexamined democratic commitments to transparency in process and contested elections. This analysis is overall both descriptive and aspirational, arguing that helping human beings to govern themselves has been in the DNA of our profession since its inception.

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