Voice of the People

Voice of the People describes itself so:

Voice Of the People (VOP) is a new non-partisan organization that seeks to re-anchor our democracy in its founding principles by giving ‘We the People’ a greater role in government. VOP furthers the use of innovative methods and technology to give the American people a more effective voice in the policymaking process.

VOP is working to urge Congress to take these new methods to scale so that Members of Congress have a large, scientifically-selected, representative sample of their constituents—called a Citizen Cabinet—to be consulted on current issues and providing a voice that accurately reflects the values and priorities of their district or state. VOP ultimately seeks to create a large standing national Citizen Cabinet of over 100,000 Americans, all connected by the Internet, with a representative sample in every state and district, that will be operated by a congressionally-chartered National Academy for Public Consultation. In the near term, with funds from foundations and individual donors, VOP is establishing interim Citizen Cabinets in several states and districts.

It is headed by Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation (whose study about the public’s budgeting priorities was discussed here in the past), and Richard Parsons. Its advisory board is made of former elected officials and of academics.

Voice of the People note that in the US confidence in the government is extremely low. The way they present the issue is laced with the usual forumlas of elite discourse: gridlock, partisan polarization and rather vague talk about “special interests”.

They continue:

‘We the People’ Need a Greater Voice in Government

Americans believe, as did the Founders, that the common sense of the people can help break through the polarization and gridlock, find common ground, and help government better serve the common good, not the special interests.

Research shows they’re right. The American people are less polarized than Congress and more apt to find common ground. When given correct information, the public as a whole shows remarkable intelligence. And most people think about the common good, not just what’s in their own interest.

Clearly, hearing from the people would help Congress make better decisions, but the current systems we use for giving the people a voice are just not adequate:

  • Telephone calls, emails and letters to Congress are not reliable indicators of actual public opinion. Too often these inputs are generated by organized interests, or extreme voices that are not truly representative.
  • Standard polls are often based on off-the-cuff responses or misinformation.
  • Most citizens don’t have a way to effectively engage on the issues. Lots of information is available to the public, but much of it is raw, overly complex, or biased. There’s no honest broker the people can turn to for clarifying options, tradeoffs, and competing arguments on the policy issues Congress considers.

The Solution page gives some more details about the proposals:

How the Citizen Cabinets Will Work

The national Citizen Cabinet will consist of a base national sample of at least 800 citizens, plus state Citizen Cabinets of at least 400 citizens and district Citizen Cabinets of at least 275—a total of several thousand in the early stages, rising to 120,000 when it is fully built out. These citizens will be scientifically selected to be representative of each jurisdiction and will be connected through an online interface. Each Citizen Cabinet member will serve for 9-12 months, and Internet access will be provided to those who do not already have it.

On a regular basis, members of the Citizen Cabinet will go through an online public consultation exercise – called a ‘policymaking simulation’ because it simulates the process elected officials go through — on a pressing issue facing the federal government. For each issue, Citizen Cabinet members will:

  • Get unbiased background information reviewed by experts and congressional staff from both parties
  • Hear competing policy options that are actually on the table and evaluate the strongest pros and cons arguments
  • Choose from a menu of policy options or go through an in-depth prioritization process that requires making trade-offs, such as creating a budget

Finally, the Citizen Cabinets’ recommendations will be reported to their corresponding Members of Congress, the President, the news media and the public.

All of the materials presented to the Citizen Cabinets—the briefing, competing arguments, and policy options—will be vetted by a bipartisan group of experts and available online for anyone to see. To provide more in-depth input from the public, in-person assemblies with discussion groups also will be conducted, to supplement the online consultation process.

How Congress Will Benefit from Citizen Cabinets

The Citizen Cabinet will:

  • Give Members of Congress a more accurate understanding of their constituents’ views, rather than relying on the unreliable impressions they get from letters and phone calls
  • Provide public input that is directly focused on the actual policy choices Members of Congress are facing and help counter misinformation
  • Help Congress move through polarization and gridlock by giving voice to a public that is not as polarized as the forces that drive our current political climate
  • Provide Members of Congress with reinforcement for making tough choices–allowing them to counter pressures and do what they believe is right
  • Help restore confidence in government by creating a highly visible forum in which government leaders are demonstrably listening to the people, setting a new model and tone for the relationship between the people and their government.

The website offers policymaking simulations – an interesting glimpse into the participation process proposed by Voice of the People.

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15 Responses

  1. How is its power going to supersede that of the lobbyist? Would a more practical and less complicated method be to have tax payers designate 80% of their taxes to the agencies they want to be funded?

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  2. Hi Rod,

    I also find the proposal unwieldy and unconvincing.

    However, it does make an (unconvincing) attempt to create representative power, which is a crucial component and which your proposal lacks. How would a citizen make informed budgeting decisions? Such decisions will necessarily be based on prejudice and slogans rather than on rational considerations. Moreover, even if citizens’ decisions were informed, budgeting at the agency level is a very blunt a tool and cannot be expected to influence government action effectively.

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  3. You have a good argument. I think that congressional stalemates and influences by lobbyists would be minimized if for instance the majority of tax payers decided to use the taxes they pay into the government for infrastructure, parks, and domestic programs instead of wars and the military. Eisenhower stated, “beware of the military/industrial complex”. How else are you going to find power to persuade congress to reduce military budgets?

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  4. > How else are you going to find power to persuade congress to reduce military budgets?

    For this particular problem, maybe a blunt tool like the one you suggest or a referendum of some sort would do. But I think it is better to seek a systemic democratizing solution rather than focus on specific problems that are mere symptoms of the oligarchical nature of the elections-based system.

    Sortition provides a democratic alternative to the current system. Selecting Congress as a statistical sample of the population rather than using elections (this is the Callenbach and Phillips proposal) can be expected to produce not only the reduction in the military military budget that you are aiming at, but also many other policy changes that would reflect popular values and public interest.

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  5. Of course I am all for sortition but sortition needs a base that agrees on how it should be implemented so I see it as the long term solution. But in the mean time, more simpler methods can pave the way for sortition. I think that a constitutional amendment to state that taxpayers will decide the budget through payment of their taxes is far out but reachable in the near future.

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  6. Well, I don’t think that such an amendment is feasible in the near term. It would be a long struggle which would necessarily absorb considerable political energy. I think we should focus our energy on promoting the long-term goal – sortition – rather than getting distracted by fixes for specific symptoms. (At least that’s what I am trying to do – different strokes for different folks.)

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  7. Even when we get the system of sortition implemented, it won’t necessarily solve the budget problem. Maybe taxpayer made budgets should be incorporated into the program of getting sortition implemented, maybe getting additional support for change. .Could we develop a package that would have elements of vital interests to many people in order to get sortition accepted? I wish the people who want sortition would agree on how sortition would work. Philosophy and new ideas have to be marketed.

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  8. >Selecting Congress as a statistical sample of the population rather than using elections (this is the Callenbach and Phillips proposal) can be expected to produce not only the reduction in the military budget, but also many other policy changes that would reflect popular values and public interest.

    That’s a strong claim. I’m not aware of any evidence showing a link between demokratia and anti-militarism, of any of the other values espoused by “liberals”.

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  9. Rod,

    I am all in favor of marketing sortition, but I am not sure having detailed programs is very useful at this point. I think we should market the very idea of replacing elections with sortition and having a simple and solid proposal like the C&P proposal is what we need at this point.

    I also think that packaging sortition with other reforms can be a distraction. We can find ourselves disagreeing on various items in the package (as you and I apparently are regarding your proposal about tax allocation).

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  10. Regarding public support for reducing the military budget, see the link above to the post discussing, among other things, the Program for Public Consultation’s study about people’s budget choices. An average of over $100 billion reduction to the military budget was proposed.

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  11. Setting aside its advisory nature, a significant issue that remains with this proposal is that –explicitly– gives the two biggest parties complete control of the agenda. Nevertheless, it’s always heartening to see increasing calls for popular participation beyond elections.

    On a different note, @Yoram, should sortinistas care about what particular policies would be supported by a popular minipublic if the goal is more democratic control rather than favoring a particular issue? I confess, the distinction is not always easy to maintain.

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  12. >should sortinistas care about what particular policies would be supported by a popular minipublic if the goal is more democratic control rather than favoring a particular issue?

    That was the problem with Martin Davis’s sortition proposal — it was just a Trojan Horse to smuggle through his pet project for monetary reform. I think sortinistas (at least those of a “liberal” disposition) might well get a shock when they see what policies are actually supported.

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  13. Ahmed,

    > should sortinistas care about what particular policies would be supported by a popular minipublic if the goal is more democratic control rather than favoring a particular issue?

    I am not expecting that in a democratic system I would be completely pleased with policy. I am expecting that most people would be pleased with the way the system works and with much of the resulting policy.

    I am also expecting that if I find myself in the minority on a particular issue it would be clear to me that the way to change policy is to change people’s opinion on the matter. Currently the way to influence policy is to gain influence among the elite.

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  14. Yoram, if your example was to show how the current arrangement allows elected officials to ignore public opinion, then it works quite well as an illustration.

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  15. In my mind the situation regarding the salaries of the elected is an even clearer illustration of the ineffectiveness of “electoral accountability”.

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