Allowing the people to represent themselves

In Democracy

Our current attempt at representation has problems actually representing the people. The system encourages professional politicians who have a largely common educational background and a view on life that seems to prioritise the success of a political party (in relation to other political parties). The result is inward looking, with a tendency to ignore much of the impact of the policies that are implemented. Under these circumstances there is no clear meaning to a citizen's vote so that even that small involvement has little value. The answer lies firstly, in having the people represent themselves, and secondly in the people discussing issues in order to understand each other.

Bear with me a moment. This is not a free for all with 60 million people trying to make themselves heard on social media, nor is it a structured voting system, where everyone has a vote on every decision that has to be made. Neither of these are in any way practical, partly because either approach would resolve into a small number of people actually running the show, partly because there is no way everyone involved would be able, or even willing, to understand enough of the details, and mostly because it is not possible to have a sensible discussion at that scale. Any kind of representation and discussion requires structure and process in order to work and to show that it is competent and trustworthy. On top of that, the discussion has to happen in some sort of broader context that gives it legitimacy.

Let's start with the creation of a group that is small enough to have a reasonable discussion. To do this we randomly select people who are simply part of the population, but in such a way as to make sure that the selection process results in a group whose demographic parallels the population demographic: male/female; white/coloured; rich/poor; north/south; and all the subtleties that fall between these and other ranges. This is called sortition. The result is a group where some people know economics (or whatever), and some don't, but where everyone can describe exactly what difficulties they are having now and therefore what difficulties the issue under discussion has to address. This is the process used in Citizens Assemblies and we now understand that such groups are perfectly capable of discussing things, listening to each other, listening to evidence, and after it all, coming up with an answer12.

The actual selection process has a number of steps. First, decide what demographic you want to match. This rather depends on what information you legitimately have on people, but that's ok. There will be ways of improving on this as the system matures. You also need to know how many people you need for the assembly, panel or whatever. A larger group will be more representative, but will also be unwieldy in some tasks. Then, using this basic information you go out and invite a large number of people to take part. You can be quite rough with the demographic pattern at this point. Not everyone will accept the invitation, but maybe enough will (you can always go out again). You take this pool of volunteers, perhaps asking them to refine what you know about them in some way, and then select your required group according to your target demographic pattern. And that's it, until the next time.

Once selected, a group is then presented with information, and allowed to ask questions and request additional information, perhaps from different sources. The group will be mentored and moderated to ensure a clear exchange of ideas with minimal bluster and antagonism. The result is a representative conclusion, backed up by clear documentation of process and arguments, and given legitimacy by the constitutional context.

These demographically aligned groups, sometimes called mini-publics (with variations on that theme), have been used as Citizens Assemblies (or Panels or Juries or Conventions) in a number countries3, each examining a specific question, and normally presenting the result back to the government for further consideration. Of course, when a recommendation implies a change in the law the government has to be involved anyway, but there is also the possibility that the government might reject the recommendation. In other words, governments are putting a gloss on their demographic credentials by asking for citizens' views, with the option of ignoring them. The government remains as party biased as it always is. It seems odd that a referendum can carry more 'demographic' weight, even though it only involves voting, without any useful discussion.

I should note here that there is a UK move towards using mini-publics, backed by a number of current Members of Parliament4. The task is to identify what is right or wrong about the current system, and to come up with appropriate changes. It will be interesting to see what happens if they come to the conclusion that the current system is broken and the current power structure needs to be replaced. However, they are due to take another 2 years to do the job, so I'm going to carry on here.

  1. For a good outline of the background to sortition and a review of the evidence for the success of the process see David van Reybrouck, 2013, Against Elections, Bodley Head, ISBN 978-818-4792422-3. 

  2. Current discussion and activism for sortition can be seen on The Kleroterians, the Sortitionist, the Sortition Foundation, the Constitution Society, What Works Scotland 

  3. Claudia Chwalisz, 2017, The People's Verdict, Rowman & Littlefield International, ISBN 978-1-78660-437-8: covers examples from the UK, Canada and Australia. van Reybrouck lists examples from the Netherlands, and we can also point to the Republic of Ireland 

  4. Citizens Convention on UK Democracy