Empowering Public Wisdom: Chapter 5

The following is the fifth installment of Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politics, available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. You can visit the Empowering Public Wisdom homepage here

CHAPTER 5: Citizenship and the Random Selection of Ad Hoc Mini-Publics

Two of the main obstacles to the effectiveness and wisdom of our democracy are (a) the time demands of responsible citizenship and (b) the side effects of power, especially corruption. These factors block our capacity to address our public issues well, and they frustrate efforts to elect better lawmakers and to get more people involved in public affairs. This is obviously a dangerous combination.

Ordinary people simply don’t have time to get informed on all the issues. So they delegate their decision-making power to politicians. Most politicians, by the nature of their jobs, tend to have big egos, big ambitions, and big bank accounts (or at least the ability to please rich and powerful supporters). These qualities lend themselves to conflicts of interest and corruption as our politician travels his or her path to power, and especially when he or she has finally achieved that power and wants to use it and hold on to it. Rare is the politician who doesn’t want to be reelected—and reelection usually requires a significant amount of money and some compromise of integrity. From early on, politicians are surrounded by powerful special interests that gravitate to centers of concentrated power, bringing a lot of money, persuasion, and demands with them. It is hard to ignore them when your political career is at stake.

Even when a politician’s integrity remains mostly intact, he or she may soon become habituated to the privileges, obeisance, assumptions, and fellowship that go along with power and the elite culture in which he or she has become embedded. Furthermore, the intensely competitive atmosphere of business-as-usual politics—with its ongoing strategic pressures and often ruthless attacks by opponents, the press, and adversarial interests—cannot help but have an impact.

All this does not add up to an environment that supports integrity, authenticity, openness, and—unfortunately—wisdom. Also unfortunately, these phenomena get more intense the higher one goes in the political system, as social power becomes more concentrated and the stakes get higher.

Two strategies can help disrupt these dynamics: random selection and limited time in office. If decision-makers are randomly selected and therefore unpredictable, neither they nor special interests can prepare to manipulate their power for personal or partisan gain. The lobbyists don’t know ahead of time whom to lobby. And then, when decision-makers are in power, their brevity in office (which is sometimes institutionalized as “term limits” or enforced by a “recall” process) gives less time for them to be lobbied and for the competitive pressures of politics and the dynamics of elite culture to erode their personalities and principles. 

Putting these two strategies together creates a new possibility for all citizens in a democracy. They can delegate some their decision-making power to temporary panels of randomly selected ordinary citizens. As noted earlier, such ad hoc panels are not imaginary; they have been convened and tested many times. They are like trial juries, but they deal with public issues and policies instead of crimes and personal injuries. They can be plugged into the existing political system in various ways (which are covered in the next chapter), or they can—and nowadays usually do— operate outside of that system.

In addition to being more resistant to corruption, such panels constitute microcosms of the citizenry—what pollsters call mini-publics. Individually, panel members are more like their fellow citizens than politicians are. In fact, they are ordinary citizens. And together—because of the way they are chosen—they embody the diversity, values, and life experience of the whole community from which they were selected. Note how different this is both from elected politicians and from participatory approaches that are based on whoever shows up.

Used in this way—to create a microcosm of a community— random selection helps keep democratic processes fair and vibrant. Every citizen has an equal chance of being selected, and being selected is a great honor and responsibility shared by all.

Random selection is not a wild new idea. It has a long and interesting history. Roughly 2,500 years ago, Athens’s democracy was run with a mix of direct democracy (all the citizens voting on everything in a big assembly) and random selection (they drew lots to fill 90 percent of the official positions in government). They used elections only to choose their top generals and to fill Athens’s top financial positions. They considered random selection fundamental to democracy—a sacred embodiment of fairness and citizen responsibility for the welfare of the whole community.

Most significant for our purposes here, Athens innovated a form of randomly selected mini-public responsible for recommending public policy. Their boule contained five hundred members chosen by lot from the whole body of citizens over thirty years of age. These members served one-year terms. Among other important duties—including qualifying and reviewing officeholders—they reviewed and prepared measures for the vote of the citizenry in the assembly.

In the past forty years people around the world have been experimenting with new forms of mini-publics containing from only twelve up to two hundred randomly selected citizens for facilitated deliberations lasting from several days to several weeks spread over several months. Hundreds of these kinds of ad hoc mini-publics have been convened, but few have been set up to have an institutionalized impact on policy. Yet their very existence creates a new, deeper form of citizenship than we’re used to, and a new, more inclusive public voice in the political discourse.

With time and support, the ordinary folks chosen for mini-publics perform a near-ideal act of citizenship: They learn about an issue in depth from all sides. They discuss it  with folks who think differently than they do. And in those conversations with their fellow citizens and with experts and stakeholders, they come to informed, thoughtful conclusions about what should be done about the issue. They become not only lay experts on the issue but an informed, deliberative microcosm of the whole public. They speak with a certain legitimate authority about what the citizenry would want if everyone could and would engage in a comparably sophisticated act of collective citizenship. As with trial juries, they speak with the voice of the whole—both symbolically and, if they are convened properly, actually.

Speaking personally, I am one of the millions of citizens who just can’t keep track of the hundreds of issues and proposals. I am tired of the political spin and partisan battles that confuse me about what’s really going on and what’s really at stake. I often yearn for groups like these citizen mini-publics to advise me on all the issues I read about and vote on. I long for them to have a powerful role in our society’s official decision making. I imagine what it would be like to have this informed, thoughtful voice of the people present in all our public discourse, speaking not just to citizens like me but powerfully to politicians, pundits, corporations, and public officials.

How different it would be to have members of such a panel, when they have completed their work, appear on talk shows to discuss what they came up with and what it was like to learn about the issue, talk with each other, and act! How risky it would be for a talk show host to be a jerk with them. They wouldn’t be like other guests. The talk show host would be in conversation with We the People— and in a democracy, you don’t mess with an authentic, powerful We the People!

Of course, such an implicitly powerful institution, even if randomly selected and temporary, requires thoughtful design and procedure to help it be wise and sustainable. It shouldn’t be too large or too small—or deliberate for too long or too short a time. Like a trial jury, it needs legal and procedural safeguards to protect it from manipulation. It needs dependable information—and help understanding that information. It needs good facilitation, and we need to ensure that the facilitation can’t be abused. (Juries handle the issue of abuse by having no trained facilitators at all. While this reduces the chance of external abuse and manipulation through the facilitator’s power, it also increases the likelihood of internal abuse, manipulation, and polarization among the participants themselves and reduces the chance that real wisdom will emerge. Think about the bullet points in the previous chapter on generating wisdom and imagine how little of that would happen in most groups of ordinary people talking together without guidance. It seems to me that we need to use expert facilitation.) In addition to those challenges, most existing forms of citizen deliberative councils are expensive—at least for grassroots community groups and cash-strapped local governments—ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. So we need to develop less expensive versions that can still generate legitimate public wisdom.

These limitations, cautions, and challenges are no reason to not promote public wisdom processes with all the energy we’ve got. They are design issues. We need to design these councils well in the first place. Then, as they are institutionalized and become more powerful, they join the list of democratic institutions—like elections and freedoms— that we need to protect. Public wisdom, like liberty, requires both good systemic design and constant vigilance.

This is probably a good point to highlight what a different vision of democracy this is. To most people democracy involves thousands or millions of citizens discussing, advocating, and voting on public issues. Nowadays when these citizens act together, they almost always act in partisan associations—political parties, advocacy groups, and so on—to elect candidates or push for public policies they favor. The latest trends in revitalizing democracy focus on mass participation—getting as many people as possible to do these things—to talk, to vote, to volunteer, to protest— the more the merrier. Mass public conversations, voter registration drives, online citizen input websites, voter information websites, and other approaches seek to involve more and more individual citizens in informed civic activity.

This is all very important work. But notice how different it is from a focus on (a) public wisdom and (b) generating and empowering a legitimate, inclusive, informed, and coherent voice of the whole people that can articulate that wisdom and push it into public policy. As odd as it may seem, public wisdom doesn’t depend on mass public participation. It depends on engaging just enough people to adequately embody the diversity of the population, and then giving them support to generate wise understandings and recommendations about what the rest of us and our representatives should do about the issues we face.

In a sense, such mini-public deliberations are a scaling up of a practice even older than the Athenian boule—the ancient tribal practice of sitting around a “council fire” considering issues of consequence facing the tribe. As my colleague Rosa Zubizaretta has said, “Our indigenous ancestors knew that to meet in a circle is sacred, whether we are doing so to communicate with other dimensions of time, space, and being, or whether we are doing so for the equally numinous purpose of communicating with on another, talking and listening, witnessing and presencing, until there is ‘nothing left but the obvious truth.’” Sitting in council is a deep-rooted part of our social DNA. But how do we do this sacred duty with millions of people— millions of diverse people with different beliefs, cultures, and interests?

Unfortunately, involving millions of people in any particular deliberative activity reduces the likelihood that a wise, inclusive, coherent, and legitimate voice of the people will emerge from it—unless the activity includes citizen deliberative councils. Ideally, the wisdom generated by such well-supported mini-publics would inform the citizenship, conversations, and activism of the rest of us, thereby helping us to be collectively wise in the directions we take our society and world.

Creating the capacity for public wisdom in twenty-firstcentury America is no greater a challenge than that faced by our country’s original Founders. But this is our task, our calling. We are the revolutionary founders of this new democracy—a democracy that will have an impact at least as great, and probably greater, than the impact their revolution had on the world almost 250 years ago.