Organising Ourselves

This month, in my home state, New South Wales, urban planning legislation is being considered in Parliament. It is ‘..a modern and easy planning system for the 21st century that puts the community first.’

I’m no politician, nor an academic studying political science; I’m an architect working in a family infrastructure business and I’m intrigued to learn how we might do community better. Cities (and communities more generally) are like living organisms, and how we organise ourselves – for ourselves – is democracy.

‘Whatever else it produces, an organization manufactures judgements and decisions’ says Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, author of the best seller: ‘Thinking, fast and slow’. Good organizations manufacture good judgements. In business, as in life more generally, outcomes are invariably better when the exploration and refinement of options are positively encouraged. However, contemporary democracy is the exception. Options cannot be explored openly as party politics demands adversarial positioning.

There are many elements that make up a functioning democracy: freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, enforcement of the law etc. As the Ancient Greeks originally proposed, the critical element above all was the Council: representative parliament. Not before, or since, has a parliament been so radically conceived: the Council was not comprised of popularly elected members: the Greeks had representative sortition, which is the ‘jury’ by another name. Any male Athenian, rich or poor, could be selected, at random, for parliament.

When the American Founding Fathers wrote their Declaration of Independence, they struggled with the concept and practical application of Athenian democracy. In fact the Americans rejected the very word ‘democracy’. The first congresses were populated by rich white men: a ‘natural aristocracy’ as Jefferson deemed them.

If democracy is principally about the dynamic between the rulers and the ruled, then it reflects in where the economic interests lie. Much of the success of modern America, for example, is due to its broad distribution of income, which, to the continuing surprise of many, has generally been achieved in a competitive capitalist framework.

John Kay, the UK economist, believes healthy markets depend on healthy democracies. ‘If the essence of markets is their pluralist character, then there’s an association between a successful market economy and …democratic institutions.’

Kay believes that one of the greatest threats to a healthy market is that of oligarchies -plutocrat businesses, rich and powerful business interests -obtaining favourable concessions from government. But oligarchic interests are not the only threat to a healthy society. Social cohesion is, arguably, the most sought after goal of democracy. 

Over the last thirty years, since the beginning of the 80’s, American’s incomes have gone virtually nowhere. The bottom 90% have seen their real incomes stagnate. Whereas the top 1% have seen their incomes double. And the statistics for the bottom 20% are even more alarming.

In these conditions, people become increasingly exasperated and young people, in particular, think that what’s on offer, politically, is not that helpful. In today’s media driven political world, people have little opportunity to apply critical judgement. Two candidates on different sides of an issue, each attacking the idiotic ideas of the adversary, makes for a compelling spectacle. The twitter feeds and the blogosphere add to the theatre.

Together with some research colleagues, we have been investigating better models of government: models that are more representative, more deliberative and more effective. We call ourselves The newDemocracy Foundation. We’re especially interested in working with government to demonstrate that alternative models are practicable. We’ve done several projects over the last 4 to 5 years.

All these projects rely on the same process: the deliberations of a citizens’ jury. The jury members are selected at random. In the case of a State Energy Inquiry, 8000 randomly selected citizens were invited to participate. From those who responded, eventually 54 were selected, at random again, to obtain a mini-public: a representative group in terms of age and gender.

The jury met for over 50 hours over a ten week period. The jury also had its own online forum where the participants engaged in discussions and could download relevant information such as submissions and hearings.

At the end of the process, the Research Paper found that the jury had added value to the final Parliamentary report because it provided a nuanced picture of community attitudes on energy issues. The Jury has less political baggage; less need to point score amongst its members and is more open to various propositions put to it by the experts or others.

James Spigelman AC, the recently retired Chief Justice of NSW, has this to say about the jury model:

‘We have become accustomed over recent centuries to representatives being chosen by election. However, selection by lot is, notwithstanding what appears to be an element of chance, a fundamentally rational process, with a long and honourable tradition.

‘The jury is a profoundly democratic and egalitarian institution. Selection by lot has two distinct advantages. First, it operates on the principle that all persons to be selected are fundamentally equal and that, in the relevant circumstances, it is invidious to say that one person is more qualified than another. Secondly, selection by lot prevents corruption of the system.’

Over my working life, management techniques have evolved for the better. Old autocratic and hierarchical structures have largely been replaced by collaborative frameworks. In private and public administration, cross fertilisation and inter disciplinary activities are not just regarded as a ‘feel good’ but an absolute necessity. Everything is up for comparison and improvement. Everything except our modern democracy, which continues to underperfom, limping along like some sort of ‘B grade’ high school debating society. Modern democracies feature charismatic and articulate media performers who, try as they may, struggle to build public trust, as an opposition is designed to undermine their every turn. Candidates are focussed on winning and retaining office at virtually any cost, even at the cost of good government. In politics, what is usually portrayed as considered judgement, is too often populist spin for the daily news feed. Collaboration is frustrated from the outset. But it’s not the fault of the politicians or the parties. It’s systemic.

At newDemocracy we believe there are better models of political dialogue – alternatives that promote consensus rather than oppositional standoffs. All these models share one common attribute: they rely on random selection to achieve representation. Imagine, as an alternative, for example, the following model: a Citizens’ Senate. It’s comprised of randomly selected citizens deliberating on legislation proposed by a normally elected Lower House. It’s a proposal from Professor Alex Zacaras at the University of Vermont in the USA. Imagine being asked to be a Citizen Senator – consider it as a National Service – rotated in and out every two to three years.

There is much that is radical about such a proposal: not least that the Citizens’ Senate –the Jury – confounds the traditional conceit of expert advice and leadership. Our education holds that only those with expert knowledge and experience can solve for the relevant technical problem. This is true, for those problems that don’t involve public trade-offs. For example, if the problem is just a question of how to build a tunnel, then let’s ask a qualified engineer. But if the question, on the other hand, is one of whether a road or a rail line is preferred, or indeed how much of either, then the problem goes beyond the purely technical.

At the Foundation, we think the Jury is a better model of representative government. For, by and of the people has never resonated better than in a jury. Deliberation and consensus are more readily promoted by bringing a diversity of people together – a group who are truly representative.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis 


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