10 Most Read Posts in 2013

Below is a selection of the 10 most read posts at DemocracySpot in 2013. Thanks to all of those who stopped by throughout the year, and happy 2014.

1. Does transparency lead to trust? Some evidence on the subject.

2. The Foundations of Motivation for Citizen Engagement

3. Open Government, Feedback Loops, and Semantic Extravaganza

4. Open Government and Democracy

5. What’s Wrong with e-Petitions and How to Fix them

6. Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation

7. Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

8. The Effect of SMS on Participation: Evidence from Uganda

9. The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability

10. Lisbon Revisited: Notes on Participation

Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation

 

When designing citizen engagement mechanisms I always consider sortition (or randomization) as a mechanism of participant selection. Nevertheless, and particularly in the #opengov space, my experience is that this idea does not resonate a lot: it sounds less sexy than crowdsourcing and more complicated than over-simplistic mechanisms of “civil society engagement”.

This is why it is always great to see someone like Lawrence Lessig putting forward a system of  “Citizen Conventions” for proposing amendments to the Constitution based upon sortition. In this video below, at a hearing at the U.S. Senate’s Commission of Justice, Lessig explains in a few seconds how such a system would work:

With his unique eloquence, Lessig also makes the best case for ordinary citizens to engage with the Constitution and reforms:

I think to the surprise of many people, you would see that ordinary people deliberating about what the Constitution needs and how the reforms should go forward, would far surpass ninety eight percent of what is commonly discussed in this particular context. And that’s because, frankly, politics is the one sport where the amateur is better for the nation than the professional.

Lessig’s remark on the amateur’s role in politics reminds me of something I read a while ago from the apologue of Protagoras. When charged with taking to humans the art of politics, Mercury asks Jupiter whether it should be distributed like the other arts, to the competent ones only. Jupiter replies that the art of politics should be distributed to all. Otherwise, says Jupiter, the city would not exist.

Democracy by Sortition, Government by Lot

Personally, I am a strong sympathiser of democracy by sortition.

Historically, the main references to government by sortition refer to Classical Athens and the Florentine Republic in the Early Renaissance.

View of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Picture by jrgcastro on flickr.

For those interested in the Florentine experience, in general less known to the public, here’s a great draft paper [pdf] by Yves Sintomer that he presented during a meeting we had a couple of years ago at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio. In the paper, among other things, Yves describes the experience of the Florentine Republic and contrasts it with recent democratic innovations based on random selection. As to these recent experiments, alongside citizens’ juries,  probably one of the most studied experiments with sortition in recent history refers to British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

At a time when citizen participation is considered – at least in theory – an important part of the open government movement, those working in this sphere should pay particular attention to different methods of participant selection (e.g. self-selection, randomized) and what the prospects and limits for each of these different methods are.

An awesome read on this subject is the book Democratic Innovations by Graham Smith. Among other things, Graham looks at the impact that different  institutional designs (and methods of selection) have on the inclusiveness of participatory experiences.

If you are interested in sortition, a good resource to follow is the Equality by Log blog. In the blog I just came across an interesting presentation [PDF] by Yoram Gat on the subject of sortition compared to traditional (i.e. representative) democratic institutions.

Maybe after some of these readings you may become a sympathiser of government by lot as well.

Democracy, Redistribution and Equality

Via ABCDemocracy I came across this great article in the Brazilian Political Science Review by Adam Przeworski, one of the most important political scientists in the field of democracy and political economy. Here is the abstract of Przeworski’s paper Democracy, Redistribution and Equality: 

The article argues that economic inequality inevitably generates political inequality, which in turn reproduces economic inequality. Basic concepts are introduced first along with strong caveats concerning the quality of the cross- national data on income distributions; historical patterns of income inequality are summarized next, and with these preliminaries, a distinction is made between redistribution of consumption at a particular time and equalization of income earning capacities over time. Following this economic considerations, the article discussion moves to political factors that may block redistributions.

And for those working in the field of open government, money and politics; here are some interesting thoughts:

The impact of money on politics cannot be reduced to “corruption.” True, corruption scandals abound: suitcases filled in cash are found in the prime minister’s office, government contracts are awarded to firms co-owned by government ministers, public officials exit politics to cushy jobs in private companies they favored, insider trades are rampant, political parties are found to have bank accounts in Switzerland, local governments operate systematic bribe schedules on contractors, the list goes on and on. Moreover, such scandals are by no means limited to less developed countries or to young democracies: these examples are drawn from Germany, Spain, France, Italy, United States, and Belgium. But reducing the political role of money to instances of “corruption” is deeply misleading. Conceptualized as “corruption,” the influence of money becomes something anomalous, out-of-ordinary. We are told that when special interests bribe legislators or bureaucrats, democracy is corrupted. And then nothing needs to be said when special interests make legal political contributions. In order to exist and to participate in elections, political parties need money. Because election results matter for the private interests, they understandably seek to befriend parties and influence results of elections. The logic of political competition is inexorable. That the same acts are legal in some countries and illegal in other systems – some U.S. political financing practices would constitute corruption in several democracies – is in the end of secondary importance. The influence of money on politics is a structural feature of democracy in economically unequal societies.

(…)

The relation between money and politics can be to some extent mitigated so that the impact of economic inequality on political inequality varies across countries. Various regulatory schemes have been proposed and various are in use but we have no systematic knowledge of their effects. Perhaps instead of legal regulation, more effective are mechanisms by which poor people can pool their resources in order to counterbalance the influence of the rich. Unions provided this mechanism in the past and still do in some countries: income inequality is lower in countries which continue to have encompassing unions (Scheve and Stasavage 2009)22 Non-governmental organizations now play some of this role and, as the 2008 Obama campaign has shown, perhaps the internet will provide an alternative mechanism. But perfect political equality is impossible in economically unequal societies. Something is wrong when a plurality of citizens in a democracy answer the question about which institutions have most power in their country with “banks.23 Perhaps the most plausible explanation of the persistence of inequality is the feedback from political to economic inequality. High economic inequality generates high political inequality, disproportionate political influence of the rich perpetuates the inequality.

Definitely worth reading.