Citizen Juries in Our Government? A View from Redon, France

Over the next few months, we’ll be hosting a series of posts on political engagement and democracy from practitioners and researchers around the world. Our fourth post in the series is from Campbell Wallace. Based in Redon, France, Campbell is a researcher and author of the book, Down With Elections.

Citizen’s Juries are undoubtedly a valuable innovation, and they have been very useful in demonstrating the ability of “ordinary” people to deliberate conscientiously and to make intelligent decisions on problems that they would not otherwise encounter, and where they have no special expertise. Unfortunately they have suffered from two problems. First, they have been either widely ignored or unfairly mocked by the press. Secondly, it has been easy for politicians to simply ignore their conclusions.

Making a representative, randomly selected chamber a part of the government, as David Schecter suggests, is certainly a step in the right direction, especially if it has the authority to reject or demand changes to legislation passed in the elected house, and to force the latter to consider questions that it would otherwise avoid.

Does this go far enough? I do not think so. To those who are not convinced of the divine origin of the US constitution, the supposed “checks and balances” often seem more like spanners in the works, as the elected actors have no incentive to cooperate to promote good policy, and paralyze government with their disagreements.

Most failings of elections are well-known: money politics, the unequal weight of votes, corruption, policy decisions reached by vote-trading on irrelevant issues… A new one may eclipse all the others: the astounding effect of Google page rankings. In my book “Down with Elections!” I argue that these problems are part and parcel of elections, and won’t go away until we get rid of them.

In the book, I propose a model of government with no elections at all. This model has a randomly selected Assembly (like a large, ongoing Citizens Jury) with full legislative powers, assisted by a number of subordinate bodies. Members of all bodies would be chosen by lot, and replaced by rotation, typically ten percent every six months. This ensures representativeness (the Assembly is the portrait of the population), equity (everyone has an equal chance of being selected), diversity, which research shows is necessary for good decision-making, and continuity (there is no change of government).

There is no President with executive powers, and the Assembly has authority on almost everything, but does not set its own salaries (which are fixed by an independent Salaries Board). Nor does it appoint individual judges or civil servants. The Speaker changes daily, by rotation.

Instead of being under a politically appointed Secretary of State or equivalent, each department of the civil service is placed under an Oversight Committee, chosen by lot and rotated regularly, like the Assembly. This will drastically reduce opportunities for corruption.

Judges serve for a limited period, and are replaced by rotation. The ultimate authority on the interpretation of law is the Assembly, not the courts, and laws are not subject to judicial review. This is to prevent the abuse of power by judges, (think of Citizens United, and child labor legislation, blocked by the Supreme Court from 1918 until 1941).

Because many policy issues are complex and technical, the Assembly will set up Policy Committees to examine proposals for laws, and to recommend policy. Some will be temporary, to examine a single proposal. Others will be permanent, to study topics of ongoing concern: foreign affairs, health, energy, the environment … Permanent committees will have as many sub-committees as necessary to permit detailed study of complicated subjects.

Proposals for bills – which may originate with any citizen or group –are checked by a Proposals Committee for popular support and for their impact on existing legislation, before passing to the Assembly. The Assembly refers them to a Policy Committee, either a permanent one, or a “single-issue” one. The committee calls for opinions from experts and the public, examines them in depth, and makes its recommendations to the Assembly, which then debates and votes. This process will permit policy to be based on scientific evidence and reason, not faith, knee-jerk reactions or ideology. If the vote is close, a second “Temporary” Assembly is formed to vote without debate.

The budget is a special case, as the Assembly does not debate it. Instead, the opinion of each member is expressed in his or her estimate of the allocation for each department, and for the sum to be raised by each form of taxation. In effect, each estimate is a vote, and taking the median gives equal weight to this vote.

Publicly-funded, independently-run news services will supplement private media. Since there is no party in power, there is no reason to fear partisan control of information.

Regional and local government follow a broadly similar pattern.

Impractical? There is nothing that could not be implemented, given the will. However, there will be fierce opposition from politicians, the media (which thrives on the circus of scandals, politicians’gaffes, and election hoop-la), and the wealthy interests that do so well from the present system. There are also entrenched beliefs: the belief that elections are the only way to achieve democracy, and that the Constitution is the last word in political wisdom.

Utopian? Yes, unabashedly so. We need utopias: they give us a star to steer by, an ideal that we can work towards as we take the smaller steps suggested by others.

Posts in this series do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jefferson Center or Jefferson Center staff.