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Citizen consensus councils and direct democracy


Here are excerpts from my 12/13/1999 letter to Direct Democracy advocate Mirek Kolar asking if I had worked with direct democracy advocates. Direct democracy means people directly voting on the issues that affect their lives (as is done in town meetings and election "initiatives"), as contrasted with representative democracy, in which people elect representatives to do the issue-voting for them.


Actually, I haven't been thinking of my work in terms of direct democracy.  However, I believe that realistic advances in democracy will involve many elements of enhanced direct democracy that you and your colleagues are proposing, as well as a number of other creative proposals being advanced by others.  My own work is more focused on tapping the power of collective intelligence and group wisdom which, more often than not, involves the use of sophisticated processes (like consensus process) that don't lend themselves to direct mass participation.  This is why I love Jim Rough's Wisdom Council proposal so much:  It involves institutionalizing an annual group of randomly-selected citizens who are facilitated to a deep consensus about what the overall population is concerned about and which directions they want their country/community to go, and then that consensus statement is broadcast to the population as a whole, who are encouraged to dialogue about it.  Since this group of citizens is brought together for just a few days and then disbands, it is hard for special interests to influence it, so the collective voice of these citizens would be close to a pure statement of the public will.

Another similar innovation is the Danish consensus conference or citizen technology panel, in which the government brings together 15 people selected to represent the demographics of the Danish population, and gives them a technological issue about which to recommend policy.  They interview expert witnesses from across the spectrum of opinion, and then are facilitated to a consensus statement of policy recommendations.  I see this as a more sophisticated version of the citizen juries you have linked on your site.

There is more about these on , and articles articulating the political vision they are part of on , e.g., .

Integrating direct democracy and citizen consensus councils

Such Wisdom Councils and consensus conferences would be part of a much broader public dialogue and political system, which I think could and should include many forms and processes, including direct democracy elements.  One example of integrating direct democracy and citizen consensus councils would be the following:  In an "initiative process" (the system of direct voting on proposals that is used in many states in the U.S.), there could be a "none of the above" option (which I notice you have a link about on your web page).  If "none of the above" wins, then a Danish-style consensus conference could automatically be convened about the subject which the initiative proposal dealt with.  They would be charged with coming up with at least 2-3 proposals on the same subject, which the public could then vote on.  The proposals created by the consensus conference would probably be far better than whatever was on the ballot originally, and less biased towards special interests.  This would make special interests less inclined to put proposals on the ballot in the first place, if they weren't in the public interest, and then spend millions of dollars to convince an ignorant public that the proposals WERE in the public interest -- a pattern that happens a LOT here, making a mockery of direct democracy. 

Another way to integrate direct democracy with citizen consensus councils would be for an annual Wisdom Council (which doesn't consult experts) to convene a consensus conference (which does consult experts) to examine an issue about which the Wisdom Council is both concerned and uncertain.  The consensus conference's proposals could then be presented to public for dialogue and vote, a la various direct democracy systems.

Part of what's important about institutionalizing these smaller wisdom-generating citizen councils is that there are FAR too many and complex issues facing us for every citizen to have an informed judgment about all of them.  Of course most people have OPINIONS about nearly every issue, but that isn't JUDGMENT and seldom embodies real WISDOM.  ["Public judgment emerges only in hearing other points of view, thinking through the clash of values and perceiving the ground from which differences come. Public judgment differs from simple public opinion, which is the undigested mass of private thoughts about issues and controversies....Public judgment is the process of communities generating community wisdom about community affairs." -- Frances Moore Lappe, in "Living Democracy"]  Opinions are notoriously easy to manipulate by special interests, simply by broadcasting well-researched powerful emotional messages and provocative imagery over mass media.  The kind of dialogue that citizen consensus councils engage in would counter that propagandic influence -- and there could be as many such councils as we wanted to convene -- allowing them to create wise public judgment on EVERY subject -- just as the full citizenry would if it had the time, resources and facilitation that are available to those citizen consensus councils.

The main problem with direct democracy, as I see it, is its dependence on voting.  Voting has the advantage that it keeps real power in the hands of the people.  However, voting systems also have some serious disadvantages, among them:

  1. They almost always involve candidates and proposals created by someone else (often with a hidden agenda) or through processes that generate little wisdom, and thus often present the voter with distasteful alternatives (sometimes poorly thought-out, sometimes downright malicious or self-interested).
  2. They are intrinsically adversarial, forcing people to "take sides" (thus obscuring the juicy nuances, ambiguities, and creative alternatives that surround any issue) and producing in the end a victorious majority and a loser minority or minorities who immediately set out to overturn the decision.
  3. They are so easily manipulated by special interests (who often use [1] and [2] to do their manipulating).

However, if we can create a system where
  The People (as a macrocosm: i.e., the whole citizenry)
     can delegate the creation of proposals to
  The People (as a microcosm: i.e., a citizen consensus council)
     whose proposals can then be authorized by a vote of
  The People (as a macrocosm: i.e., the whole citizenry),
     this keeps The People at the top of the hierarchy
       (as the creative force directing the society),
     instead of at the bottom
       (as the approvers of elite proposals,
           or the raw material for elite projects)
     and injects a level of wisdom into their collective lives
           that the citizens who make up The People
                are seldom able to generate in their own individual lives! 

Basically The People would be doing what any good executive does -- delegating, but retaining the power to authorize or disapprove proposals.  This sort of political system would incorporate both direct democracy arrangements and collective wisdom functions.