Minipublics —

A Different Way

Towards a Wiser Future (Part Two)

As discussed in the first part of this series, democracy struggles to meet its brief of “government of the people, By The People, for the people” due to the seemingly paradoxical challenges that arise under both indirect and direct democracy. With indirect democracy, adverse side effects of power eat away at its legitimacy. With direct democracy, the time demands of responsible citizenship ensure that the wealthy are able to use the media to control public opinion, swinging decisions in their favour.

Our current approach of voting for a new government every few years in an attempt to limit the negative side side effects of our system has become increasingly ineffective. Fresh approaches that break the slow slide towards oligarchy and tip the delicate balance back towards democracy are needed as the world continues to rush towards a future with ever more complex challenges.

“It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election”

One such democratic tool is the Minipublic. Like voting with electoral politics, a minipublic is an indirect means of democracy, meaning a small number of people represent the wider public. However a minipublic is not elected via voting, instead members are randomly selected using a process called stratified random sampling which ensures that the chosen group of citizens have a demographic makeup similar to the public they represent, hence the name mini-public referring to it as a miniature version of the public. A minipublic, because it is a mini-public, carries a natural legitimacy that goes beyond what electoral politics offers, and although less involving of the entire population as direct democracy, the smaller size supports much better dialogue and negotiation, while random selection ensures most people can go about their daily lives without investing enormous amounts of time into politics.

Although this idea might seem new, there are many examples of minipublics in the real world (see recommended reading links below), and the idea is not without precedent. Ancient Athenians chose their officeholders through both voting and random selection, but they understood that elections favoured the wealthy so weighted the makeup heavily towards random selection, with elected officeholders filling only one-tenth of all positions. A minipublic however improves significantly on this ancient wisdom through the use of stratified random sampling, ensuring that the group is not just a randomly selected group of citizens, but a randomly selected group of citizens who reflect the variety of cultures, ages, genders, education levels found in the population.

As a quick illustration of the effect of stratified random sampling, if the Australian Federal House of Representatives was filled in this manner, there’d be 75 women instead of 39. The average age would be 38 instead of 51. Imagine how different our politics could be.

This stratified random sampling process captures a variety of ordinary people with different genders, ages, educations and political views, who are there to represent only themselves. Unlike a politician, a political party, or an interest group, those citizens representing themselves can grow and change their views. They are not bound by a constitution, a charter or a strategic plan. This means they have an opportunity to find common ground and humanity in a way that politicians and interest groups cannot. When they do, their decisions and recommendations are by the very diversity of the minipublic, non-partisan, meaning not biased towards any political or interest group.

Any individual, like you and me, lobby groups like the Business Council of Australia or the Wilderness Society, political party, be they Greens, Liberals or Shooters can be dismissed as partisan, speaking only with their vested interest in mind. Yet when a group of ordinary and diverse citizens come together in a minipublic, and speak with one voice, that voice cannot be dismissed.

This quality of non-partisanship allows minipublics to speak with a clarity and potency for the common interest. This is what makes a minipublic such a powerful and legitimate method for democracy.

If the public was able to speak with one voice, we could call that the Voice of the People. When a free and fair election occurs, we can say the Voice of the People has spoken. When a minipublic speaks, because it is a mini version of the public, we can say it also speaks with a legitimacy as the Voice of the People. Statistically, the more minipublics are used, the greater the legitimacy they speak with, as the degree of error falls.

For example, if a minipublic of 20 people was convened on a specific issue, when it produces its outcome we could say, it probably represents the Voice of the People. If we were instead to run 5 minipublics of 20 people to explore that same issue, the collated outcomes of those explorations statistically represent the Voice of the entire People with a confidence level of 95% and degree of error of 10%. That’s significant considering the Abbott government was elected with just 46% of the vote, hardly a resounding result for legitimacy.

The existing system of electoral politics is easily subverted as wealthy vested interests find it easy to identify career politicians to target and then spend years building relationships or buying lobbyists to influence those politicians and associated parties. Minipublics resist vested interest influence and lobbying through random selection and limited duration. When a minipublic completes its brief, be that broad or on a single issue, it dissolves and the participants return to their normal lives.

If they can’t predict who will be selected, and they don’t know the types of people who are chosen it’s implicitly harder to manipulate and influence the decision makers. The lack of careerism due to it being only temporary means that any progress building relationships is lost when the minipublic dissolves. Importantly, random selection also ensures people cannot self select into being a politician for the prestige and power that comes from that role.

For all these reasons, minipublics offers an alternative to electoral politics, with a different set of strengths and limitations. By convening minipublics we can effectively short-circuit the negative side effects of power that are evident in our current system, lessening the oligarchic slide and strengthening democracy and the rule of the people, demos-kratos.

Minipublics deserve to stand alongside voting as one of the fundamental institutions of a democratic society.

Yet, convening an ordinary group of citizens to discuss issues, could in the worlds of Tom Atlee, as easily turn into a fist fight as it could a wise and unseen solution, and that is where the final piece of the puzzle is needed. The use of conversational design to generate dialogue and wisdom, rather than disagreements and argument, is how a minipublic can lead us to a wiser future, and the subject of the final article in the series.

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