A tantalizing whiff of public wisdom from beyond politics as usual

Bill Keller’s New York Times op-ed “What if Sanity Prevails in Washington?” offers a tantalizing vision of what might be possible if we moved beyond partisan politics-as-usual. Sadly, he stops just short of the kind of evolutionary breakthrough we so desperately need in our politics and governance.

He justly lauds David Leonhardt’s online “Budget Puzzle: You Fix the Budget“. Unfortunately, that great real-life interactive game has a few glaring shortcomings. Most importantly, it furthers the erroneous inclusion of Social Security in the federal budget deficit calculations. Social Security monies should not be considered part of the general Federal budget. They were not collected to pay for other government expenses. They were collected specifically to support workers when they retire. Social Security is a trust fund and using its money for other purposes is a violation of that trust. Its viability should be analyzed separately.

The other primary shortcoming is that there are many deficit-resolving proposals that go far beyond the options presented in the Budget Puzzle. Many citizens would desire far more radical changes than are offered there.

However, with those provisos — and given the intrinsic limitations of a brief online exercise — the Budget Puzzle does a remarkable job of challenging citizens to wrestle with the real-world trade-offs involved in deficit-cutting. The fact that the Budget Puzzle’s results reflect the same wisdom-of-crowds outcomes as public opinion polls suggests new possibilities for democracy.

I’ll add to those two approaches an even wiser form of citizen-based policy formulation: <a href=" http://www.co-intelligence.org/CDCUsesAndPotency.html” target=”_blank”>citizen deliberative councils. In these, a group of a few dozen to a few hundred randomly selected citizens engage in intense study and deliberation on an issue for about a week (and in some cases many months). Hundreds of these have been held around the world, with impressive results.

Consider the remarkable effort in British Columbia, where 160 randomly selected citizens were convened in an official Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform. They studied different reform proposals every other weekend for a year and came up with a creative, uniquely BC recommendation that a majority of BC voters supported in an actual election.

This makes me wonder why most of Bill Keller’s article focuses on the fragile efforts of a tiny group of senators struggling in our demonstrably deficient democratic process. Why not wake up to the fact he noted at the beginning of his article — that we have ways of accessing the wisdom of the people directly. Why not then suggest that perhaps we should empower such public wisdom to make policy more directly?

Surveys and online games offer relatively inexpensive ways to access rough common sense forms of public wisdom. Formal deliberations like the BC Citizens Assembly offer somewhat more expensive but significantly more informed and deliberative versions of public wisdom. Better yet, there are surely ways to creatively combine all such approaches.

For example, why not hold a randomly selected BC-style Citizens Assembly on the federal budget, deficit and debt? To prevent manipulation in such a high-stakes deliberation, sequester Assembly members like a jury in a high-profile legal case. Require that they find a solution that at least 80% of them agree to. Have them periodically check their ideas with the public through interactive online games and professional surveys. Make their final recommendations — and transcripts of their deliberations — publicly available. Have the nation’s voters vote on their recommendations or require that representatives enact those recommendations or explain why they are ignoring informed public wisdom.

Among the most critical decisions we face is how our government should spend hundreds of billions of dollars of our shared money. It is high time we moved such major issues into institutions capable of transcending politics as usual — or, even better, of creating a NEW politics as usual that is far wiser than what we have now.

This needs to be a key part of any effort to consciously evolve our social systems. Social systems that evolve to fit new realities become part of the grand 13.7 billion year Creation Story of increasingly elegant and complex wonders. Social systems that don’t evolve die as life changes their world and moves on.

Either way, evolution bats last. Our collective challenge is to be part of the winning team…

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