Sabhas: Powering the Indian Revolution (Part 8)

Citizen Assemblies and Deliberative Polling

Another interesting variation is the idea of citizen assemblies. The Economist wrote recently about the idea: “Around the world “citizens’ assemblies” and other deliberative groups are being created to consider questions that politicians have struggled to answer. Over weeks or months, 100 or so citizens—picked at random, but with a view to creating a body reflective of the population as a whole in terms of gender, age, income and education—meet to discuss a divisive topic in a considered, careful way. Often they are paid for their time, to ensure that it is not just political wonks who sign up. At the end they present their recommendations to politicians…They are not a substitute for the everyday business of legislating, but a way to break the deadlock when politicians have tried to deal with important issues and failed.”

More from The Economist: “Over the past decade democratic institutions have taken a battering…One solution, long favoured by political scientists, is to include more deliberation within democracy. Citizens’ assemblies are an increasingly popular way of doing so. These involve a group of around 100 people, broadly representative of the population (by gender, age and socioeconomic status, say), meeting over several weeks or months to debate tricky topics, such as whether to legalise abortion or how to respond to climate change. In the course of the best-organised assemblies participants hear from experts on all sides and produce recommendations to which their governments have promised to respond…To work well, these assemblies need a clear subject to discuss…What is clear is that citizens’ assemblies are most successful when politicians actually listen to them…When they work well, these groups provide elected representatives with a mind-clearing idea of what voters really want.”

An idea proposed by James Fishkin (and mention in The Economist article) is Deliberative Polling. “Deliberative Polling is an attempt to use public opinion research in a new and constructive way. A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the deliberative events are often broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form and/or through social media and other mediums. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.”

Advisory Voting: This is an idea proposed by Gary Kasparov. He wrote recently in The Economist: “It is a virtual town square that allows citizens to turn public opinion into a politically tangible thing. It can scale down to the province, state or city level, letting people debate and vote about the issues that interest them most. Fringe candidates and extreme positions often dominate conversation online but fail at the ballot box—a comforting fact, but one that is becoming less true all the time. Advisory voting offers the advantages of digital deliberation without the heat. It is open to all citizens, topics are proposed by the people, and the votes provide a lens into public opinion to inform policy. But because people are identified and need to participate in order to vote, there is goodwill in discussions, not just anonymous online anger.”

Model UN, Boys State, Citizen Assemblies, Deliberative Polling and Advisory Voting all have one thing in common – they create some sort-of parallel system for discussion, debate and feedback. Sabhas takes these ideas further to build a permanent mirror government.

Tomorrow: Part 9

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.