Pattern #12


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Competent Popular Oversight of Governance Card - version 1


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Competent Popular Oversight of Governance

Any governance that is not generated by the people themselves needs to be transparent to them so it can be overseen by them. So enable citizens to collectively oversee their government with collective competence, intelligence and wisdom rather than collective stupidity, ignorance, factionalism and mob rule.

Related: 18 Deliberation, 23 Expertise on Tap (not on top), 27 Full Spectrum Information, 32 Integrity and Authenticity, 33 Iteration, 36 Microcosms, 48 Prudent Use of Power-Over

Going deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

One of the reasons that elites kept a good measure of control in the U.S. Constitution was their concern about mob rule. They figured popular rule was not necessarily wise rule and the elites considered themselves more wise.  But there’s a dynamic tension between concentrated government that acts in the self-interest of the people and interests that are controlling it versus popular government and popular will.

True, we want knowledgeable people being able to run things as opposed to crazy mob rule and immediate gratification of the masses, which was supposedly the way the founding elites felt ordinary people thought.  But that’s not necessarily the way ordinary people think, if they are given the right support. And elites, themselves, certainly have a checkered track record in governance.

This dynamic tension between elite rule and popular will has been going in politics and governance for hundreds if not thousands of years. With wise democracy structures and ideas we are trying to get beyond that dynamic tension. We are trying to empower ordinary people to be able to wisely influence what happens in governance. Ultimately it is good if people can be their own self-governance, which happens most effectively at the personal, neighborhood and local levels. But it is harder to wisely manage direct popular governance of a whole country with millions of people. That often requires some people doing governance functions for the people, which is the idea (theoretically) behind elected representatives and bureaucracies.

But if somebody else is going to be running the government day to day, you need to have some kind of oversight so they don’t go off the rails and become too centralized and oppressive or acting in their own interests rather than in the popular interest. So we want to build the confidence of the people – and the right infrastructure – to enable the population to exercise wise oversight of governance. That requires at the very least that governance is transparent. The people can watch what’s going on in government operations so that they can oversee what’s going on and redirect it as needed. We also need to increase the capacity of “we the people” – the ordinary people and their various civil society institutions – and to imbue that whole system with more collective intelligence and wisdom rather than collective stupidity and folly.

So we have to get beyond “groupthink”, “mob rule” and ignorance.  We have to get beyond people not knowing what’s going on, not being aware of what’s needed, and being divided amongst themselves. This pattern description mentions “factionalism”, which refers to people not being able to get it together, fighting amongst themselves and getting nothing effective done. All this can and does happen in government without the public even being involved, but it we add in all the separate public factions, it can get even more wild.

So we are trying to say that what is needed is to actually engage the people in overseeing and directing their governance, and to help them do it wisely, which is what this pattern language is all about. I say “governance” in most cases rather than “government” because governance can include any function that shapes what people do, and government tends to be focused on the formal institutions of governance. But people can govern themselves in many ways without these institutions. That is the distinction that I make between the terms governance and government. But we want people being able to oversee government institutions when they aren’t governing themselves.

Video Introduction (14 min)

Examples and Resources

So what kinds of things help us do that?

There is already in the US an institution called Citizen Review Boards where various people are appointed who have volunteered to do work overseeing various government functions. They have various forms of power, depending on local rules and conditions. It’s usually done at the local level and they locally organize their own processes. That’s one institution we already have.

John Gastil, in his book By Popular Demand envisioned advisory panels where if there’s a controversial local ordinance coming up to be decided and either the city council or a popular petition says, “Delay voting on this law until we hold a day-long randomly selected citizen panel who listens to the people who are upset about it and the others who support it to find out how important it is.” And if this little one day panel then decides it’s really important, they say, “This needs to be evaluated by a week-long randomly selected advisory panel” (what I call a citizens deliberative council or a citizens jury). So an advisory panel would be convened and study the proposed ordinance and say whether it should be passed or not. The city council would wait on deciding until the advisory panel had issued its findings and recommendations. If the council then went against the advisory panel’s recommendations the community might be more inclined to remove the councilors since they went ahead and passed something that “the people” clearly didn’t want. This is not just a popular vote. This is an informed group of ordinary citizens who have made their judgment of what should be done with this ordinance.

Investigative journalism – It is said that journalism’s creed is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The people in power need to know they’re being watched and need to be called on various things that they’re doing that are not good or not popular. Investigative journalism does that. It will dig to find out what’s going on behind the scenes and make it public.

Some bloggers are like investigative journalists – albeit mostly of more mixed quality than professional journalists. But there are lots of people who are watching over what’s going on, commenting on it online and revealing threads of what needs to be known. So the so-called “blogosphere” is another way we collectively watch over government.

Citizen Ballot Initiatives – In some locations citizens can craft a new law that they want to see passed and then gather enough support to get it on the ballot and actually voted on. This “ballot initiative” process has been abused by special interests enough that in Oregon there is now an institution called “Citizens Initiative Review” which convenes a randomly selected panel of voters who look at a ballot initiative and talk to people who are for it and against it, studying it in detail and reporting their findings to the voters. This more secure ballot initiative process can be used to watch over and correct government violations of popular will, as well as warn voters of really bad ballot initiatives.

Quality of life indicators – These are measurements of quality of life, often designed through community dialogue. A community says that these things are what’s important to them, that this is what they think makes their lives good, and therefore when these statistics are going down it suggests that the government is not doing its job right. So this is a form of statistical feedback to support people in watching over how their government and other forces in the community are doing.

Government transparency – Transparency means having the government make clear everything it is doing in all its parts. All this information is made publicly available. Ideally even every piece of legislation would be online for people to comment on and organize around. In Argentina there is a citizens group which has some software called DemocracyOS where all the legislation that is being proposed in the Buenos Aires city government is made available on people’s cell phones. They can look at it and discuss it and comment on it and organize around it. So that’s a very tight feedback loop for existing legislation, which provides an electronic approximation of what John Gastil’s innovation described above. Of course, there is a question of who has cell phones and who doesn’t, but the idea is good.

The Freedom of Information Act in the United States allows people to petition the government to release specific information. There are only certain kinds of information the government can withhold if they are being asked. Very few citizens actually use the Freedom of Information Act. But there are many civil society organizations and journalists that request information of what’s going in the government on behalf of the general public. Among them are watchdog groups specifically organized to track what the government is doing and publicize it.

Whistleblowers are people involved in governments or corporations who have inside knowledge of wrongdoing and expose it to the public. A recent well-known example was Edward Snowden who exposed the NSA’s spying on American citizens. Usually whistleblowers get in trouble because the government doesn’t like what they’ve done, for obvious reasons. So there are people who defend whistleblowers.

So there is a whole system of extracting information from the government and trying to enable that system of revealing government information to continue and be effective.

Cell phones – Many citizens are taking videos of police behavior or military behavior or corporate behavior. For example, lot of information is coming out now about how black people are being treated by police in the United States. This mistreatment and targeting has been going on for well over 100 years. But it’s being viewed more clearly now because so many people have cell phones and know how to take videos of police behavior. While they’re walking down the street if see something happening, they’ll video it, and that video goes viral and suddenly the public is all talking about it.

So these are all forms of both government-established transparency and transparency which is enforced on the government. Having deliberative activities like the Citizen Initiative Review and John Gastil’s Advisory Panels adds a measure of collective intelligence and wisdom into this transparency process. Many of the examples I’ve given here are ways to access what’s going on with the government without necessarily supporting actual wise oversight. But the kind of the citizen deliberative activities I talk about in other patterns provides more guidance for injecting wisdom into the process. After all, just getting the government to be totally open with everybody handling what they find out in crazy ways doesn’t necessarily move us towards a wise society. But government transparency and citizen oversight are definitely necessary ingredients.  They just need to be handled well.