Local Government by Lottery?

joseph drew p&P blogJoseph Drew

One constantly hears the slogan that local government is closest to the people and thus serves the people best.

But is it really close to the people and which people does it serve?

When did you last attend a council meeting? When did you last feel that you had a direct voice in a local government decision that affects your life? Do you know the name of your Councillor? Did your Mayor keep their election promise – did you even know what the promise was?

The truth of the matter is that most of us will answer negatively to all of these questions. That’s probably why most of us grumble about ‘crazy’ local government decisions but stand impotently by as the same group of Councillors are returned at the elections every few years.  

When citizens are disengaged from their local government it may give rise to the concept of the ‘Local-Leviathan’ – a term used by economists to describe governments which exert coercive powers to exploit their hapless citizens (it was also a term for a monster of biblical proportions, which seems apt when I think of my local government).

In my recent Policy & Politics article – Can Local Government By Lottery Increase Democratic Responsiveness? – I present some compelling (and frankly scary) evidence that the Local-Leviathan is running rampant in most local government jurisdictions. Furthermore, I show that increased taxation to support budget expansion is generally contrary to the preferences of citizens.

So what’s the solution?

There is, unfortunately, no silver bullet with which we might hope to slay the Local-Leviathan. However, I argue that a change to our political institutions at the local government level – to be specific, the use of a lottery process – could at least manacle the beast.

Sortition – just like Leviathan – also harks back to biblical times (11th century BCE), and is the process of choosing by lottery (in our case choosing an upper chamber of a local government parliament to act as a check on power of the elected chamber). It’s not as crazy as it might at first seem, and if used in the fashion that I advocate (as a check on the power of political representatives) shouldn’t lead to any undesirable side-effects and needn’t be too burdensome for those selected to serve. It would, however, force political representatives to listen to the voice of the people during their terms of office (and not merely during elections) and provide citizens with new ways to exit objectionable circumstances, should it be necessary.

To find out exactly how this would work in local government you will need to read my article.

There are, of course, risks in implementing this at the level of local government and I am sure existing political representatives will reject the idea (after all, who would embrace giving up largely unfettered power). However, doing nothing is far from risk-free as demonstrated by a number of local government financial failures, including alarming increases in debt levels, and increasing examples of divisive populist movements, to name but a few.

In summary, my argument is that in the time-honoured and proven method of selection that is sortition (combined with a democratic executive), citizens may finally be assuaged of some of the fear of the Leviathan that seems to have haunted us since the dawn of civilisation.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Drew, Joseph. (2019) ‘Can local government by lottery increase democratic responsiveness?‘,  Policy & Politics,  https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X15653392161339

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Re-evaluating local government amalgamations: utility maximisation meets the principle of double effect (PDE)

Citizen participation and changing governance: cases of devolution in England

Citizens’ Initiative Review process: mediating emotions, promoting productive deliberation

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