A blog about hybrid politics

The Service Pool

This is part 2 of my executive series.

“Leadership” is not a word that comes up often in sortition debates. Like anarchism, sortition seems anathema to leadership. In the executive branch, however, some discussion of leadership is absolutely required, since executive officers inevitably have considerable discretion over policy, even when the legislature is strengthened. In addition, “leadership abhors a vacuum”; in other words, if we neglect the role of leadership in government, someone will fill that gap, and probably in a corrupt way.

In part 1 of this series, I described a structure that is both pluralistic and meets the demands of governance. But that structure can still fail if we do not populate it well. My inspiration solving this problem comes from civil service reform, which eliminated the spoils system under which the operational layer of government was replaced after almost every election. Important government positions were filled by supporters and relatives who could use their posts for profit. It wasn’t until late in the industrial revolution that the need for competent civil servants overcame the power of entrenched politicians.

The newly protected civil servants were now hired and promoted on a merit basis. But what is merit for the political layer? Traditionally we associate it with elections. Unfortunately, the political offices of a modern government are far too numerous to be elected, and that’s ignoring problems like ‘rational ignorance’ that make elections a poor choice. For comparison, there are about 1200-1400 Senate confirmed positions in the U.S. [1], and that’s only at the federal level.

Citizen juries, together with an adequate proposal mechanism (such as the superminority) offer up a way to implement merit in a political context. Since the superminority does not require negotiations among hostile parties, it has as much bandwith as we could ever want to nominate political officers. Similarly, juries are easy to call in significant numbers.

With these tools in mind, let’s consider the criteria for a good selection process.

  1. Diversity – We want nominees to reflect the diversity of the general population, without having to use artificial and corruptible methods such as stratified sampling or quotas.
  2. Subject Matter Indifference – Political officers exist to bridge the gap between government as an institution, and government as the ‘will of the people’; they are not subject matter experts. Leadership is its own subject.
  3. Continuity – A competent officer should be able to make a career of political service without interruption. While incompetent people should be weeded out, the job should be reasonably secure for those who are judged capable by successive juries.
  4. Competence – Political officers should be judged competent by multiple citizen juries at different times. Competence is for leadership in general, not expertise in any particular field.

If we can meet these criteria, we will have succeeded in creating a strong pool from which political officers can be selected. Note that none of these conditions are even close to being met in our current system.

Diversity – Random selection can be used in many ways, some of which promote diversity and some of which discourage it. For example, if we use a separate jury for each vacancy, with three to five nominees per position, we are likely to get very homogeneous results. That’s because there are no points for second place. Instead, we should start with a bunch of vacancies, and nominate two or three times as many candidates for those positions. If, say, ten vacancies come up at once, the jury should rank 20-30 nominees, with the top 10 making it. How does this promote diversity? Because second place (and third, fourth, etc.) counts. If the general population is split 70%-30% along some axis, then the jury will reflect this, and the final ranking will put the best candidates from the minority group somewhere in the range of third to fifth place. In addition we would use a superminority of ~25, which allows very small segments of the nominating body to advance candidates.

Subject Matter Indifference – This is easily achieved by handing out positions by lot from among those selected by the jury. As I discussed in part 1, handing out offices by lot was commonly used in the ancient world to break up corrupt networks. We get the best of both worlds: a high quality pool is enforced by the jury, while random selection fights corruption. As a technical matter, this requires nominees to pay a price if they refuse to take an assigned position, perhaps by being banned from jury confirmed positions for a period of time.

Continuity – I don’t think most people think the career of a politician is too volatile. The public seems to take pleasure in a “throw the bums out” mentality as a kind of accountability. I think this reflects general anger at politicians, not a well thought out view of politics as a system. In fact, losing an election is a traumatic event, and that fact alone attracts more risk-seeking people to the job. More ominously, the type of jobs available to ex-politicians are blatantly corrupt, and the hope of landing such a job changes behavior while in office.

We must therefore accompany jury confirmed service with a track of non-confirmed employment which can fill the gaps between jury confirmed positions. One natural place for this is as at-will employees within executive offices. Most jury confirmed offices will have an at-will staff to meet the requirements of the office, and candidates who lose one particular round with the jury should have a path to take such jobs without losing pay or seniority. Another natural place is with political parties that write legislation. We should keep in mind that the jury process is meant to be iterative. We should not consider a candidate a failure (in the political sense) because of just one jury.

Competence – Candidates that are approved by multiple juries should advance to positions of greater importance, candidates that consistently fail with juries should drop out. To achieve this, positions should come in different seniority levels, which track the importance of those positions. Let’s say we have three seniority levels: junior, senior, and cabinet level. Only positions at the junior level would be available to any nominee. Positions at the senior level would only be available to candidates who had completed three terms at the junior level, and positions at the cabinet level would only be available to candidates who had completed three terms at the senior level.

This has two healthy consequences. First, it guarantees a level of experience in senior and cabinet level officials. More importantly, it guarantees that the most important officers in the land will have been judged by a variety of juries at different points in their careers. If we make terms of office short (say, two years each) then we get this property even with some candidates who are in their late 30s or 40s.

I don’t think political theorists think enough about the career path of executive branch officers. The topic doesn’t have the theoretical niceties associated with legislature, nor the historical pedigree. But when modern democracies go bad, it is generally through the executive. In particular, it’s usually because a small group of executive officers manage to grab the reins of state. Why is so little attention paid to what is clearly democracy’s Achilles heel?

While part 1 focused on the structure, this post focuses on the life of a political officer. So, what kind of person will be attracted to this career? What traits are we selecting for? Two particular aspects are reversed from contemporary politics. The current system is highly volatile from an employment perspective, but highly focused as to subject matter. This is a dangerous combination. The political system is full of people who are risk-takers in terms of their personal dispositions, while having a relatively narrow intellectual worldview. Officers in the new system will be the opposite: they will be risk averse in terms of their personal conduct, while being more intellectually curious, with a broader professional focus.

Some attention also needs to be paid to the apex officer in our system. Historically, the apex officer in most political systems has been venerated—surrounded by special myths to legitimize their rule. In this system, the apex officer is not special at all. With no command authority over other offices, they will only set high level policy for other offices to carry out. I call the apex officer the “coordination minister”, since coordinating is all that office will do. The title is also intentionally mundane. I suspect that the coordination minister will not even be the most powerful in the government; the major portfolios like finance, defense, and interior will probably be more powerful. Importantly, unlike presidents and prime ministers of today, the coordination minister will not be indispensable, and hence above the law. The government will not collapse if the position is temporarily vacant.

A government like this avoids both major forms of collapse: it cannot turn authoritarian like a presidential system, nor can it fail and leave a void like a parliamentary one. It doesn’t seem all that hard once we use the full power of the proposal-jury system.