Real Choices, Real Consequences, Real Decisions

Can poor farmers in China make better decisions about how to spend the government budget than the experts and elected officials? Can collective intelligence actually outperform the individual intelligence of an elite group of experts?

Setting Policy from the Bottom. In the September 13, 2010 edition of Time Magazine [,8599,2015481,00.html], Joe Klein writes a brilliant column illustrating how leaders can tap into the intelligence of their constituents to make the highest stakes decisions with powerful results. This process has roots in the Kleroterion, an ancient Athenian practice of randomly selecting citizens to make the major decisions for the polis.

Guided by James Fishkin, a professor from Stanford University, the Chinese coastal district of Zeguo uses this “deliberative-democracy” process to decide how to best allocate the district’s entire budget, given a set of competing priorities. The exercise works like this: 175 people are scientifically selected to represent the general population. The group meets and is given briefings on the issues from experts with conflicting views. Next they work in small groups to formulate questions for the experts. They gather again in a plenary session to listen to the expert responses. They regroup and now formulate even harder questions for the experts’ response. At this point, 70% of the participants have changed their initial opinions, based on the rich dialogue and debate. The group is polled and decides the final budget priorities, which are then made known to the population. But, what is remarkable about this process is that it takes only 3 days and that 60% of the participants are farmers.

Getting Smart on the Issues: Fishkin reflects, “The public is very smart if you give it a chance…If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, really study their briefing books, ask the experts smart questions, and then make tough decisions.”

This “deliverative-democracy” process is a brilliant example of institutionalize Multiplier logic. These government leaders create rich debate by properly framing issues, bringing data and expert opinion to the table, and tapping into the natural intelligence and motivation of its citizen base. This debate renders sound decisions that serve the whole. As Fishkin observes, “If you give people real choices and real consequences, they will make real decisions.”

Multiplier Practice: On your highest-stakes decisions, create rigorous debate that combines data and expert opinion with thoughtful deliberation from a cross-selection of stakeholders both inside and outside your organization. Not only will this Kleroterion made the best decisions, but also the collective will likely embrace the decisions fully knowing they have been made with both deep and broad intelligence.

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