Up until now, I’ve been talking about how empowering ordinary people increases our sense of belonging and improves outcomes in a variety of situations, from schools to workplaces, from those impacted by a crime to the aspirations of a whole city.
But can these processes really work on a larger scale, when decisions have to be made that affect states, provinces and even large nations?
Are ordinary people smart enough?
What I want to tell you begins with a story about an ox at a country fair.
In 1906, British scientist Francis Galton came face to face with the “wisdom of crowds” at a country fair contest in which individuals tried to guess the weight of an ox, hoping to win a prize.
He was fascinated by the event and he asked the organizers if he might have the used tickets that individuals had purchased and submitted with their written guess.
By the way, those tickets are now historical artifacts stored at the British Museum in London.
Galton analyzed the data from the tickets and came to a truly remarkable realization.
No one’s guess, no matter how expert that person might be, was as accurate as the collective guess of the crowd.
The average of the 787 guesses from the crowd proved to be perfect.
The ox weighed 1198 pounds.
Galton, himself an elitist and racist, begrudgingly acknowledged the wisdom of ordinary people when he wrote about his analysis:
“This result is, I think, more creditable to the trust-worthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected.”
James Surowiecki, former financial writer for The New Yorker Magazine, began his 2004 award-winning business book “The Wisdom of Crowds” with the story of Francis Galton and the ox weight-guessing contest.
My most important takeaway from Surowieki’s amazing book is a checklist of five conditions for large group decision-making that make the wisdom of crowds possible.
I was shocked when I realized that the United States Congress and all fifty states’ legislatures fail to meet any of the conditions that Surowiecki defined for good large group decision-making.
Perhaps you think I exaggerate so let’s go through the list of conditions, most of which are common sense.
The first is a precondition:
You must have an agreed-upon process for turning individual private judgments into the collective decision of the group.
Our legislatures have voting mechanisms and procedures in place for that purpose — but political parties routinely squabble and try to bend the legislative rules to their own political advantage.
For example, the U.S. Senate can’t decide whether to allow filibusters or not.
They can’t even agree upon the election process.
In 2000 in Palm Beach County Florida a bunch of defective ballots brought the Presidential election to a screeching halt until the election was decided by a controversial Supreme Court decision.
In more recent elections American political parties have battled over voter registration, mail-in ballots and claims of fraudulent vote-counting, culminating in a violent uprising at the U.S. Capitol.
No, our legislatures do not have an agreed-upon mechanism for collective decision-making.
The second is also a precondition.
There must be timely access to reliable information.
Legislatures can call upon official agencies to provide information — but the current divisive U.S. political climate has made that much more complicated.
In the era of “fake news,” some politicians not only doubt reputable mainstream media, but have cast doubt on financial projections from their own Government Accountability Office and on conclusions reached by their own FBI, Justice Department and intelligence agencies.
Many legislators cite questionable social media as their primary information source.
No, our legislators cannot even agree on what is reliable information.
The third is a condition for an effective large group: there must be diversity of perspective.
However, the average state legislator in the United States is a white male Protestant in his sixties with a graduate degree and a business background.
In the current U.S. Congress, more than half of all Senators and more than a third of all Representatives are lawyers.
There is little diversity of age, gender, education, occupation, income, religion or ethnicity.
No, our legislators do not have diversity of perspective.
The fourth condition for an effective large group: there must be independence of judgment.
However, in every legislature in America, there is a specialized political party official called “the whip,” whose job is to keep individual legislators from exercising their own judgment and straying from their political party’s position on any issue.
The political party’s whip is authorized to threaten lawmakers with the loss of party campaign funding in the next election.
No, our legislators do not have independence of judgement.
The fifth condition: there must be decentralized decision-making.
But political parties hold caucuses to keep tabs on their own members.
Party leaders carefully hand out committee assignments as rewards to legislators who will enforce decision-making along party lines.
No, our legislatures do not decentralize decision-making.
The simple and sad truth is that political party leaders cannot allow the right conditions for good group decision-making.
Diversity, independence and decentralization jeopardize the party leaders’ control of the legislative machinery and the financial rewards it brings them.
No wonder Americans have such low regard for their legislators.
So, if we cannot rely on politicians, do ordinary people have the wisdom to make important policy decisions?
A growing body of evidence says “yes” — under the right conditions.
Let’s take a look at some exciting developments that will surprise us — just like Francis Galton was surprised at the wisdom of the crowd at the country fair.
The first development is community processing — a remarkable new approach to complex large group problem-solving.
Scionsberg Hospital went bankrupt in 2014, much to the dismay of the 650,000 residents of Northeast Friesland, a province on the Netherlands’ northern coast.
The bankruptcy involved conflicting interests among a wide range of stakeholders, but none were more deeply affected than those who relied on having the hospital for regional healthcare.
People were concerned that they would have no say in the future services and plans for the hospital, with different stakeholders having widely varied opinions.
Anke Siegers was hired to mediate among the interest groups because there was a crisis and no apparent solution.
She refused the idea of simply surveying opinions in an advisory capacity.
She long ago had realized that the “top-down” hierarchical route of decision-making repeatedly produced outcomes that failed to satisfy many of the stakeholders.
To ensure that the negative spiral of public opinion could be broken, she insisted on a “bottom-up” process, so that all stakeholders were directly involved, in a way that allowed everyone to participate in and to observe the process.
In December 2014, Siegers and her colleagues prepared 2,300 people to participate in a decision-making process.
In January 2015, they created 22 interest groups based on identified needs and values, including the hospital administration, insurance companies, local government, staff and community.
Technology made it possible for 300 people from the various groups who were interested to watch the negotiation by video at offsite locations.
The offsite locations were nearby so the 22 representatives, one from each group, were directly involved in the negotiation but could leave to caucus with their respective groups as needed, then return to the meeting.
Approximately 16,000 people were able to follow the process by livestream.
Critical to the success of the group process was the fact that it was not advisory, but had the authority to conclude a legal agreement on behalf of all interest groups.
After a 14-hour marathon negotiation, the group produced a detailed plan, signed by all parties.
The transparency of the process, with everyone able to observe the negotiation by video, prevented the kind of rebellion that all too often occurs, for example, among the members of a union, who reject the recommendation of their representatives because they were not privy to the ups and downs of the negotiation.
At the end of January 2015 the hospital reopened with the positive support of all of its stakeholders; a remarkable outcome in a world where conflicting views are rarely reconciled in a satisfying way.
A popular example of the wisdom of crowds is seen routinely on the television game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
If a question is too difficult, a player can ask the audience to help them decide which of four answers are correct.
Audience members vote individually and their votes are totaled and displayed.
Usually one answer is most popular and that is the one that a player usually chooses.
Ninety-five percent of the time the crowd has chosen the correct answer.
The wisdom of crowds is also the basis for other models of large group decision-making — citizens’ assemblies and deliberative polls.
Both processes are designed to represent the views of large populations, but not through the election of representatives.
Rather, representatives are chosen by sortition — a democratic lottery.
During the last few decades, as politicians engage in bitter partisan struggles that threaten our democracies, citizens assemblies, deliberative polls and sortition have been gaining attention around the world.
Increasingly, it seems, people trust their fellow citizens more than they trust their elected leaders.
The subtitle of James Surowiecki’s book gives me hope: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations.
So, if he’s right, we can harness the wisdom of crowds for a new reality in business, economies, societies and nations.