Monday, August 29, 2005

Have Planning Commissions and City Councils Cast Secret Ballots?

At the Western Planner/Utah APA Conference a few weeks ago, I gave a presentation called "How Collective Wisdom Can Help Plan Our Communities." My comments were based on a book, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations, by James Surowiecki.

The basic idea of the book is, if you can find a way to tap into the "opinions" of large groups of people in objective ways, the group is remarkably good at picking the right answers.

That's a vast oversimplification, but the book is pretty fascinating stuff. For instance, it starts off with the example of English country fairs in the late 1800's, where a social scientist tried to prove that the "average" citizen is not good at guessing the weight of oxen. Instead, what he found, as he collected all the guesses that were made and then averaged them, was that the "crowd" came amazingly close to the actual weight every time. Other examples he uses are things like the stock market and opinion polls.

The book goes on to refine the notion, and give a lot of other examples. It also talks about decision-making by small groups, like committees, juries and commissions.

Surowiecki culls some basic principles out of the examples about how to get the best wisdom of groups. He says the best decisions result when the group is diverse (so not everyone in the group is alike and thinks the same way), you have a way to aggregate their decisions (like a market or a poll), and everyone can make their decision independently.

As I talked about the dynamics of these principles for a small group like a planning commission or city council, I discussed the importance of having each member make their decisions independently to get the best result. That is something difficult to do in these settings, for a couple of reasons.

First, the commission or council usually discusses the matter before them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, because done correctly (!) it brings out more information and other ideas to be considered. The problem comes in what Surowiecki calls an "information cascade" -- that is, one person expresses an opinion or casts a vote, and others simply jump on the bandwagon because they figure what the heck, that person must be right because I sure don't know.

How often have we watched a vote of a planning commission or city council take place, and some members hold back to see how others vote first? Such behavior, according to the author, can actually make a group dumber because it increases the chances that there is piling on onto a dumb decision. Yes, someone in the group will likely make a "dumb" vote, but overall, if each member of the group is acting independently, it should average out to get a better vote. That won't happen if group members just "pile on" to the vote made by the first member, because either they don't know, or it's the "safe" vote.

Second, group members are sometimes influenced in the vote they cast by the public in attendence, watching closely how they vote. Occassionally, the public who shows up at the meeting feel strongly about the issue one way or the other, and it can be extremely intimidating for the commission/council members in how they cast their vote.

So, I threw out the idea, what if we had planning commissions/city councils cast secret ballots? This would eliminate many of those problems, and would help ensure the independent decision-making that Surowiecke says is key to making better decisions.

An interesting idea we kicked around for a while, but I knew, given our tradition of public and open meetings, such an idea would likely never fly. People want to know (and rightly so) how a particular council person voted on a given issue, so they can decide whether to re-elect them in the next election.

But, an intriguing idea, no?


At 5:21 PM, Blogger ARCritic said...

Yes, that is an interesting idea.

I know the council I sit on often has 'piling on' or intimidated members.

One other thing that I don't think you mentioned was that sometimes members have agendas and their comments in the discussion are intended to persuade other members to vote a particular way. And that is an OK thing as long as there is no conflict of insterest.

I wonder if there would be a way to have a secret ballot followed by a recorded one.

Of course, this supposes that on most city councils there are enough smart ones to average out the dumb ones. ;-)

At 5:23 PM, Blogger ARCritic said...

PS did you see the two articles in the paper today (trib or news, I don't remember). One was about a guy in Park City who made changes to his house to help satisfy some of his neighbor's concerns and the other about the McMansions where they did not try to work with the neighbors?

At 6:39 PM, Blogger RudiZink said...

You were doing great until you got to the "secret ballot" idea, Comrade Sommercorn.

At 1:28 PM, Blogger ARCritic said...

Rudi, have you never found that politicians (and really people in general) will say one thing when they think the conversation is private but say something different when it is public?

I agree that it would not be a good idea to allow secret ballots for public bodies. I am a very pro public process person. I have even voted more than once AGAINST our council going into executive session because I think that it is rarely nessesary.

I think what Wilf is proposing is that too many times what is right can get overwhelmed by what is popular or what is PC or what is in the best interest of a special interest that the person making the decision wants to please. And if those pressures were somehow lifted that better decisions might be made.

The problem is that those same conditions can lead to even worse decisions.

And while I made my last statement in my first comment is jest, it is probably truer than most would want to admit. I think that is what you and others continually allude to (or more often just come right out and say) over at the WCF.


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