Leaving It to Chance

Posted on August 2, 2023

A hand reaches into a clear glass fishbowl filled with strips of white paper.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Adam Gaub, Communications Director at Gaston County, NC and @adamgaub on Threads. (I’m really close to giving up on Twitter/X or whatever Elon’s calling it now, but still there for now @agaub.)

What I’m Reading: Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy, by Tom Nichols

What I’m Listening to: Revisionist History podcast

Who My Pets Are: A one-eyed hound mix named Ratchet and a brindle-colored Tennessee Treeing Cur named Avery (though she’s more my wife’s dog)

I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast. The episode topics are so varied to the point of being almost obscure at times.

One of the aspects I like the most about it is Gladwell will usually come up with a premise for why the topic he is discussing is misunderstood, or why we might misunderstand something that we’ve grown to take for granted. For example, in Season 5, he brings up what he calls “The Powerball Revolution.” What he wants is to turn the idea of meritocracy on its head.

He interviews Adam Cronkright, who founded Democracy in Practice a decade ago, and took to the schools of Bolivia to experiment with a simple premise: What if leaders were chosen by a lottery? When Gladwell first introduced this concept near the beginning of the episode, I nearly dismissed it out of hand. I’m a firm believer that people who work the hardest and show the right initiative should rise to the top. I generally believe this is how local (non-elected) government works, and while it’s not perfect, it’s pretty darn good. Right?

In fact, I was so flabbergasted at the notion that leaving something as important as leaders to chance I nearly skipped the episode entirely. But this was Season 5. I’d been through enough episodes to know that even if Gladwell didn’t win me over with his premise by the end of the episode, I’d at least have a deeper appreciation for a different way of approaching a topic. So on I went.

What Cronkright found through his work in Bolivian schools is that the best leaders aren’t always the ones who step forward when the cost is making speeches and running a political campaign. What he did was ask who would want to be on student council – if the student said yes, their name essentially went into a hat. A lottery system was used and the students selected for the council were chosen completely at random.

The implication is remarkable – thoroughly capable or even exceptional leaders are being missed in the traditional system. Students who wouldn’t come forward because they didn’t think they’d be popular enough to win, or felt they weren’t well liked by their teachers actually thrived in the student council leadership role when given the opportunity. Voices were heard that were previously missed. The new councils picked from this democratic lottery system were more productive, more engaged and ultimately better served their peers.

So how does this apply to us in local government? We’ve got guidelines in HR, taxpayers to be accountable to and we can’t just leave hiring to putting all the resumes of those who meet an initial cut into a hat and picking out a winner, can we? Maybe not. But could we apply these principles to how we choose our internal committees? Instead of asking for volunteers or having supervisors pick their favorite employees to serve on committees within the organization, could we make those selections through this democratic lottery process?

At the very least, using the lottery could help curb any accusations of favoritism, as anyone who wanted to participate would merely have to put their name in a hat. But if these democratic lotteries work as well in local government as they do in the schools of Bolivia, then we might turn a corner on introducing new ideas, new ways of doing things and injecting more energy into our organizations organically.

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