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Trustee vs. Delegate: A False Dichotomy?

Antonio Lambino's picture

A large number of posts on this blog have revolved around citizen engagement in the policymaking process.  Some have centered on public participation in public sector budgeting.  We have featured, among others, a deliberative poll in Zeguo Township, China, participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and a book on participatory budgeting with examples from six countries, including India, Mexico, South Africa, and Croatia.  We have also talked about the much touted success of newspaper publication of education sector budgets in Uganda.  Public Expenditure Tracking Surveys found that public access to budget information led to a strong and significant reduction in corruption.

In my mind, these examples break down the wall which 18th century political philosopher Edmund Burke erected between the “trustee” vs. “delegate” models of democratic representation (he favored the former). 

In 1774, Burke argued that as a trustee of the public interest, an elected official owes his (or her!) constituents

“his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience… Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

In contrast, a delegate is not supposed to hew against the grain of public opinion.  Under this view, an elected delegate must represent and vote in line with the will of the people she or he represents. 

I think Burke’s preference for the trustee over delegate model is well justified and quite straightforward:

“If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?”

Now here’s where the wall begins to crumble.  In the participatory budgeting models mentioned above, citizens do deliberate.  And citizens, not just elected officials, are able to exercise their own reason and judgment.  When they do, examples from around the world have shown that participatory decision-making prcoesses can lead to positive outcomes.  That’s why providing citizens with technical information on policy options in an accessible form is a critical component of these participatory exercises, if they are to be meaningful.  Of course, elected officials, especially those in the executive branch, must harness the political will to see the process through.  This is critical in building political efficacy and giving participation its real-world value because it is reasonable to expect that decisions made with the aid of citizen deliberation, especially when solicited, be implemented.

Citizen deliberation and its role in formal public decision-making has the potential to break down the wall between Burke’s representation models since it calls on elected officials to be both trustees and delegates.  If they do what is necessary for citizens to be well informed, these officials can serve as trustees of participatory processes as well as delegates of their outcomes.

Photo credit: Flickr user cliff1066

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