Much of church government is carried out in councils and recently they have been received new emphasis, particularly from Elder Ballard. Councils are, however, a problem.
At least one of the points of counselling with councils is to deliberate about policies, programs, and decisions. The idea behind this is that a lot of information and wisdom is dispersed and councils provide a way of aggregating it in one place. The problem is that deliberation is by and large a bad way of aggregating information. There are a fairly large number of experimental studies showing that deliberation very seldom changes the minds of deliberators. Rather, it has a tendency to polarize decisions. If you were slightly in favor of X at the beginning of deliberations, you are likely to be strongly in favor of X at the end of deliberations. The problem is greatest when the deliberating group already has wide areas of agreement.
For example, Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School has done a massive study of voting behavior by three judge federal court of appeals panels. What he found is that when all of the judges on a panel were Democratic appointees, the judges were much more liberal than the same judges were when on panels with with one or two Republican appointees. Republicans showed the same tendency. (Interestingly, minority judges tended to behave the same regardless of party affiliation, e.g. a Republican judge sitting with two Democrats behaved virtually identically to a Democrat sitting with two Republicans.)
All of this suggests that there are reasons for believing that deliberations within councils are likely to produce polarized and extreme decisions rather than wise decisions. (Although clearly sometimes an extreme decision may be wise.) There are ways, of course, of avoiding some of these problems. One approach is to create a strong norm in favor of vigorous dissent within the council. The internal deliberations within the Reagan Administration, for example, did this, while those within the current administration do not. (Also, from what I gather the Quorum of the Twelve has norms along these lines: vigorous dissent within the council and absolute unity outside of the council). Even this approach, however, only mitigates the problem. Vigorous dissent often means that deliberators migrate to multiple poles rather than a single pole.
Another possibility is to require anonymous statements of position at the outset. This is a rule favored by Sunstein. It is not clear, however, that it avoids the polarizing effect of deliberation after the fact, although it does encourage the disclosure of private information and views. Another option was used by FDR, who rather than deliberating in large meetings, would solicit as many independent views as possible in one-on-one settings, which tend to avoid the polarizing effects of group deliberation.
Of course, even if deliberation is a bad way of aggregating dispersed wisdom and information, councils still have other virtues. Most notably, deliberation and participation increases the legitimacy of decisions and encourages buy-in by participants, even if the decisions themselves are not so good. There are other, however, non-deliberative ways of aggregating information that probably work better than deliberative councils standing alone. Widespread voting is one method. This is not necessarily a brief for “democracy” as we conceive it, since elections involve public deliberation — albeit of a fairly low quality — that tend to lead to polarization. Rather, I am talking about something like asking the audience the answer on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” They usually got it right.
Of course, the best way of aggregating dispersed information and wisdom is through some sort of market that produces prediction based on all of the decisions of participants to invest their own resources and rewards them for being right. Political futures markets, for example, have been uncannily accurate in their ability to call elections. The trick, of course, is to figure out how to set up a prediction market in something like successful programs for the young men in my ward.