What Is the Difference Between a Trustee and an Instructed Delegate?

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Trustees and instructed delegates are individuals elected by the public to represent their interests in the House of Representatives and the Senate. They represent two divergent theories on the roles of representatives in government. A trustee makes decisions based on personal judgment, while an instructed delegate makes decisions based on feedback from constituents.

Representation in Government

Although people use the terms democracy and republic interchangeably, and have done so for years, there are some distinctions between these types of governments. They both refer to government based on the rule of the people, in contrast to monarchies and dictatorships that give absolute power to a single individual.


In early democracies like The Athenian Assembly, every male citizen was able to vote on important issues. Each voter was allowed to speak and offer opinions on the topics they had to consider. A simple majority vote won and became the law of the land. Republics, on the other hand, are governments in which the people choose individuals to represent them and cast votes on their behalf.


Trustee Model of Representation


In a trustee model of representation, the people choose a representative they trust to make the best decisions for the constituents. This gives the trustee the freedom to cast votes based on his or her conscience or opinion instead of polling the will of the people. By electing the trustee, the constituents essentially give their approval for the trustee's decisions while in office.


Delegate Model of Representation


The delegate model of representation is a form of agency in which the people elect officials who they expect to carry out their wishes. Under this model, the constituents “fire” delegates who do not meet their expectations by voting for someone else in the election cycle. Ideally, this keeps delegates in close contact with their constituents so they know how they should vote on policy matters.


Advantages and Limitations of the Trustee Model


In the trustee model, the majority is less likely to take control of the government. The trustee has the freedom to make decisions based on what they believe is best for the government and the people. Ideally, they spend their time investigating the issues at hand, and analyzing the available options before making decisions that best meet the needs of all interested parties. Yet, it's not always possible to meet the needs of all constituents, which places a tremendous amount of pressure on the elected official who must speak for a large group of people with sometimes conflicting interests.


Advantages and Limitations of the Delegate Model


The delegate model provides a way for the people to have a direct voice in government through the people they elect to represent them. Ideally, they regularly communicate with their delegates. However, this also has the potential to give greater power to the majority, especially if the delegates only hear from a fraction of the people they represent. Instructed delegates also deal with the frustration of balancing both influential groups and their party’s interests with those of the people.