Thoughts about Sortition Assemblies

A sortition assembly is supposed to be a randomly selected group of citizens from a population that is reasonably representative of the diversity of interests in that population, and which by some means is invested with the authority to make policy decisions for the government of that population. There are activists who believe that sortitions should replace the role of politicians in public policymaking. I am fairly skeptical of the notion of replacing politicians with sortition assemblies, but I do think sortitions might be used to produce superior quality policy decisions in many situations, and probably can be used to hold politicians more accountable to the public.

My intuition is that if sortition assemblies were to enter the sphere of politics, they should work together with experts and experienced professionals rather than supplanting them. The questions I have about sortitions are several, and probably will continue to proliferate and develop as we continue to discuss the concept. I wanted to begin a discussion about them here, with the hope to produce an understanding of their scope, strengths and weaknesses, and any other considerations that people have about them.

Some general points I want to bring up. First, sortitions do not solve the voting problem. Even if sortition assemblies are supposed to produce public policy directly, there remains the question of how a sortition is supposed to come to a policy decision. Secondly, it is unclear how sortition assemblies are to construct a policy agenda. Is there a separate sortition used to choose the policy agenda and assigns policy decisions to other sortition assemblies? Both of these points illustrate a need for central authority, and I have the feeling that the only way to maintain central, legitimate authority is through a body of elected (not randomly selected) representatives, hence we return to the voting problem. The issue of authority is related to the issue of responsibility: I believe that policymakers need to be able to be held socially responsible for their policy decisions, and this is a problem if sortition assemblies are the policymakers. Thirdly, the issue of districting still exists in terms of local governments—gerrymandering, flocking, etc. And finally, I think the most obvious issue is the lack of cohesive experience a sortition assembly will likely have regarding more niche policy areas. This is the price that must be paid for the cognitive diversity inherent to a sortition assembly, and for the prospect of diversified empathy between individuals of differing opinions, beliefs or perspectives who would otherwise not meet or compromise.

At university I took a course called The Business Case for Diversity, where we analyzed the situations in which cognitive diversity is superior even to professional expertise. Cognitive diversity is usually superior to expertise when it comes to solving novel or very difficult problems, but is usually inefficient at problem solving when the problems are not difficult for experts to solve. In the case of representative government, there is more at play in terms of incentives of public officials that may make diverse sortition assemblies more desirable, but they still have their limitations and should not in my opinion be viewed as a magic wand or as a replacement for politicians or experts.

Anyway, here are some initial thoughts of mine to add to the conversation. I think that it might be beneficial to the structure of the government if indeed there were a “House of Commons,” for example, made up of randomly invited individuals with voluntary attendance and no admission without invitation, that could affect policymaking decisions, for example through veto power or some such thing. Perhaps each invitation lasts only for a term, and the first X people who accept their invitation are allowed to join for the term, with any surplus on reserve for replacement in the event of absence, emergency or death. There would also need to be audits in place to ensure that the selection process is indeed unbiased and randomized.

I also think that a sortition assembly should be allowed to invite by some means an “expert panel” with whom to discuss their policy deliberations. It may also be beneficial to have certain competency requirements to be eligible for an invitation, perhaps even context-dependent requirements for certain policy areas. Those requirements could also be established by a sortition, that being its policy agenda.

TLDR, I think sortitions could be a very useful tool for effective governance, but you probably shouldn’t use a hammer to tighten a bolt, for example… Sortitions should be used efficiently for what they are good at, and the same goes for politicians. Any thoughts are welcome! Thank you.

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I think it is very usefull to think more about sortition assemblies and deliberation as a part of governing institutions and processes, so thanks for your post!
There is as small region in the east of begium called Ostbelgien that had gone farther than any nation that I know off. A good artikel on this is https://medium.com/participo/how-ostbelgien-became-a-trailblazer-in-deliberative-democracy-62c3bb1fa560 .
Also let me tip you on quite a few interesting english articles (between other language-articles) on https://www.tegenverkiezingen.nl/artikelen

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One interesting variant would be:
1 a regular parliament comes up with f.i. 7 variants that have an (almost) equal political support
2 a chosen president can block 2 variants
3 a temperory citizen sortition assembley deliberates and ultimately chooses 1 (policy-)winner
4 the regular parliament can make small amendments to te details of the winner-text from step 3 but it would need at least 65% support within the parliament

sometimes it might be wise to let a citizen assembly be agendasetting or just advisory, there are many many different possiblities which may be better in different situations. For instance a favorit of mine is the role of deliberation in single-peak issues: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/46863/1/Deliberation,%20single-peakedness,%20and%20the%20possibility%20of%20meaningful%20democracy(lsero).pdf

FairVote Canada is hosting a meeting on this soon. It is in prep for their Citizens assembly. More here

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