What are Citizens’ Assemblies?

This is an extract from Tony Czarnecki’s book: ‘Democracy for a Human Federation’

If democracy as a system is to survive, we will have to accept that it cannot be reduced to voting alone. Yes, the main strengths of elections are accountability and competency. However, their main weakness is that they are the source of political inequality and a systemic partisanship, which undermine an objective and impartial dialogue for the benefit of all, and not for a specific class represented by a particular party. Such a situation has gradually created the current crisis of democracy best exemplified by the spreading wave of populism. Citizens are becoming deeply disillusioned by being systematically manipulated by politicians of various provenance, using the power of the latest socio-psychological techniques applied by the mainstream and social media. That’s why elections and referenda must be invigorated with new ways in which citizens can participate. We have to think ‘out of the box’ and see that elections are only one of the tools of democracy.

Since participating in decision making is everybody’s natural need, we need to devise new ways of a much deeper engagement of citizens in making political decisions. People care deeply about their communities and want their voice to be heard. How could we then improve the citizens’ engagement in a democratic process, extending beyond once every few years elections? Greeks, and some Italian states in the Renaissance period, had a solution. It was drafting representatives (men only, women were not included) by drawing a lot that why sometimes it was called allotment or a sortition. They swore an oath that they were not acting under bribes. In ancient Athenian democracy, sortition was mainly used as a method for appointing political officials and its use was regarded as a principal characteristic of a true democracy. The logic behind that system of electing political representatives originates from the idea that “power corrupts.” That’s the main reason why sortition was initially used.

Today, most people, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, come in contact with sortition at least once in their lifetime, when they are randomly selected to serve as a member of a jury in municipal and national courts. In recent years, quite a few proposals have emerged, which argue that the representative democracy could be significantly improved by replacing elections with sortition or including it as part of a legislative process, like drafting or amending a new constitution, as was the case in the Republic of Ireland in 2012. Let me remind the sceptics that in places where some form of democracy was present, decisions on public issues were taken by lot for well over 2000 years, whereas representative democracy as a means of making decisions on public matters is barely 200 years old. Perhaps we can learn a lot from looking again at… drawing lots.

Structured debates with a random sample of citizens, promise to generate a more vital, dynamic and inclusive form of democracy than governing a country on the basis of elections run every four or five years. I will look at this from a wider perspective than just for electing representatives to legislative bodies as was mainly the case in the ancient Greece. But I will also consider potential consequences for the public good in a more general sense.

Let me start with describing and giving examples of two types of making important decisions by using a method of sortition: Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens’ Chambers. This will form the background for assessing advantages and disadvantages of sortition as a potential tool for improving democracy in general.

Citizens’ Assemblies have suddenly become the subject of political debates in the context of the planned Future of Europe Conference to be held over two years, starting in the autumn 2020. So far, they have been formed to make decisions on one-off political or social matters. The assumption is that an assembly that uses a sortition method to select the representatives of the population from a given district, region or a whole nation, would make decisions in a more informed, fair and deliberative setting, than it would have been the case in an electoral process. Here are some examples of Citizens’ Assemblies:

  • Law court juries are formed through sortition in some countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom.
  • Citizens’ juries or citizens’ assemblies have been used to provide input to policy makers. For example, in 2004, a randomly selected group of citizens in British Columbia convened to propose a new electoral system. This Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was repeated three years later in Ontario.
  • MASS LBP, a Canadian company inspired by the work of the Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform, has pioneered the use of Citizens’ Reference Panels for addressing a range of policy issues for public sector clients. The Reference Panels use civic lotteries, a modern form of sortition, to randomly select citizen-representatives from the general public.
  • Democracy in Practice’, an international organization dedicated to democratic innovation, experimentation and capacity-building, has implemented sortition within schools, randomly selecting members of student governments in Bolivia.
  • Danish Consensus conferences give ordinary citizens a chance to make their voices heard in debates on public policy. The selection of citizens is not perfectly random, but still aims to be representative.
  • The South Australian Constitutional Convention was a deliberative opinion poll created to consider changes to the state constitution.
  • Private organizations can also use sortition. For example, the Samaritan Ministries health plan uses a panel of 13 randomly selected members to resolve disputes, which sometimes leads to policy changes [50]
  • You may wish to find the most current global list (with a map) of places worldwide where Citizens’ Assemblies have been used on the Sortition Foundation site.

Citizens’ Assemblies have, for good reason, generally focussed on rare political issues that do not involve money, such as electoral reform or gay rights. This makes them vastly easier to handle competently because they do not involve weighing fiscal trade-offs with competing issues. One of the best examples was a Constitutional Assembly in Ireland in 2012-2014. It was set up to review several articles of the constitution of Ireland. In October 2012 The Irish government appointed the chairman of the convention, an economist Tom Arnold. An independent research bureau put together the random group of 66 citizens, drafted by a lot, taking account of age, sex and place of birth from both Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Among the members of the convention were also 33 elected politicians who were selected proportionally from each party. This group met one weekend per month for more than a year. The diversity that process produced was helpful when it came to discussing such subjects as same-sex marriage, the rights of women or the ban on blasphemy in the current constitution. However, they did not do all this alone. Participants listened to experts and received input from other citizens (more than a thousand contributions came in on the subject of gay marriage). In January 2014 the chairman of the Constitutional Convention addressed the Seanad on the Convention’s work, listing the principles under which it operated as openness, fairness, equality of voice, efficiency, and collegiality.

The decisions made by the Convention did not have the force of law; the recommendations first had to be passed by the two chambers of the Irish parliament, then by the government. Only then were the recommendations put to a vote in a referendum. The referendum approved the proposed changes, resulting in important modification in the Irish Constitution.

One variant of sortition has been applied by the Kurds in their referendum on independence carried out in September 2017. It is called democratic confederalism and its key proponent is Abdullah Ocalan – the Kurd leader who has spent the last 20 years in a Turkish jail. Under democratic confederalism, the power is devolved not from top down but from bottom up. The basic, lowest level of a political unit is a local assembly representing a village or an urban district. These assemblies then elect people to represent their interests in wider confederations, which in turn choose members to provide a voice in the region as a whole (Ocalan rejects the idea of the nation state). The federal government is purely administrative: it does not make policy but implements the proposals passed to it by the assemblies.