Summer of Sortition: What do gay marriage and financial and town planning have in common?

Answer: major policies on all three have recently emerged directly from groups selected by sortition.

Using a stratified random selection of citizens (sortition) to create policy is making steady and impressive progress. From Australia, Canada, Ireland, and throughout Belgium, the Netherlands and elsewhere, citizens’ assemblies using sortition are being held, and the practice is gaining increased media attention.

Claudia Chwalisz, a researcher at Policy Network and Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield, has made waves with the report The Populist Signal (download it here) which, among several recommendations, calls for the replacement of the House of Lords in the UK with a randomly selected Citizens’ Senate. The argument for increased use of randomly selected Citizens’ Assemblies received favourable coverage from The Independent on Sunday, and an opinion piece by Chwalisz, calling for the Canadian Senate to be replaced by a Citizens’ Assembly, appeared in the Canadian Globe and Mail.

In Australia the New Democracy Foundation continues to work with various local, state and national government bodies promoting sortition. In June the City of Melbourne adopted a 10-year, AU$4 billion financial plan developed largely by the “Melbourne People’s Panel” – a diverse group of 43 randomly selected Melbournians. In June, The Age newspaper concluded, “The Melbourne People's Panel shows the public is very smart, if given the time and information necessary to work through an issue.”

Next door in South Australia the premier of the state, Jay Weatherhill, has become convinced of the effectiveness and legitimacy of sortition – his government released a policy paper Reforming Democracy that promises to build on the three citizens’ juries, and other participatory processes already conducted by his government, and have outlined a week-long Collaboration, Innovation and Democracy Festival. The ABC declared that the premier was sending decisions back to the public.

Also in June, the Grandview Woodlands Citizens’ Assembly on town planning in Vancouver, Canada, was officially released. Forty-eight randomly selected residents met for more than 5000 hours to finalise the report. Ever since the Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform in two different provinces of Canada in 2004 and 2006 the country has been “Doing democracy differently,” according to an article in Our Windsor: “Very quietly and far from the headlines, Canada has become something of a global leader in democratic innovation and experimentation.”

In May the successful Irish referendum on gay marriage was a direct result of a recommendation made by the Irish Constitutional Convention, two thirds of whom were randomly selected citizens. If sortition had not resulted in a large, representative sample of ordinary people in this Assembly it is highly unlikely, in our opinion, that the Constitutional Convention would have recommended such a momentous change to the constitution.

From its origins in Belgium, G1000 events continues to spread. Again, according to Claudia Chwalisz: “The Flemish Minister of Culture Sven Gatz has established a Citizens’ Cabinet to advise on his upcoming legislation in October. And in more than ten Dutch cities now, local G1000 citizens’ assemblies have been transforming local government into a collaborative effort between the elected and their communities.”

Sortition is on the rise. Its time has come. Or should we say – since sortition was synonymous with democracy for thousands of years, from Aristotle to Rousseau – that its time has returned?


Other recent articles mentioning sortition include:

  • July: How Iceland used sortition: “the process where they had this national forum of one thousand randomly selected citizens brainstorming about what sort of constitution or society they wanted...”
  • July: In Canada (again) a call for referenda to be replaced, or at least preceded, by Citizens’ Assemblies, was made in the Vancouver Sun.

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