The U.K.’s Sortition Foundation advocates replacing the British House of Lords with a “House of Citizens,” so that the elected House of Commons could not pass legislation without the consent of a statistically representative group of citizens in a second legislature. The Foundation has recently finalized its strategy document, outlining a 3-phase process to radically transform democracy to what they call “Sortition Democracy.”
According to Brett Hennig, director of the Sortition Foundation, Phase 1 is well underway in many other countries around the world. He says there is evidence that Phase 2 may also be fast approaching. (See Brett Hennig’s TedTalk on Sortition)
The earliest government-sponsored assemblies were only advisory. In 2004 and 2006, British Columbia and Ontario, Canada, and the Netherlands used citizens’ assemblies to deal with questions of electoral system reform. A quasi-random process was used to guarantee accurate geographic and demographic distribution. Participants were provided with an introductory course in electoral politics. Then they reviewed and deliberated about alternative proposals for electoral reform and made recommendations.
Belgium pioneered the first large-scale citizens’ assembly in Europe. In November, 2011, frustrated by the record-breaking political impasse in which Belgium’s two leading political parties took 589 days to form a government, private Belgian citizens acted on their own. They organized a national G1000, their name for a large experimental Citizens’ Summit that deliberated and identified key issues of concern for Belgians. Since then, the Dutch have used the G1000 concept to organize local citizens’ assemblies. The U.K. is currently sponsoring several advisory citizens’ assemblies, selected by sortition, to make recommendations about social care and various local or regional issues.
In his blogpost for my Building A New Reality website, Brett Hennig explains how, “Over the course of 18 months, from October 2016 to April 2018, ninety-nine randomly selected Irish citizens did an incredible thing: They made policy recommendations to their government. And what’s more, the government listened and responded.”
“The most well-known proposal put forth by this Irish Citizens’ Assembly (see documentary film) was that the Irish constitutional ban on abortion be removed. The resulting referendum, in May, 2018, did just that. Now the government is turning its attention to another set of recommendations coming from the citizens’ assembly: how to make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.
“Citizens’ Assemblies are growing in popularity for several reasons, not least of which is that people trust them, whereas people don’t trust politicians. A second principal reason is that, for politicians, assemblies open up a political space for controversial issues to be tackled in a non-partisan way – their legitimacy stems from the fact that they honor the informed decision of a representative group of citizens. Very few politicians wanted to talk about abortion publicly in Ireland before it went on the Citizens’ Assembly agenda. After the assembly’s deliberations you could hardly stop them.”
However, recent developments are trending from advisory toward authority—giving assemblies the power to make legally binding decisions, rather than recommendations. Since 2016, Gdansk, Poland, has delegated municipal authority to its citizenry by convening a series of assemblies that meet for several days on a specific issue. Approximately sixty citizens are randomly selected for several days to hear testimony from experts, ask questions and deliberate in small groups, and then render a binding policy decision. (Tragically, the man responsible for this democratic innovation, Gdansk’s popular mayor, Pawel Adamowicz, was assassinated on January 14, 2019.)
A regional parliament in Belgium plans to complement their single-chamber legislature with a second permanent sortition body. Similarly, Madrid, Spain intends to create a bicameral city council, with a second council chamber selected by sortition.
Brett Hennig is optimistic. He asserts that “electoral party politics is broken and dysfunctional. Everyone knows that. But now there is hope….When a critical mass of people and communities have experienced or heard about the benefits of sortition it will be time to move to the national stage and transform our broken democracies – bringing about The End of Politicians (Hennig’s book) and the beginning of a real democracy of, by and for the people.”