By Brett Hennig
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 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. This experiment is unprecedented. To this author’s knowledge, no other national government has commissioned a group of randomly selected citizens to deliberate on its behalf—on such controversial topics as climate change and abortion—and then pushed the results forward.
Although the Irish have done it all before.
In 2012-2014, they held a Constitutional Convention, which resulted in the successful referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage. Before that, a collaboration between academics and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) had organized a research-funded citizens’ assembly, which arguably set the scene for these later events.
Now, the neighboring UK government has announced funding for several citizens’ assemblies, as part of an Innovation in Democracy scheme, detailed in its new Civil Society Strategy. The word is spreading.
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.
It’s fortunate that politicians find citizens’ assemblies helpful, because it gives us hope that they will continue to promote them; not necessarily understanding that, in the process, they are demonstrating how democracy can be done differently. Indeed, how it can be done without professional politicians.
If citizens’ assemblies can successfully achieve thoughtful decisions about nuclear waste (in Australia), abortion and same-sex marriage (in Ireland), the constitution (in Iceland), city planning (in Canada) and a host of other topics…who needs politicians anymore?
Which is where the Sortition Foundation and Building a New Reality come in. These separate organizations both aim at redefining how politics is done, and both believe that combining random selection (also called “sortition”) and deliberation are the way forward. The Sortition Foundation has recently finalized their strategy document, outlining a 3-phase process to radically transform democracy to what they call “Sortition Democracy.”
It appears, in Ireland and many other countries around the world, that Phase 1 is well underway. There are hints that Phase 2 may also be fast approaching, with a regional parliament in Belgium commissioning a study in early 2018 into how they could complement their single-chamber legislature with a second permanent sortition body. More news on that should be coming soon.
Deliberative sortition assemblies are also happening in the U.S. James Fishkin of Stanford University has held more than one hundred Deliberative Polls™, in which a representative, randomly selected group of citizens make decisions in a fair and respectful setting.
The “What’s Next California?” assembly, featured in a one-hour television special, was composed of 412 people. They deliberated for three days on how California should be governed. Complexity is no barrier to good deliberation between everyday citizens.
Electoral party politics is broken and dysfunctional. Everyone knows that. But now there is hope. By promoting sortition assemblies in your local area, about controversial local issues that politicians can’t tackle because they are constrained by powerful vested interests, you will be supporting the first phase of a dramatic democratic transformation.
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,” and the beginning of a real democracy of, by and for the people.
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