Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation


When designing citizen engagement mechanisms I always consider sortition (or randomization) as a mechanism of participant selection. Nevertheless, and particularly in the #opengov space, my experience is that this idea does not resonate a lot: it sounds less sexy than crowdsourcing and more complicated than over-simplistic mechanisms of “civil society engagement”.

This is why it is always great to see someone like Lawrence Lessig putting forward a system of  “Citizen Conventions” for proposing amendments to the Constitution based upon sortition. In this video below, at a hearing at the U.S. Senate’s Commission of Justice, Lessig explains in a few seconds how such a system would work:

With his unique eloquence, Lessig also makes the best case for ordinary citizens to engage with the Constitution and reforms:

I think to the surprise of many people, you would see that ordinary people deliberating about what the Constitution needs and how the reforms should go forward, would far surpass ninety eight percent of what is commonly discussed in this particular context. And that’s because, frankly, politics is the one sport where the amateur is better for the nation than the professional.

Lessig’s remark on the amateur’s role in politics reminds me of something I read a while ago from the apologue of Protagoras. When charged with taking to humans the art of politics, Mercury asks Jupiter whether it should be distributed like the other arts, to the competent ones only. Jupiter replies that the art of politics should be distributed to all. Otherwise, says Jupiter, the city would not exist.

Democracy by Sortition, Government by Lot

Personally, I am a strong sympathiser of democracy by sortition.

Historically, the main references to government by sortition refer to Classical Athens and the Florentine Republic in the Early Renaissance.

View of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Picture by jrgcastro on flickr.

For those interested in the Florentine experience, in general less known to the public, here’s a great draft paper [pdf] by Yves Sintomer that he presented during a meeting we had a couple of years ago at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio. In the paper, among other things, Yves describes the experience of the Florentine Republic and contrasts it with recent democratic innovations based on random selection. As to these recent experiments, alongside citizens’ juries,  probably one of the most studied experiments with sortition in recent history refers to British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

At a time when citizen participation is considered – at least in theory – an important part of the open government movement, those working in this sphere should pay particular attention to different methods of participant selection (e.g. self-selection, randomized) and what the prospects and limits for each of these different methods are.

An awesome read on this subject is the book Democratic Innovations by Graham Smith. Among other things, Graham looks at the impact that different  institutional designs (and methods of selection) have on the inclusiveness of participatory experiences.

If you are interested in sortition, a good resource to follow is the Equality by Log blog. In the blog I just came across an interesting presentation [PDF] by Yoram Gat on the subject of sortition compared to traditional (i.e. representative) democratic institutions.

Maybe after some of these readings you may become a sympathiser of government by lot as well.