Seeking sortitionist collaborator-partner-advisors for Sierra Leone

I recently met a former colleague and friend from Sierra Leone. He is intrigued with the political use of sortition and wants to implement it, beginning with local councils. He says that since Sierra Leone is one of the primary concerns of the UN’s Peacebuilding Commission, it is the perfect place to institute ‘the next step for democracy’.

Mr. Pokawa is a dual citizen of the US and of his birthplace. In Sierra Leone he and his family have prominence and credibility. Mr. Pokawa has been making regular visits and was considering running for political office in his home district.

As we discussed this matter, he and I agreed that we probably would benefit from involving an institution or individual with recognized expertise and credibility in political science. I wonder if any contributor to this blog might be interested or make a recommendation?

I immediately thought of Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy but I’ve had no correspondence with Professor James Fishkin. Besides, they seem to be limiting themselves to short-term sortitionally-selected advisory bodies. Am I correct in that assumption?

17 Responses

  1. Could’t hurt to ask Fishkin. Another possibility if the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes, which conducts “Citizen Juries.” See–

    There’s also the late Peter Dienel’s center/institute in Germany, but I don’t know how to find them given my total ignorance of German. Anyone know how to find them?

    Let me know if I can help further. I know pretty much nothing about Sierra Leone, but would otherwise be happy to help.


  2. This is intriguing…In addition to Fishkin’s experiments, and the British Columbia organizers, some political scientists in Australia helped pull together an advisory sortition assembly called the Australian Citizens’ Parliament in 2009. The core for this effort was the New Democracy Foundation
    They are all about sortition being better than election. In addition, I’d suggest contacting Prof. Lyn Carson at the University of Western Sydney (a board member of NDF), or Prof. John Dryzek at the Australian National University.

    I also have some relevant credentials…having been an elected state Representative in the U.S. as well as an election administrator for non-profits…. But I am not able to lead an effort of this magnitude (nor do I have any money sources), though I would love to help if I could.


  3. Yes, we’d be interested in speaking with Mr Pokawa.

    We are in touch with a number of people internationally looking at adopting some of the materials and methods we have developed and I’m keen to have the conversation. Please get in touch via email iain.walker[at] and we can set up a time to speak.

    Iain Walker
    Executive Director
    The newDemocracy Foundation


  4. “… beginning with local councils.” Here we go again, the tried-and-failed-failed-failed theory being that a little sortition is better than no sortition at all. There are some things in this life that require principled commitment rather than mere “experimentation,” re-experimentation, actually. If the electoral fairness of democracy and of representation is “right” for, let’s say the US House, why is it simultaneously “wrong” – even “temporarily” – for the Senate and the Presidency? Anything less than BEL (BLANKET Election-by-Lot) is doomed from the start simply because sortition will never get any further into the body politic; History has proved that! And why? Because piecemeal sortition gives warning to the contemporary masters of the Oligarchy to dig their heels in and resist with all the ill-gotten Power and Money they have. The Arch-Enemy of Americans is the all-time, all-places Arch-Enemy of all of Mankind, Oligarchy. Government-by-the-Few is ALL Man has ever known, yet “known” always by some other label, never “Oligarchy.” So I see the news from Sierra Leone as just another half-hearted trial-to-error. Sorry about that!


  5. Richard, you raise two distinct questions. First, what is the ideal scope for sortition in our democratic institutions? Second, given the ideal scope, how should we go about getting it? With regard to the first, it’s not at all clear to me that just because sortition might be right for a legislative body that it’s also right for an executive office. Even Athens made use of elections for a select few offices, and relied upon direct democracy for other decisions. With regard to the second, yes, there are very legitimate concerns that we won’t get an accurate read of what sortition on a large scale will be like from sortition on a small scale. I’m just puzzled as to what the alternative strategy is right now.


  6. Thanks, Peter. You are Johnny-on-the-spot, as I just entered this less than half an hour ago. Regarding Athens, 104 years or whatever your measure of sortition in that culture was, was the beginning of something that went no place, not in any overview of History. Fairness via democracy via sortition — a sortition which includes a practical and systematic exclusion from the candidate pool only the certified homemakers, the certified illiterates, the certified mentally retarded, the certified physically incapable, the certified conscientous objector, and convicted felons. I know that Oligarchy International would want the Senate and for sure the Presidency reserved for only the type which they regard as “flexible,” i.e., the Popularity Contest victor, but leaving them with that foothold has proven itself all that they need to continue their ruling of the rulers.


  7. Richard,

    There are now 3 distinct points:

    1. Extent: selecting a body of a few hundred people by lot is very different from selecting a single person by lot. In the case of the first, we have the laws of probability working for us, guaranteeing representativity. In the latter case, it is quite possible that an extremist of one sort or another would come to wield significant, unchecked power.

    2. Transition: despite believing that sortition would prove to be a superior technique for delegation to elections, I think it would be foolish to make the transition abrupt. There is too much to lose, and there are too many unknowns to ignore the possibility that something may go wrong. In fact, it is because sortition, when done right, is likely to be successful that a gradual transition is the best policy. It will allow to tune the sortition-based system so it best serves the people, and allow it to gain popularity so that its reach matches its legitimacy (i.e., its perceived effectiveness).

    3. Exclusions: as I have written to you before, your willingness to exclude large parts of the population from the allotment pool are wrong at both the level of democratic principle and at the level of democratic practice. Anyone could find themselves labeled “insane”, “felon”, etc. Why would you be willing to trust the powers-that-be with the authority to exclude people from political power? Isn’t that quite similar to the effects of the popularity-contest that you so despise?


  8. As a “certified” conscientous objector, why on earth would I accept a government as legitimate that excluded people like me? I suspect the homemakers would not take disenfranchisement very kindly either.

    Not that it would appear to be a likely problem, since a system of your design, Richard Ward, is apparently supposed to materialize of its own, spontaneously and fully formed, without anyone actually doing anything in the present system to realize it.


  9. Harald: The “homemaker” deferment would be granted only if requested by said homemaker. And your addressing me by name suggests that I alone what be expected to lay out every detail of the establishment of BEL before Harald will be willing to entertain the idea. If so, then the plan will have to be realized without you. Noble ideas are worthless if they can be kept as only that, ideas.


  10. > If so, then the plan will have to be realized without you. Noble ideas are worthless if they can be kept as only that, ideas.

    They will, and true, they are. Though in my opinion your ideas fall a lot short of “noble”.


  11. Yoram: 1. Extent: selecting a body of a few hundred people by lot is very different from selecting a single person by lot. In the case of the first, we have the laws of probability working for us, guaranteeing representativity. In the latter case, it is quite possible that an extremist of one sort or another would come to wield significant, unchecked power.

    Note that this observation is also true when allotted representatives act in an individual capacity (whereas representativity is retained in voting as all votes carry an equal weight). In order for the laws of probability to equalise the illocutionary force of individual speech acts the allotted chamber would have to be so large that the benefit of allotment would be entirely forfeit as the principle of rational ignorance would prevail.

    But I am persuaded by your argument 3, in that felons and the insane are likely to comprise an non-significant element of the aggregate vote. My earlier proposal was for a modest IQ threshold to ensure all members could follow the debate, but I’m happy now to forego that. Richard would appear to wish to exclude most of the current electorate.


  12. > In order for the laws of probability to equalise the illocutionary force of individual speech acts the allotted chamber would have to be [very] large

    I have no idea what you are talking about, but please feel free to elaborate.


  13. Just read my post on What Sortition Can and Cannot Do, where it’s all carefully explained.


  14. Individual speech acts in an alloted assembly are representative of the speech acts people from the source group would make in an assembly – of course. The problem of variation (sometimes a really charismatic individual may be selected) is there, but it’s not clear how much larger a problem this variation would be, compared to the variation in a voting-only assembly.

    Also, as the assembly increases in size, the skills needed to adress it effectively increases, so the relative advantage of communication talent increases as well. It is thus not clear that increasing chamber size decreases variation.

    When it comes to discussion, any possible practical arrangement of the assembly gives advantages to some people and disadvantages to others. Just as there are some that have a talent for making their opinions heard in large groups, there are probably people with special talent for swaying small groups (say, 8-10 people around a table).

    But that does not mean mass politics is just as good as small scale deliberation, as your proposal implies.


  15. Where exactly in that post do you invoke the laws of probability to show a connection between chamber size and “eqaulisation of illuctionary force”?


  16. I agree with Harald.


  17. Harald: leaving aside the conceptual incoherence of the ‘descriptive representative’ (as opposed to the concept of a descriptively-representative assembly), I’m sure Habermasians would claim that illocutionary differences could be ironed out by procedural rules. But these people are not democrats in any way that we understand the word. Take, for example, Jon Elster’s Deliberative Democracy (1998), in which he argues that Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol is the ‘most famous statement of the case for deliberative democracy’ (p.3). Burke, of course, was no democrat and was strongly opposed to the notion of proportionality, as he argued that the goal of parliament was to divine the laws of God and nature via rational discourse alone. Most political theorists (other than ‘deliberative democrats’) view political equality, or (sometimes) majoritarianism as the normative core of democracy, this is why Aristotle described democracy as the rule of the poor (as there were a lot more of them). But for Elster, democracy is ‘any kind of effective and formalized control by citizens over leaders or policies’ (p.98). No mention of representativity, proportionality etc., just ‘citizens’ (Rousseau and Robespierre would have approved). This is the reason that deliberative theorists are not, at root, democrats, they are rationalists, so I don’t think you can draw any comfort from them regarding the power of institutional procedures to equalize the illocutionary power of all participants. They are only interested in the epistemically right answer and are contemptuous of democracy’s claims for aggregation, proportionality and representativity.

    Yoram: the argument was implicit in the earlier post, sorry if I suggested otherwise. Pollsters require a minimum number in order to equalise the representation of salient characteristics in a given population. The aggregate result of the poll can then be said to ‘represent’ the target population, according to the laws of probability. The probability of individual members reflecting anything other than their own limited perspective/interests is highly unlikely and, when combined with status and rhetorical differences, this would require a very large number of active participants in order to properly describe the target population (at which point rational ignorance would intervene). A Ciceronian orator arguing one perspective would need to be balanced by an equivalent for every other perspective; ditto for the incoherent dumbo and every position in between.

    I think you implicitly acknowledge this when you argue that representativity is impossible in a ‘corrupt’ society, as you hold it necessary that members should suspend their own interests for the sake of the common good:

    This is a noble Rousseauvian aspiration, but then so was Madison’s competing republican vision. History has judged them equally harshly as they have both led to different forms of corruption. Liberal pluralists (like me) accept that citizens are interest-bearing and are sceptical of notions of the general will in anything other than an aggregate sense, hence our insistence that representation should at no stage sacrifice proportionality. The greatest good of the greatest number, along with liberal constitutional protections for human rights and minority interests, is about as good as it gets. No doubt all this is ‘corrupt’ according to republican principles, but I prefer to live in the real world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: