Social Inventions Journal Extracts on Sortition

Here, for the sake of bibliographic completeness, are proposals for forms of sortition published in the Social Inventions Journal’s (SIJ), annual compilations from the Institute for Social Inventions, up until 2002, when it ceased publication.

Additional suggestions were posted to its website for several more years, until it was hacked and disabled, making it impossible for me to look through it. Its backup versions on the Wayback Machine do not allow one to see more than the first 25 or so entries under its “Politics” category. (I wish some charitable foundation would fund its restoration to archive status, at a minimum.)

From Re-Inventing Society, 1994, “Random selection of Lords,” by T.M. Arting Stoll, page 190

How about random selection from the population of people to serve one year in a Senate replacing the Lords?

From Best Ideas, 1995, “Voter juries, vetoes and feedback,” by Geof Mulgan and Andrew Adonis, page 245

[SIJ Editor’s note:] Adapted extract from an article by Geof Mulgan and Andrew Adonis in Lean Democracy, issue No. 3, £5, of a journal from the think tank Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP (tel. 0171 353 4479, fax 0171 3534481; e-mail Demos@Demon.Co.UK>).

If democracy means self-government, it is doubtful whether Britain and other western countries should be called full democracies.

A critical democratic dimension, the personal involvement of citizens in government, has gone almost entirely neglected.

We have three moderate, specific proposals for change:

Voter juries [good term—RK]: the piloting, at the national and local level, of voter juries to assess the pros and cons of contested policy proposals. They would be established on a similar basis to judicial juries, but without formal constitutional authority.

Voter vetoes: The introduction of voter vetoes, giving citizens at national and local level the right to call consultive referenda on strongly contested legislation or council decisions. At national level one million citizens would need to sign a petition for a referendum to take place.

Voter feedback: Local experiments to engage people in deliberation on local issues of controversy using the combined television and telephone networks being built by cable companies in conurbations, in collaboration with local authorities and other local institutions.

From Creative Speculations, 1997, “Citizen juries for considering policy options,” by the Institute for Public Policy Research, pages 234–36

[SIJ Editor’s note:] Summary of a report titled, “Citizens’ Juries: Theory into Practice” published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (3032 Southampton Street, London WC2E 7RA, tel. 0171 470 6100; email

Citizens’ juries use a representative sample of voters from different constituencies. The participants are briefed in detail on all the background and current thinking relating to a particular issue (such as healthcare) and asked to discuss possible solutions, sometimes in a televised group.

The effectiveness of this system is that it involves citizens in real decision making with access to all available facts. Views expressed by such a jury can attract the attention of the legislative body since they tend to be representative.

One of the problems with democracy at present is that it does not facilitate this acquisition of information by ordinary people. They are manipulated by politicians and the media alike and with only one vote in several million feels unable to exercise influence.

The Institute for Public Policy Research has test run a series of five small citizens’ juries, along the lines of similar projects set up in the USA and Germany (in Germany the juries are called planning cells). Between 12 and 16 jurors are recruited randomly from various sectors of the community. They are fully briefed with relevant background information and meet key witnesses. The jury then in smaller groups studies the information, cross-examines the witnesses and discusses various aspects of an issue. The smaller groups’ findings are presented to the whole jury and the jury’s conclusions are presented to the body which commissioned the jury in the first place. The jury’s verdict need not be unanimous, nor its proposals binding. However, the commissioning body must publicize the jury’s findings and must respond to these within a given timeframe, either by following the recommendations or by setting out publicly its reasons for not doing so.

The studies showed that members of the public were willing to take part in decision-making and were capable of grasping complex issues. The jury format appeared to help the participants to take a wider and more objective perspective, seeing issues from others’ point of view. Many jurors showed interest in further involvement at the end of their session.

The juries appeared to work better with newer issues where views had not become entrenched. They also seemed better for the formulation of guidelines than for concrete detailed plans. The jury model proved to be a powerful tool for consensus building and for creating a better understanding between members of the public and decision-makers.

The Labour government intends to introduce citizen’s juries—which would begin by examining the electricity, gas and water industries. Derek Foster, whilst still Labour’s shadow public services spokesman, said:

“We believe that citizens should not be passive recipients of information from public bodies. With the right approach, citizens can play an active role in public decision making”.

“Select the House of Lords by lottery,” by Daniel Lightman, pages 236–38

[SIJ Editor’s note:] From a letter to the House magazine (Jan. 27th, ’09)—the proposal harks back to G.K. Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, where the king was chosen by lot.

“More than any other political group”, Viscount Cranbourne, Leader of the House of Lords, claimed recently, “the Lords are a body chosen by lot”. In his speech attacking Labour’s plans to abolish hereditary peers, Cranbourne stressed the benefit of representation of the common man by “amateurs” rather than “professional politicians”.

If choice by lot and amateur politicians are so beneficial, why not go further? Why not replace the lottery of birth with genuinely choosing people by lot? And what better way to choose them than by means of the one regular event which British men and women of all ages, backgrounds and views are actively involved in—the National Lottery? In short, why not hold a second weekly lottery draw, its prize not a mere money jackpot but a seat in the House of Lords?

Owing their position to nothing more than fate, Lottery peers would be a body at least as independent as hereditary peers—and far more representative of British society in terms of age, balance of the sexes, geography, educational, social and ethnic background and political outlook. Who has a better idea of what ordinary people are saying in the Dog and Duck than its regulars? They would complement perfectly those chosen for their eminence and experience to be life peers.

Rule by lottery has worked in the past. Britain, ‘the midwife of democracy’, should learn from the ‘cradle of democracy’, ancient Athens. There, the day-to-day business of government was entrusted to the Council of Five Hundred, which was chosen annually out of the whole citizen body by lot. The only qualifications were that one had to be over 30 and a citizen in good standing.

The Athenians were not alone among the people of the ancient world in recognizing the value of using the lot to select a representative group of citizens. The Talmud records that Moses used lots to select 70 elders of the Children of Israel and the 22,000 designated first-born. “The ancients knew”, observed the renowned classical scholar Jowett, “that election by lot was the most democratic of all modes of appointment”.

Ah, but what if a lunatic or fascist wins the draw? That is a risk we have been prepared to take for hundreds of years with hereditary peers, and there is no evidence that the great hereditary families (including even the Royal Family) are any less prone to insanity or extreme political views than the rest of us.

And safeguards can easily be put in place. To prevent someone like Sir James Goldsmith greatly increasing his chances of winning by buying £20 million in lottery tickets, no one would be permitted to buy more than one ticket per week in the peerage lottery. [Or conduct “follow-up draws” of twenty (say) tickets—if any of them were from the first-draw winner, he’d be disqualified.—RK]

The National Lottery has faced persistent criticism for taking from the less well-off (such as by allocating large amounts to promoting upper-class pursuits like opera) to the affluent. How good it would be to fix the lottery’s image if Lord Rothschild, the hereditary peer in charge of allocating funding from the lottery, were to supervise the handing over of his seat in the Lords to one of his customers. The second lottery draw would raise a large amount for good causes, since none of it would have to be given away to prize winners.

In his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes stated that “Good Counsel comes not by Lot, nor by Inheritance.” While taking his advice to heart, I submit nevertheless that, in the absence of any better option, the future of the House of Lords lies not in the lottery of birth but in the National Lottery.

[Commentary on the above by the editor of the SIJ, Nicholas Alberry follows:]

Make Lottery winners pay to be Lords, Nicholas Alberry

This scheme would not necessarily require a separate lottery. The main winners of the ordinary Lottery each week could have the option, at the time of their winning, to a seat in the House of Lords, on payment of say £200,000—with half the amount going to the government and half to the charity of their choice. They would replace whoever had been in the House of Lords longest. There would be no attendance fees paid.

The chance of winning the main prize is so small that the Goldsmiths of this world would find it an expensive and arduous way to buy a lordship.

The winners’ contributions would help towards the expenses of parliament, so that the House of Lords becomes self-financing. The members of the House of Lords might be largely from the working classes, but would have the means to keep up the aristocratic lifestyle people expect of a Lord. 

Being in the Lords would give the winners something to occupy their new leisure time, and would keep them in touch with national problems—perhaps in this way encouraging them to spend part of their new-found wealth in socially responsible ways. Restricting entry to the main lottery winners (plus any government appointees, as at present) would also ensure a very gradual transition from the present set-up—and gradual change helps make innovations more palatable.

Hereditary peerage for bonus number, Brian Eno (in an e-mailed comment)

I have had a similar idea to the ‘House of Lords by Lottery’ suggestion. My idea is that a seat in the Lords should be the first prize in the lottery—and if you get the bonus number too, the peerage becomes hereditary.

From The Book of Inspirations, 2000,“Random selection for 25 per cent of representatives,” by John Crewdson, pages 285–86

[SIJ Editor’s note:] Using the jury system to randomly select our political representatives has been suggested several times before in the Global Ideas Bank … but John Crewdson here presents a variation on this idea, where the random element is merely a percentage of the whole.

One way to begin to loosen the grip of the party machine on our representative assemblies would be to introduce citizen ’top-ups’ at every level. A small but significant number of of seats at every level of elected government, say 25 per cent, would be filled by citizens chosen at random, similar to how jury service works and for a 12-month term of office.

One of our major complaints about politicians is that once they are elected they will toe the party line more than listen to the views of their constituents. This tends to be especially true at the local government level where party caucuses meet in private to iron out all the major decisions and tend to leave only the minor detail to the public in consultation exercises. Thus, we have elected government but we do not have democratic government.

The brief of the citizen members would be to represent the general interests of the electorate, rather than a ward or constituency, and they would enjoy full speaking and voting rights plus access to support staff and information. Naturally, they would also be bound by the same rules governing conflicts of interest. Any committee structure at that level of government would also have seats reserved for ’top-up’ members.

The presence of this non-political element in a representative assembly could potentially be immense. Whilst members of the political parties will be largely gagged over what they can say and do, the citizens will have no such restraints and will be able to raise matters of real interest to people plus give their elected counterparts a very hard time. Real debate would also be forced to happen since one group may well need to secure the votes of the ’top-up’ members to push through a measure.

Another effect of this reform could be to make individuals feel that bit more ownership of the political institutions we elect because any one of us could be chosen to serve. It could therefore give more of a substance to our idea of citizenship and nurture feelings of duty.

“Random selection of the House of Lords“, by Richard Askwith, pages 286–87

[SIJ Editor’s note:] Summarized from an undated essay in the Independent magazine, entitled ‘System error’ by Richard Askwith, monitored for the Global Ideas Bank by Josephine Speller. See also an earlier idea in the Global Ideas Bank entitled ‘Select the House of Lords by lottery’ ….

500 citizens should be selected at random each year to the House of Lords. They would spend 35 hours per week considering legislation initiated by the House of Commons, perhaps working from computers in their local town hall, checking in and out with smart cards, whilst at other times meeting in small groups or as a full group in the House of Lords itself.

How would you ensure that these working peers turned up? Ted Becker, author of The Random House, purposed a similar system for the US congress and comments, “If you can make them join the army for a couple of years, as most nations can. you can get them to do this. Just pay them properly, like they do the MPs in the Commons.”

Proposals of this nature require a referendum, to prevent democracy from continuing to exclude the people.


Roger Knights: The next year’s (2001) edition of the SIJ contained an article I wrote, which I’ll submit separately, it being long, elaborate, and considerably different from the proposals above.

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