Poole: Sorting Brexit

Steven Poole writes in The Guardian:

Jeremy Corbyn will ‘sort’ Brexit – does that mean solve it or stop it?

This week Jeremy Corbyn promised that, if elected, he would “sort Brexit”, which came as welcome variation from the twin poles of “get it done” versus “make it stop”. Sadly for many Labour voters, though, he didn’t mean he would carefully “sort” Brexit into a fire-pit of things destined for oblivion.

The verb “to sort” comes from the Latin sortīrī, to distribute by lottery, which is why “sortition” is the name for a system of democratic government, arguably superior to the one we currently enjoy, where leaders are made up of randomly chosen citizens.

But Corbyn used the demotic sense of “sort” to mean “sort out”, to solve or clear up, as in the exclamation “Sorted!”. Commuters on London’s public transport have long been irritated by its “See It. Say It. Sorted” slogan, though even “to sort out” – in the sense of to resolve rather than literally to divide – is relatively newfangled, recorded only since 1948.

Yet the sense of “to sort” as to accomplish is of much more antique vintage. As the Third Citizen in Shakespeare’s Richard III remarks: “All may be well: but if God sort it so / Tis more than we deserve or I expect.” So might we feel about the election.

The Climate Convention: the allotted don’t want to be extras

An article by Béatrice Bouniol in La Croix, September 19 [Original in French].

The allotment of citizens tasked with making proposals for handling with the climate. This unprecedented experiment arouses excitement and high expectations.

“A woman, 65 years old or older, retired, no college education”. The target of the moment is inscribed on a whiteboard. 4 days remain for the pollsters of Harris Interactive to recruit 150 citizens to the Climate Convention. For now, this means randomly selecting a sample representative of the French population.

It is in fact one of the lessons of the Grand Debate and the regional citizen conferences. Volunteers can be easily recruited in some categories of the population – college educated urban men, for example. In order to avoid bias, several criteria were added to the random generation of telephone numbers: age, gender, education, social-professional categories as well as place of residence.

“A real will to participate”

In the locations of Harris Interactive, the voices mix. The eyes are fixed on the computers, the pollsters proceed step by step. They present the objective of the convention: to come up with proposals to fight global warming. Explaining the availability required of the participants – six week-ends during six [sic] months, starting in October and ending in January. Then detailing all that is provided in order to facilitate participation: payment as for trial juries, reimbursement of expenses including childcare.
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Stella Creasy MP: why a citizens’ assembly should sort out Brexit

A British MP proposes a Brexit citizen’s assembly, a discussion follows. (A February 2019 BBC TV show.)

Modern citizen assemblies are an affront to Athenian democracy

The burgeoning media interest in citizens’ assemblies (it was the lead discussion on the BBC R4 Today programme last Saturday) prompted me to contribute my own article to The Spectator, explaining some of the underlying political theory and the (spurious) claims for their origins in the fourth-century Athenian nomothetai. Again it’s a short article so best to read it on the Spectator blog. It will be interesting to read the comments.

A Citizens’ Assembly on climate change is the coward’s way out

Interesting article by Melanie McDonagh in The Spectator on citizens’ assemblies. In response to the demands of Extinction Rebellion, letters inviting 30,000 households across the UK to join a citizens’ assembly on climate change were sent out last week by an alliance of six Commons select committees, chaired by Rachel Reeves. The author (an Irish Catholic) has some alarming claims to make regarding the citizens’ assembly on the repeal of the eighth constitutional amendment (on abortion). It’s a short and interesting piece, so I won’t bother to post extracts.

All the comments posted after the Spectator article are critical of the design of such deliberative assemblies which (IMO) run the danger of bringing the entire sortition movement into disrepute.

Dean, Boswell and Smith: Deliberative systems design

A post on the LSE website by Rikki Dean, John Boswell, and Graham Smith introducing a recent paper of theirs is a very useful and provocative piece.

One example of the post’s value is its ability to describe the systemic and inherent problems that are involved in the creation of a democratic process, seemingly without either using those problems manipulatively as a way to justify the oligarchical character of the existing system or falling back on the cliched feel-good formulas of leadership, participation, empowerment, etc.:

In our recent paper in Political Studies, we take a pioneering case of such a systems-oriented approach to democratic innovation – the NHS Citizen initiative – and explore how it played out in practice. Did this approach mitigate the aforementioned perennial problems of institutionalisation? And did it create new problems?

NHS Citizen was a participatory initiative launched by the appointed Executive Board of NHS England. Echoing the systemic emphasis on the distribution of functions across settings, the eventual design consisted of several interacting parts categorised into three broad stages – called Discover, Gather and Assembly – each of which had its own function.

There was initial enthusiasm both from participants and from the Board for this exciting new form of innovation. However, over time, a series of obstacles emerged, and the initiative for all intents and purposes shut down less than three years into its run. The way the process developed over the period demonstrated the ever-present difficulty for participatory organisation to connect both with public space and empowered space.

For the first Assembly, the agenda-setting process was not fully operational, meaning the Assembly dealt with issues that largely reflected the Board’s concerns. The Board were very positive about this first Assembly. Once Gather was better established, it genuinely did shift the agenda so that is was more reflective of civil society concerns. However, this culminated in the Board losing faith in NHS Citizen and choking off funding for the process. In addition, an unanticipated effect of the separation into different parts was that some of the participants in the earlier stages were unhappy about being prevented from taking part in the Assembly, which planned to use random selection. Their rebellion in the end forced a change to the selection mechanism for the Assembly. NHS Citizen thus pioneered some promising practices for better connecting deliberative assemblies to civil society, but this was at the cost of institutionalising some irresolvable tensions.