Deliberative assemblies are finding their feet – but also facing political barriers

On Friday the 16th of October, the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College hosted a webinar entitled ‘Revitalizing Democracy: Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom’, which you can watch here. The workshop heavily featured people putting sortition into practice right now, and so the overall focus was very much on deliberative assemblies in advisory roles, rather than non-deliberative juries or lawmaking roles. If you’d rather not spend the whole day watching a videoconference, here’s the CliffsNotes:

David Van Reybrouck, who gave one of the keynotes, helped design the new citizens’ council and assembly system in the parliament of the German-speaking region of Belgium – an area with only 76 000 citizens, but devolved powers similar to Scotland’s. The system involves a permanent citizens’ council and temporary citizens’ assemblies, both selected by sortition, as well as a permanent secretary who acts as a sort of ombudsman for the system. The council sets the agenda for the assemblies, and chases up their conclusions in the regional parliament – essentially acting as an official lobby group for the assemblies’ recommendations. Politicians have to report back to the council a year after each assembly, setting out how they’ve acted on their recommendations and, if they’ve deviated from them, why. In this respect it is a major step forward in the institutionalisation of sortition. Under the Belgian constitution, however, sortitional bodies cannot be given legislative power, so the assemblies are restricted to an advisory role until and unless momentum can be built for a constitutional amendment.

A lot of procedural questions were addressed from experience, in particular about representativeness and the relationship between citizens and experts. On the first point, the Ostbelgien sortition system uses a two-tier lottery. In the first round, 1000 letters are sent to completely random addresses, of which on average 11.5% receive a positive response. From that self-selected 11.5%, a stratified sample is taken. Participation is made more attractive by paying the participants and providing food, childcare, and transport. Van Reybrouck raised an interesting question: going forward, will participation rise or fall? Based on how positive the participants’ experiences are, his hypothesis is that it will rise as word gets around.

Hélène Landemore, the other keynote, also discussed the dimensions of stratification. She noted that the appropriate dimensions along which to stratify would depend on the topic – for example, in an assembly addressing an agricultural issue, there ought to be farmers in the room, while in the French Citizens’ Convention for Ecological Transition, they should have stratified by pre-existing opinions on climate change, but didn’t (although as it turned out the sample they got was fairly representative anyway). Both she and Van Reybrouck pushed back against the idea that liberals should support sortition because it produces liberal outcomes, although they emphasised different aspects of the process; while Van Reybrouck’s (appropriately Arendtian) focus was on the way deliberation creates spaces of freedom in which ordinary people are respected and listen to one another, Landemore approached the subject from a social-epistemological point of view, in which the diversity of background, experience, and expertise in a sortitional deliberative chamber means it makes better decisions than a chamber of political elites.

Landemore’s keynote argued against sortition skeptics’ claims that experts led the French CCET by the nose. The vital thing, she emphasised, was making the experts subordinate to the citizens. The citizen participants were quite adept at pushing back against expert arrogance, aided by facilitators tasked with amplifying their private objections to the experts’ conduct, and proved quite jealous in their defence of their work and prerogatives. Landemore provided an example where, after giving a dry and technical briefing on the hierarchy of authority in French law, a patronising pair of legal experts were brought up short by the first audience question, which demanded to know why they hadn’t addressed contracts in their presentation – the answer being that they hadn’t imagined the Convention might make recommendations concerning it. Conversely, although many of the experts pressed and pressed for a carbon tax, the Convention rejected the idea. While a few of the Convention’s recommendations bear clear signs of certain experts’ influence – notably the recommendation that ‘ecocide’ be criminalised – the majority do not.

A very interesting observation that Van Reybrouck made was that civil servants much prefer working with Citizens’ Assemblies to working with elected politicians, because it lets them have honest conversations about issues, aimed at long-term, common-good policymaking, without the distorting effects of party politics warping and ruining their bills. A talk by Peter Macleod, of Canadian for-profit deliberative-polling company MASS LBP, emphasised the point – their business has found an enthusiastic audience among Canadian administrators looking for ways to form policy in line with public views, to avoid backlash.

This was echoed in one of the breakout sessions by Ardalan Ibrahim, organiser of a Munich volunteer group setting up citizens’ assemblies for their municipal government. Though initially the group pushed the idea to the city, and had to do a lot of work building trust with its institutions, especially when it came to putting control over the assemblies’ agendas in the selectees hands, neighbouring towns have since started coming to them. Ibrahim also reported that politicians were quite receptive to the idea – he was surprised by the amount of fear they had of the public’s distaste for the system and for them personally. Despite being a high-functioning democracy, he noted, German politicians still sometimes get shot. The conclusion he drew was a response to the big unanswered question of the workshop: how are citizens’ assemblies to graduate from being merely advisory bodies to holding real legislative power, given politicians’ desire to keep that power for themselves? His answer: if politicians see it as their least worst option, they’ll cave.

That day has not yet come, however. Despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s personal enthusiasm for sortition, Landemore reported, most French politicians remain unconvinced. Macron’s proposal of a sortitional third chamber in the French legislature has already been watered down by parliamentarians into a chamber of civil-society groups empowered to call citizens’ assemblies – a means of excluding allotted citizens from the legislative process. When the then-Prime Minister Édouard Philippe addressed the Citizens’ Convention, she noted, his skepticism of the procedure was evident in his body-language.

Other notes:

  • Sortition is making inroads in the media – although perhaps not in the way we’d hope. A popular French TV series depicts a politician advocating sortition who turns out to be a fascist authoritarian.
  • Alongside permanent citizens’ councils to push through the verdicts of temporary citizens’ assemblies, as in the Ostbelgien model, Ibrahim recommended juries to oversee senior executives, the same way a company board oversees the CEO, as a means of preventing the ‘permanent power’ of the bureaucracy (as attendee John Pang put it) from becoming the real ruler in the state.
  • Pang also reported that in Malaysia, where the government is corrupt and in turmoil, people are starting to take deliberative democracy seriously as an alternative. He and Van Reybrouck agreed that it was important for deliberative democrats not to repeat the mistakes of the neocolonialist late-20th-century attempts at ‘Ikea democratisation’, in which Western constitutional models were exported wholesale as a condition of aid, with deviation punished by withholding of funds. Apart from anything else, they noted, the West is no longer a very attractive political model to emulate.
  • Macleod raised the issue of the rate at which people avoid jury duty as a potential problem for sortitional democracy. He suggested that the solution lay in institutional design – that criminal juries are not treated well or particularly respected by the other participants in the legal system, and that rates of participation might improve if in the process they were treated with ‘visceral’ respect.

8 Responses

  1. Thank you very much, Oliver, for the notes.

    civil servants much prefer working with Citizens’ Assemblies to working with elected politicians, because it lets them have honest conversations about issues, aimed at long-term, common-good policymaking, without the distorting effects of party politics warping and ruining their bills.

    No doubt elected politicians and their allies would claim that the civil servant prefer working with citizens because they are more easy to manipulate due to their inexperience (if not outright incompetence).

    What should matter is not what the civil servants prefer but what citizens prefer.

    criminal juries are not treated well or particularly respected by the other participants in the legal system

    Yes, the legal professional probably think about the jury members very much like politicians think about the electorate – as cattle to be manipulated. The institutional arrangements – including the pay structure – must ensure that the professionals are subordinate to the allotted (as Landemore put it) rather than the other way around.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. > “What should matter is not what the civil servants prefer but what citizens prefer”

    Normatively, you’re right, but the reason I highlight it is that having the support of civil servants will probably be important in the political battle to implement sortition in the heights of government.


  3. […] On Friday the 16th of October, the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College hosted an excellent webinar entitled ‘Revitalizing Democracy: Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom’. I wrote a brief summary for Equality by Lot – you can read it here. […]


  4. I doubt that the economic professionals, for example, would be happier with allotted bodies than they are with elected officials. (At least in a situation where the allotted body does express the informed and considered opinion of the public.)

    I don’t think we should rely on support by any members of the existing political elites – which includes high powered appointed officials just as much as it includes elected officials. Until they are forced to cooperate by overwhelming popular pressure they will resist. Even when cornered they will doubtless try to manipulate and undermine any effort to democratize government.


  5. RE: “Sortition is making inroads in the media – although perhaps not in the way we’d hope. A popular French TV series depicts a politician advocating sortition who turns out to be a fascist authoritarian.”

    I wish someone would look at any one of the four film scripts I have written, based on the premise of a sortitioned legislature. See them at:

    [I do not mean to be self-promoting. I am simply seeking colleagues or collaborators.]

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice summary, Oliver!
    I was also present. Before I comment on the thread, let me add a few notes in so far as they are different than what you’ve mentioned.

    Re David Van Reybrouck. Not surprisingly, he has a way with words, so I will put down a few nearly direct quotes.
    “Deliberative democracy is relationship therapy for the nation state….It’s a way to channel dark energy.”
    “It is not about solving conflict; it is about living with conflict.”

    He also emphasized that C.A.’s can be “transformative experiences,” that often turn participants into advocates of sortition. “Deliberative democracy is about talking WITH people who are different, rather than talking ABOUT them.” Referring to illiberal or right wing parties, “Anger is just anger. Many people who are populists are not fascists yet….Maybe anger is a gift wrapped in barbed wire…Let’s unwrap it and see what the anger is.”

    [Speaking to the point that C.A.’s will not solve every problem with politics.] “The lesson is not to try to create heaven; it is to avoid hell.”
    He also emphasized that sortition is not in a “compromise” between representative and direct democracy; but is a third way entirely. All three can exist simultaneously.

    Re Helene Landemore’s intervention. As you mentioned, she was most impressed with how the participants of the CC pushed back and even at times took charge against the organizers and experts. A subtle point she mentioned, that she thought was very telling. Because citizens took ownership, experts’ bearing visibly changed during the convention. They became less arrogant and more helpful. Of participants in CA’s in general, “Once they are told they are in charge, they do not let go.” Lastly, she pointed out that the recommendations of the CC were not very different than what polls over the summer showed was French public opinion.

    Re Peter Macleod. His intervention would probably have pleased some of the more populist contributors of E b L. Macleod dubbed the era, “Democracy’s Second Act,” akin to the previous era of expansions of the franchise. Democracy at every stage had to fight hard against elitism. The project “is still the same. How to overcome elitism?”

    To do this, to push this Second Act and overcome dominant elitism, the image of the public has to be changed, “from a risk to be managed into a resource to be tapped.” Macleod’s point about civil servants is that THEY TOO are fed up with politicians. He referred to how many career civil servants work for years doing research on an issue, only to have politicians throw out their work for short term political gains. So, here, he was making a very different point than what Yoram fears.

    Lastly, re sortition in the media. There is a 2015 French produced documentary, “Demain,” about “positive developments” that features Van Reybrouck in a section on doing democracy differently. I have not watched it, but here is a link to the wiki page: [Speaking to the point that C.A.’s will not solve every problem with politics.]

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sorry, here’s the link to the film:

    One last point that was quite interesting in Landemore’s intervention: She highlighted that the confrontation of experts by citizens has an [epistemic-and-political] benefit of REOPENING questions that have seemingly been closed off. “The very naivete, perhaps, of lay citizens” forces experts to RETHINK questions…” For me, this sounds as much Arendtian or agonistic as it is epistemic. I wonder if this has indeed been observed elsewhere. Does anyone have any examples?

    As far as my own take. I do see “fighting elitism,” as both the project and the obstacle. Anti-democratic elitism, including of political parties who have the word “democrat” or “democratic” in their names, including so-called “democratic theorists,” I refer to as “political agoraphobia.” I do not think it is merely a self-serving view of actual elites; I think it is a wide-spread outlook on the world and other people. Many non-elites have this condition too, to their own detriment.

    That said, being a naive “political agoraphile” is no alternative. The biggest problems of late modernity go well beyond the irrationalities of elections and electoral politics. The toughest issues, like climate change, structural racism, patriarchy, the legacies of colonialism, the international economic order, etc. require “de-reification” of the myths of the dominant perspective. Notice for example, that the CC’s recommendations did not advocate anything “radical,” like adopting a “no growth” or “de-growth” economic policy. But maybe, something radical is the best or the necessary solution.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yoram,

    I’m temperamentally inclined to share your cynicism, but in this case I think it may be misplaced. To the extent that civil servants want to do their jobs well, sortitional assemblies are better partners than elected officials; to the extent that they want to assert their power over other potential power centers, sortitional bodies are no more threatening to them than elected ones. Indeed, their hope that allotted deliberators may be more easily-influenced than professional politicians may help bring them on-side. There will certainly be power struggles between the citizens and the bureaucracy in a sortitional-democratic state – but what I’m talking about is the transition that produces that state, and with regard to *that*, it’s an important point that we have reason to think civil servants may be receptive to our cause.

    That said, I should qualify this with the admission I’m thinking in terms of countries with relatively clean, well-functioning civil service institutions here. Obviously if the bureaucracy is highly politicised or the politicians and bureaucrats are enmeshed in the same networks of corruption, it’s a very different story.

    Liked by 1 person

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