Advantages of Citizens’ Assemblies

This is an extract from Tony Czarnecki’s book: ‘Democracy for a Human Federation’

Before I make final conclusions on adopting a Citizens’ Assembly as a tool to improve democracy, let me review its advantages and disadvantages. The literature on the subject is not that vast. However, there are some recent publications, which have helped me gather some evidence and draw some conclusions on how a Citizens’ Assembly could be used to improve democracy. In particular, I will be using arguments for and against sortition put forward by Oliver Dowlen in his book ‘Sortition: Theory and Practice’ [53], David Owen and Graham Smith in their research paper: ‘The circumstances of sortition’ [54], Brett Hennig’s, book “The End of Politicians” [55], David Van Reybrouck book “Against Elections: The Case for Democracy” [42] and Tom Malleson’s [51] research paper: “Should Democracy Work Through Elections or Sortition?”

  1. Equality of representation. Citizens’ Assembly is much more representative than electoral systems, since it is a random sample, which would produce what John Adams said in his book ‘Thoughts on Government’ an assembly that is “in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large.” More importantly, since today’s elections are so often centred on image, media influence and personality, politicians can easily be accused of acting in a manner that will earn them votes, rather than upon their principles and beliefs. If representatives are selected by a random sample, promoted participants are forced to put aside tribal agendas and concentrate on common affairs in a cohesive manner. In a representational democracy, equality of representation is probably the weakest point, whether it is First Past the Post, Alternative Voting System or Two Rounds System. By their very nature, elections have inbuilt ‘unrepresentativeness’, because those who have the time, money and connections, are likely to be on average wealthy, educated, and from dominant social positions. The democratic aspect that everyone can choose, co-exists with an undemocratic aspect, where invariably it is the elites who tend to be chosen [51].
  2. Cognitive diversity. This is an amalgamation of different ways of seeing the world, the societal needs and solutions to various problems. This is not the same as gender, ethnicity, value-set or age diversity, although they are often positively correlated. According to numerous scholars’ cognitive diversity is more important to creating successful ideas than the average ability level of a group. Simply put, random selection of persons of average intelligence (sortition) performs better than a collection of the best individual problem solvers (e.g. elected MPs) [50].
  3. The risk of corruption is reduced and attention to the common good increases. Elected representatives to be re-elected must create, what Tom Malleson calls, ‘networks of power, influence, lobbying, and patronage’. Members are keen to accumulate money and contacts that will be needed to win the next term, if they want to be re-elected. That would be a lesser problem if only two electoral terms can be served by politicians, since in the second term they would not have to gather capital and support for the next term, which should make them free to say what they believe rather than appease the supporters. Critics of electoral politics argue that electing representatives by vote is subject to manipulation by money, media and other powerful means. Additionally, legislative elections give power to a few powerful groups, which is believed to be less democratic system than selection by lot from amongst the population. Citizens’ Assembly system may be less corruptible than voting but only if it regards one-off issues dealt with by Citizens’ Assemblies. If sortition members were to serve the whole parliamentary term, e.g. in a ‘Citizens’ Chamber’, the result could be similar to that of elected representatives. They would be lobbied by large corporations or rich individuals to support their policies and they would be under no control, since they would not be controlled by the rules of a party. Just to see the potential scale for corruption, in the USA, there are on average 20 official lobbyists per Congressman. To overcome that problem, specific training, increased level of transparency, ability to remove a disruptive member, stiff penalties for corruption might be needed. Larger size of sortition say 1,000 members could dilute this weakness, as might good remuneration for sortition service.
  4. Empowering ordinary people. An inherent problem with electoral politics is the over-representativeness of the politically active groups in society who tend to be those who join political parties. For example, in 2000 less than 2% of the UK population belonged to a political party whilst in 2005 there were at best only 3 independent MPs so that 99.5% of all UK MPs belonged to a political party. As a result, political members of the UK population were represented by one MP per 1800 of those belonging to a party [50].
  5. Rational decision making. Voting on the basis of gut feeling is replaced by sensible deliberation, as those who have been drafted are exposed to expert opinion, objective information and public debate.
  6. Sortition members’ loyalty is to their conscience rather than to a political party because being appointed by sortition they do not owe anything to anyone for their position. Contrary, elected representatives typically rely on political parties in order to gain and retain office. This means they often feel a primary loyalty to the party and will often vote against their conscience to support a party position.
  7. Freedom to make own decision. Citizens chosen by lot may not have the expertise of professional politicians, but they add something vital to the process: freedom. After all, they don’t need to be elected or re-elected.
  8. Limiting the negative effects of intra-elite competition e.g. during the exchanges in the Parliament when MPs may support not a decision that would be best for the nation but such that the public likes most (populism).
  9. Rotation – no selected sortition member will serve more than one term
  10. Fairness and equality. Socio-psychological benefits for the population, which give a sense of equality and fairness of the decisions made. Sortition is inherently egalitarian in that it ensures all citizens have an equal chance of entering office irrespective of any bias in a society. Compared to a voting system, even one that is open to all citizens, a citizen-wide sortition scheme for public office, or for citizen’s assembly, lowers the threshold to an office [53].
  11. Representing those with opposing views and minorities. Sortition members represent the cross-section of the whole of the society and thus ideally fulfil this requirement, whilst elected representatives have little or no incentive to respond to constituents from other parties.
  12. Impartiality. Sortition members either of a Citizens’ Assembly or a Citizens’ Chamber are selected, rather than elected precisely for the reason that their decisions will in principle be impartial. An elected representative on the other hand, could in theory be impartial as an individual, subject to a party whip (discipline). However, as a member of a party, he will have to support decisions and solutions, which quite often are not impartial because they are made on behalf of the winning part of the electorate. Unless a government is set upon a Scandinavian model, where decisions are made through consensus with the opposition, i.e. are to a large degree impartial and taken in the best interest of the whole nation, there is little scope for impartiality in current Western democracies.
  13. Cognitive diversity. Simply put, random selection of persons of average intelligence performs better than a collection of the best individual problem solvers, e.g. elected MPs [50].