One of the most exciting aspects of working in the crypto space is the ability to rethink the existing governance structures and paradigms, and to come up with innovative ways of organizing society. What governance mechanisms can we experiment with to find a way out from the most divisive social problems and unjust power imbalances? What can we learn from history, ancient civilizations or even nature about management of complex systems to help secure a brighter future for humanity? In this blog series, we will explore these governance- and coordination-related ideas.

In his post on Ethereum Research, Vitalik Buterin weighed in on governance, proposing to combine quadratic voting - a governance mechanism that takes into account the strength of voters’ preferences - with sortition. Vitalik presented three variations of this mechanism as a remedy for individuals to have real impact on election results. In this post, we are taking a deep dive into the concept of sortition and its applications so far outside of the blockchain space - in the realm of real-world politics - and share some lessons learned.

Representative democracies around the world struggle to overcome polarization and political stalemate, while citizens are increasingly disillusioned by the shortcomings of the modern democratic process and its effect on society. In a perfect world, the democratic system would provide us with an equal, fair and just governance, carried out by legitimate and accountable leaders. However, this system has become corrupted by various forces ranging from big corporate lobbying, factions, vested interests, distortions by the media and the desire for power, deeming it unable to effectively address local and global challenges. Moreover, while aptly called “representative democracy”, few (maybe zero) of the world’s democracies accurately represent the full populations they govern. To address this crisis in democratic legitimacy, a governance mechanism dating back to ancient Greece - sortition - is being re-discovered and popularized by academics, movements and political NGOs, who see it as the most straightforward way of enabling ordinary citizens to participate in the running of their country.

As defined by the Sortition Foundation, sortition is the use of random selection to populate assemblies or fill political positions. How is it supposed to improve how societies are organized? First of all, its strength lies in granting governance power to a random selection of people, as opposed to socially privileged professional politicians. In addition, it’s possible to stratify the selection, and place in power people who match the social and economic profile of the country - making it a truly representative sample across gender, age, education level, religion, and so on.

Sortition proponents envision that sortition-based approaches would enable to distill a microcosm of society that can better simulate the expectations of the larger whole. Moreover, the randomly selected office bearers and lawmakers would only stay in office for a limited amount of time, in order to ensure that power wouldn’t corrupt them. They would get access to expert advice and deliberate together to develop policies. According to Brett Henning, co-founder of UK-based Sortition Foundation, sortition-based governments would enjoy popular legitimacy thanks to their thoughtful design, unlike governments with elected representatives.

With the resurgence of this old idea, modern and still-experimental applications of sortition can be observed worldwide. In 2004, British Columbia ran a sortition-based citizens’ assembly that came out with the new proposal for changing the electoral law. Earlier this year in Belgium, the parliament of the German-speaking Belgian community of Ostbelgien had officially and unanimously decided to use sortition on a permanent basis. From 2020, everyday folk chosen by chance will have the opportunity to shape Ostbelgien’s policy alongside the elected Members of Parliament - in the first permanent citizens’ assembly in the world. Another prominent example comes from Ireland, where a citizens’ assembly of 99 randomly selected citizens was deliberating for one weekend a month on the issue of abortion rights over the course of more than 18 months, which led to a removal of country’s constitutional ban on abortion in March 2018.  

These real-life experiments with sortition resulted in some valuable lessons, as aptly analysed by Janosch Prinz  and John Garry from University College Belfast. First of all, sortition-based citizens’ assemblies should not be purely voluntary. The experiments with sortition in Ireland, which required that people actively volunteer to be in the pool, resulted in assemblies composed of representatives with strong pre-existing interests in the discussed issues and pre-formed views. This leads to the insight that in order to really represent the diversity of the population and hear the voices of those left out, there needs to be a duty to participate. Secondly, the citizens’ assemblies need to be well advertised and articulated to the public, and accompanied with clear agendas. Finally, in the instances where no financial compensation to the participants is offered, recruiting a truly diverse and representative sample of people does pose a challenge, which indicates the need for introducing those incentives.

Outside of the political realm, sortition-based assemblies are being embraced by social movements, such as Extinction Rebellion (XR). Learning from the criticisms towards the Occupy movement - of not having a set of clear demands that could be used to prompt formal policy changes - XR sees sortition-based assemblies as indispensable vehicles to long-term sustainability. According to Roger Hallam, strategist from Extinction Rebellion, sortition provides uprisings and revolutions with the highest chance for progress as a system to underlie the general assemblies formed in the aftermath of protests. In this interview, he also shares some ideas for what’s needed to make it work - and, as usual, it all boils down to a shift in individual awareness. “Citizens need to realize their power, realize that they can make universal moral decisions about how the world should operate, and they are just as good at that. No need for professionals or academics” concludes Hallam.

While sortition-based solutions are still in their experimental phase, they already show that citizen assemblies could help address a range of issues in a more egalitarian and inclusive manner, both in the context of governments and informal grassroots movements. Organizational governance designers and community builders should look into adapting and perfecting sortition-based governance mechanisms to explore the possibility of more democratic outcomes for decentralized organizing.

Artwork by Niceshit Studio. Thanks to @chadoh and @stellarmagnet for the comments and suggestions.