September 29, 2020

Sortition: the fairest selection method for a Citizens’ Assembly

Brett Hennig, co-founder and director of the Sortition Foundation

Sortition is simply the technical name for random selection, and this is how people are being selected for Scotland’s Climate Assembly, where they’ll be brought together to discuss the climate emergency.

It may at first seem strange to randomly select people. Perhaps because “random” also has negative connotations around unexpected (and usually unfortunate or unlucky) occurrences - but of course this is not always the case: you could have just won the lottery!

And when it comes to discussing political topics then bringing together a randomly selected group of people makes a great deal of sense as it avoids the typical problems of open meetings, which tend to become stacked with activists and those with axes to grind. Random selection is inherently fair, as in theory everyone - yes, even you! - could have been selected to join the assembly.

Not only is it fair, but it also means the assembly will be diverse and inclusive. The full diversity of Scotland will be brought together and, as long as you have been randomly selected, no one is excluded.

Of course the final (second step) selection is a little more complicated than simple random selection because, unlike jury duty, participation in citizens’ assemblies is not mandatory. Many people who receive the invitation to participate will have legitimate and reasonable excuses for not putting their hand up: you may have very young children, a too stressful job to also want to give up several weekends, be studying hard for exams, or for a multitude of other reasons.

What this means, however, is that those who do register are often skewed in several ways, either towards the elderly, or those with high education levels, and/or those with more time and “social capital” or confidence. So we don’t simply do a straight forward random selection from those who register their interest to select those to take part. Instead, we take the second random sample (the first being the sending of invitations to randomly selected households) making sure that we correct this skewing in registrants and that the final assembly is a true microcosm of the relevant community - in this case, Scotland.

So even if you are not selected, and you are not deliberating in the assembly, you can be sure that someone of your age, from your area, and with your income level (and many other characteristics) will be there, deliberating, if you will, on your behalf. Just like a legal jury, in theory, this group of people should come to the conclusions that any group of Scottish residents should have come to - and indeed the conclusions that all Scottish residents (if every person had access to the information and the time to deliberate together with a diverse group of people in a fair and respectful environment) would have come to. This is the power of randomly selected sortition citizens’ assemblies.