Plumia Talks

Brett Hennig: How to build a citizen’s assembly

The Sortition Foundation founder on replacing politicians with randomly-selected citizens
Brett Hennig: How to build a citizen’s assembly
In: Plumia Talks

Could the key to better democratic models lie in ditching the politicians – and leaving decisions up to groups of randomly-selected citizens instead?

In a Plumia Talks live interview, Sortition Foundation founder Brett Hennig explains what sortition is and how it could transform the future of democratic politics.

Random and representative

Sortition is just another word for “random selection.” For citizens’ assemblies to work, participants must be selected at random; no one can buy their way in. This randomness ensures that anyone could theoretically be called, making it more inclusive than traditional electoral politics.

Citizens’ assemblies also need to be representative. This ensures that the viewpoints and perspectives of the group are reflective of the populace as a whole. “The assembly is a microcosm of the community,” Hennig says. “So what you actually get when you look at the room, looks like the country.”

Much like juries, sortition-selected groups are given expert testimony and evidence so that they can make informed decisions. “The idea is that this random group of representative people would come to the same conclusion that any group would come to if they were put through this informed, deliberative process,” Hennig says.

Majority rule with minority inclusion

In most electoral systems, majority rules by vote. Citizens’ assemblies, however, don’t have to agree unanimously. “Consensus is not an explicit aim,” Hennig says.

A citizens’ assembly will produce a final report, which must accurately reflect the entire group’s perspectives. To accommodate the diversity of views inherent to a randomly representative group, the report must indicate both what the majority voted for and what the minority voiced. So if 90% of the citizens’ assembly voted one way, but there was a vocal minority of 5% who were opposed, that would be documented in the report.

“Everyone has to agree that the report is a fair view of the whole assembly,” Hennig says. Sortition only works when all types of people can engage. Working parents, people with disabilities, and other groups all have different requirements. A well-fleshed out sortition process includes measures to pay people for their time, provide childcare and offer transportation.

“We try to reduce every barrier,” Hennig says.

Sortition at scale

While sortition is scalable, the size of each group does have an upper limit. Experiments in sortition at the worldwide level, through projects such as Global Assembly, have found that groups need to be big enough to represent the populace but also small enough not to duplicate efforts.

Hennig suggests that a local citizens’ assembly may need only 50 people. A national assembly might choose 100-250 people, while a global assembly may choose nearer 1,000 participants. However, assemblies should always break out into smaller groups of around 100 people when handling national or global topics. This ensures that the group is still representative but also small enough to deeply understand one another.

“The point of a sortition citizens’ assembly is not about the size,” Hennig says. “It's about having a representative, random sample that goes through a process that any sub-sample would go through.”

If there are widely varying differences in recommendation from group to group within one assembly, that creates an opportunity for further discussion.

The business of decision making

Hennig knows that sortition is not a perfect system for making decisions, but he feels it’s a major improvement over the “atrocious” election system we have today.

Instead of throwing out all electoral politics, Hennig wants to start with a two-system approach where elected parliaments still stand, but are overseen by a sortition senate (or an equivalent body). That way people can exercise their right to vote and still access the benefits of sortition.

“We get to show people, ‘Here's how your elected politicians are acting. Here's how your randomly selected citizens are acting. Who do you trust more, who do you like more?’,” Hennig says. “The next step would be to get rid of the elected chamber entirely.”

Watch our full interview with Brett Hennig:

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Written by
Stefan Palios
Stefan works with entrepreneurs, enterprises, and governments to tell their story, educate their community, and build movements. He is author of the business book The 50 Laws of Freelancing.
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