Politics & Society

The best books on Citizens’ Assemblies

recommended by Hugh Pope

The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power by Maurice Pope

The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power
by Maurice Pope


Around the world, democracies are struggling with angry populations who are fed up with politicians who don't seem to represent them effectively. Fortunately, there's an alternative. Hugh Pope—a veteran reporter on the Middle East who also spent 15 years working for International Crisis Group—introduces us to the growing movement for 'citizens' assemblies', where ordinary people get together to decide what's best for the community. He argues that these assemblies have already been used effectively on important issues that are difficult for politicians to tackle and reveals how the French president, Emmanuel Macron, came to find out about them.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power by Maurice Pope

The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power
by Maurice Pope


A lot of these books are exploring whether there is a better way of doing democracy, by turning to ‘citizens’ assemblies.’ To start, can you tell us what the general idea behind these assemblies is, and introduce the topic to people who might not have heard of them?

Citizens’ assemblies are a subset of the movement to bring back policymaking through sortition, i.e. by groups of a community or country who have been randomly selected. I say ‘bring back’ because this is how ancient Athens did its politics. Nearly everything in Athens was done with randomly selected citizens, who were male and local (the sortition excluded women, slaves, and foreigners, so it was not based on the whole population). The reason that Athens stands out is that ancient Athens was one of the most successful civilizations of all time. And the reason that Athenians thought that they were a successful civilization was because of their method of governance. It did liberate an enormous amount of creative energy: in philosophy, drama, culture and equality before the law.

After Athens, Ancient Rome was much more of a centralized government, but it still had some lottery or sortition—choosing by lot amongst qualified people—in allocation of jobs.

In medieval times, most ruling systems were absolutist, including monarchies, aristocracies by birth and churches. The Catholic church, for instance, was at times ideologically against choosing by lot. Nevertheless, even in the Middle Ages, there were a number of city states that used lottery selection as a means to get rid of nepotism or corruption, and to distribute power—between qualified groups of aristocrats as in Venice, or the bourgeoisie in Spain or Italy. Up until about the 18th century, if considering alternatives to absolutism, it was still widely assumed that sortition was the basis of popular democracy and that elections produced elite oligarchy.

What ended that appears mainly to be the Enlightenment, where it was assumed that everything had to have a rational answer. Experts should be put in charge because they could think things through. Sortition, therefore, belonged to the old days, it was just leaving things to fate, and surely we can do better than that?

At the same time, representative or electoral systems began to come in, thanks to the French Revolution and the American Revolution. It was not fully fledged universal suffrage, since only tiny proportions of the electorate were able to choose. They didn’t initially call themselves democracies, but republics. Indeed, the new elite thought of itself as more a ‘natural aristocracy’, as opposed to an inherited one.

“The general public is completely fed up of the current system”

For the next 200 years, the main direction of the flow of history was the expansion of the number of people who had the vote, first of all beyond the wealthy, then to the whole male population, and finally to women too. Gradually, these systems appropriated the name democracy. By 1945, you had still only had a dozen countries governed by fully electoral systems. Then it became a question of expanding this electoral representative government to the whole world—an expansion which continued till about 2010. With the triumph in the Cold War of countries mostly choosing their governments through elections, everyone thought that history had ended and electoral representation and capitalism were the right way to run things.

Since 2010, however, this trend has gone into reverse. This is where these books come in. A disparate group of thinkers, especially in universities, began to say out loud that: ‘This elections business just isn’t working. It’s not producing efficient government. Authoritarianism is on the rise.’

It was seen in the academic world sooner than in the general public. If you look at the polls now, the general public is completely fed up with the current system. But it doesn’t know about the alternatives, because so few people have been talking about them. I’m now active in the sector, and I’m sometimes shocked at how sharply public intellectuals can criticize today’s broken politics and yet so rarely consider democratic alternatives to elections. Perhaps that’s because they see elections as the best defence against authoritarianism, an option toward which one section of the dissatisfied public is gravitating all over the world. But most people I meet are very interested when I point out that sortition is another way to better decision-making, even if they are cautious about constitutional change.

In his book, The Keys to Democracy, my father notes that it took 300 or 400 years for Britain’s Houses of Parliament to become the center of decision-making in Britain, and then another couple of 100 years before we had universal suffrage. Frankly, you could imagine that if the general population should decide that sortition—and in particular the subset of sortition that is citizen assemblies—is the right way to go, it would probably take many decades before the population will be ready to hand over the decision-making power to a large extent to them.

So your father, Maurice Pope, had written about citizen assemblies a while ago. Tell me how you came to be involved and what his book, The Keys to Democracy, is about.

My father was a classicist. Even from the 1950s, he always thought democracy should be sortition. He wrote a book in the 1970s about how the ancient Greeks lived and worked, and it features a very stout defense of democracy based on random selection. In the 1980s, he wrote a number of articles in a similar vein, for instance about the potential of juries in politics or pointing out how the respected Greek historian Thucydides was not against a democratic Athens as is often thought, but was in fact neutral on the question. In the 1980s, he also wrote a philosophical defence of sortition, a full-length book. None of us know why it wasn’t published back then, but perhaps it was because it is very radical. Even we at home would tease him about it. I remember reading it at the time and thinking, ‘Gosh, Dad, what planet are you on?’ Because I couldn’t imagine anyone buying the idea that people would be chosen by lot to run the country. It just seemed so implausible.

We had thought that the book had been lost years ago, but my Mum found the manuscript in his library after his death. Meanwhile, I had been reading books about sortition, including some of the ones that I’m recommending today. So when I saw it, I realized that what he was saying was still more philosophical and more radical, perhaps because he was thinking on his own and had a completely open field. With my brother Quentin, we re-established the text, edited it very lightly, and then sent it off to a few leaders in the field, including some of the authors of the five books on this list, to ask them if it was worth us publishing it. One of them, Hélène Landemore, who wrote Open Democracy, wrote back with some wonderful encouragement and said she was ready to write the introduction to my father’s book. She’s one of the leading figures in sortition today, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ So that really gave the motivation to get the book ready for publication and to find an academic publisher too. It was published in March as The Keys to Democracy, one of several titles my father had toyed with.

Now, nearly every week, someone somewhere mentions it somewhere or sends me a message. And it’s very satisfying to see that because it was my father’s summation of his philosophy. I’m so happy for him. I wish he could have seen it and known that what he wrote was considered valuable after all. I now find it a fascinating new idea and it gives me much hope. I’m on the board of advisers of DemocracyNext, I enjoy lending a hand to other democracy NGOs and writing about sortition. I’m even now doing an audit of a citizens’ assembly in Belgium.

I’m really glad of the change. When I worked as a journalist in the Middle East, I would often explicitly or implicitly recite the mantra that ‘All will be solved if there are free and fair elections.’ I also worked for International Crisis Group for 15 years, trying to end wars and support peace processes. We would trot out the same mantra, that an election would surely sort it out. But after a while—and this is long before I rediscovered my father’s book—I started thinking, ‘What are we saying here?’ I went back through all our Crisis Group reports for six months and I worked out that a quarter to a third of the reports were about either violence caused by elections, violence at elections or post-electoral violence. We never questioned whether the violence was the symptom or the cause, or whether elections were necessarily a wonderful thing in all situations.

Where did your father get his ideas from?

His own reading and something in the air. My father was ahead of his time, but he was not alone, even if he probably thought he was. There were a few people in the US, France and Germany who had similar ideas, but my father didn’t know about them. In Germany, they were called plannungszellen—randomly selected cells of 12-24 people who would address a local problem. In America, they were called citizens’ juries.

How would you say your dad’s book compares to the other books you’re recommending?

It’s a first survey of the territory. It’s philosophical, and it’s parti pris, he advocates for full-blooded sortition, which is not that common even today. My father does touch on some academic sides of the idea, but he deliberately says, ‘I don’t want this to be an academic book.’ He says where his sources are and which books he’s read, but there are not many footnotes. He takes a literary approach and he weaves in all the things that he read throughout his life. He had a photographic memory—he could remember whole books of the Aeneid off by heart.

Above all, what makes my father’s book different is that he puts in a constitution. He suggests a utopia, and how it might work. He goes into the philosophy of randomness in a way that very few others have done. Many authors today on sortition, unsurprisingly, focus a lot on showing how poor the efficiency of the electoral system is. My father sweeps by that in 30 pages in which he finds it self-evident that elections are ‘obviously’ failing because ‘the population is apathetic and alienated.’ He was not just in a minority in saying that in the 1980s, but I’m also not sure that the population itself was aware of it either! Today, though, you see the polls by the Pew Center: there are so many people who are fed up with the whole system and don’t trust politicians.

So it’s not particularly focused on his area of expertise, ancient Greece.

No, he moves on pretty quickly. He was interested in how it might work today. What triggered him mainly was his experience of jury service, as with Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times. Earlier this year, Wolf announced his conversion to the idea of citizens’ assemblies, and said he’d been influenced by working with randomly selected people in a jury. Like my father, he realized that ordinary people are really quite good at judging other people. Just because they’re not experts doesn’t mean they can’t tell when the wool is being pulled over their eyes.

Let’s turn to the books you’re recommending. First up is Against Elections by David van Reybrouck, published in 2013. As the title suggests, this is one of the advocacy books you’re recommending, it’s pro assemblies. 

Against Elections was the first big successful book on sortition. It’s been translated into 25 languages and it’s a fantastic read. When I first read it, days later I still remembered whole pages of it by heart, it’s so well done. In the world of democratic innovation, that book was the one that really lit the fuse for many people.

Randomly selected assemblies had previously been held in British Columbia, Ontario and Iceland. But Van Reybrouck’s book followed the fact that he organized the first big one in Belgium in 2010. This was the G1000. At that point, Belgium had been without a government for more than a year because the parties couldn’t agree on one. So Van Reybrouck’s group invited 1000 randomly selected Belgians to tell the next government what they wanted it to do.

Van Reybrouck’s book is inspired by the frustration the Belgians felt with the way their already complicated country had got even more tied up in knots by its election system, but his genius is to make the story universal. He was helped in this by the publishers Imprint Academic, which later also took on my father’s book. The publisher there, Keith Sutherland, began publishing a series of books on sortition and public policy in the early 2000s. Van Reybrouck told me he ordered their books and read them all. So he based his book both on research and the thrilling experience of organizing the G1000. Against Elections is full of that early idealism.

Let’s look at The Government of Chance (2023) by French political scientist Yves Sintomer next, which covers a lot of the history.

This book is amazing. It’s really rich in research. What I find fascinating is that Yves Sintomer had never heard or read anything by my father, but chose roughly the same kinds of examples to show how sortition moved through the ages. It’s much more detailed, however. He’s not trying to make it an easy read. He’s trying to make sure that everyone understands what each historical stage of sortition meant at the time and could mean now.

Unlike my father, he’s not favoring one use of sortition over another. It’s lots of lists of ways you could think about each phase of sortition. The thing that I really like about The Government of Chance is that it shows how, throughout history, elections and sortition have been mixed at some level. This is all a big spectrum and each country does things differently. I learned an incredible amount from it, because he’s got so many examples and it’s done with such common sense.

The Government of Chance came out in February in English. This is going to be the textbook of sortition that people will keep referring back to to know what happened in the past. He’s been working on the topic for 20 years and he goes through all the history.

What’s the actual definition of sortition?

It’s just random selection. The word isn’t well-known, yet, but it’s nice and precise. And it’s not sortation, as was once written in the august publication Politico (sortation just means grouping things together!). Sortition comes from the Latin sores, which originally referred to the bits of parchment that used to have volunteers’ names written on them. It has acquired overtones of fate. The Government of Chance has an excellent discussion of this. Sintomer discusses too what the church thought of sortition as a method—whether it was finding the will of God or getting in the way of the will of God. He shows that sometimes there was a faith-driven justification for sortition.

Then there’s a justification for sortition that sees it as a way of sharing things more equally, especially government posts. Even in imperial China, the qualified mandarins, once they’d passed their exams, would be sent to provincial posts by lot. This is something that human beings have done a lot and it’s not from any one particular culture.

How do juries fit into all this?

The jury system is the ultimate example of how sortition has been with us in Britain for 1000 years, even if their use and composition has changed. In Norman times, for instance, they were groups of local experts who adjudicated based on their knowledge. The funny thing is that in the 19th century, juries really took off at the same time as sortition faded from political life. Even so, they weren’t randomly selected from a wide base of the population until the 1960s, actually.

Very few court cases now go to a jury trial. It’s around 1%. But it’s still there. It’s very important for major cases. And it’s a wonderful example of how, at least in legal context, when it comes to judgment of facts, English-speaking populations really do trust ordinary people to come to a collective decision. In my father’s book there is a whole chapter explaining the mathematics of juries getting things right. For him, it was a very big inspiration in believing that a randomly selected system could work.

Let’s turn to another of the books that is strongly pro-sortition. This is The End of Politicians by Brett Hennig.

Like van Reybrouk’s, this is a very easy book to read. Both men are activists and very idealistic. They both run sortition associations. Brett Hennig’s book came about five years later, so it’s a little bit more rounded.

It’s pretty radical. Van Reybrouck’s book tends to leave it for people to make up their own minds. Hennig seeks to do without politicians altogether, which is a red line for some in the pro-sortition community. My father certainly was similarly minded, over a long time scale. He doesn’t say it’s going to happen straight away. He says, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it properly, with everything being done by sortition. In their hearts, that’s what many people in the sortition community would like to see. But they know that there are compromises that have to be made to win over existing establishments.

Also, who knows what mix of sortition and elections will work best? We’ve only just started experimenting. Even in ancient Greece the strategoi, the generals of the army, were elected. You didn’t just randomly select your generals to lead you into war. But the negotiations and diplomacy and everything else was done by sortition.

Hennig seems pretty determined. He writes: “Electoral democracy is not a terminus. The struggle for more legitimate forms of government will continue.”

Once you get the bug, it’s hard to shake off. Sortition is making a big comeback, at least compared to where it was 10 or 20 years ago. The number of citizen assemblies has grown logarithmically since the first one in 2003, and several hundred have now been convened around the world.

Can you give some examples? Is sortition particularly suited to divisive issues, like abortion in Ireland?

It’s considered to work well when you have people from a whole community properly empowered to decide on ‘wicked problems’ which politicians don’t really want to touch, but which society needs solving. So yes, in Ireland it was first same-sex marriages, then abortion. It’s been used for more than 10 major climate assemblies, which is something else that politicians find very difficult to deal with.

I was lucky enough to be an official observer at the French assembly on end of life. France bans assisted dying, and in the end 184 citizens answered the government’s summons to discuss if that should change. This was the gold standard of a citizens’ assembly with full state backing, called into existence by the President, addressed by the Prime Minister and the head of the National Assembly. They said, ‘Please find out what we should do. We will listen to you and anything that you say we should do. If we don’t do it, we will explain to you why we haven’t.’ So it was handing quite a lot of deciding power to this assembly.

These citizens had never met each other before, but even the first weekend they met they already felt that they reflected the diversity of France. It was an extraordinary feeling to be standing in a room with people who were from all over France and its outre-mer departments, and from all social classes and all levels of education. There was an accidental discussion at one point with the president of the National Assembly about whether politicians or the assembly represented the people, and she replied sharply: ‘the one thing you’ve got to realize is that random selection will never take over government.’ And the whole room went silent as it sank in that she had vocalized something which no one had even thought of, maybe suddenly thinking, ‘Oh! It might one day be like that.’ We’re very far from that at present. But that citizens’ assembly, which recommended lifting the ban on assisted dying under strict conditions, proved a very good way of finding out what ordinary people, given full information, would do at this moment in time.

Tell me more about how the assembly worked.

A typical citizens’ assembly goes through four stages. First of all, you choose people randomly by letters of invitation or in the French case, by random phone calls, explaining citizens’ assemblies and the issue to be discussed. Sometimes people do this weird old polling thing, where you go to a street corner, go to the third street on the left and then take the third house on the left (say). There are all kinds of systems for doing it, it’s wonderful. Once you have answers from people – who have filled out forms with information about their location, education level, age, sex, ethnicity and employment – there’s a second round of random selection to make sure that those selected represent the community or population as a whole.

The citizens’ assembly then convenes. People get to know each other. The main fuel of this decision-making process is mutual trust. When you’re randomly selected, you just represent yourself. Nobody has to feel that they’re there because they’re a woman or they’re of a particular ethnicity or educational level. You’re there because you’re you. It’s completely by chance that you’re there. No one is up, no one is down. Your view is theoretically equal.

The citizens then hear from experts. In the French case, there were 60 people who came to formally talk to them, and possibly another 60 people were informally advising them. The main impression one got as an observer was, ‘My goodness, these experts all have very different opinions about what should be done!’ That was an eye-opener. After reading specially prepared materials and listening to all the experts, the citizens very soon came up to speed and far exceeded my limited understanding of assisted dying because they really studied hard. They really felt empowered. It’s what the sortition experts call best behavior. People feel they’re doing their civic duty and so they really commit. It’s one of the reasons why any one citizens’ assembly is unlikely to work if made permanent. Then it would become a job. People would lose that magical pixie dust that floats in the air when people work together with goodwill to find solutions.

“Citizens’ assemblies are a really interesting way to draw the sting of anger, polarization and frustration”

Then you have deliberation guided by facilitators. It’s important that facilitators are good, remember what’s been said, make sure that the shy people come forward, and that the loud and aggressive and antisocial ones are kept within normal bounds. In the French end-of-life convention they did superbly. They even had graphic facilitators, drawing cartoons of what everyone was saying in real time. Sometimes they were just brilliant. One dreamed up a ‘decision tree’, helping the citizens to see a framework for how their eventual report would need to be structured. It was complicated to take care of all the eventualities that face the 600,000 French people who die every year, and with an aging population, it will soon be 700,000.

The citizens proved equal to the task. A 75% majority emerged that said France should lift its ban on assisted dying and 25% said they were against assisted dying—for various reasons: religious, moral, practical, etc., there were different currents. But everybody who was part of the assembly signed the final document. Even those who opposed assisted dying went on national French television to defend the decision to recommend assisted die saying, ‘I agree with this report, because I could see that most people thought differently, but they took my reservations into account and they are reflected in the report.’ It was remarkable to watch that happen. And I think most people who have taken part in a citizens’ assembly have had the same magic moment of thinking, ‘I can do this.’ It was a real downer when they didn’t have that anymore. In fact, some have to have psychological advice going back to normal life because being engaged felt so good. It was so inspiring to see how human beings are very reasonable if they can trust each other.

Of course, it’s early days. This is only the second national citizens’ assembly that France has done. It was done differently from the first one, on climate change adaptation. And I’m sure the third one will have different characteristics as well. There’s a lot of experimentation going on.

Citizens’ assemblies still have a lot to prove. I don’t think anybody’s found the perfect format or way of doing it. One of the things that people have the biggest trouble with is how less than 200 randomly chosen people can represent a country. The idea of the sample being representative is very difficult. My father spends a lot of time trying to prove that it is and to show why the time has now come to accept it. We do now have the science to show that sampling works, as well as the fact that randomness can be good. Which is a very post-enlightenment way of thinking.

We’ve obviously had one very contentious issue in the UK, that politicians on all sides are still scared to talk about. Is a citizens’ assembly helpful in the context of something like Brexit?

University College London actually did a citizens’ assembly on Brexit in 2017, after the vote. It was along the lines of, ‘OK we’ve saddled ourselves with the feeling that we have to do this Brexit thing now. How do we set about it?’ People got to grips with the material and came to conceptual good sense conclusions. The assembly was completely ignored, unfortunately, because the government wasn’t behind it. There has to be some level of government buy-in. The sortition movement can’t be too anti-politician because the politicians are still in charge. And the population, of course, still wants the politicians to be in charge.

There are other exciting things going on in the UK. The Sortition Foundation is trying to latch on to the demands for reform of the House of Lords to see if that could be replaced with a formula that includes a randomly selected body or bodies. Change will come slowly and will have to be managed carefully. You have to have the population going along with you. It has to be properly designed. That is a huge challenge, to convince people that it’s working properly. If it doesn’t work, then people will lose faith in random selection for generations.

Let’s turn to Hélène Landemore’s book, Open Democracy, which you’ve already mentioned. What does this book bring to the discussion?

Where Sintomer’s The Government of Chance is dedicated to the history of sortition, Landemore’s Open Democracy is more about the philosophy of it all. Landemore is a professor of political science at Yale, and this is definitely an academic book. But, like other academics working in this field, she spends a great deal of time working with governments, NGOs, facilitating companies on how to make sortition perform well. She also serves on the oversight committees of citizens’ assemblies themselves, so her theoretical work is inspired by broad real-life experience. This included her attending an early citizens’ assembly on constitutional reform in Iceland in the early 2010s, which gets a good chapter.

Reading this book gave me a strong sense not just of what Landemore thought but also what diverse currents in the field have said and are thinking too. It is also an important book because its intellectual rigor and being rooted in today’s academic literature means that critics cannot dismiss it as a polemical tract. Any reader will come away with a robust and refreshing new look at the meanings and functions of direct democracy, liquid democracy, legitimacy, representation, political parties and referendums. On top of that, Landemore lays out a proposal for a new “open democracy,” which draws on ancient roots – be they Greek, Viking or Indian – and which rests on five solid principles: participation, deliberation, majoritarian support, representation (ideally through sortition) and transparency.

Landemore is careful not to alienate the pro-election establishment, but the book prepares the way for change by laying out the ground for new thinking that elections are not the only viable way to run countries, even large ones; that direct democracy (for instance, more referendums) should not be the main path forward; that people are wrong to think that citizens are unwilling to play their part in this; and that allowing groups of ordinary people to take decisions does not run the risk of mob rule.

Your final recommendation is the De Gruyter Handbook of Citizens’ Assemblies. Is this the book you need if you’re actually wanting to set one up, or is it more for academic study?

Citizens’ assemblies are the most successful embodiment of sortition so far, and as their numbers and status rises, not surprisingly there has been a recent gush of explainers. One of the most accessible guides is actually best read online, done by DemocracyNext, a non-profit institute, and full of useful links to background documents and explainers. For a book, though, I’ve chosen the De Gruyter one because it is the most authoritative. For newcomers, citizens’ assemblies still have a lot to prove. After all, they are competing – successfully – with traditional, elected parliaments as places where discussion can produce solutions to wicked problems in a society. The book also has the advantage of being downloadable for free.

Citizens’ assemblies may be fashionable but they are also very new, and therefore worthy of a dose of professorial caution and attention to detail. The De Gruyter handbook has a feeling of depth as it draws on the wisdom of 43 contributors from all over the world, even if, being a collection of 29 academic essays, the accessibility of the chapters is uneven. For someone wanting to get abreast of all aspects of this emerging democratic space, there’s a wealth of basic information. Even for a long-time follower of the trend, there’s an unexpected detail on every page.

My concern about citizens’ assemblies is one that’s similar to the jury system and cases where you have a very good lawyer for one side, and not such a good lawyer for the other side. Isn’t it a lot about how the information is presented?

Remember that with the gold standard of the citizens’ assembly, as a group they can call whichever experts they want. The facilitators and the organizers will have a basic list but, as I saw in France, the citizens can go really deep if they have the time. But even then, with nine weekends – three weekends to work out what’s going on, three weekends to deliberate and three weekends to sort out their recommendations and to formally vote on the result – they were warned against wanting to research absolutely everything. Other citizens’ panels are much shorter, but usually not under four days. So there is always a limit to how much expert advice they can get, but you can still fit a lot in. It certainly compares well with how much time most elected MPs have to dive into details or freedom to make up their own minds.

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The experts who come to the citizens’ assembly speak in a slightly different way than they do in normal times because they realize that they’re speaking to a cross-generational, cross-educational group and they have to make things very clear. I think the experts find that empowering, too. They’re not just talking to other academics, trying to score points.

I would also say, watching the French assembly at work and also remembering my experience as a journalist, that ordinary people may not always understand what someone is saying but they can sense when someone is lying to them.

What happens if people’s views are opposed because of different geographical interests?

For instance, imagine if we were back in the days when the decision was made about whether to build Stansted Airport or not. You had to decide whether the loss of three country houses and 15 villages in a beautiful, unspoiled part of England was worth it to make it easier for people to go to Tunisia on holiday? My father raises this tradeoff in his book, and I don’t think he answers it very satisfactorily. There you have two overlapping communities, the local and the national, with deeply differing perspectives.

I think what’s been shown so far is that these citizen assemblies really only work if you’ve got a topic that is wide enough in scope for the whole community to tackle the problem. Problems with moral dimensions are typically the ones which have proven to be most amenable to solution through citizens’ assemblies.

What are the limits of citizens’ assemblies?

You have to judge what sort of task it is. Operational things which need to be done in an expert fashion—like flying a plane or deciding how and where to build a sewer through a neighborhood—need to be done by experts who know how to do it. If it’s a matter of setting policy parameters or moral boundaries, then you could have a sortition-based group deciding it.

One thing I like about sortition is that unlike my previous areas of quasi-expertise, like Turkey or the Middle East, when I talk about it, people can develop a deep and sustained interest. They are so fed up with what they think is a non-performing system that they are excited by the idea that there might be another way that could be legitimate and could make use of ordinary people’s input. It’s not just about mobilizing the wisdom of the crowd. It’s also about making the crowd feel as though it’s part of the process.

People who are participating immediately feel much more motivated about things. You can imagine that if everybody had to do a week’s public service a year, taking decisions at some level or other, they would feel like fuller citizens. With the French climate assembly, of the 150 people who participated 20 or 30 went into politics afterwards, because they felt so empowered by the experience.

That’s amazing! And heartening. I do a lot of volunteering in local politics. People are so angry. They might make an exception for individuals, but on the whole they dislike politicians and think the whole system is corrupt.

In order to win an election, you need money, and the people who give money are normally expecting something back. That’s a big problem for the parties that are used to being in government. It results in the complete capture of the decision-making system by financial interests. On the whole, people haven’t complained much because it doesn’t seem to affect them that badly in the short term. But perhaps now that things don’t look so rosy, they will question it.

No one wants a revolution. I’ve seen a few countries that have gone through that, where you have a real civilizational reset, and it’s a terrible jolt. Everyone thinks that when they do a revolution, they’re going to have everything they had before plus this new thing. Instead, you sweep out the old stuff, and have to start everything all over again.

Citizens’ assemblies are a really interesting way to draw the sting of anger, polarization and frustration. And they’re not that expensive. Jersey did a whole citizens’ assembly on assisted dying for £65,000 and got a result that everyone bought into. Emmanuel Macron used them very cleverly to defuse the dispossessed anger of the gilets jaunes, for instance. The ‘Great National Debate’ was, to a large extent, done in sortition-based groups. He managed to wriggle out of the tight corner he had got into.

Funnily enough, one of the reasons that Macron got into citizens’ assemblies at all—and France, from a leadership perspective, is one of the pioneers—is because David van Reybrouck once sat near him at a dinner party. Van Reybrouck started telling Macron about citizens’ assemblies and Macron started scribbling on his napkin and history changed. It can happen. Can you imagine?

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

October 13, 2023

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Hugh Pope

Hugh Pope

Hugh Pope is a writer, speaker and author of books on Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia. As well as editing his father's book on sortition, The Keys to Democracy, he is a member of the advisory board of DemocracyNext. Previously, he spent 15 years working for International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-prevention organisation. Prior to that he was a foreign correspondent for 25 years, most recently spending a decade as the Wall Street Journal’s Turkey, Central Asia and Middle East Correspondent.

Hugh Pope

Hugh Pope

Hugh Pope is a writer, speaker and author of books on Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia. As well as editing his father's book on sortition, The Keys to Democracy, he is a member of the advisory board of DemocracyNext. Previously, he spent 15 years working for International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-prevention organisation. Prior to that he was a foreign correspondent for 25 years, most recently spending a decade as the Wall Street Journal’s Turkey, Central Asia and Middle East Correspondent.