Thursday, 10 July 2014

Sortition Governence


Recently, I've been thinking about how our democracy works here in the UK. This has mainly been spurred on by a couple of things, but for this blog post, the main impetus was the strike action this morning.

Strike Action

Many public sector workers have gone on strike over pay, pensions and conditions. A discussion on BBC Radio 4 this morning, involving a government official and an official from Unison stated that many of the strike ballots only had a turn out of around 20%. This was claimed to be, at best, failure of democracy and at worse a direct abuse of the system.

When compared to the Conservative's PCC Election farce in 2012, with a turnout of 15.1%, attacking a 20% turnout as not being legitimate or representative is pure hypocrisy.

Concentration of Power

Democracy is, in essence, a codified method of concentrating the power of the many in the hands of a trusted few with the aim of producing legislation that benefits the many.

Many distributed systems suffer and become vulnerable when power is concentrated too strongly. In the case of BitCoin, this power concentration is often seen in large mining pools, leading to such issues as a 51% attack.

In a democracy, this concentration of power is wielded by people -- fallible humans. People who can be swayed with bribery, extortion or simple cronyism. This leads to sub-par legislation, and outright exploitation of the vulnerable members of society.


Sortition is a method of governance whereby the legislators are picked from a pool of eligible people at random. This means that no matter how wealthy you are, who your friends are, or what you do for a living, you may be selected to serve, thus distributing power to the populace much more effectively, and removing power from a wealthy few.

Sortition House of Lords

In our current system, legislation usually must pass the House of Lords. These are not elected officials, but have often pulled sent bad legislation back to the commons to be "fixed."

In this method, for every piece of legislation the commons produces, to reach Royal Assent, it must pass a vote by a suitably large sample of the population, selected at random. Anyone shirking their duty to vote will be fined or jailed.

This vote should ensure that any legislation is suitably aligned with the views and needs of the public, and would entail the minimum of disruption to people's lives. However, if the Commons never suggests the legislation that the people require or desire, it can never come to fruition.

It also does not provide fantastic protection against bribery.

Sortition Commons

Sortition is a method of governance whereby the legislators are picked from a pool of eligible people at random. This means that no matter how wealthy you are, who your friends are, or what you do for a living, you may be selected to serve.

To ensure that the committee is representative of the average person, they could be paid a wage close to that of what a common person could expect. For example, the median wage of the country, plus 10%. That way, on average, people neither lose out nor gain too much from serving on the committee. It would also enable the legislature the enforce service, threatening fines or jail for not serving, much like jury duty. In the case where the person felt they could not serve at the time they were selected, for example, a new mother, they could defer their service to a time that they were more able to serve.

To ensure that a wealthy few could not simply prevent unfavourable laws from coming to fruition, this system would do away with the House of Lords and the process of Royal Assent. Any legislature produced by the sortition Commons would become law without any other outside interference.

This system should ensure that the wealthy don't have too much say into the process (they're only the 1% after all! They'd commonly make up 1% of the committee, and thus have little say) and that those making the legislation are insulated from the temptation of power. It would not help prevent bribery, additional checks and balances may be required to ensure that no bribery occurred.


Sortition has several criticism commonly leveled at it, many of which revolve around a fear of loss of control.

The Racist Committee

With a sufficiently large sample of people, having an overwhelming representation of extreme views, such as racism, is highly unlikely.

To ensure that, in the unlikely event, an extreme law is passed, the public could have a variant of the right to recall for any legislation. It could even be enshrined in a constitution which upholds human rights and the operation of the sortition committee. Any changes to the constitution would have to be put to referendum.

The Bribery Problem

Many members of a sortition committee may be susceptible to bribery. A simple solution is to have the members of the sortition committee be completely anonymous until after their term has been served. If you can't find someone, you can't bribe them.

There could also be the stipulation that their accounts be checked for irregularities and large payments, to ensure that if their anonymity is breached, they do not accept any bribes. If they are found to have accepted bribes, the member of the committee and the person paying the bribe should be subject to hefty fines and possibly jail.


Many people would be worried about the members of the sortition committee not having the relevant skills to produce legislation or respond to the demands of the public service adequately. This could, in part, be addressed by adequate training. It should probably include some training in statistics, and especially their common mis-uses.

Another potential way to deal with this would be to have a large body of experts available to answer their questions and give expert opinions, much like an expert witness maybe called to a trial, a request could be made for (for example) experts in civil engineering. Several could be found and asked for their opinions for the committee, or to produce independent reports for the committee to consider.


I'm not overly convinced of this idea. I keep asking those around me about it, and it usually receives mixed reactions, and some offer additions and modifications to the idea. Most feel that in our current system, the idea is untennable, others feel that it's only acheivable with incremental changes to the current system.

I feel that sortition has a reasonable chance of working, however, it needs to prove it's metal in the small scale first. For example, unions, the ACM, IEEE or NICE could use sortition to elect their governing persons from their membership without discrimination. Even The Co-operative Group, UK could potentially use it to select it's governance.

Any issues found while "testing" the idea in the small could be used to refine the idea and re-test it.

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