Published on May 15, 2015

Guest blog: The hidden potential of random recruitment

By Oliver Dowlen

Oliver Dowlen is a scholar specialising in the random selection of citizens for public office. After working as a teacher and practitioner in the arts, he took a part time MPhil in Politics in 1999 at the University of Hertfordshire and then a full-time DPhil at New College, Oxford, graduating in 2007. The subject for his MPhil was Marx’s Concept of Alienation. For his doctorate, however, he investigated the political value of selecting citizens for public office by lottery. His doctoral thesis was joint winner of the Sir Ernest Barker prize for best thesis in political theory for 2006-7; it has since been published (The Political Potential of Sortition, Imprint Academic 2008). In recent years he has been joint organiser of the CEVIPOF seminar series on the political use of sortition funded by Sciences Po, Paris. In October 2012 he took up an ISRF Early Career Fellowship at Queen Mary College, London to study the benefits of using randomly-selected citizens in transitions to democracy. In early 2015 he affiliated with Sciences Po in Paris as a Chercheur Associé.

Picture for blog OllyFor the greater part of the fifteenth century the Medici family held absolute power in Florence. In 1465-6, however, a pro-republican grouping began to voice their opposition to what was essentially a family-based repressive dictatorship. This grouping had two main demands: the first was for freedom of political expression; the second was for the restoration of the random selection of citizens for public office. From the mid-thirteenth century the first Florentine republic had used lottery systems to select citizens for public office, including the top executive grouping or Signoria. This system was discontinued when the Medici took control in 1434.

Unfortunately the 1460’s republican movement was unsuccessful, but the nature of its demands poses some very interesting questions. What is it about random recruitment that could place it so securely in the front line of the struggle against tyrannical power? And how should we best understand the potential of this form of choosing office holders in a modern democratic context?

Random selection, or sortition, has a long history within political systems – much longer than representation. The Medici example is perhaps one of the clearest indications of the capacity of the lottery to restrict personal political power. A lottery decision, by virtue of its mechanical nature, excludes all the qualities that would normally accompany a decision made by a human agent. There is no moral or rational discrimination between the options in a lottery decision, but at the same time there is no prejudice or partisanship. In this way random recruitment has the capacity to help exclude the politics of patronage, manipulation, fear and favour from the process of political appointment.

The most straightforward conclusion that we can draw from this is that random recruitment operates best where there is real need to restrict willful interference and partisan power. At the same time we need to realise that because politics is about collective rational decision-making randomly-made decisions should be designed to support rather than replace or compromise this process.

The non-partisan capacity of lottery selection therefore points us towards considering what I call mediative roles for the citizens that are selected by this method. These are offices that require some level of impartiality, or to put it another way, where the general interest – the upholding of the law, the protection of those procedures and institutions that guarantee the fairness of the system – takes precedence over the expression of particular interests.

These are offices that literally mediate between different interest groups, ideas or versions of the general good to help ensure a stable, fair and transparent, and accountable political process.

Examples of this sort of office would include election monitors (especially important in new democracies); citizen groupings to oversee the finances and general conduct of elected MPs; citizen groupings in key areas of the public services such as the NHS; and monitors in the police, security services and the military. Randomly selected citizens’ juries could be used in public interest cases or to decide when the media had invaded the privacy or rights of the individual. Randomly selected citizens could also be used to form a component of a second legislative chamber or to scrutinise Parliament’s work. I should also add that all these posts would have to be temporary and subject to strict rotation.

In all these cases, training could be given and the level of general citizen education increased to cope with the prospect of greater citizen involvement. The training and support for school governors is a good example of how this could operate. Where greater professional expertise was called for, random selection could take place from pools of those suitably qualified or experienced. The citizen monitors could be linked to wider deliberative forums or to support democratic mechanisms such as referendums. A combination of voluntary and compulsory posts could be used with some level of financial compensation or official recognition for the citizen participants. The best areas for the application for random recruitment according to this model can be summarised by the phrase “somewhere between the small room and the referendum”. In this sense, therefore, it is envisaged as operating in a way that supports and enhances electoral democracy, rather than standing as an alternative system of selecting political office-holders.

Used systematically in the context of the development of new forms of citizens’ democracy random selection can offer citizens the opportunity to own and defend the political process itself. It also has the capacity to create a new and direct relationship between the citizens and the state.

A draft pamphlet exploring this theme in greater detail can be sent by e-mailing

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