The second cycle of the Citizens’ Assembly for Climate on food has just concluded. As with the first cycle on housing, the people of Brussels were supported in their reflections by an animation team. What are the key takeaways from these two cycles? What are the interesting developments that should be continued? We interviewed(1) Julie Bérard, an eco-advisor and facilitator at 21Solutions, and Benoît Verhulst, a project manager for participatory projects at Missions Publiques, two collective intelligence agencies that co-designed and facilitated the process.
The second cycle of the Citizens’ Assembly for Climate has just concluded. Following the topic of housing, citizens worked on food. Was this theme easier to grasp? And if so, why?
Julie Bérard: Yes, in a way, because it’s a less broad subject than housing, which included issues of mobility, taxation, green spaces, etc. And it’s especially a subject that directly touches people’s daily lives. The mission of the citizens, that is the question posed by the Government which they had to answer, was also more direct: ‘As residents of Brussels, what would you need to help you change your diet tomorrow? What do you expect from the various stakeholders?’
Benoît Verhulst: What was interesting is that the goal of this cycle was to make them work on the evolution of their lifestyle, whereas for housing, there are multiple and extremely powerful external factors: the significant share of private real estate developers in Brussels compared to public ones, the preservation of heritage and the necessary updating of buildings to meet standards, the real estate pressure, and the lack of housing… For food, the individual lever is significant, and awareness is quite immediate. The figures mentioned in the Good Food strategy made an impact on the citizens, like the fact that cattle farming represents half of the greenhouse gas emissions in Belgium. As a result: the citizens’ opinion from this cycle includes a dimension of challenging the various actors in the food chain and proposals for the Region, large retailers and to a lesser extent the restaurant sector and businesses.
The recruitment method for participants is as follows: a letter is sent to all municipalities in Brussels, and a lottery is conducted among those who have volunteered. In the first Assembly, there was some diversity from the Brussels population, but an overrepresentation of graduates and few young people. What adjustments have been made for this second cycle?
Julie: The participants still come from the 19 municipalities of the Brussels Region. However, this year, a partnership with the Youth Forum and a specific communication campaign targeting 16–25-year-olds helped to recruit and retain more young people. This partnership was invaluable in making young people feel comfortable and legitimate in the process. Ground-level actors working with vulnerable populations were also approached to spread the word about the Assembly among their beneficiaries.
Benoît: However, the recruitment mode is not yet optimal for a simple reason. Currently, addresses are selected randomly. Often, only one letter is distributed for a building with 15 apartments, each housing a household of 4 people! Usually, it’s a person who is interested in the initiative or the topic who decides to respond to the letter… It is therefore even more difficult to reach people who might not feel legitimate to participate. To correct this bias, it would be interesting to have access to the National Register (which contains data on the identity of all residents in Belgium), which would allow sending personalized letters to randomly selected individuals. This personalizes the invitations more, reaches people more effectively, and increases the desire to engage.
Julie: We are aware of this room for improvement, and it is a request relayed by the citizens who strongly insisted, for future cycles, on the necessity to mobilize more people in precarious situations and even to make it, why not, a recruitment criterion. We emphasize that random selection is one recruitment method, but it’s interesting to complement it with other modalities to reach certain audiences. Indeed, less educated, or more precarious people do not feel legitimate participating in such initiatives, and it takes time to ‘convince’ them, to make them want to participate. As in the Assembly, this can be done, for example, through associations that know their audiences well.”
Do you have a moment that particularly struck you and/or surprised you in this Assembly? An anecdote or story to share?
Julie: What moves me at each final session is the sense of ending felt by most participants. In this year’s group, it was a bit stronger. Participants create bonds, a ritual of meeting on Saturdays, and when it ends, it’s like the end of a vacation when you’ve made new friends and exchange contacts. Some participants keep in touch, and a desire to learn more has been born… For me, it’s a success to see new bonds being formed, desires to learn more about political mechanisms and strategic decisions for climate transition.
Benoît: For this cycle, we asked a person from the administration to be the link between, on one hand, what the citizens were discussing, and on the other hand, the reality of the field and the Region’s projections for the coming years. This person attended almost all the sessions and a bond was formed between her and the Assembly members, who called her by her first name, recalled what she had said, and came to talk to her during breaks. This really helped to personify the administration and show that it was not an abstract entity hidden in a building. Both sides are working on the same subject, with different perspectives but with the same will to improve the situation. This shows that a citizens’ assembly can be built with public actors.
What have you evolved in terms of methods between the 1st and 2nd cycle?
Julie: Some principles remain unchanged: since the group is diversified, we think it’s important to highlight the knowledge present among the participants. They are the ones who first speak and share their experiences with food. We are careful to give the right signals upon arrival: the citizens are competent because they are experts in their daily lives, in their ways of living. We use educational methods for the ‘information’ sessions. This year’s program included a Climate Mural (a small group game to understand the causes and consequences of climate change) and a quiz on the topic of food in Brussels. We even organized a meeting with about thirty actors from the food sector! We know that cognitively, information is more easily retained when given in a context of exchange and discussion than in a top-down speech delivered to an audience of 70 people. We always place resource people in a position to react to the content of the citizens. It takes a bit more time because they must make a ‘custom’ presentation for the group, but it’s one of the conditions for the success of an inclusive approach.
Benoît: We have evolved or reinforced two points of work, which are not strictly speaking methods of facilitation, but are general work methodologies. First, we strongly emphasized the dimension of co-construction with the administration to define the mission entrusted to the citizens. We didn’t want them to work very generally on the theme of food because we know that administrations and many field actors have been working on it for a long time. To avoid reinventing what already exists, we opted for the Assembly to enrich what exists, that is, the Good Food Strategy whose revision is planned for 2025. So, we worked mainly for the Assembly to add real value during the revision of the strategy, to bring a ‘citizen’ dimension. We then continued this regular back-and-forth between each session of the Assembly with a support committee composed of specialists on the subject (and more precisely Joëlle van Bambeke, the coordinator of the Good Food strategy) to support the work of the citizens, answer their questions, enlighten them about what already exists, etc. Finally, we changed the pace of the approach. Cycle 1 was spread over time. This time, the citizens met for an introductory weekend, two Saturdays of reflection, and a finalization weekend, every two weeks. It was an intense rhythm, but it allows staying on the subject and keeping the thread!
More info on the website : https://www.assembleeclimat.brussels/