Institutionalized deliberative processes: the Belgian example

Sophie Devillers is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Namur and the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. At a time when in France, the Citizen Convention for the Climate is ending on a severe note for the government, Sophie Devillers comes back for us on the 2011 G1000, this citizen collective of 1,000 people drawn at random to discuss the future of Belgium at a time when the country was without an executive. She explains the undoubtedly mitigated impact of the process, while highlighting its definite effect on an international scale.

Missions Publiques: You co-authored The G1000: A Citizen Experience of Deliberative Democracy. This citizen collective of 1,000 people drawn at random to talk about the future of Belgium is said to be a deliberative turning point in Belgian and European politics. Ten years later, how do you view this deliberation? 

The G1000 is the largest citizen’s initiative of deliberative democracy that has been organized to date in Belgium. But in terms of its impact on the country and its policies, the G1000 has a rather mixed record. Its direct impacts on the content of policies in the areas it has discussed (among others, migration and social security) are non-existent. The final report with recommendations has been presented to the authorities of the different levels of power, but they have not followed up on it afterwards. This reflects the lack of linkage between the mini-publics and traditional institutions.

However, the G1000 as a process has had great effects in Belgium and beyond. At a time when Belgium was in an institutional impasse, it showed the country’s leaders that the population was capable of moving beyond the differences between Flemish and Walloons and different social categories to discuss complex issues together and find consensual solutions (which at the time was the criticism made to elected officials, whose rivalries and divergent interests prevented them from being able to form a government and manage the country effectively). It can be said that the G1000 thus imposed the deliberative model as an alternative to traditional politics in the minds of many Belgian researchers and elected officials, who seized upon this method to organize their own processes, sometimes to the point of institutionalizing them, such as the model of the Brussels Parliament, and in the German-speaking community, where the government created a citizen’s parliament that works in parallel with the “elected” parliament and has the power to bring together citizens drawn by lot to give direction to the parliament. Moreover, last January the Brussels Parliament adopted a series of measures to involve citizens more closely in parliamentary work. The regional assembly has also equipped itself with the necessary tools to organize deliberative committees composed of 15 parliamentarians and 45 people drawn by lot from among Brussels residents, regardless of nationality.

This contagion through the G1000 deliberative model has spread to a local level in the municipality of Grez-Doiceau, in the province of Walloon Brabant and even as far as the Netherlands, where a large number of municipalities have their own local G1000, as in Amersfoort and Uden for example.  

Ten years later, there are countless citizens’ panels, deliberative assemblies, consultative forums and other participatory budgets organized throughout Europe and the world, at all levels of power and on a wide variety of subjects. And one cannot help but notice the obvious analogy between the G1000 and the Citizens’ Convention for Climate in France, whose symbolic significance will undoubtedly be more valuable than the political and environmental impact sought. Called upon to note the government’s consideration of its proposals, French citizens themselves were severe, considering the exercise “wasted”, after a broken promise by the French government that “about 40%” of the Citizen’s Convention on Climate’s proposals would be included in the climate bill. Let’s hope that French elected officials will take up the concept and institutionalize it in French schemes at a more local level.  

“An online consultation can be useful and necessary, but it is essential that it be accompanied by an in-depth deliberative process among a smaller number of people.

Sophie Devillers

Doctoral student in political science at the University of Namur and the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium

Missions Publiques: The G1000 reached an additional 800 individuals through G’Home, a large online deliberation in parallel to the citizen summit discussions. In France, the Citizens’ Convention for Climate had also set up an online contribution platform. Do you think that an open and public online discussion should systematically be part of the deliberative process?

An online consultation can be useful and necessary at several points in the process, but it is essential that it be accompanied by an in-depth deliberative process among a smaller number of people in order to “digest” all of these ideas and bring out quality, informed and deliberative proposals.

I would say that the role of online consultation can be to set the agenda for a deliberative process. An online platform, a kind of suggestion box, can be open to all citizens, who could come and suggest topics, proposals, ideas that they would like to see discussed. The risk, of course, is that the platform will be overwhelmed by political activists, who would impose their ideas. This is where the subsequent deliberative phase is crucial, to filter and revise citizens’ recommendations. Otherwise, if one takes only the results of the platform in terms of the “percentages of votes” garnered by the proposals, the results are likely to be heavily biased. Also, if only citizens set the agenda for the discussions in this way, it is crucial that the politicians be linked to the process in some way, to ensure that issues that were not initially on his or her own reform agenda do not fall into the void because they do not come from the politician themselves.

Online consultation can also take place throughout the process. At the very least, the deliberations must be made accessible and transparent to the rest of the population: by communicating about the existence, functioning and discussions within the mechanism, it is possible to engage citizens beyond the participants in the information and reflection process generated by the deliberations. In this way, it is possible to stimulate public debate on the issue under discussion, provide people with the arguments behind it and help them to position themselves or at least to reflect on the subject, as participants do. One can imagine going one step further and opening the deliberations to public input, for example by keeping the suggestion box open, allowing citizens to react, vote, comment on the discussions and recommendations produced by the panel and bring in new ones to feed the deliberations.

Also, informing the population about the existence, functioning and content of these mechanisms is crucial if we want to encourage them to adhere to the mechanism and its recommendations. The latter can only legitimately be given a place in the final decisions if they are also supported by the wider population. It is therefore a matter of giving them the keys to perceive how the decisions of these mechanisms are constructed and why it is legitimate to give them importance in the public debate and in decisions.

Communicating widely about these processes and involving citizens in them makes these devices visible, comprehensible, and normal so that they appear as usual and legitimate decision-making tools to citizens. This can help increase the rate of positive responses during recruitment and encourage citizens to become involved in these systems and their products over the long term.

Citizen panels, while they are wonderful opportunities to generate greater interest in politics, often see their effects limited to that, and struggle to really penetrate traditional political institutions and the decisions they make.

Missions Publiques. Within the framework of your thesis, you’re analyzing the dynamics of deliberation between elected officials and ‘ordinary’ citizens by bringing together and facilitating mixed groups, with citizens, local, national or regional elected officials around the theme of cultural diversity and the integration of migrants in Belgium. In your opinion, what consequences can the presence of elected representatives have on the quality of the exchanges?

My objective, in analyzing the way in which elected officials and citizens interact, is to understand the effect that the presence of elected officials can have on the quality of exchanges in terms of the provision of information, respect, the quality of arguments, and on the definition of the recommendations resulting from these roundtables.

At present, we can see that citizen panels, while they are often wonderful opportunities for participants to learn a lot about the topic, to generate greater interest in politics, to stimulate their engagement, etc., often see their effects limited to that, and struggle to really penetrate traditional political institutions and the decisions they make. Including elected officials at the tables would help create this link. If we look at the process of revising the Irish constitution, which for more than a year brought together 33 elected officials and 66 Irish people drawn by lot, we can see that the presence of elected officials in the process created a channel of transmission between the work of the panel and the traditional institutions. The elected officials present acted as ambassadors of the process and its decisions and defended the panel’s work in parliament, notably allowing the organization of several referendums that led to substantial revisions of the constitution.

However, let’s not forget that elected officials, because of their grasp of argumentation, their ease in speaking in public and their status as legitimate decision-makers, could prevent citizens from having a sufficient say and from creating a climate of trust and respect by trying to impose their point of view. There could also be added value in the participation of elected officials in terms of the quality of the exchanges: they could provide a wealth of information, data and arguments useful for advancing the debates and making better proposals, for example. There is no guarantee that this would take place in a disrespectful climate and closed to dialogue, since in this case, elected officials would not be confronted with the opposing faction, but rather with citizens, who aren’t led by any political agenda.

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