"Addressing the divide between ecological urgency and economic priorities"

Magali Plovie is the president of the French-speaking Parliament of Brussels. She initiated the creation of deliberative commissions where parliamentarians and citizens submit recommendations to the Parliament together. How do elected officials and citizens randomly selected work together? What are the subjects treated? Magali Plovie sheds light on an inspiring and evolving system.

Missions Publiques. You have been president of the French-speaking Parliament of Brussels since July 2019. What was your background and the path that led you to propose these deliberative commissions?

 Magali Plovie. For nearly 10 years, I worked in the cabinet of the Brussels ecologist minister Evelyne Huytebroeck before going up as a substitute to the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region. When I arrived at the Parliament, I had a lot of ideas, I was idealistic about human rights, democracy and the common good. The reality is more complex: the weight of the parties, the power of the executive over the legislature, the media pressure all tend to limit a democratic dynamic. So I was a bit disappointed at first: how can we face today’s challenges (globalization, environment, social challenges) if we continue to work this way?

Then, David Van Reybrouck’s book “Contre les élections” was a turning point. When I was an activist in the ecological party, I started to look more deeply into the issues of participation and at the same time, I joined the “Anti-Poverty Service”, responsible for conducting an evaluation of public policies on the subject. When I returned to Parliament in 2017, the junction of all these issues pushed me to develop other modes of cooperation between MEPs while remaining within the framework of representative democracy.

 

Missions Publiques. A deliberative commission is a place for debate between parliamentarians and citizens drawn by lot. When and why does it meet? How does it work? How does the drawing of lots take place?

Magali Plovie. This commission is made up of a quarter of parliamentarians and three quarters of citizens to deal with a very specific theme that can be proposed by the people of Brussels (citizen suggestions are supported by 1,000 people aged 16 and living in the Brussels-Capital Region) or by parliamentarians. After several meetings, they collectively propose recommendations that will be dealt with in the Parliament. These recommendations can lead to legislation or questions to the government. In total, the deliberative commissions have 60 members, 15 parliamentarians and 45 citizens.

The drawing of lots for the citizens takes place in two stages. In the first stage, 10,000 invitations are sent by mail to residents of the Brussels-Capital Region (regardless of their nationality). Those who wish to respond positively to the invitation and register for the second draw can do so on the democratie.brussels platform or by calling the free number 0800 that appears in the personal invitation letter. In a second step, a second draw will be made among the people who responded positively to the invitations sent during the first draw. These people, who will sit on the deliberative commission, will be representative of the diversity of the Brussels population. It is by taking into account the socio-demographic characteristics provided by the respondents at the time of their registration that the Parliament ensures the representativeness of each deliberative commission.

“Parliamentarians are then obliged to follow up within six months and to publish a justification if they do not follow up. This deliberative committee work is a radical shift in their role and power.

Magali Plovie

Speaker of Parliament French speaking Brussels

Missions Publiques. How do you manage to convince parliamentarians to change their working habits?

Magali Plovie. It is not easy for a parliamentarian to adopt the right position in these deliberative commissions: between waiting and observing what will happen, being completely passive or getting involved at the risk of being too active… and sometimes being experts on a specific subject. In the Parliament it is not possible to adopt this position with citizens or else we recreate the usual divides. In any case, I feel a growing interest on the part of parliamentarians to change their working methods.

In the process that we propose in these commissions, co-construction is central. The citizens selected by the two successive draws and the MEPs attend a preparatory session to familiarize themselves with the process. Afterwards, parliamentarians and citizens attend an information session presented by various experts on the topic under discussion. This preparation allows everyone to debate and propose recommendations. In the end, citizens and parliamentarians will vote on these recommendations. Parliamentarians are then obliged to follow up within six months and to publish a justification if they do not follow up. This deliberative committee work is a radical shift in their role and power.

 

Missions Publiques. How do you evaluate the work of the deliberative commissions?

Magali Plovie. We have set up a support committee composed of four experts (in citizen participation, democracy, etc.) and two members of the parliamentary services. This core group of 6 people is in place for two years and is responsible for evaluating the process as it unfolds. Two experts on the specific theme are chosen by this support committee to support the support committee in dealing with the issue. The choice is made by the 6 members of the support committee to avoid the biases of the parliamentarians… Between the second and the third commission, we have reoriented our work on two points: we had too many recommendations, which is a brake for the follow-up and the recommendations were worked in silo by group and not sufficiently shared by the whole group. So we’re going to change those for the next deliberative commission, which is in October 2021, and will focus on citizen participation in times of crisis.

 

Missions Publiques. There are 3 deliberative commissions per year. In 2021, one deliberative commission met on 5G, another on homelessness and the third will be on citizen participation in times of crisis. Are there topics that are more relevant than others to deliberate in these commissions?

Magali Plovie. The topics cannot be too broad or too specific because the commissions focus on one topic for 4 to 6 days, 7 days maximum. Topics that are too broad or too technical would require several months of work. Nor can it be a “yes or no” or “for or against” debate. On 5G, for example, it was more a question of looking in depth at the conditions of acceptability, of developing recommendations. The subjects must be complex, sometimes divisive, and always topical so that the material provided can be reused by NGOs, the associative sector, trade unions, and mutual insurance companies, and so that these players can bring the subject to life among their members and activists. It is a way of thinking about the link between the mini and maxi public so that these issues are carried by the whole of Brussels society. It is not so much the subject as the way in which the question is posed. It is obvious that a citizen cannot have the same precision or finesse in his proposals as associations that have been working on a subject for 20 years. What we are interested in is to observe the direction taken by citizens, working with MPs, on the basis of good common information. The idea is to capture the shared political objective behind a topic. On homelessness, for example, there was a great openness towards undocumented migrants and a priority for public housing policies to welcome everyone. This is a message that is not insignificant.

 

Missions Publiques. You have a fairly high positive response rate from citizens. That’s encouraging. And yet a deliberative commission takes place every weekend for a month…

Magali Plovie. This is why I would like to see the creation of a citizenship leave based on the model of the Belgian jury of assizes. It is a model to be developed both for Brussels, at the level of the municipalities, at the federal level but also at the European level. In reality, this is part of a longer term vision on the collective reduction of working time and the integration of this commitment in the week, along with culture or politics.

   
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