Citizens’ assemblies are increasingly used in the UK and around the world to examine difficult policy questions. But they are typically ad hoc and therefore heavily reliant on political good will – prompting the question of whether they can be built into policymaking processes more systematically. The parliament of Belgium’s Brussels region has just launched an experiment in doing exactly that. Elisa Minsart and Vincent Jacquet describe the changes that have been introduced and consider their chances of success.
Amidst wide public disillusionment with the institutions of representative democracy, political scientists, campaigners and politicians have intensified efforts to find an effective mechanism to narrow the gap between citizens and those who govern them. One of the most popular remedies in recent years – and one frequently touted as a way to break the Brexit impasse encountered by the UK political class in 2016-19 – is that of citizens’ assemblies. These deliberative forums gather diversified samples of the population, recruited through a process of random selection. Citizens who participate meet experts, deliberate on a specific public issue and make a range of recommendations for policy-making. Citizens’ assemblies are flourishing in many representative democracies – not least in the UK, with the current Climate Assembly UK and Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland. They show that citizens are able to deliberate on complex political issues and to deliver original proposals.
For several years now, some public leaders, scholars and politicians have sought to integrate these democratic innovations into more traditional political structures. Belgium recently made a step in this direction. Each of Belgium’s three regions has its own parliament, with full legislative powers: on 13 November 2019, a proposition was approved to modify how the Parliament of the Brussels Region operates. The reform mandates the establishment of joint deliberative committees, on which members of the public will serve alongside elected representatives. This will enable ordinary people to deliberate with MPs on preselected themes and to formulate recommendations. The details of the process are currently still being drafted and the first commission is expected to launch at the end of 2020. Despite the COVID-19 crisis, drafting and negotiations with other parties have not been interrupted thanks to an online platform and a videoconference facility.
This experience has been inspired by other initiatives organised in Belgium. In 2011, the G1000 initiative brought together more than 700 randomly selected citizens to debate on different topics. This grassroots experiment attracted lots of public attention. In its aftermath, the different parliaments of the country launched their own citizens’ assemblies, designed to tackle specific local issues. Some international experiences also inspired the Brussels Region, in particular the first Irish Constitutional Convention (2012–2014). This assembly was composed of both elected representatives and randomly selected citizens, and led directly to a referendum that approved the legalisation of same-sex marriage. However, the present joint committees go well beyond these initiatives. Whereas both of these predecessors were ad hoc initiatives designed to resolve particular problems, the Brussels committees will be permanent and hosted at the heart of the parliament. Both of these aspects make the new committees a major innovation and entirely different from the predecessors that helped inspire them.
How did the project of permanent joint committees get started? In 2017, the French-speaking Green Party brought together more than 200 citizens to discuss different ways of reinvigorating the functioning of democracy. The idea of establishing mixed parliamentary committees was one of the main outcomes of this consultation. The Green Party was in opposition during the 2014–2019 legislature, so the proposals went nowhere until after the 2019 legislative elections, when it joined the region’s governing coalition. The idea to establish mixed committees was recorded in the General Policy Statement of the Brussels Government. The party made a proposal to amend the parliament’s rules of procedure on 28 November, which was approved in plenary session on 13 December.
The current procedure of the Parliament of the Brussels Region provides for the establishment of committees as follows: when a suggestion is judged ‘receivable’, the parliament can, if it wishes, decide to establish a deliberative commission. A citizens’ proposition is receivable if it is signed by a minimum of 1000 people and meets other requirements such as falling within the scope of the parliament’s powers and not infringing fundamental rights and freedoms. Where a proposal is rejected, reasons must be given.
The MPs constituting the deliberative committee are the same as those of the permanent commission that would normally deal with the relevant policy area. This means each commission will include 15 legislators, accompanied by 45 citizens chosen on the basis of a double random selection. First, a totally random draw from the people listed in the population or foreigners’ register in the Brussels Region (and meeting other additional criteria such as being at least 16 years of age and not having any criminal convictions) is conducted. Once those initially selected have agreed to participate, the final group is then chosen in a way that means the committee is representative of the population: age, gender and education level are among the criteria applied. The 25%:75% ratio of politicians to citizens was selected based on the lessons learned during the Irish Constitutional Convention. In Ireland, the legislators had made up one third of the membership, but in hindsight its organisers had concluded that the citizens’ portion needed to be more heavily weighted. With the ratio as currently set, the organisers want to prevent politicians from dominating the discussions to the detriment of citizens’ voices.
Meetings of the deliberative committees are to be held in three phases. The first public phase will be preparatory, designed to inform MPs and citizens on the selected topic. The second phase, held in private, will consist of discussion in subgroups of the topics and possible policy options. This phase will be intentionally kept behind closed doors to encourage the non-politicians to speak up. The third phase returns the debate to a public forum, and will be devoted to presenting and voting on the propositions prepared by the subgroups in the previous phase. Citizen members will be allowed to vote, but their ballot will be secret and purely consultative, as there is no legal mechanism to allow citizens to formally vote in the parliament. The secret ballot is intended to avoid any possible public pressure influencing how citizen members of the committee cast their vote. MPs will cast their votes in public, and a proposal needs an absolute majority to become a formal recommendation. A report on the conduct of the debates and its outcome will then be prepared and sent to the permanent commission responsible for that policy area.
The Brussels deliberative committees constitute a fascinating experiment: this is the first time that randomly selected citizens have been asked to participate as permanent members of parliamentary committees. However, the question of what happens in practice after a committee has reported will be crucial for the future of the initiative. As citizens are constitutionally unable to take legislative decisions, their vote cannot bind the politicians to a course of action and the standing committee to which the report is submitted will be under no obligation to follow its recommendations. In other words, the future of these committees will largely depend on the legitimacy that politicians and society as a whole will attribute to the voice of the citizen.
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About the authors
Elisa Minsart is a master’s student in political science and democratic innovations at the UCLouvain, Belgium.
Vincent Jacquet is a postdoctoral researcher (F.R.S.-FNRS) at the UCLouvain, Belgium. His main research interests are deliberative democracy, participatory governance and local political. Some of his recent publications are listed below::