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.Continue reading →
The twentieth anniversary of the first elections to the Welsh Assembly passed earlier this month, on 6 May. One day later, the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee held its fifth evidence session regarding the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill. Laura McAllister believes that the bill contains much needed reforms, arguing here for its proposed lowering of the voting age for Assembly elections to 16.
It seems to me to be a fundamental democratic and constitutional principle that an elected parliament or assembly should be able to determine its own system of election and its own franchise. I spent all of 2017 chairing an Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform having been appointed by the Assembly’s Presiding Officer to make recommendations on the number of Members the Assembly needs, the system by which they should be elected, and the minimum voting age for Assembly elections. We were asked to make recommendations which, provided the required political consensus could be achieved, might be implemented in time for the next Assembly election in 2021. I was fortunate to be joined on the Expert Panel by a stellar line-up of practitioners and academics themselves immersed in parliamentary structures, franchise matters, effective scrutiny, different electoral systems and gender representation. We reported in December 2017, with one of our recommendations being that the franchise should be extended to include young people aged 16 and 17 for the next Assembly elections.
The Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill is currently at stage one of the Welsh legislative process. Amongst other things, it proposes to legislate on votes at 16, bringing Wales in line with Scotland where 16- year olds vote in local and national elections since 2015 (they were also able to vote in the 2014 independence referendum). There are other important elements to the bill. Part 2 proposes a name change to rename the Assembly as the ‘Senedd’ (or Welsh Parliament in English). Some rather technical matters have been raised about how this change is instituted through changes to the Government of Wales Act 2006, alongside concerns over a bilingual (or otherwise) title and the risk of potential legal challenge. Nevertheless, I’d argue that this is a logical and timely move that reflects the move to a reserved powers model of devolution, alongside the accrual of new powers and competences (including over its electoral system) and several important new tax powers meaning the institution is now responsible for one fifth of its fiscal income. The name change might also assist better understanding of the different roles of the Assembly/Parliament (the legislature) and the Welsh Government (the executive), which remains an area of confusion in Wales.Continue reading →
Over 40,000 e-petitions have been submitted to parliament since the current system was introduced in 2015. Cristina Leston Bandeira and Viktoria Spaiser have conducted research into how the public views the consequent parliamentary discussion of issues raised in these petitions by analysing comments made by those watching the live parliamentary coverage. Their findings lead them to conclude that parliamentary debates should be adapted to be more inclusive of the original petitions’ aims.
Parliament introduced an e-petitions system in 2015 with the aim of enhancing its relationship with the public. The system has seen extraordinary levels of usage, with over 40,000 e-petitions submitted and plenty of other evidence of very considerable engagement from the public, such as petitions debates regularly being the most read debates on Hansard. The extraordinary usage is only one element of this new system, however. At the Centre for Democratic Engagement, we have been investigating it, focusing in particular on the more subtle expressions of engagement, beyond usage numbers. We have interviewed petitioners, developed participant observation, and analysed petitions data, parliamentary documentation and social media activity associated with e-petitions.
Some of this research has now started to come out, namely our latest article in Policy & Internet, where we use natural language processing, machine learning and social network analysis of Twitter data to explore what it shows about the extent of people’s engagement, the contents of Twitter e-petition conversations, who is taking part and how they interact. In this blog post we focus on how the public react to the format of the e-petitions parliamentary debates, through their comments on Twitter whilst they watch these debates. Our findings provide interesting insights into how people perceive the e-petition procedures in terms of fairness and responsiveness, suggesting that petition parliamentary debates could be more inclusive of the original petitions’ aims. Continue reading →