The Agora political party, which you represent in the Brussels Regional Parliament, is not conventional, advocating for a permanent change to complement electoral democracy with deliberative democracy through the ongoing use of Citizens’ Assemblies. Why and how did you replace the ‘usual’ way of working for your role as a Member of Parliament (MP)?
In the long-term, we would like to permanently change the way democracy works in the Brussels-Capital region. At the moment, public decision making is too much in the hands of political parties and not enough in those of citizens. As political elites are making decisions that affect everyone, not enough opportunities are given to citizens to have a say.
Before having a seat in the parliament, Agora proposed the idea of this permanent democratic change to the parties in the Regional Parliament, but they were hesitant to implement it. So we decided to run for elections ourselves to implement such a model.
We don’t consider ourselves a political party, but a citizens’ movement. The difference is that we see our presence in parliament as a temporary step to implement a permanent Citizens’ Assembly with legislative power. So, as opposed to traditional parties, our goal is to disappear from the parliament as soon as we’ve reached this institutional change.
We have set up a Brussels Citizens’ Assembly, where a group of randomly selected citizens who are broadly representative of the wider public are able to propose key issues that I, as the Agora MP, then bring up in the Regional Parliament for debate. We adopted a Trojan horse strategy: we are legitimately in the existing system as we have a seat at the parliamentary table, which we can use to advocate for the citizens’ decision and more generally their inclusion in public decision making. At the same time, we take the opportunity to pilot a Citizens’ Assembly and show the public and politicians alike how it works before we institutionalise it.
How was the Brussels Citizens’ Assembly set up and how does it work?
Citizens were randomly selected through a two-stage process to take part in the Brussels Citizens’ Assembly. Volunteers first sent out 5,000 invitations across the city region and we received around 400 replies from citizens interested to take part. Among these positive replies, we selected 89 people, as many as there are members of parliament, ensuring that they matched the demographic profile of Brussels according to age, gender, and education.
The idea is to have thematic six-day long cycles of the Citizens’ Assembly. When a new assembly is gathered, half of the participants are newly selected, and half stay from the previous assembly to enable knowledge sharing about the process.
The current cycle of the Citizens’ Assembly started in November 2019, and after a first day of introduction to the process, the second day the participants selected housing as the most pressing and interesting issue to discuss, also selecting the type of information they would need and want to receive to inform their discussions. The learning stage took place the third day, whereafter participants could start generating proposals on the fourth day. The fifth day these proposals would be collectively written in a more coherent text, to be finally voted on the sixth day. After this final validation, the voted proposals are submitted to parliament by myself as the spokesperson of this Citizens’ Assembly.
How are the citizens’ recommendations brought forward for parliamentary consideration?
The citizen proposals formulated during the Citizens’ Assembly process will then be presented to the parliament through a two-stage process. First, I will submit the assembly’s proposals in their exact wording as a resolution. It is important to transmit without filter what citizens have proposed to see the political reaction of the members of parliament, even though these proposals are unlikely to pass in their raw form.
Then I will try less direct ways within parliament to put citizens’ propositions on the table, using each separate proposal as the basis for parliamentary interventions, legislative work or proposals of resolutions. There will always be some compromises made to their proposals before they are accepted and passed, but I will get back to the assembly with what agreements we were able to get in the parliament regarding their ideas to keep citizens informed on the developments.
What have been the first results and impressions of fellow Members of the Brussels Regional Parliament regarding this innovative approach?
I believe our current efforts are helping to demonstrate that deliberative democracy works. So do multiple examples of representative deliberative processes across the world.
Our presence in the parliament has also helped spark interest in deliberative democracy more broadly. We have been able to work with almost all parties on deliberative parliamentary commissions, which are composed of MPs and randomly selected citizens and offer a platform for discussions on various policy areas. These were proposed around five years ago but only became reality recently. The experience of the Brussels’ Citizens’ Assembly truly helped us to create a more inclusive framework for these deliberative commissions.
Agora is also campaigning for a permanent Citizens’ Assembly to be set up in Brussels, similar to the Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien. Could you explain what it would look like and how it would function in relation to existing democratic institutions?
The permanent Citizens’ Assembly in Brussels is still in a conceptual stage and we are open to discussions about what it should look like. It could potentially be similar to the Ostbelgien model. However, we believe that the permanent Citizens’ Assembly should have legislative powers, we see it more like a Citizens’ Senate. The permanent Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien decides which issues should be put to ad hoc Citizens’ Panels, which then can only make proposals that are discussed and accepted or rejected by the parliament. Though in order to give legislative powers to the assembly, we would need to make changes to both the constitution and the laws governing the regional institutions.
Ideally, both a permanent Citizens’ Assembly and the regional parliament should have the right of legislative initiative. Potentially a bicameral system could be set up, where one chamber has to validate what the other one decides. Such a system has a risk that initiatives might be blocked on both sides. However, if the parliament blocks proposals of the permanent Citizens’ Assembly, it is also a signal.
To us, the most important is that citizens have the final say. If there is a conflict between the two chambers, the question could potentially be submitted for a referendum. Referendums are not perfect either, but there can be various forms of referendums. We are now proposing a form of citizens’ consultation in the area of Brussels. This consultation will contain an element of deliberation and learning to avoid that people are misinformed when the time comes to have a say. We also propose instead of a binary vote to rather have a scale vote on the ballot, from strongly agree to strongly disagree, which allows for more nuance and a clearer picture of the public’s opinions. Combining deliberative and direct democracy seems the way forward for democratic innovation.
What would you say to those who are not convinced by the idea of involving citizens in policy making through representative deliberative processes such as Citizens’ Assemblies?
There is a widespread misconception that citizens are incapable of making sound policy decisions. This is clearly not true! They very much are if you provide them enough time and information to discuss issues at hand.
Others are sceptical because deliberative processes take time. It is something that needs to be accepted — proper democratic processes just take time. In cases of crisis, even a parliamentary democracy is too slow to react. This is why we give the power to the executive branch in situations such as the Covid-19 global pandemic. As David Van Reybrouck said when I asked him this question: “If you want to renovate your street, you knock on your neighbours’ doors to work on it together, but if your house is on fire, you call the firefighters. You do not go and check if someone has a bucket.” The decisions we take more time to make are better; they are visionary. Alone we go faster, but together we go further. This goes for democracy as well.
For more details on the use of representative deliberative processes for public decision making and the Citizens’ Assembly as well as Ostbelgien models mentioned in the interview, please consult the OECD international report: Catching the Deliberative Wave: Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions.
This post is part of the New Democratic Institutions series. Read the other articles:
The New Democratic Institutions Participo series will take a closer look at how some of the institutionalised representative deliberative processes came about, how they function, and what lessons can be drawn from their implementation so far.
An interview with Yves Dejaeghere, one of the key people involved in designing the permanent Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien, the German-speaking Community of Belgium.
An interview with Linn Davis, programme manager at Healthy Democracy responsible for the Citizens’ Initiative Review.
Interview with Michael Lederer, Head of the Office for Future Affairs in Vorarlberg, Austria.