How Ostbelgien became a trailblazer in deliberative democracy
An interview with Yves Dejaeghere
Yves Dejaeghere is the co-ordinator of the G1000 organisation in Belgium, which researches and promotes democratic innovation and representative deliberative democracy. He was one of the key people involved in designing the permanent Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien, the German-speaking Community of Belgium.
The permanent Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien is widely celebrated as an innovative example of involving citizens in public decision making. Why?
The first reason why the Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien is one-of-a-kind is its permanent nature, which provides an opportunity for a representative group of citizens to have a permanent voice in decision making. It also ensures that citizens’ recommendations for the parliament are followed up and monitored systematically. This is a key element, which creates accountability, and one that is often missing in ad hoc deliberative processes.
The second big step forward is the agenda-setting power that is given to citizens. When citizens decide what issue should be up for discussion, it opens up the policy-making process to their influence.
How does the Ostbelgien Model work?
The Ostbelgien Model combines a permanent representative deliberative body (the Citizens’ Council) with the ongoing use of ad hoc deliberative processes (Citizens’ Panels), whose recommendations go on to parliamentary debate.
The Citizens’ Council consists of 24 randomly selected citizens with a one-and-a-half year mandate. It has agenda-setting power, initiating up to three ad hoc Citizens’ Panels on the most pressing policy issues of its choice. Each Citizens’ Panel is comprised of 25 to 50 randomly selected citizens, representative of the Ostbelgien population, who meet at least three times over three months. The regional parliament is required to debate and respond to the recommendations developed by the Citizens’ Panels.
All of the central elements of this model are institutionalised in detail by a decree passed in February 2019.
How did this new democratic institution come about?
The Citizens’ Council can be considered as a third democratic institution of the community, and it was created by the first two — the parliament and the executive. The idea to give citizens a more permanent and meaningful voice in decision making came from politicians. Prime Minister Oliver Paasch and Speaker of the Parliament Alexander Miesen, both from different parties, were inspired by a 2017 Citizens’ Panel that allowed them to see in practice how such processes work and discover the potential of deliberative democracy to help solve hard public problems better.
With an idea in mind to make Ostbelgien a trailblazer in innovative citizen participation, they contacted the G1000 organisation in Belgium. We were asked to design a completely new democratic institution based on citizen deliberation, so we brought together 15 experts in the field for three days in July 2018 to create the model that was later voted unanimously through a decree in February 2019. Claudia Chwalisz from the OECD was one of those experts.
Has it been successfully implemented since its announcement in early 2019?
To put in place and facilitate this new democratic institution, a permanent secretariat was set up in the summer of 2019, under the supervision of the parliament. So far, all critical steps have gone very well.
The first stage was to set up the permanent Citizens’ Council. The first 24 members are comprised of three different groups: six were randomly selected among the participants of a previous Citizens’ Panel that took place in the region; six are politicians — one from each political party; and twelve are randomly selected citizens from the population of Ostbelgien. Every six months, one third of the cohort will be rotated out, to be replaced with randomly selected citizens.
In the summer of 2019, 1,000 randomly selected citizens received invitations to be a member. Over 10% of them were willing to participate, which is a very high response rate. It shows that citizens trust the process and feel the need for meaningful opportunities to make their voices heard. Amongst the volunteers, the final group was randomly selected, controlling for age, gender, place of residence, and level of education to ensure it reflected the population of Ostbelgien.
The second critical moment was to gather relevant and well-founded proposals for the ad hoc Citizens’ Panels. Proposals could be submitted by citizens, as well parliamentary groups, the government, and members of the Citizens’ Council. It was a moment to see whether citizens are keen to use their agenda-setting power. And they certainly did. Around 20 proposals were received. Those that were within the scope of the regional government were published for citizens to vote on, and two that received the support of at least 100 citizens were discussed. One of them was selected for the first ad hoc Citizens’ Panel. It shows that the community was ready to take part in the process.
The next step will be an ad hoc Citizens’ Panel on the working conditions of healthcare workers, which has started this spring but is now postponed due to the global health crisis. The issue chosen by the citizens is also very salient in light of the current pandemic!
Will the way the model works be adjusted?
No democratic institution was designed in a day; all of them have gone through a trial and error process. The parliament will evaluate progress in autumn 2020 and make necessary adjustments. Numerous research teams are looking into how the Citizens’ Council and Panel unfold, as well as how the general population in Ostbelgien feels about them. Several surveys are taking place before and after to measure community support and how their attitudes evolve. Given the smooth progress and high level of citizen engagement so far, it does not seem like many critical changes to the model will be required for the steps taken so far. For the remaining steps, amongst which is the way recommendations are taken up by the parliament, we will have to wait until a full cycle of the process has been run and some time has elapsed.
Do you think a similar model could work on the national level?
Ostbelgien being a relatively small community has been helpful for this first experimentation. Here, politicians do not have full-time roles, so they are very close to the community. It was easier for them to give power to fellow citizens through a new deliberative institution as they trusted the community to engage and saw its potential.
However, I can also imagine such a model taking place on a national scale. For example, the Irish government has been initiating a Citizens’ Assembly almost every year since 2016. These have not been institutionalised as permanent through legislation, but in practice, it is almost the case.
What advice would you give to policy makers or practitioners who are ideating, designing, and prototyping new democratic institutions in their own communities?
Think outside the box. When designing a new democratic institution, it is tempting to start from copying existing democratic institutions and substituting elections by random selection. This is the lesson we learnt on the first day when designing the model. Mimicking existing institutions can limit your imagination and innovation. Start from a blank page and rather work from the principles you want the institution to uphold — legitimacy, representativeness, and transparency — which can be achieved in many non-traditional ways.
To learn more about the permanent Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien, see their web page.
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 Linn Davis, programme manager at Healthy Democracy responsible for the Citizens’ Initiative Review