"An incredible instrument"

27. March 2022

While citizens' assemblies are usually made up of randomly selected people, in the parliaments of the Brussels Region, members of parliament work together with randomly selected citizens in their own parliamentary committees. Magali Plovie, President of the French-speaking Parliament of the Brussels Region, explains how this came about and describes the first experiences.

Question: In 2019, the two Brussels parliaments decided to introduce mixed committees composed of randomly selected citizens and elected MPs. How did this come about?

Magali Plovie: I was an MP for a few months in 2013 and 2014. This first contact with parliament raised many questions for me about our democratic system. At the same time, I read David van Reybrouck's book "Against Elections", which made a deep impression on me.

Since I was no longer in Parliament from July 2014 to 2017, I worked at the Service de Lutte contre la Pauvreté (Anti-Poverty Department), a federal service that issues reports and analyses on poverty based on the testimonies of people living in severe poverty. I mention this professional section because the experience I had with poor people was crucial to the development of the deliberative committee procedure, especially with regard to the accessibility of policies to all people, including those furthest away from citizen participation.

Outcome of a workshop

At the same time, the Ecolo Party (Greens) carried out a comprehensive project to improve democracy, in which I was involved. A day was organised to work with civil society on formulating democratic ideas and projects. One of the three main recommendations of these workshops was the establishment of mixed committees of citizens and members of parliament; the approach taken for the deliberative committees.

When I returned to the Brussels Parliament in 2017, I submitted a regulatory proposal to establish deliberative committees bringing together MPs and randomly selected people. For various reasons, this proposal could not be adopted in this parliamentary term, in particular because the original power-sharing arrangement between MPs and citizens violated the constitution and also because few MPs were willing to take the step of involving citizens in the work of the Parliament.

Decision 2019

In 2019, Ecolo came to government and provided for more citizen participation in the coalition agreement. I was re-elected to the Brussels Parliament and also became President of the French-speaking Brussels Parliament. The renewal of democracy is one of my priorities so I surrounded myself with a team with recognised expertise on this issue. I very quickly introduced a revised regulatory proposal aimed at including the deliberative committees in the rules of procedure of the two parliaments.

This time, the changed political situation made it possible to adopt the motion. The profoundly renewed parliaments were in a more favourable mood for participatory processes. The motion was passed at the end of 2019. It took a year for everything to be prepared and for the first deliberative committee to start its work in May 2021.

Question: How are the deliberative committees formed and how do they function? What happens to the decisions that are made there?

Plovie: Each deliberative committee starts with a topic, which can come from a citizen's proposal supported by 1,000 Brussels residents over the age of 16, or through a proposal from Brussels MPs.

Once Parliament has decided to deal with a topic, an initial random selection takes place, without criteria and based on the list of Brussels residents over 16 years of age. 10,000 randomly selected persons receive a letter inviting them to participate in the deliberative committee. These persons must register with the Parliament, via the internet or a toll-free telephone number, in order to participate in the second random selection. For the latter, certain criteria are prescribed: Gender, socio-economic, geographical, and so on.

Committee work in three phases

The deliberative committee consists of one quarter of MPs from the parliamentary committee responsible for the chosen topic and three quarters of randomly selected citizens.

The process is divided into three phases. The first phase is information-oriented, with information dossiers, but also with expert hearings. The second phase is about deliberating on recommendations. Discussions on these take place alternately in small groups of eight people and in the group as a whole. These groups are accompanied by facilitators whose job is to allow everyone to speak without dominating and with respect for each individual.

MPs have the last word

As the deliberative committees are treated like a parliamentary committee according to the parliament's rules of procedure, citizens vote before MPs and have an advisory vote. The reason for the distinction is a restriction imposed by the constitution, which stipulates that MPs must have the last word, as the constitution provides for a representative democracy.

We have tried to limit this inequality between parliamentarians and citizens as much as possible by imposing various obligations to give reasons and requiring citizens to vote before MPs vote.

The MPs of the committee responsible for the subject ensure that the recommendations are followed up within nine months of their adoption. The Brussels government has also committed itself to such follow-up. After nine months, citizens who participated in the deliberative committee are invited to a meeting where the follow-up measures taken are presented. If recommendations have not been followed up, this must be justified.

Question: What issues have been dealt with so far and what were the results?

Plovie: There have been three deliberative committees so far, dealing with the criteria for the roll-out of the 5G mobile standard in the Brussels-Capital Region, the housing of homeless people in the Brussels-Capital Region and how to involve citizens in the management of a crisis.

For these three deliberative committees, the follow-up work phase by MEPs is already underway and the randomly selected citizens will be invited to the Parliament shortly to present the results.

Question: From your point of view, how do you evaluate the experience so far? What do the randomly selected citizens and the MPs say about their cooperation?

Plovie: The first aim of the deliberative committees was to develop ambitious proposals through deliberation and cooperation between parliamentarians and citizens that could overcome certain divisions and the legislature-period thinking associated with elections. However, after the first experiences, we have found that this process also makes it possible to re-establish the dialogue between elected representatives and citizens, to create a better understanding of decision-making and to better take into account experiences and people that are sometimes little heard or even made invisible. And this in an area where mistrust between politics and the people is particularly strong.

Satisfaction among MPs and citizens

The evaluation reports of the first deliberative committees show that almost 90 percent of citizens have a more positive image of MPs and politics in general after their participation than before their participation. The same is true for MPs, who realise through mutual rapprochement that citizens can be a real power in developing proposals.

In contrast, in other experiences in Belgium or at the international level, where citizens' assemblies consist exclusively of randomly selected citizens, an antagonism between citizens and MPs crystallises in the phase of presenting the recommendations. Moreover, the MPs see the various recommendations as coming from outside and do not defend them afterwards, which weakens the procedures, as it is hardly possible to guarantee further processing in this way.

Question: Would you also recommend mixed committees for parliaments in Germany?

Plovie: In 2021, I had the opportunity to present deliberative committees at a joint event of the OECD and the Bundestag, and I spoke in favour of them. Of course, at first glance, one might regret that the inclusion of MPs, who are de facto more familiar with the functioning of the institutions, integrates a logic of domination.

However, if the ratio of MPs to citizens is very low (1 to 4), if moderation is ensured to neutralise the logic of domination, and if MPs are prepared in advance to be open and constructive, one realises that this is a unique way to reconnect and to give the "experts" the opportunity to describe their experiences.

Reshaping policy

This applies not only to the formulation of recommendations for a period limited to the deliberative committee in question, but also beyond that by reshaping policy based on the recommendations of the deliberative committees.

Deliberative committees thus offer the opportunity to respond to a number of limitations of "pure" citizens' assemblies, which ultimately all too often have little influence on subsequent policy decisions and - unfortunately - render deliberative democracy untrustworthy due to a lack of output.

Apart from the fact that we believe that these deliberative committees will lead to more ambitious proposals than in the traditional democratic process, they are an incredible tool for reconciling a breathless representative democracy with an indispensable participatory democracy that is, however, still too far removed from the heart of decision-making.

Read more: Commissions Délibératives