"Creatively searching for solutions"

30. June 2021
David Hagemann

Since 2019, the German-speaking Community of East Belgium has had the world's first permanent citizens assembly, the "Citizens' Dialogue". Here, citizens are not only drawn once or every now and then to consult on current political issues, but are regularly involved by randomly selection in the politics of the autonomous region with the status of a federal state. Anna Stuers, as permanent secretary of the permanent citizens' dialogue, answers questions about the procedure and practice of sortition in East Belgium.

Question: Ms Stuers, since 2019, lsortition has been used as a permanent instrument for citizen participation with the East Belgium Citizens' Dialogue. How did this come about?

Anna Stuers: In recent years, trust in public decision-making has obviously suffered. The permanent Citizens' Dialogue in East Belgium aims to change this: On the one hand, citizen participation in policy-making in the German-speaking Community is to be expanded and permanently established.

On the other hand, the increased involvement of citizens is also intended to promote their understanding of political decision-making processes. This is connected with the hope that the citizens' trust in public decision-making will be strengthened and thus ultimately also the democratic institutions.

The Parliament of the German-speaking Community already took a first step in this direction in autumn 2017 when it organised - as a kind of pilot project - a citizens' dialogue on the topic of "childcare". Encouraged by the positive feedback from the participants, the idea arose to turn this one-off initiative into something more permanent.

In spring 2018, the group "G1000", which is experienced in organising citizens' processes, was contacted to discuss the possibilities of implementing this idea. In the summer of 2018, at the invitation of the "G1000" and the "Foundation for Future Generations", renowned Belgian and international experts met to work out a model of permanent citizen participation - the so-called "East Belgium Model" - after discussions with representatives of the parliamentary groups.

On the basis of this model, the Parliament elaborated a decree proposal and adopted the "Decree on the Introduction of a Permanent Citizens' Dialogue in the German-speaking Community" in February 2019. Citizen participation in East Belgium thus has its own legal basis.

In September 2019, the Parliament started the implementation: the first Citizens' Assembly was established and started its work.

Question: What is special about the citizens' dialogue in East Belgium?

Stuers: What is special about the Citizens' Dialogue in East Belgium is that it is "permanent": Unlike many other projects around the world, the Citizens' Dialogue in East Belgium is not a one-off event. Citizen participation has been institutionalised in East Belgium since 2019. This is expressed through its own legal basis, its own budget and its own staff employed in the parliamentary administration. In addition to the "citizens' assemblies", which meet selectively according to the deliberative method, there is a permanent body - the so-called "citizens' council": it meets about once a month and, in addition to preparing the citizens' assemblies, has the important task of following up on the implementation of the citizens' recommendations by the politicians.

Question: The first two citizens' assemblies dealt with the topics of care and inclusion. How do you assess the quality of the results and what is the status of the implementation of the recommendations?

Stuers: Unfortunately, the Corona pandemic prevented us from keeping to our original schedule. That is why we have not yet been able to complete a run-through and do not yet have any empirical values as far as the implementation of the citizens' recommendations by politicians is concerned.

The idea of citizens' assemblies is that citizens can creatively search for solutions, while politicians are subject to certain constraints (they want to be re-elected, they have to stay true to their party politics). In this sense, citizen recommendations are an interesting way of thinking. This was also confirmed in our first two runs on the topics of "care" and "inclusive education": In each case, citizens came up with a long list of creative recommendations, which politicians are currently working on implementing.

We expect to look back in January 2022 to see to what extent the first citizens' recommendations on the topic of "care" have actually been implemented. Then we will hopefully be able to draw initial conclusions.

Question: How do the participants in the citizens' dialogue rate their participation and what are the views of parliament and government?

Stuers: The legal basis was passed unanimously in 2019. That is why the politicians have a positive attitude towards the project. After all, parliament is also the initiator.

According to surveys, the participants have been extremely satisfied so far: they find it interesting to get involved in a topic - which is often completely unknown at the beginning - to meet people with the most diverse backgrounds and to gain an insight into politics. Many have even stated that the Citizens' Dialogue has (re)strengthened their trust in politics and democratic institutions. This is a great first result, because that is precisely the goal of the Citizens' Dialogue. Nevertheless, these initial conclusions must be taken with a grain of salt: after all, as already mentioned, we have not yet completed a run-through and an evaluation with regard to the implementation of the citizens' recommendations is still pending.

Question: What happens now?

Stuers: At the moment, the third citizens' meeting is already underway: The citizens' council is in the process of selecting the topic for discussion and the first meetings are expected to begin in October. Parallel to this, the implementation of the citizens' recommendations already formulated is being followed up by the politicians. The Citizens' Council regularly asks parliamentary committees and the government about the state of affairs.

It is important to us that the recommendations do not simply fizzle out. Otherwise, all the work done by the citizens would hardly be of any use. That is why it is also stated in the legal basis that politicians must take a position on possible implementation. If one or the other recommendation is not implemented, the politicians must at least explain why not. That is an important aspect of our project.

Question: What advice would you give from your experience for the development of sortition in other countries?

Stuers: I don't see myself in a position to advise others. After all, we have hardly any experience ourselves and I can only speak from our context. However, civic participation as a whole is very close to my heart. That's why I wish that initiators of such projects would not only regard civic participation as a "fad", but that they would attach importance to developing high-quality concepts so that civic participation not only takes place but also succeeds.

Background: The German-speaking Community (DG), founded in 1973, is one of the three communities of the Kingdom of Belgium, along with the French and Flemish Communities, and thus a constituent state of the Belgian federal state. The municipalities of the DG are located in the east of the province of Liège in the Walloon Region. Around 78,000 people live in the DG.

More information: Citizens' Dialogue in East Belgium