Aachen is the first German municipality to get a permanent citizens' assembly. This means that, unlike other citizens' assemblies, this assembly will have a legal basis and a permanent organisational structure. On 30 March 2022, the Aachen city council decided accordingly. The model is the citizens' dialogue in the nearby German-speaking Community (DG) of East Belgium.
The randomly selected citizens' dialogue across the German-Belgian border has already existed since 2019 and enjoys a great deal of independence. The topics can be determined just as independently as the organisation of the meetings of the citizens drawn for this purpose. This and the procedure for dealing with the recommendations of the citizens' assemblies are regulated by law.
Citizens' assembly discusses municipal policy issues
The situation is similar in Aachen. The citizens' assembly there is a body set up for a limited period of time to deliberate on a specific municipal policy issue. The 56 members will be randomly selected from the register of residents. The assembly will advise on special issues of city-wide importance. In other cities, these are, for example, questions of climate protection, traffic or urban development.
The topics of the citizens' assembly can be submitted in various ways. Proposals can be submitted
- by residents with at least 125 signatures
- by a previous citizens' assembly
- by the council parliamentary groups
- by departments of the city administration
The proposals are first discussed in the Citizens' Assembly's Supporting Body. The recommendation is brought to the Citizens' Forum for deliberation. Following the consultation, the Citizens' Forum determines the topic of the Citizens' Assembly.
Selection of topics by monitoring committee
The Citizens' Forum consists of ten councillors and seven knowledgeable citizens as well as two further advisory members of the Senior Citizens' and Integration Council. It already deals with citizens' motions addressed to the Aachen City Council or one of its specialised committees or to the Citizens' Forum itself. Furthermore, the Citizens' Forum informs about new significant municipal projects and plans.
The Supporting Body prepares the selection of topics for the citizens' assembly and chooses the experts and moderators. It determines the procedure and content, accompanies the citizens' assembly and advises on the implementation of the recommendations.
The Supporting Body will have equal representation for the duration of the pilot phase:
- Six members at the beginning from the founding Citizens' Assembly initiative, from the second Citizens' Assembly onwards there is a rolling replacement from the previous Citizens' Assembly, with two members changing each time, so that after the third Citizens' Assembly a complete replacement has taken place. In order to become a member of the Supporting Body, there is a sortition procedure from the members of the last citizens' assembly as of the preparation of the second citizens' assembly.
- Six members at the beginning from the parliamentary groups represented in the Aachen City Council, whereby each parliamentary group can send one member. Whether the political representatives will also participate in the Supporting Body for the second Citizens' Assembly and subsequent ones will be decided on the basis of the experience gained after the first Citizens' Assembly. The aim is for the political representatives to also leave the Supporting Body after the third Citizens' Assembly at the latest.
- Two members from the department of Citizens' Dialogue and the administrative management, plus others from the respective administration, if required, act in an advisory and continuous capacity.
The result of the citizens' assembly's deliberations is documented in a citizens' report and submitted to the city council for discussion and decision.
There is an office in the administration to support and accompany the citizens' assembly. This Citizens' Secretariat is also the contact point for all questions concerning the citizens' assembly. The Citizens' Secretariat also monitors the independence of the procedure and ensures the continuity of the citizens' assembly. It ensures the quality and implementation of the results and is responsible for the continuous improvement of the processes.
Concept result of a working group
The concept was developed in a working group consisting of members of the initiative "Bürgerrat für Aachen" (Citizens' Assembly for Aachen), the Citizens' Forum, the city's department for citizens' dialogue and administrative management, as well as the council's parliamentary groups.
Gereon Hermens and Frank Sukkau from the initiative "Bürgerrat für Aachen" think it is important to design the sortition process for the future Citizens' Council in such a way that all residents of Aachen feel represented. Hermens and Sukkau note an increasing disenchantment with politics among the population. Both see the Citizens' Assembly as an opportunity to ensure more participation on a broad level. The Citizens' Assembly initiative had initiated the debate on the use of loose democracy in Aachen back in 2020.
Aachen Citizens' Forum agrees
The Aachen Citizens' Forum had approved the proposal of the Citizens' Assembly Working Group on 22 February 2022. "We are all very pleased that the Citizens' Assembly is now being launched. We experience every day how important a functioning exchange between administration, politics and society is. The Citizens' Assembly will also discuss complex issues broadly and deeply, bringing entirely new perspectives to the discussion. More participation is a gain for all of us," says Mathias Dopatka, Chair of the Citizens' Forum.
"The establishment of a citizens' assembly is a stroke of luck for Aachen, because it allows us to experience the views of people in the most diverse life situations on the major issues of our city, gives them time and space to develop ideas together and the results are directly incorporated into the further development of our city," said Dana Duikers, Head of Department for Citizens' Dialogue and Administrative Management, at the presentation of the concept on 11 February 2022.
A role model for other cities
The political representatives also praised the good and always solution-oriented cooperation, which could serve as a model for other cities. In a pilot phase, the first two citizens' assemblies will be evaluated and adapted by scientific monitoring.
Proposals for topics for the first citizens' assembly could be submitted until 10 March 2023. A total of 58 topic proposals were received. 17 topics received the minimum support of 125 votes required for further consideration in the citizens' forum. From these, the monitoring committee drew up a short list of six topics:
- How can Aachen secure affordable rents?
- How can we meet homeless people with dignity and help them to - help themselves?
- What can Aachen do to combat vacancies?
- How can Aachen's city centre become an attractive shopping destination again?
- How can Aachen make public transport more attractive?
- How can Aachen green the city more sustainably?
On 18 April 2023, the Citizens' Forum decided on the topic "How can Aachen's city centre become an attractive shopping destination again?" At the beginning of July 2023, 3,500 invitations to this citizens' assembly were sent out to randomly selected Aachen residents. 367 residents had expressed interest in participating. The 56-member citizens' assembly was put together from these applications. The first meeting of the assembly participants took place on 28 October 2023.
Citizens' dialogue in East Belgium
In East Belgium, the parliament of the autonomous German-speaking Community had regulated by law in 2019 how the democracy instrument should be designed there. As a rule, the decisions of the citizens' assembly are made by consensus.
A citizens' council meets annually to determine the topics to be discussed at citizens' assemblies over the course of the next twelve months. In selecting the topics, the citizens' council can draw on proposals submitted to it either by at least two of its members, by a parliamentary group, by the government or by at least 100 citizens. The citizens' council also formulates the exact issue to be discussed by a citizens' assembly.
Handling of recommendations regulated
The law also regulates the handling of recommendations made by Citizens' Assemblies in Parliament. For example, all members of the assembly are invited to present their proposals and to discuss the response of the relevant parliamentary committee.
The Citizens' Council takes over the follow-up of the recommendations, which are to be implemented on the basis of the committee's opinion. To this end, the permanent secretariat submits reports on the status of implementation of the recommendations at regular intervals. If it deems it necessary, the Citizens' Council informs the members of the Citizens' Assembly concerned of this state of affairs.
Four citizens' assemblies so far
Within one year after the meeting to discuss the parliamentary statement on the recommendations of the citizens' assembly, another public meeting of the relevant parliamentary committee is held to present and discuss the state of implementation. All members of the Citizens' Assembly concerned are also invited to this. If necessary, additional meetings can be arranged to follow up on the further implementation of the recommendations.
Due to COVID-19, fewer citizens' assemblies than planned have taken place since the establishment of the East Belgium Citizens' Dialogue. So far, randomly selected citizens have deliberated on the topics of care, inclusive education, housing, digital skills and immigrant integration.
- Citizens' discuss "Shopping destination Aachen"
- „Citizens' Assembly for Aachen" initiative“
- Video: Greeting by Karl-Heinz Lambertz, President of the Parliament of the German-speaking Community of East Belgium, on the occasion of the celebration of the decision on the permanent citizens' assembly
- Citizens' Dialogue in East Belgium