In order to bridge the gap between representatives and represented, the Brussels Parliament intends to open its doors to all the inhabitants of the Brussels-Capital Region. It has therefore decided to include in its rules of procedure a system of citizen participation: the Deliberative Committees (commissions délibératives). These committees, made up of 15 elected officials and 45 citizens chosen by lot, are responsible for drawing up recommendations on a given topic, which the Parliament must follow up.
In order to respond to the 'democratic fatigue syndrome' identified by David Van Reybrouck and to bridge the growing gap between representatives and represented, the Brussels Parliament decided at the start of the 2019-2024 legislature to open its doors to all inhabitants of the Brussels-Capital Region. Adopting the conclusions drawn from an initial citizen panel experiment conducted in 2017, it decided to include the deliberative committees in its rules of procedure in December 2019 and immediately involved several experts in citizen participation in defining the terms of application of this new process, which is now part of the assembly's regular and permanent operation.
Involving 45 citizens chosen by lot and 15 parliamentarians, the deliberative committees are a new space for dialogue aimed at elaborating, together and on an equal footing, recommendations on a particular theme. The topic addressed by each deliberative committee comes either from a citizen's proposal supported by a minimum of 1,000 Brussels residents over the age of 16 (this is the "citizen's suggestion" mechanism) or from a request from one or more political groups.
When the Parliament decides to set up a deliberative committee, an initial draw is made of 10,000 people over 16 years of age residing in the Region. A letter is sent to them inviting them to register by filling in a form in which they are asked to specify their gender, age, place of residence, language and level of education. On the basis of these answers, a second draw is made to obtain a sample of 45 people representative of the Brussels population. In addition, 15 parliamentarians whose work includes the issue in question are invited to participate.
Under the supervision of a support committee (comprising experts in citizen participation and specialists in the topic under discussion) and facilitated by an external operator selected in particular on the basis of its ability to manage mixed assemblies, the deliberative committees take place in different phases:
- An information phase, aimed at informing the participants about both the deliberative process and the topic under discussion.
- A deliberation phase aimed at generating proposals for recommendations.
- A recommendation phase, aimed at improving these proposals and adopting recommendations by all participants.
- A presentation phase.
The parliamentarians then ensure that the recommendations adopted are followed up and report, after 6 to 9 months, on the progress of this follow-up in a report presented and debated in public session, in the presence of the participants in the deliberative committee. This monitoring makes it possible to strengthen public support for the process by ensuring that the recommendations are useful.
Inclusion and information of the widest possible audience is ensured. Inclusion is the guiding principle of the process, from the drawing of lots to the follow-up, whether it be through a telephone assistance service, the presence of a person dedicated to the well-being of each person, particularly the youngest, the setting up of a buddy system, or the simultaneous translation in the two official languages and translation of the main documents into the five other most widely spoken languages of the Region. As for information, it is provided at key moments through the traditional means of communication and through the democratie.brussels platform, dedicated to citizen participation in the Brussels Parliament. The challenge is to ensure that all inhabitants of Brussels can use this tool.
As the deliberative committees are relatively recent, they are obviously likely to evolve. An evaluation is therefore carried out, constantly (at the end of each experience but also, during the same experience, at the end of each phase) and globally, thanks to the contributions of the participating citizens and parliamentarians, the support committee and the governance committee (composed of the facilitator, representatives of the support committee, the chair of the deliberative commission and two citizens chosen at random from among the participants, it meets at the end of each deliberative commission session).
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
Considered by the press and experts to be a world first, the process is innovative in that it establishes for the first time a structural mechanism of participatory democracy that directly involves parliamentarians and citizens selected by lot. It is embedded in the Parliament's rules of procedure and is effectively part of the functioning of the Parliament as such. Citizens chosen by lot and parliamentarians are now regularly brought together to debate together on an equal footing.
To ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to express themselves and to be heard, special attention is paid to respect for the principles of deliberation, equality and inclusion. In order to ensure public ownership of the process, a follow-up procedure to the adopted recommendations has been established, with parliamentarians responsible for reporting back to the Council after 6-9 months, to inform citizens about their proposals' implementation
What is the current status of your innovation?
The innovation is currently under implementation.
Collaborations & Partnerships
In addition to the Parliament's services, the process requires the collaboration of:
- The support committee: made up of experts in citizen participation and the topic in question, it ensures that the various phases of the process run smoothly.
- A facilitator: he/she leads the debates and ensures inclusion.
- The governance committee: composed of representatives of the facilitator and the support committee, the president of the commission and two citizens, it evaluates each session.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
The process involves:
- The parliamentarians of the relevant standing committee and citizens designated by a double draw by lot so as to be representative of the Brussels population, who together draw up recommendations recommendations;
- The Parliament, which follows up the recommendations
- The government, which participates in the implementation of the recommendations;
- The Brussels population
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The three deliberative commissions set up to date have given 135 Brussels residents, with a wide range of profiles, the opportunity to to participate.
The recommendations adopted are each time followed up by the Parliament. Within 6 or 9 months, a report is drawn up, and it will indicate how the recommendations are being implemented (approximately 69%) or why they are not being implemented. It is then sent to all the participants concerned. Parliamentarians are then invited to a meeting to present the report and they discuss it with citizens. It is clear that these recommendations are a definite aid to decision-making and all political actors are taking them on board.
The process also gives the citizens selected by lot a more direct contact with the parliamentarians. It also allows them to understand the decision-making mechanisms, taking into account the interests involved, the institutional realities, the distribution of competences between levels of power, and more.
Challenges and Failures
The experiments carried out so far have been evaluated in each case by the support committee and by the participants, namely elected representatives and citizens, who fill in a questionnaire at the end of the committee's work. Two major problems have emerged from these evaluations:
- The understanding of the process, at least of certain phases, by the citizens.
- The role of parliamentarians.
The first problem was solved fairly quickly by giving more room for explanations during the committee meetings and by organising preparatory sessions for citizens only; by favouring small group discussions rather than plenary sessions, in which the MPs have control over the whole process. The second problem has not yet been solved, but it is the main subject of a first, more global evaluation currently under way and which should be completed soon.
Conditions for Success
The success of the process is conditional on the respect of several principles, including:
- Deliberation, understood here as discussion between free and equal individuals based on argumentation ;
- Equality: firstly, between citizens, each having an equal chance of being drawn by lot; secondly, between citizens and parliamentarians, with everyone having the same right to speak and to be heard;
- Information, which must be accessible to all participants and reflect the diversity of viewpoints
- The inclusion, at all stages of the process, of those who are furthest away from participation (particular attention should be paid to young people, people with special needs, the socio-economically and linguistically disadvantaged public);
- Transparency, in particular to avoid suspicions of manipulation of the process (to support this principles, plenary meetings are broadcasted on Youtube).
The process was developed jointly by two assemblies: the Brussels Parliament and the Brussels French-speaking Parliament, under the supervision of the same steering committee. The former has so far organised 3 deliberative committees and the latter 2. They will continue the experiment.
The problem of the growing gap between elected representatives and citizens is not unique to the Brussels Region, and the process is already inspiring other assemblies. It is now being applied in another Belgian regional assembly, the Parliament of Wallonia, but has not yet been implemented there. A proposal to introduce a similar mechanism in the Belgian federal parliament has been tabled in the House of Representatives and is currently under discussion.
In order to ensure the success of these processes at the different levels, a network of the officials involved should be set up.
Finally, as contacts with foreign institutions increase, the model could soon be exported to other countries.
The implementation of such a process cannot be improvised and requires time.
The definition of the modalities of its application requires numerous meetings with experts and consultation with the political groups and the administrative services of the Parliament, which must all take ownership of the process.
The smooth running of deliberative committees also requires the allocation of substantial resources. First of all, financially as the cost is around EUR 100 000 per experience. Secondly, on a human level, since it confronts the services with new tasks often performed at unusual times (to allow the greatest number of people to participate, meetings are held in the evening and at weekends).
Finally, as this is an unprecedented process, it is by its very nature perfectible and therefore requires a permanent evaluation in which all the stakeholders must be involved.
The Brussels Parliament has also set up another citizen participation mechanism, also managed via the platform democratie.brussels, aimed at revitalising the right of petition.
From now on, the law gives any petitioner the right to be heard by the Parliament if his or her petition receives the support of 1,000 people (formerly 5,000) domiciled in the Brussels-Capital Region and aged 16 years or over (a threshold modelled on that required for citizens to suggest the establishment of a deliberative committee).
This reform has had the desired effect: in 2020, the first petition with 1,000 signatures was declared admissible and was referred to the committee for consideration. In 2021, 7 petitioners were heard and in 2022, 11 petitions were submitted.
The balance is therefore positive: in two years, 33 petitions were addressed to Parliament, compared to 4 in the previous 20 years.
- Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
24 November 2022