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Policy-making • Deliberation • Legitimacy

A bridge between government and citizens

Sven Gatz - 13 July 2015

Flanders’ new citizens’ cabinet aims to increase the legitimacy of policy-making, solicit new perspectives and enrich representative democracy

Citizens increasingly voice their opinion, whether that be in a protest or online. Elections are viewed as the cornerstone of our democracy but they merely represent a moment in time. In order to truly represent the interest of citizens, politicians need to know what is happening on the streets. The only way to do that is by starting a direct dialogue with citizens, listening to their concerns and ideas, and integrating them into policy.  

I have always been interested in ways to improve the democratic process. While some would say that our representative democracy is nearing perfection, academic work as well as experiments over the past few years (for instance, Iceland’s constitutional reform) have showed that improvements are useful in order to maintain legitimacy towards citizens. Flemish researchers such as Luc Huyse, Carl Devos and David Van Reybrouck have been advocating deliberative processes for a number of years. Experiments such as the Icelandic constitutional reform and the G-1000 summit in Belgium indicated that citizens want to be heard, and when asked, are very committed to deliberative processes.

It is within this framework that I started looking for ways in which models of deliberative democracy could work within the traditional decision-making processes as an addition to representative and direct democracy. Developing a framework in which this was possible to implement in Flanders was one of the first policy initiatives I undertook when I was appointed minister for culture.

Named the citizen’s cabinet, the project is developed as an extra element in the decision-making process. This process is traditionally composed of government and parliament, yet the Flemish creative industry is well organised in interest groups that make themselves heard at my cabinet as well. I view the citizen’s cabinet as a way to create more legitimacy for my policies.

The citizens’ cabinet will serve as a bridge between me and the Flemish people. Having recently closed the registrations, I am proud that more than 1,000 people have signed up for this first initiative which will deal with culture.

Figure 1: Process flow

In the next month, three independent companies (Indiville, Treecompany and Levuur) will select a core group of 150 people according to geographic location, age, gender, education and occupation. From 1-11 September, all 1,000 participants will be invited to start deliberative sessions through an online platform. They will discuss a variety of questions dealing with issues that surround the cultural sector in Flanders. With the aim of reaching a consensus, the results will be collated and brought to a meeting taking place on 19 September at the Flemish parliament. In this final session a group of 150 citizens will be asked to further develop the ideas coming from the online panel and bring about ideas or proposals that can be integrated into my forthcoming policy decisions. It is hoped that the citizens’ cabinet  will run through a process such as indicated in figure 1 in which the process of starting with a large online group and having a core group turning their ideas into more concrete and detailed proposals, will increase legitimacy.

As well as contributing to the legitimacy of policy-making, I hope the citizens’ cabinet will receive creative ideas that bring about different perspectives in the culture sector and encourage other policymakers to try and launch similar initiatives in order for deliberative models to enrich our representative democracy.

Sven Gatz is Flemish minister for culture, media, youth and Brussels affairs

The Flemish citizens' cabinet is one of the case studies detailed in our new Policy Network report by Claudia Chwalisz: The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change

Tags: Sven Gatz , Citizens' Cabinet , Flanders , legitimacy , citizens' assembly , representative democracy

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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