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Home Opinion A citizens’ cabinet: experimenting with deliberative democracy
Democracy • Participation • Engagement

A citizens’ cabinet: experimenting with deliberative democracy

Sven Gatz - 22 October 2015

A new method of engaging people in the policymaking process has proved to be a success in Flanders

A few months ago I introduced an experiment in deliberative democracy that aims to increase the legitimacy of policymaking, solicit new perspectives and enrich representative democracy. The task of the ‘citizens’ cabinet’ is to bring about input and creative ideas that could lead to different perspectives in the cultural sector.

Following a period of recruitment, in which citizens were able to subscribe to the citizens’ cabinet, a group of 1,228 people were invited to partake in an online session between 1-11 September, with the purpose of distilling preliminary ideas. In this phase of the project, 800 people confirmed their participation in the online discussions, of which 676 actually contributed.

For practical reasons, and in order to create vibrant discussions, people were divided into groups of 40-50. Each group was accompanied by a moderator that facilitated the discussions and ensured the conversations would not go off topic. The online sessions led to 548 concrete ideas that were supplemented 1,595 times. Although we received a few comments on the user-friendliness of the platform, we noticed that the activity was fairly constant throughout the whole period. Working with an online platform as a precatory phase for the physical discussions allowed participants to dig into the materials at hand in advance, getting to know the various opinions on the subject matter, and enabled them to come with fairly concrete ideas. Moreover, this period allowed participants to get affiliated with the style of discussions and working method (7E model
[1]).

All ideas were subsequently bundled into clusters using ‘grounded-theory coding’ (bottom-up coding: using the data itself as the guiding line). This process led to 18 clustered ideas that were taken to the physical session on 19 September.

Having been selected from the online group, 250 people were invited to join in the physical meeting. Unfortunately we did not reach the anticipated 150 citizens. 30 cancellations due to illness or other reasons led us to commence the discussions with a group of 120. It is important though to note that the group was comprised to match or come close to the population mix in Flanders. 

 

Additional efforts were made to reach specific groups in society such as the poor, people with an ethnic background, hearing impaired people, youngsters etc. With the help of a few organisations that are working with these specific groups, we were able to welcome 10 people that are below the poverty line, accompanied with a ‘buddy’ in order for them to be helped during the discussions. In terms of ethnic diversity we managed to invite 20 people but unfortunately we could only welcome 7 due to cancellations. Lastly, we organised parallel sessions in two prisons allowing 27 inmates to tackle the exact same materials and using it in our final report.

It was delightful to see that one day of deliberation could deliver such a wide variety of ideas. Using the input of the online sessions, participants suggested a total of 36 ideas that they further developed and presented into 17 policy proposals. Besides the output of the day, I believe it is important to note that by doing this we allowed people to truly execute their democratic rights, by listening to them and offering them a platform from which to speak out. As well as this, the opportunity gave participants a glimpse into reaching consensus or developing a compromise, in the same manner that politicians need to do day in and day out.

At the end of the day, I promised the participants to take their proposals seriously and not just put them aside. Some of the proposals that were presented are not necessarily new, yet the very fact they surfaced indicates that past efforts have not reached citizens. This in itself is a very important aspect to take into account for me. Today, I am proud to say that all 17 policy proposals have already been included in my policy brief that will be presented in parliament shortly.

In conclusion, I am very satisfied with the results and the process of this first ‘citizens’ cabinet’. There are a number of things that we need to work on, such as reaching more people with an ethnic minority background and ensuring a maximum turnout among others. Yet, this process was a convincing example of the use deliberative democracy can potentially have within policymaking, and as an extra element of the democratic process as a whole. I am therefore committing to a second edition on youth diversity taking place in 2016.

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

An impression of the session on 19 September can be found here . More information on the citizens’ cabinet is available here


[1] Enlighten, enthuse, engage, encourage, enable, experience and exemplify – http://7e-model.be/het-7e-model-4-oplossingsgerichte-stappen/

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

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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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