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Home Opinion Genk: The small city leading the way on participatory democracy
Democracy • Participation • Engagement

Genk: The small city leading the way on participatory democracy

Joke Quintens - 22 October 2015

Innovative new practices have enabled widespread engagement in the setting of local authority budgets of a pioneering Belgian city

Genk is a Belgian city, housing some 65,000 inhabitants. Due to its rich mining past, the city is known for its broad multi-ethnic and cultural diversity. The discovery of coal in the area brought about the exploitation of three coal mines which remained operational from the beginning of the 20th century up to the 1980s and caused population in Genk to grow steadily through different migratory flows.

Within Flanders, Genk is also known for its long tradition of participatory practices in various policy areas. In 2008, the city launched a first citywide project. 3400 citizens of Genk accepted the invitation offered to them by volunteers and went in on the idea of holding group discussions about coexistence in diversity. In 2013, the city of Genk once more chose to organise a citywide initiative, this time inviting its citizens to participate in outlining a new policy.

While preparing the budget for the coming years, the city council decided to ask its inhabitants for their input. This resulted in an extended collective thinking exercise called G360, aimed at the active participation and contribution of 360 citizens. For several weeks, a lot of effort went into the search and invitation of potential participants, as we wanted to guarantee a true reflection of Genks diversity in the brainstorming process. We, therefore, focused on gender, age, ethnicity and neighbourhood when choosing potential attendees. Finally, 448 citizens came over to the football stadium of Genk to participate actively in the brainstorm, which took place from 3-4 March 2013.

Via eight very specific and clear 'How can we?' questions, citizens were asked to formulate their own ideas about how they see the future of our city. Every citizen chose one of the following themes:

  • How can we reinforce talents and knowledge of our inhabitants?
  • How can we reinforce the urban identity and atmosphere in Genk?
  • How can the city of Genk be made more attractive towards young people and young families?
  • How can the city provide better services for its citizens using fewer resources?
  • How can we strengthen the labour market in Genk?
  • How can we adapt the housing market and residential environment to the changing population and environment?
  • How can we ensure Genk to be a sustainable city?
  • How can we have a city where people use their talents, take their responsibility, and participate?

In a first stage, the brainstorming method aimed primarily at collecting as many ideas as possible, without focusing on feasibility and content. Eventually, the G360 brainstorm provided us in total with more than 2,000 ideas.

In the second phase, the citizens selected several ideas, which then were developed into concepts. The ideas were not only deepened, but also elaborated and implemented. The brainstorming sessions were led by 48 motivated staff members from all municipal departments and from the city’s Public Centre for Social Welfare. Following some training and with the help of a roadmap, they did an excellent job.

After G360 was finished, the municipal administration processed all the results into reports. The raw material found in all the different ideas formed the basis for a comprehensive database. It needed some working out, but an analysis of all ideas allowed us in the end to establish 11 main and 28 sub clusters.

But this was not the end to of the process. In a following step, the ideas of each cluster were carefully entered into reports of recommendation, which then were delivered to all relevant officials and politicians. These recommendations were taken into consideration when preparing the budget for the coming years. When you look into our policy for the coming years, you will find that 75 policy lines are directly linked to ideas we received from our Genk citizens.

Thanks to G360, the annual organisation of a citywide participatory initiative is now a policy line, beside the many initiatives that already have been carried out (since long, but at an increasing level each year) by our various departments to guarantee citizen involvement in the policymaking of our city.  

Joke Quintens is deputy mayor of Genk

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