About half of Americans think democracy doesn’t work well, according to a June Associated Press poll. Only 10% said it worked well or extremely well.
The Institution for Social and Policy Studies launched its Democratic Innovations program in part to counter this pessimism. Because democracy needs public trust to function.
Led by the Director of ISPS Alain Gerber and professors from ISPS and political science Helene Landemore And Adam MeirowitzDemocratic Innovations serves as a laboratory for identifying and testing new ideas to improve the quality of democratic representation and governance.
Last week, Landemore and Théophile Penigaud de Mourguespostdoctoral associate at Democratic Innovations, hosted a conversation with Jonathan Moskovic, advisor on democratic innovation to the president of the French-speaking Brussels Parliament. Brussels has helped lead a growing experiment with so-called citizens’ assemblies, deliberative bodies in which randomly selected people come together to help make political decisions.
“Finally, deliberative innovations are starting to be taken seriously in the United States,” said Landemore, who last year served on the governance committee overseeing a citizens’ convention reviewing French laws on assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Landemore noted that Moskovic will participate with other foreign delegations in a parliamentary exchange session with the US Congress on how deliberative citizen engagement can build a resilient democracy.
“For decades, I have seen this gap between Europe and the United States,” she said. “But I feel like today marks the beginning of a period where democratic innovations are being taken more seriously in this country, and one of those promising innovations is deliberative committees.”
For 541 days in 2010 and 2011, Belgium failed to form a federal government. Polls show that Belgians do not trust government institutions, political parties or politicians, Moskovic said. Even though Belgium is one of the few countries in the world where voting is compulsory, 17% of citizens did not vote – or submitted an invalid or blank ballot – in the last elections, Moskovic said, including up to to 40% of the country’s citizens. neighborhoods of Brussels.
“So this is a crisis of legitimacy,” he said. “And a crisis of efficiency. But there is fertile ground for innovation in Belgium.”
In 2011, the Belgian government randomly selected 1,000 people to participate in a citizens’ summit known as the G1000 to advise the embattled elected federal body. And although none of the summit’s recommendations were adopted, Moskovic considered it a success because it helped cultivate a culture of participation.
“It was the first time that the issue of citizen assemblies was at the forefront of the political and media scene in Belgium,” he said. “Even today, when we talk about citizen assemblies, we refer to the G1000. And since then, there have been many others, from local to national.
The country now has four permanent citizen assemblies, including one to fight climate change. The country’s powerful Green Party has pushed to integrate citizen participation throughout government, even deploying a citizens’ assembly to define its policy platform.
In Brussels, the government convenes citizens’ assemblies to examine issues that paralyze the decision-making of elected officials, Moscovic said. For example, climate activists campaigned against the introduction of 5G cellular networks, and so politicians waited for public committee advice before passing a law allowing the technology.
Participants are selected at random, even including those of different nationalities. The organizers then try to create a representative sample of the population based on gender, age (from 16 years old), geographic location and level of education. They are then joined by 15 parliamentarians, members of permanent committees aligned with the subject under study. They meet in small groups over six weekend days, deliberating outside the public eye to promote candor and discourage grandstanding, and assisted by trained facilitators to manage power dynamics and move the process forward.
Citizens receive remuneration for attending, around 83 euros per day. Parents of newborns up to 12 years old receive free childcare. There was 90% attendance.
To adopt a recommendation, a majority of citizens and a majority of deputies must vote in favor. And while some politicians might use the process to accuse citizens of making a choice unpopular with some voters, Moskovic said politicians more often become ambassadors of the process.
“Some feared that MPs would see the decisions of citizens’ committees as a threat,” he said. “But here, that’s not the case. They co-constructed the recommendations. They understand the black box of the deliberation phase, how they came to make this recommendation. They share responsibility for the process.
Among participating citizens, 82% say they have a better understanding of the political system and 97% believe that their participation was a positive experience.
“Citizen bodies, broadly representative of the population and brought together to deliberate on a political issue, have been multiplying for decades across the world,” said Penigaud de Mourgues. “I hope that through Jonathan we will learn more about the extent to which deliberative committees are reliable in inspiring new avenues of citizen engagement and in building trust between citizens and their political representatives.”
Gerber thanked Moskovic for explaining how Belgium has increased public participation in its government.
“As the world faces new and evolving challenges – driven by rapid advances in technology, anti-democratic movements, and growing concerns about the performance of government and civil society – we need people like Jonathan , Théophile and Hélène to test new methods of how people can participate in their own governance and fortify our fraying institutions,” Gerber said. “The Democratic Innovations program supports engagement with new ideas to encourage honest, efficient, responsive and effective government. We support these efforts at ISPS as we all seek a better path forward.