Much better than the G8

By Peter Vermeersch

A citizens’ summit in Brussels

A citizens’ summit in Brussels

Picture this: a large number of ordinary Belgian citizens – let’s say about a thousand of them – meet in a big industrial hall in the center of Brussels to talk politics. The crowd is diverse. It includes electricians, farmers, doctors, grandmothers, students, perhaps even the homeless woman who regularly waits in line for free soup at the Central train station. They sit together at tables of 10 for a whole day. They discuss policy matters, agree on a number of shared priorities, or kindly agree to disagree. At the end of the day, they smile, applaud and cheer; they stand up, they don't want to leave. A standing ovation for democracy! All of this happened in November 2011 at Belgium’s first country-wide citizens’ summit. It was an exercise in deliberative democracy. Its name: the G1000.

Picture: Peter Vermeersch

The G1000

The G1000 on 11/11/11

The organizers of the G1000 are a mixed lot. They come from various walks of life, none of them is a politician, but all see themselves as passionate defenders of true democracy. In the spring of 2011 they posted a manifesto on the internet (http://www.g1000.org/en/) and began to raise money through crowdfunding. In their view, citizens’ deliberation might help to focus political debate on issues rather than on party competition and campaigning. The citizens don't need to solve the Belgian governmental crisis, they don't even have to think about how to run the country - that remains the task of professional politicians. What they can show is that democracy can be more than just a scramble for votes. On 11/11/11 the (first) G1000 summit took place. A random sample of 1000 Belgian citizens – every Belgian citizen had an equal chance of being phoned and asked to participate - were brought together to discuss a number of topics that in an earlier survey were identified as major concerns. Among these were social security, distribution of wealth in times of crisis, and immigration. Picture: Peter Vermeersch

Democratic game

Democracy: more than a game of party politics

Belgium has no clear tradition of deliberative democracy. Does it need to develop one? During the past half-century, Belgium’s elected politicians have been so tightly focused on state reform that they forgot to renew democracy. And there are reasons to suspect that some renewal may be useful. After the June 2010 elections, it took more than 500 days of negotiations to form a federal government. Divisions ran not only along linguistic lines. During that time many Belgians felt increasingly alienated from politics. They could do nothing to resolve the stalemate; they simply had to wait until an agreement was found. The traditional game of party politics felt limiting. The result was frustration. Some raised their voices. To some extent, they echoed the indignation palpable in the ongoing citizens’ protests in the wider world. In this picture: a game about Belgium distributed at the G1000 citizens' summit. Playing this game wasn’t part of the official programme of the day; most people were too engaged in the deliberations and didn’t have time for a game of goose. Picture: Véronique Philips

The benefits of disagreement

The benefits of disagreement

Of course, as simple as the idea may sound, the practice of deliberative democracy is often daunting. In the case of the G1000 the organizers had to deal with serious logistical challenges (the initiative was entirely supported by crowdfunding; no donor was allowed to give more than 7 percent of the total budget) and methodology (the participants were randomly selected to ensure a high level of diversity).

One of the challenging tasks on the day itself was the facilitation of the discussions around the tables. There’s always a chance that emotions run high. The facilitators (recognizable by their blue smocks) were briefed not to create consensus but rather to manage disagreement. Democratic society can thrive on the latter, on the condition that there is mutual respect among those who disagree.

Picture: Peter Vermeersch

Vitamins for democracy

Vitamins for democracy

“So, is this a revolution?" a journalist asked me while we were watching the discussions from the side. He smiled. “You’re joking, right?” I replied. The purpose of the G1000 was never to replace the existing structures of democracy, but to enrich them. One of the volunteers passed by and gave us both an orange.
“I think I get it,” the journalist said after a while. “If elections are the main dish, this event is more like a healthy snack.”
The organizers believe that the G1000 can show ordinary Belgian citizens that democracy is still possible, even if party politics in Belgium is in crisis. Citizens’ engagement may increase public trust and, in turn, reduce the electoral stress that might otherwise lead to more political deadlock. Deliberative democracy will not make the traditional institutions of representative democracy redundant, nor is it likely to resolve all the problems in a democratic system, but it can create a new dynamic.

Picture: Véronique Philips

The uses of diversity

The uses of diversity

The G1000 has clearly not been some sort of miracle solution for the shortcomings of contemporary democracy. Citizens’ deliberations are slow and labour-intense, but they offer support; they provide something extra to hold on to. They are a crutch, if you will. One of their true strengths is that they can lead to the production of new ideas. The participants are not experts in any of the policy domains that are being discussed. But they are experts of their own lives. And from that unique perspective they may come up with unique insights. And they can immediately discuss them with fellow citizens. In order to create an environment that makes such creative brainstorming possible a high level of cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic diversity is needed.

Picture: Peter Vermeersch

The art of voting

The art of voting

Of course, it's not only about talking, it's also about reaching decisions. After the deliberations the participants of the G1000 were invited to vote for the proposals they liked best, as shown in the photo. Later on, policymakers should take into account the views of this citizens’ assembly when they decide on specific measures. Regular elections will be needed to decide which policymakers will be given the power to decide about which measures to take and how to implement them. Nevertheless, the talks are as important as the voting. Through dialogue all the relevant alternatives and considerations can be brought to the attention of policymakers and the wider public, and the citizens are given an additional channel to voice their experiences and concerns.

Picture: Véronique Philips

Voting results

Results

The direct outcome of the citizens’ summit was a list of shared priorities. The list can be found on this link (http://www.slideshare.net/G1000org/g1000-voting-report-all-topics). For example, on the topic of the distribution of wealth in times of crisis, ideas that made it to the final list include the reform of corporate tax (lowering the tax and closing legal loopholes) and the introduction of a general financial transaction tax. There is clearly a broad popular demand to have a public discussion about these and other key ideas. By setting priorities the G1000 has invited policymakers to study these priorities and take them into account when devising new policy plans.

Picture: Véronique Philips

G32

G32

If they wanted, G1000 participants could fill out a form in order to apply to become part of the G32, a smaller group of citizens tasked with elaborating the decisions reached at the citizens’ summit. Even though it’s a big assignment, more than 300 people applied to be part of this core group. They need to commit themselves to meet over the course of several weekends in order to discuss the results of the citizens' summit and study various policy options in depth. They have to translate these conclusions into specific proposals and communicate them to Belgian policymakers.

Picture: Véronique Philips

The revolution will be streamed

The revolution will be streamed

Was there ever a better time for citizens’ deliberation than now? We live in an era of growing online participation, of citizens’ journalism, of internet discussion forums, tweets, blogs and virtual social networks. We have the tools to participate, even if we don’t always know exactly how they can serve us best. The G1000 has tapped into a reservoir of new communication tools to reach out to an audience that is substantially broader than those at the event in Brussels. While talks were ongoing in the main hall, people at home could join their own online discussion group, or they could go to one of the ‘G-offs’, locally organized mini-versions of the G1000. What happened at the main event was filmed and streamed to feed these local discussions. Like the conclusions of the main discussions, the results of the G-offs were collected to be presented to policymakers.

Picture: Véronique Philips

A citizens’ summit in Brussels
The G1000
Democratic game
The benefits of disagreement
Vitamins for democracy
The uses of diversity
The art of voting
Voting results
G32
The revolution will be streamed
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