Posted by David Farrell (November 12, 2011)
On November 11, 800 citizens from across Belgium were brought together to discuss the future of their country. G1000 was conceived a few months ago by a small group of Belgian citizens (the key player is a prominent author and columnist, David van Reybrouck; the others are a mix of academics, journalists, and civil society activists) who were concerned about the failure of their political system to get to grips with the economic crisis.
Exercised in particular by the inability of Belgium’s politicians to form a government and the resulting political limbo, the opening line of the group’s manifesto, states: ‘if the politicians can’t find a solution let the citizens’. G1000 seeks to show the country’s political leaders that they should engage with the citizens in seeking a way out of the mess. Their principal objectives are both to show that deliberative democracy can work, and to produce concrete proposals for the government to consider.
Making use of every means possible to mobilize interest (briefings around the country, media interviews and newspaper articles, website and social media) they put out a call to the wider Belgian public to propose policy issues for discussion. This resulted in over 5,000 proposals, which the organizers than aggregated into 25 key topic areas, ranging from detailed proposals for political reform through to key economic and social policies. Belgian citizens were then invited to vote on-line for the topic area that most concerned them, resulting in the three topic areas that were discussed at the Citizens’ Summit: social security; wealth inequality and the economy; and immigration policy (in a final session of the day the tables were each invited to select a topic from the remaining 25 key topic areas and discuss that).
Meeting in a beautifully restored converted warehouse that dwarfs the RDS, the citizens spent a full 10-hour day (from 9am-7pm) discussing a series of policy topics, producing concrete recommendations and then voting (electronically) on them. Despite the length and intensity of the schedule, the fact that it was a beautiful day and a public holiday to boot, and that people were working in three languages (Dutch, French and German; requiring simultaneous translation) they stuck to it: 800 people turned up and the vast bulk of them stayed to the end.
The method of operation bore many similarities to how we ran We The Citizens: the citizens were selected randomly (to fill key social-economic quotas) by a market research company; they sat at small round tables (maximum of 10 to a table) with a professional facilitator ensuring that the deliberations and discussions ran smoothly. Each session started with short presentations by experts and their materials were circulated to the citizens. After the expert presentations, the citizens were given about an hour to discuss the issues and make recommendations that were fed up to a top table where they were aggregated. At the end of the session, the key recommendations were put up on a screen and the citizens were asked to vote electronically for their top two. The results were presented to them instantaneously. (More details will be posted here in due course).
Running in parallel with the G1000 Summit, there were groups of citizens around the country (‘G-offs’) that met in their communities and replicated the same discussions remotely, feeding in their recommendations to the main hall electronically. In addition, there were ‘G-homes’, in which from the comfort of their homes individual citizens signed in to an innovative software system (‘synthetron’) where they could deliberate virtually with their peers and similarly make recommendations.
I was one of a small group of international experts (a mix of academics, and people working in civil society groups and international organizations from Denmark, Netherlands, Portugal, France, Ireland, the USA, and the EU) invited by the organizers to observe the process (UCC’s Clodagh Harris was one of the other members).
The work of G1000 is not complete. The next stage, G32, will involve a small core of citizens who self-nominated from the G1000, G-off and G-home groups, with their names selected randomly from a box. They will meet over three weekends to discuss in detail the proposals that emerged from the Citizens’ Summit, with a view to fine-tuning them into workable recommendations to be delivered to the Belgian government early next year.
The G1000 Citizen’s Summit was deliberation on an industrial scale. Highly moving to witness, the day was an inspiration to observe, and judged by the loud cheers and endless claps at the end an inspiration to the participants too.