Deliberative democracy is based on the idea that an entire population has a stake in political decisions, especially when they can help to break political deadlocks. This is especially true when members of parliament feel unable to develop new laws or policies due to fear of voter retribution. It offers a way to breathe new life into governance because political work is seen as a shared enterprise, not just among professional politicians but also with citizens who are offered an opportunity to participate.
This does not mean that deliberative democracy processes should replace members of parliament’s responsibility to represent and oversee. Deliberative democracy complements representative democracy to enhance certain policy outcomes but should not be seen as competing against existing political authorities. If deliberation and representation clash, they can create a self-defeating environment where citizens feel their process has been sabotaged and members of parliament feel their authority is being handed away. This was seen to some extent during the French Citizens’ Convention for Climate: many members of parliament were not in favour of the assembly and argued that deliberative democracy would never be able to replace proper parliamentary debates by elected representatives.
Deliberative processes can also be a powerful tool in pushing back against executive obstinance. Many countries are experiencing increasing centralisation and executive dominance, with legislatures often marginalised and their recommendations ignored. A legislature’s intervention, backed by the direct feedback and support of citizens, can be much more powerful than one from a parliamentary committee or individual member of parliament alone.
As more parliaments are initiating deliberative democracy processes around the world, there are several considerations to bear in mind. Among them are the need to build coalitions of like-minded members of parliament; the need to involve the media and civil society; the need to pay attention to key design decisions and trade-offs; and the extent to which parliament should be involved in the deliberative process – many of these have been discussed in our blog series so far.
But one of the major considerations is to identify from the outset how the parliament will be involved in implementing the recommendations that come out of the process. Members of parliament have a wide range of constitutional tools at their disposal to support the implementation of outcomes from these deliberative processes. It is useful for the participants in deliberative processes to understand from the outset what role parliament can play in following up their recommendations. It is also important for participants to get an understanding of the framework in which members of parliament operate. For example, whilst a deliberative process can be conducted in a few weeks, it takes parliament months to pass a new law. This rigorous process is important as it allows the parliament to balance the actions of the executive, and members of citizens’ assemblies need to understand this.
As more and more members of parliament are convinced of the benefits of deliberative democracy, some parliaments are starting to embed these processes into their decision-making structures. This ensures that deliberative processes become fully complementary. But institutionalization can also help to consolidate trust in decision makers and members of parliament and lead to increased efficiency and cost saving.
Consider the Belgian example: Two of the most prominent examples of institutionalization of deliberative processes are found in Belgium.
Firstly, in February 2019, the parliament of the German-speaking community passed a law to establish a permanent citizen council to set the agenda and a citizen assembly. The main objective of the assembly is to issue recommendations to the parliament. Although the recommendations are not legally binding, the parliament is compelled to engage in debate with them.
Secondly, in December 2019, the parliament of the Region of Brussels in Belgium amended its rules of procedure to establish deliberative committees composed of a mixture of members of the regional parliament and randomly selected citizens. Members of parliament and citizens suggest agenda items for up to three deliberative committees each year, and a committee can arise from citizens who can gather 1,000 signatures on a proposed issue. The deliberative parliamentary committee is composed of 15 members of parliaments and 45 citizens to draft recommendations on a given issue. These recommendations must be considered by the standing committee within 6 months and presented at a public sitting of the standing committee in which the randomly selected citizens are invited.
Speaking about the process, Magali Plovie, President of the Francophone Brussels Parliament has said “there are also huge challenges headed our way — from climate change to lasting social injustices that increase every year — and we need to adapt our decision-making processes to this reality. Citizens need to contribute to these decisions, as they will be impacted first and foremost. Institutionalising citizen deliberation will contribute to building lasting trust between citizens and the parliament.”
Whether institutionalizing such processes will lead to stronger take up of recommendations remains to be seen. As the Belgian constitution grants legislative power to the parliament, the power that deliberative democracy holds within parliament remains dependent on the representative institution and its members – in complement, not competition.
WFD and new Democracy Foundation have launched a guide for members of parliament on deliberative democracy. This is supported by a series of blogs on our different topics pertaining to deliberative democracy. For more information, get in touch with Julia Keutgen, WFD’s Senior Transparency Adviser.