Brussels Mixed Parliamentary Committees

Brussels (Belgium)


The Brussels Mixed Parliamentary Committee, established in 2020, is a true innovation and a great example of deliberative democracyDeliberative democracy is a form of democracy in which decision-making is based on deliberation rather than mere voting. In this approach, citizens engage in discussions, debates, and dialogue to consider various viewpoints and information before making decisions. It emphasises the importance of reasoned argument, informed participation, and consensus-building in shaping public policy. Deliberative democracy aims to improve the quality and legitimacy of democratic decisions by involving citizens directly in the policymaking process. in practice, aiming to mend the widening rift between citizens and their representatives amidst a deepening trust crisis in traditional representative systems. By convening deliberative committeesDeliberative committees are groups that engage in in-depth discussions and analysis of issues or proposals to make informed decisions or recommendations. They focus on careful debate and diverse perspectives to ensure balanced and well-considered outcomes, playing a key role in decision-making processes across various contexts. that pair randomly selectedRandom selection is a form of sampling where a representative group of research participants is selected from a larger group by chance. citizens with Members of Parliament of the Brussels regional legislature to collectively address critical issues, such as 5G deployment, homelessness, and citizens’ participation in times of crisis, the initiative showcases a novel approach to participatory governance. Its success hinges on a meticulously designed process that promotes equal contribution from all participants, underscored by innovative funding and participant selection strategies. As this model proliferates across Belgium and garners international interest, it illustrates the potential of deliberative democracy to rejuvenate public trust and engagement, albeit navigating challenges in diverse political landscapes.

Belgium, following the 2011 political crisis which resulted in a record 541 days without a national government, embarked on an innovative journey towards enhancing its democratic processes. This period of governmental hiatus highlighted the need for a more inclusive and participatory approach to governance, leading to the establishment of the G1000 initiative. This initiative marked a pivotal shift towards deliberative democracy, setting the stage for a series of transformative actions within the Belgian political landscape.

The G1000 initiative, later becoming a think tank, rapidly became a significant influence in the realm of political innovation. It was engaged by European and Belgian political institutions for insights into deliberative democracy, reflecting its growing impact. By 2017, this momentum led the Belgian Green Party to organise a citizens’ assemblyA citizens’ assembly is a representative group of citizens chosen to deliberate on specific issues and make recommendations. It reflects the broader population’s demographic diversity and aims to enhance democratic decision-making by incorporating public input. with the aim of drafting the democracy chapter for its electoral manifesto. This move underscored a growing recognition of the value of direct citizen involvement in shaping democratic frameworks.

The success of these endeavors culminated in 2019 an advocate of the citizen assembly movement was appointed as President of the Brussels Regional Parliament. This appointment was a clear signal of the shifting attitudes towards participatory democracyParticipatory democracy is a system where citizens have direct involvement in decision-making processes, beyond just voting in elections. It encourages active engagement through forums, public consultations, and direct voting on specific issues, aiming to increase democratic involvement, transparency, and public input in governance., and it led to the innovative creation of permanent mixed parliamentary committees within the legislature. These committees, comprising both citizens and MPs, embody a novel approach to legislative work, integrating deliberative processes into the daily functioning of the Parliament. They focus on various domains such as mobility, finance, and education, and operate through a structured process involving information sessionsIn citizen assembly processes, an information session serves as a preliminary meeting to educate participants about the assembly’s purpose, structure, and topics of discussion. It provides an overview of the decision-making process, the role of evidence and expert testimony, and the expectations for participant engagement. This session is key to preparing members for informed and constructive participation in the deliberations that follow., deliberations, and the formulation of recommendations. Crucially, these recommendations are mandated to receive follow-up action, ensuring that citizen input translates into tangible policy impacts.

The motivations driving these changes are multifaceted. There is a growing sense of urgency among politicians to address the perceived democratic crisis, coupled with a desire to innovate and experiment with new governance models. The past experiences of citizen assemblies, particularly the frustration over the lack of follow-up on recommendations, underscored the necessity of integrating citizen participation directly into the fabric of parliamentary function. Additionally, specific pilot projects and the complex nature of Belgium’s political system, often described as an “institutional lasagna,” have highlighted the need for clearer and more direct channels of citizen involvement.

The landscape of political innovation in Belgium, particularly in the context of deliberative democracy, has undergone significant changes since the G1000 initiative in 2011. This period marked a pivotal moment for the visibility and consideration of deliberative democracy, especially among political observers and in media coverage. Initially, the enthusiasm for political innovationPolitical innovation refers to the introduction of new ideas, practices, or technologies in the governance and political processes aimed at improving efficiency, transparency, and public engagement. It encompasses reforms in electoral systems, policymaking, citizen participation, and the use of digital tools to facilitate democratic engagement. Political innovation seeks to address contemporary challenges in governance, enhance democratic participation, and foster more responsive and accountable institutions. was more pronounced in the northern part of Belgium, which showed a greater openness to exploring new democratic practices. However, the dynamics have shifted over time, with the southern part of the country now leading the charge in institutionalising deliberative democracy within its parliamentary system.

This shift can be attributed to the political landscape of Belgium, where the division between the north and south also mirrors a divide in political ideologies. The south, governed predominantly by leftist parties, has shown a stronger inclination towards involving citizens directly in decision-making processes. These parties view citizen involvement as crucial to the democratic process and have been proactive in integrating deliberative mechanisms within governance structures. In contrast, the northern part of Belgium, where right and far-right parties hold more sway, exhibits a different approach. Here, there is a prevailing belief among these parties that they already serve adequately as representatives of the people, displaying less interest in exploring deliberative tools that would further involve citizens in the legislative process or governance in general.

This ideological divide has had tangible effects on media coverage and public discourse regarding deliberative democracy. French-speaking media in the southern part of Belgium have given considerable attention to initiatives related to deliberative democracy, highlighting the progress and discussions taking place. In contrast, Dutch-speaking media in the north have been markedly less engaged on this topic. This discrepancy in media attention underscores the growing gap in how deliberative innovation is perceived and adopted across Belgium.

The funding mechanism for the Brussels Mixed Parliamentary Committees is fully supported by the regional parliament. This financial backing highlights the legislature’s commitment to engage citizens directly in the policymaking process. A noteworthy innovation in this context is the strategic collaboration with the National Register, which has significantly streamlined and economised the process of random selection of citizens for assembly participation.

In Belgium, every resident is listed in the National Register, which simplifies the identification and selection of citizens for these assemblies. This partnership has led to a groundbreaking achievement: the random selection process, which is a crucial yet traditionally costly part of organising citizen assemblies, incurs no expenses. Typically, reaching out to a wide and representative sample of the population to invite participation could cost around €50,000. However, by utilising the National Register, Belgium sends out 10,000 letters to randomly selected citizens without bearing this financial burden.

The funds saved through this efficient process are redirected towards enhancing participant engagement in the Mixed Parliamentary Committees. Recognising the importance of compensating citizens for their time and contributions, the initiative ensures that participants receive a stipend of €80 per day. This compensation scheme not only acknowledges the value of citizens’ input but also promotes broader and more diverse participation by removing potential economic barriers.

As noted, the recruitment of participants is done with the help of the National Register. This method ensures a robust framework of random selection, diverging from the potential use of proprietary algorithms such as those developed by organisations like the Sortition Foundation. The primary goal of this selection process is to achieve a representative cross-section of the population, taking into account various demographic criteria such as gender, age, geographic location, and educational attainment. This meticulous approach ensures the committees reflect the diversity of Belgian society, ensuring inclusivity and representativeness in the deliberative process.

An innovative aspect of this process is the implementation of a “social demographic look-alike” system to maintain representativeness even in the face of participant dropouts. For instance, if a young individual from the northern part of Brussels, under 30 years old with no degree, is unable to attend the first session, they are replaced by another individual matching the same sociodemographic profile. This method ensures continuity and consistency in the representation of various community segments within the committee discussions.

The response rate to participation invitations has been notably high, significantly surpassing the expectations set by academic literature, which suggests a typical response rate of 3 to 7%. The first instance of this initiative, concerning the topic of 5G technology, witnessed a remarkable 12% response rate, attributed in part to extensive media coverage. Subsequent exercises have consistently achieved response rates between 6 and 10%, indicating a strong interest and willingness among the public to engage in these participatory democratic processes. This success reflects the effectiveness of the selection methodologySelection methodology refers to the systematic approach or set of criteria used to choose individuals, projects, or elements from a larger pool for specific purposes. It involves determining the processes and standards by which selections are made, ensuring fairness, transparency, and alignment with goals. In various contexts, such as research, human resources, or participatory processes, the methodology might include random sampling, merit-based criteria, application reviews, or public nominations, each tailored to achieve the desired outcomes and representativeness. and the broader public enthusiasm for engaging in meaningful dialogue and decision-making within the parliamentary framework.

Since its inception in 2020, the Brussels Mixed Parliamentary Committees have embarked on a journey to tackle some of the most pressing societal challenges through a deliberative democratic approach. This initiative (up until the spring of 2023) has resulted in six distinct deliberative committees, each addressing a critical issue facing Brussels and its inhabitants.

The very first committee was convened to address the contentious issue of 5G deployment in Brussels, a topic that had seen considerable political debate and public concern. The goal was to assess whether to recommend the technology’s implementation and under what conditions, illustrating the committee’s role in mediating between varying political perspectives and the public interest.

Following this, a committee focused on the pervasive issue of homelessness in Brussels, seeking innovative and practical solutions to address the crisis with input from both citizens and MPs. Another committee was formed during the COVID-19 crisis to explore citizen participation in crisis situations, particularly in response to the observed decline in public trust in government and issues surrounding vaccination and public health. Recommendations from this committee were notable for their subsequent implementation, demonstrating the tangible impact of these deliberative processes.

Further committees have tackled topics such as city biodiversity, alternate learning paths for students in employment, and other crucial subjects, each contributing to drafting a forward-looking vision for Brussels.

The process employed by these committees is structured into phases: an information phaseIn citizen assembly processes, an information session serves as a preliminary meeting to educate participants about the assembly’s purpose, structure, and topics of discussion. It provides an overview of the decision-making process, the role of evidence and expert testimony, and the expectations for participant engagement. This session is key to preparing members for informed and constructive participation in the deliberations that follow. with public hearings, a deliberation phaseThe deliberation phase is a critical stage in decision-making processes where participants discuss, debate, and reflect on various options or proposals. It involves thorough examination and consideration of all aspects of the issue at hand, aiming to reach a consensus or informed decision. This phase emphasises open dialogue, critical thinking, and collaborative problem-solving. featuring diverse citizen and MP participation, and a voting phaseThe voting phase is when participants in a decision-making process cast their votes to finalise choices or decisions. It’s crucial for reflecting collective preferences and can involve methods like secret ballots or electronic voting to ensure fairness and accuracy.. Unique to Brussels, the committees accommodate the city’s cosmopolitan nature by allowing participants who do not speak the local languages to bring interpreters, ensuring wide inclusivity. However, the voting phase has been identified as a potential weak point due to constitutional constraints on equating citizen votes with those of MPs. For example, in instances where consensus among citizens is strong, as demonstrated when all 45 citizens unanimously support a recommendation, it contrasts starkly with the parliamentary response, where a majority of MPs can still reject this recommendation. This scenario, although rare – with only two out of 250 recommendations having been declined by politicians – highlights a fundamental tension within the system. Despite this, the process mandates MPs to justify any divergence from citizen recommendations, maintaining a degree of accountability.

Efforts are underway to address these constitutional challenges, with positive indications that equal voting rights for citizens might be achievable, marking a significant step towards enhancing the deliberative process’s efficacy. Additionally, unlike many deliberative settings, the Brussels initiative includes a follow-up event nine months later, where the Parliament and government report back to citizens on the actions taken regarding their recommendations. This commitment to transparency and accountability further distinguishes the Brussels approach, ensuring that citizen contributions have a lasting impact on policy and governance.

To address challenges like political amendments undermining the essence of deliberative democracy, a mechanism was introduced allowing for the formulation of remarks on recommendations, which, after deliberative discussion, could be elevated to amendments. This adaptation was partly in response to the overwhelming number of recommendations, such as the 98 from the homelessness committee, which proved unmanageable. A decision was made to limit recommendations to enhance quality and deliberation, focusing on achieving 20 to 25 actionable recommendations per committee.

Further adjustments were made to ensure the deliberative process does not overstretch the thematic focus, allowing participants to gain a comprehensive view of all recommendations and encouraging a more holistic understanding of the issues at hand, not getting lost in the minute details. Recognising the need for expert input during deliberations, experts, including constitutional lawyers, were made available throughout the process to provide real-time feedback, ensuring that the recommendations were feasible and legally sound.

Transparency within the scientific committee, responsible for drafting guides and selecting topics and experts, was increased to justify its choices, ensuring a more open and legitimate process. This adjustment reflects a broader commitment to enhancing the deliberative process’s credibility and effectiveness.

Despite the non-bindingNon-binding refers to agreements, decisions, or resolutions that are not legally enforceable or mandatory. While they may express intentions, recommendations, or commitments, they do not have the legal authority to compel action or compliance. Non-binding measures are often used to guide, suggest, or signal preferences without imposing legal obligations. nature of the recommendations, a compelling motivational factor emerged from the dynamic between citizens and MPs. The symbolic pressure of disappointing citizens, coupled with direct communication channels established during the committees, encouraged MPs to earnestly consider and act upon the recommendations.

This variability highlights the complexity of translating deliberative democracy into tangible policy outcomes and underscores the need for ongoing assessment and adaptation of the process. The collaborative draftingCollaborative refers to a process or activity involving joint effort among a group of people or organisations to achieve a common goal. It emphasises cooperation, teamwork, and shared decision-making, often leading to more inclusive and comprehensive outcomes by leveraging diverse perspectives and skills. of the deliberative committee’s framework by MPs across the political spectrum ensures that the process is deeply embedded within the parliamentary system, enhancing its legitimacy and effectiveness.

The integration of power dynamics within citizen assemblies presents a fascinating challenge, particularly when it involves putting together randomly selected citizens with Members of Parliament (MPs) who are experts in their legislative domains. This complexity highlights the nuanced interplay between established political authority and citizen participation. In the context of the Brussels Mixed Parliamentary Committees, MPs participating in deliberative committees are typically those with expertise related to the topic at hand; this creates a distinct disparity in knowledge and experience between the MPs and the citizens, who may be engaging with the topic in-depth for the first time.

Addressing this imbalance necessitates the use of trained facilitators who can guide the deliberative process effectively, ensuring that all participants, regardless of their prior expertise, can contribute meaningfully. Additionally, preparatory sessions are conducted for MPs to cultivate skills in empathy, active listening, and collaboration. Despite initial resistance, these sessions aim to temper any tendencies to dominate the conversation, whether through passive withdrawal or by asserting their expertise too aggressively.

The evolution of MPs’ participation in these committees reflects a learning curve, moving away from tendencies to either disengage or preach, towards a more balanced approach that values co-creationCo-creation, co-planning or co-design refer to a participatory approach to designing solutions, in which community members are treated as equal collaborators in the design process. and mutual respect for diverse forms of expertise. This shift not only enhances the quality of deliberations but also redefines the interaction between politicians and citizens outside the conventional election-cycle dynamics. Instead of a one-directional campaign dialogue, the deliberative committees foster a reciprocal exchange, enriching the democratic process with a broader spectrum of perspectives and expertise. This innovative framework underscores the potential of deliberative democracy to bridge the gap between representative governanceRepresentative democracy is a political system in which citizens of a country or other political entity vote for representatives to handle legislation and otherwise rule that entity on their behalf. and direct citizen involvement, creating a more nuanced, inclusive, and informed legislative dialogue.

The expansion of deliberative democracy models beyond Brussels to other regions of Belgium, including Wallonia and lately on the national level, indicates a growing recognition of the potential these models hold in addressing the crisis of confidence and mistrust in representative democracy. The replication of Brussels’ model across various levels of governance in Belgium underscores a collective effort to rejuvenate democratic engagement and trust among citizens. This initiative arises from a shared understanding that the disconnection between the electorate and their representatives necessitates innovative solutions aiding more meaningful participation in the democratic process.

Implementing deliberative committees at multiple governance levels offers a strategic advantage by eliminating jurisdictional excuses often used by politicians to sidestep recommendations from citizen assemblies. By ensuring that deliberative processes are active at community, regional, and national levels, the feedback loop between citizens and their governments is strengthened, making it harder for officials to dismiss citizen recommendations on the basis of competence boundaries.

Internationally, the model’s adaptability has been tested, with efforts to introduce deliberative committeesDeliberative committees are groups that engage in in-depth discussions and analysis of issues or proposals to make informed decisions or recommendations. They focus on careful debate and diverse perspectives to ensure balanced and well-considered outcomes, playing a key role in decision-making processes across various contexts. in countries like Montenegro by individuals working within the European department. These endeavors highlight the model’s potential applicability across different political and cultural contexts, albeit with varying degrees of challenges and opportunities.

The success of deliberative democracy in Brussels can partly be attributed to the emergence of a new generation of decision-makers within the parliament, particularly those from the Green Party, who have shown a predisposition towards democratic innovations. This inclination towards embracing new forms of citizen engagement is seen as a response to the urgent need for political systems to evolve in order to regain public trust and confidence.

However, the integration of deliberative models into environments where democratic and far-right parties coexist poses significant challenges. The concern arises from the potential of giving a platform to extreme ideologies under the guise of open dialogue, especially in contexts like France, where far-right representatives hold considerable parliamentary seats. The essence of deliberative democracy relies on the power of rational argumentation; when discussions are influenced by irrational or hate-based rhetoric, the effectiveness and integrity of the deliberative process may be compromised.

This nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities presented by the adoption of deliberative democracy models across different political landscapes highlights the importance of carefully considering the composition and operational framework of deliberative committees to ensure they enhance, rather than undermine, democratic discourse and decision-making.

The Brussels Mixed Parliamentary Committees, enacted in 2020, embody an innovative stride toward bridging the gap between citizens and legislators amid growing distrust in traditional democratic systems. This initiative aligns citizens with Members of Parliament in the Brussels regional legislature to collaboratively delve into pressing issues, pioneering a model of participatory governance. Funded entirely by the regional parliament and leveraging the National Register for cost-effective participant selection, this model emphasises equitable dialogue and inclusivity, ensuring a diverse representation of Brussels’ demographic composition. Despite challenges in ensuring equal voting power and managing complex political dynamics, these committees mark a significant advancement in deliberative democracy, highlighting the potential to restore public trust and engagement in formal governance structures. This initiative’s growth across Belgium and interest from international circles underscores its transformative impact, albeit acknowledging the nuances of replicating such a model in varying political contexts.

Based on an interview conducted with Jonathan Moskovic (, Councilour of Democratic Innovation at the Brussels Regional Legislature on 12 September 2023.