The G1000 initiative, launched in Belgium in 2011 amidst an unprecedented period without a government, marked a pivotal moment in the exploration 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.. Conceived as a response to growing public disillusionment with traditional political mechanisms, the G1000 sought to directly engage citizens in the democratic process. Through a large-scale citizen summitA citizen summit is a large-scale event that brings together a diverse group of citizens from various backgrounds to discuss and deliberate on key public issues, policy proposals, or future directions for a community or nation. It serves as a platform for public engagement, allowing participants to contribute their views, ideas, and solutions. and subsequent meetings, the initiative brought together a representative sample of Belgian citizens to deliberate on pressing societal issues, utilising sortitionSortition is the method of selecting individuals randomly from a larger pool to fill positions or roles, often used in the context of forming representative bodies like citizens’ assemblies. This approach ensures fairness and impartiality, promoting equal chances for all participants to be chosen. to ensure diversity and inclusivity. The recommendations generated from these deliberations aimed to influence policy, although tangible political uptake varied. Over time, the G1000 has evolved beyond its initial activity, inspiring similar initiatives globally and transitioning into a non-profit organisation committed to advancing deliberative democracy practices. Despite challenges in fully integrating citizen recommendations into formal policy, the G1000 remains a significant experiment in enhancing public participation and revitalising democratic engagement and trust in democratic institutions.

In the early months of 2011, Belgium found itself in a peculiar and rather unprecedented situation. Following the elections of 2010, the country had been operating without an official government for over a year, inadvertently setting a new world record for governmental vacancy. This period was characterised by a sense of stagnation and disillusionment among the Belgian populace. Citizens were growing increasingly frustrated with the apparent ineffectiveness of the political system, as the nation seemed more embroiled in internal power-play than in formulating actual policy. The absence of any foreseeable resolution to this deadlock only compounded the public’s despondency.

It was within this context of widespread dissatisfaction that David van Reybrouck, among other concerned citizens, began to question the root causes of this impasse. Was Belgium’s crisis purely a result of its complex regional dynamics, or was it indicative of a deeper, more systemic failure in the political system itself? Such questions led to the conceptualisation of a rather radical solution: if traditional political mechanisms were failing, why not turn directly to the citizenry for input? Although advisory boards and small-scale participatory budgetingParticipatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to allocate part of a public budget. It allows citizens to identify, discuss, and prioritise public spending projects, and then vote on which projects should receive funding. This process aims to make budgeting more transparent, inclusive, and reflective of community needs, fostering greater public involvement and accountability in fiscal decision-making. initiatives existed, the concept of engaging the entire citizenry in such a direct and extensive manner was unseen.

Motivated by this innovative vision, the group set about organizing the G1000 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. This ambitious project aimed to convene a thousand Belgians, representing the diverse composition of the nation, to deliberate on three critical issues identified by the public as most pressing. To this end, a substantial public and media campaign was launched to garner attention and support for the initiative. The response was enthusiastic, with the media keenly covering the development and execution of the project.

The selection process for the assembly’s topics was democratic and inclusive, ultimately focusing on migration, social security, and entrepreneurship during economic crises. The G1000 summit, held on 11 November 2011, saw around 800 citizens gather in Brussels to discuss these themes. The event, marked by active participation and expert contributions, culminated in a set of drafted recommendations. A year following the summit, the recommendations were formally presented to the newly appointed Presidents of Parliament in a ceremony that symbolised hope and positive engagement.

However, the legacy of the G1000 extends beyond immediate policy impacts. It played a crucial role in elevating the discourse around democratic 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. in Belgium, particularly promoting the principles of citizen assemblies and sortition. This initiative laid the groundwork for future experiments in participatory democracy, directly inspiring the German-speaking community’s parliament in Belgium to institutionalise citizen participation as a structural component of its parliamentary work in 2019. This move, acknowledged as a world first, was a testament to the transformative potential of the G1000 summit, demonstrating the impactful ripple effect of pioneering democratic experiments in reaching a more engaged and participatory form of governance.

The year 2011 marked a significant moment in the evolution of deliberative democracy, serving as a catalyst for subsequent initiatives that sought to replicate the success of the G1000 summit. The success and publicity of the G1000 saw various governments experimenting with citizen participation models, such as the K-100, which involved panels of citizens deliberating on a wide range of issues. While these initiatives strayed from the pure sortition model used by G1000, they embraced the underlying principle of engaging citizens directly in the political process.

The period following G1000 was characterised by a sense of incubation, with the project existing without formal structure or professional governance, reliant on the dedication of volunteers. However, the landscape began to shift significantly in 2019 when the parliament of the German Region in Belgium revisited the concept of citizen assemblies.

The year 2019 was again significant for deliberative democracy in Belgium. The publication of the “East Belgian model” of deliberative democracy garnered considerable attention both domestically and internationally, reigniting interest in deliberative processes. This year also coincided with regional elections in Brussels, resulting in a coalition government favourable to citizen participation and deliberative democracy. This political shift led to the creation of the first permanent citizens’ assembly, the Mixed Parliamentary Committee in the Brussels legislature, among other initiatives, marking a significant step towards institutionalising deliberative democracy at various levels of governance.

The momentum continued with the federal government expressing a commitment to democratic innovation, further propelling Belgium into a leading position in the field of deliberative democracy. This period of active experimentation and implementation underscored a growing consensus on the value of incorporating citizen voices directly into the policymaking process, setting the stage for a more inclusive and participatory democratic framework in Belgium and beyond.

The G1000 initiative was initially funded through a combination of crowdfunding, private donations. This innovative approach to financing allowed the G1000 to maintain a degree of independence and public legitimacy, ensuring that the process was driven by citizen interest rather than by political or corporate agendas. The crowdfunding aspect, in particular, highlighted the public’s investment in, and support for the initiative, reflecting a wide base of societal backing.

In addition to public contributions, the G1000 received support from academic institutions and non-profit organisations interested in democratic innovation. These sources provided not only financial backing but also expertise and logistical support, contributing to the success of the summit and subsequent deliberations.

As for the G1000’s ongoing operations, the organisation has evolved into a non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to promoting and implementing deliberative democracy processes. Today, G1000 is funded through a mix of project grants, research funding, and partnerships with other democratic innovation organisations and academic institutions. It continues to seek donations and support from individuals, organization and foundations who believe in the mission of enhancing democratic processes through deliberation and citizen engagement.

The practice of sortition, or random selectionRandom selection is a form of sampling where a representative group of research participants is selected from a larger group by chance., has been a cornerstone of the G1000 initiative and other citizen participation projects to ensure the representative nature of citizen panels and assemblies. Initially, due to limitations imposed by GDPR and access to official governmental data, organisations like G1000 relied on polling companies to carry out the random selection process. This approach, while effective, presented challenges in terms of inclusivity and cost-efficiency.

However, some deliberative processes have managed to navigate these challenges by securing a legal basis that grants them access to the National Register following the promulgation of a Sortition Bill, passed by the Federal Parliament in 2023. The imminent extension of this privilege to federal processes indicates a structural evolution in how sortition is utilised within the framework of citizen participation in Belgium. While sortition is hailed for its ability to enhance the legitimacy and representativeness of citizen juriesA Citizens’ Jury is a small group of randomly selected citizens, representative of the demographics in the area, that come together to reach a collective decision or recommendation on a policy issue through informed deliberation., it’s also recognised that not all forms of citizen participation necessitate its use. For strategic, high-stakes policy issues, however, sortition is viewed as essential to achieving a panel that truly reflects societal diversity and avoids the pitfalls of participation bias, where only the most engaged, often termed “participation elites,” dominate the conversation.

Designing sortition processes, especially at the national level, requires careful consideration of local sensitivities and demographic diversity to ensure the representative character of citizen panels or assemblies. The approach to sortition must balance the need for demographic inclusivity with the practicalities of engaging a broad cross-section of the population. In the German-speaking region of Belgium, for example, the distribution between northern and southern parts is carefully managed to address mutual trust issues, demonstrating the nuanced application of sortition criteria based on local contexts.

For a national process on the topic of funding for political parties, the criteria were expanded to include age, gender, socioeconomic status (proxied by education level due to sensitivities around income), place of residence (ensuring representation from Flanders, Brussels, and Wallonia), and the nationality of one’s mother at birth. This last criterion was introduced to incorporate an ethnocultural dimension, addressing the challenge of engaging diverse communities, such as Brussels’ significant Arab population, which often intersects with lower socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, affecting the perceived legitimacy of the panels.

To further enhance participation from underrepresented groups, Brussels has implemented measures like childcare arrangements and financial incentives. Recognising the barriers faced by young parents and those living far from Brussels, provisions such as adequate compensation and accommodation (for those residing over 100 kilometers away) have been made to facilitate their involvement. These efforts reflect a commitment to making citizen assemblies accessible to a wider demographic, thereby enriching the deliberative process with a broader range of perspectives.

Additionally, targeted recruitment through partnerships with community organisations and over-sampling in specific regions or communities are strategiesRecruitment strategies for participatory processes aim to ensure diverse and inclusive participation. These include targeted outreach to underrepresented groups, public advertising across various media, partnerships with community organisations, offering incentives, and utilising online platforms. The goal is to engage a wide audience, encouraging broad involvement in decision-making and consultation activities. employed to ensure diverse representation. While such measures might slightly compromise the randomness of sortition, they are deemed necessary to achieve a more inclusive and legitimate assembly composition. The balance between random selection and targeted engagement underscores the ongoing effort to refine deliberative democracy practices, ensuring they are as representative and inclusive as possible.

Starting as a bottom-up initiative with volunteers in 2011, the transition into a formally funded operation allowed for the hiring of a coordinator and subsequently an executive director, marking the beginning of a more structured approach to promoting deliberative democracy. Initially existing within a larger organisational framework, it was not until 2021, coinciding with the hiring of the current director, that the entity evolved into an independent non-profit organisation. This transformation underscored a commitment to maintaining a not-for-profit ethos, ensuring a focus on being a centre of expertise in deliberative processes without becoming overly reliant on governmental funding.

By capping income received from any one entity (including government) at 20% of total revenues, the organisation prioritizes financial independence, enabling a critical stance on government proposals that may compromise the integrity of citizen panels. This stance is crucial for upholding quality standards and advocating politically for the institutionalisation and advancement of deliberative democracy. The work involves not only designing participatory processes but also engaging in political advocacy, advising MPs, and ministers on best practices for embedding these processes within the governmental framework.

With regards to the initial G1000 process, its governance structure included a diverse group of 18 coordinators overseeing various aspects such as process management, communication, fundraising, and logistics, supported by hundreds of volunteers. A significant fundraising campaign was launched to support the budget of the process, emphasising the vast volunteer and societal interest in democratic innovation.

As the organisation moved beyond its initial phase, it continued to influence behind-the-scenes, engaging politicians in discussions aimed at finding common ground for democratic advancements. While initially embracing a movement-like approach, the focus has shifted towards re-building community engagement around democratic innovation, leveraging the energy and frustration with current political systems to explore productive alternatives.

The name “G1000” itself, inspired by a participant’s comparison to the G8 but for citizens, has become a strong brand within the field, recognised by the press, politicians, and the public. Despite its symbolic origins, the name carries strategic and pragmatic value, embodying the philosophy of inclusive and 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. that the organisation continues to champion. This enduring relevance of the G1000 moniker reflects both the legacy and the evolving mission of the organisation as it navigates the complexities of promoting democratic innovation in contemporary society.

The foremost challenge in the realm of deliberative democracy remains the political adoption and effective integration of citizen recommendations into policy and administrative cycles. Recent years have seen an acknowledgment of organisations like the G1000 of a growing proficiency in organising citizen assemblies.

This endeavor introduces its own set of challenges, such as the risk of administrations overly assimilating citizen inputs into their pre-existing policy frameworks, potentially stifling the assembly’s capacity to challenge and innovate. Navigating this dynamic requires a delicate balance, emphasising the importance of establishing credible governance structures for bottom-up projects. These structures should be ideologically diverse and have robust organisational support. Engaging politicians from the onset, as demonstrated in G1000’s project on party funding, fosters a conducive environment for political uptake by involving them in discussions before, during, and after the citizen assembly process.

Another significant hurdle is connecting the deliberative process with the broader public, ensuring inclusivity beyond the immediate participants. While digital platforms and tools offer a potential solution, their efficacy is contingent upon meaningful engagement with the process; otherwise, they risk becoming mere facades of participation.

Moreover, the challenge of disinformation looms large, threatening the foundational premises of deliberative democracy. Belgium, while relatively insulated from the extremes of this global trend, is not immune, especially among younger demographics who increasingly source their news from platforms like TikTok. The erosion of a critical mindset towards information consumption undermines the very basis of deliberative processes. Without a shared understanding of facts versus interpretation, meaningful deliberation becomes untenable.

The essence of meaningful deliberation in the context of deliberative democracy hinges on a consensus regarding foundational facts and information. For a dialogue to be substantive and productive, participants must align on what constitutes factual evidence. This prerequisite does not imply that discussions should be limited solely to factual analysis, which would merely reduce them to technical debates best suited for experts. Instead, the acknowledgment of established facts – such as the existence of climate change and its association with CO2 and methane emissions – serves as the groundwork upon which deliberations can build.

Recognising the factual basis of issues like climate change allows for a transition to more nuanced discussions about the societal implications of various mitigation strategies. These conversations, while informed by facts, primarily navigate the moral and ideological dimensions of policy choices, weighing the benefits of environmental measures against potential drawbacks, such as economic impact or lifestyle changes. This distinction between factual acknowledgment and ideological debate is crucial for constructive engagement.

In Belgium, citizen assemblies have successfully operated within this framework, managing to deliberate effectively by distinguishing between factual underpinnings and the broader implications of policy decisions. This balance facilitates a space where ideological diversity is explored on a foundation of shared realities, ensuring that debates are both meaningful and informed.

The situation in other contexts, such as the United States, might present additional complexities due to heightened polarisation and disputes over basic truths, potentially complicating the deliberative process. The challenge, therefore, lies not only in fostering agreement on factual premises but also in navigating the ideological divides that such facts underpin, underscoring the delicate interplay between knowledge, values, and policy deliberation in the pursuit of democratic consensus.

Navigating the challenges of implementing deliberative democracy in contexts with complex political climates, such as Hungary or Poland, requires a nuanced understanding of local conditions. Success in one area does not directly translate into a blueprint for all, especially in regions where the political environment may be significantly more constrained.

The key to building deliberative democracy in these tougher contexts might lie in initiating small-scale experiments, whether grassroots or local government-led. These pilot projects can demonstrate the potential of citizen assemblies to produce sensible, actionable recommendations, thereby gradually introducing deliberative processes into the public discourse. Examples include the G1000 initiative in Belgium, which kick-started broader discussions on citizen participation, and various efforts in Bosnia, Albania, and Poland, each adapting the model to their specific circumstances.

In Poland, initiatives like those by the late mayor of Gdańsk highlight how local leadership can influence the narrative around citizen participation.

Ultimately, the adoption and success of deliberative democracy heavily depend on contextual factors, including political will, public perception, and the quality of execution. High-profile endorsements, as seen in France with presidential support, can significantly bolster the legitimacy and impact of deliberative processes. However, in the absence of such top-down endorsement, the accumulation of successful examples and the strategic engagement of diverse stakeholders can gradually build a compelling case for the value of including citizens’ voices in the policymaking process.

Launched amidst Belgium’s record-breaking period without a government in 2011, the G1000 initiative emerged as an innovative venture into deliberative democracy, responding to the public’s increasing disillusionment with conventional political processes. Conceived by citizens led by David von Haeberck, the initiative aimed to catalyse a shift towards more inclusive governance by directly involving citizens in the democratic discourse. The G1000 organized a large-scale citizen summit, where a representative sample of the population, selected through sortition, deliberated on pressing national issues, producing recommendations intended to inform policy decisions. This innovative approach sought to mend the growing rift between citizens and their representatives, highlighting the potential of deliberative democracy to reinvigorate public trust and engagement in democratic institutions. Despite challenges in ensuring the political uptake of its recommendations, the G1000 has had a lasting impact, inspiring similar initiatives worldwide and transitioning into a non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing deliberative practices. The G1000’s legacy underscores the significance of such experiments in participatory governance, demonstrating the capacity of deliberative democracy to offer fresh perspectives on policy making and to enhance the responsiveness of democratic systems to citizen voices. While the direct influence of citizen recommendations on formal policy has varied, the initiative remains a critical reference point in the ongoing exploration of methods to revitalise democratic engagement and bridge the gap between citizens and political structures.

Based on an interview conducted with Ben Eersels (ben.eersels@g1000.org), Executive Director of the G1000 on 7 December 2023.

Website: https://www.g1000.org/en