By Ted Wachtel
Ostbelgien, the German-speaking, eastern-most region of Belgium, has a population of 77,000, a parliament, and a flag. Its parliament is the first in the world to formally integrate citizens’ assemblies into its legislative process.
While European countries, such as Ireland, Scotland, and France, have recently employed citizens’ assemblies to recommend public policy — none of these assemblies are permanent, nor are legislators required to heed their recommendations. In Ostbelgien, however, randomly selected citizens now comprise a legally established permanent council that sets legislative priorities and initiates and convenes small citizen panels to propose legislation and review legislation before it becomes law.
There’s no other legislature on earth that’s giving ordinary citizens that much say. Of most significance is that the legislators have legally obligated themselves to organize two hearings with the assembly’s participants and then to respond to their recommendations.
The direct involvement of citizens in setting policy helps politicians out of their basic bind: choosing between their desire to get re-elected and their moral obligation to seek the truth. As a veteran lobbyist once quipped: “Politicians would like to do the right thing, if only they could get away with it.”
That’s where delegating authority to the amateurs, the ordinary citizens has a great advantage. When selected by sortition — the random selection process used to choose juries — the delegates to the assembly can deliberate honestly and openly because they have no political debts to pay.
Research from deliberative assemblies around the world demonstrates that ordinary citizens can perform their role remarkably well.
Just launched in 2019, the Ostbelgian experiment is a unique model, designed by a group of 14 international experts brought together by G1000, Belgium’s leading platform for democratic innovation. All of them believe the so-called Ostbelgien Model can be scaled up and replicated in other countries to respond to ever more vocal, and critical, citizens.
Yves Dejaeghere, one of the designers, explained in more detail in an interview:
“The Ostbelgien Model combines a permanent representative deliberative body (the Citizens’ Council) with the ongoing use of ad hoc deliberative processes (Citizens’ Panels), whose recommendations go on to parliamentary debate.
The Citizens’ Council consists of 24 randomly selected citizens with a one-and-a-half year mandate. It has agenda-setting power, initiating up to three ad hoc Citizens’ Panels on the most pressing policy issues of its choice.
Each Citizens’ Panel is comprised of 25 to 50 randomly selected citizens, representative of the Ostbelgien population, who meet at least three times over three months.
The regional parliament is required to debate and respond to the recommendations developed by the Citizens’ Panels.”
Individuals and groups from the general public may submit proposals for the Citizens’ Panels. In the first year:
“Around 20 proposals were received. Those that were within the scope of the regional government were published for citizens to vote on, and two that received the support of at least 100 citizens were discussed. One of them was selected for the first ad hoc Citizens’ Panel. It shows that the community was ready to take part in the process.
The next step will be an ad hoc Citizens’ Panel on the working conditions of healthcare workers, which has started this spring  but is now postponed due to the global health crisis. The issue chosen by the citizens is also very salient in light of the current pandemic!”
Can you imagine? It’s like when people stopped believing in the divine rights of kings and queens. Citizens’ assembly and sortition have actually been implemented in a legislature. A worthy and adaptable experiment.
Yes, Ostbelgien has one of the smallest legislatures in the world — but all of the world should be paying close attention.