10 / 2001
The "Citizens’ Panel" is a new type of public debate that has already been organized in countries such as Germany, Denmark, Spain, France and Switzerland and, for the first time, in Belgium in 2001.
The Citizens’ Panel is a method for debating complex issues such as the environment, sustainable development, bioethics, etc.
In practice, a group of citizens is chosen at random to give its opinion on an issue of public interest. This opinion is supposed to be taken into account during parliamentary debates and decision-making related to the subject in question. In order to give a considered and well-argued opinion, the panel, composed of citizens with no prior expertise in the subject, informs and educates itself as well as possible by meeting different resource people.
This new type of popular consultation was started in early 2001 in the Wallon region of Brabant, Belgium. The subject dealt with was territorial development. The action was sponsored by the Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Energy and the Ministry of Territorial Development, the Environment and Urbanism and focused on a proposal made by the Foundation for Future Generations, a non-profit association that coordinated and organized the process. The Maison de l’Urbanisme also contributed to the process. According to the two Ministries, the aim of the experiment was to "bring the authorities to listen to the community" and "practice participatory democracy". The project’s initiators consider that it could be incorporated in new procedures for territorial development and make public enquiries less cumbersome.
The revision of land use plans is currently underway in Belgium. The Belgian government considers that these plans (21 in the region of Wallonia) that date back twenty years, should be revised, since they no longer satisfy the social, economic and environmental needs of today. They cannot be used to optimize choices related to the installation of companies, the extension of new residential areas or the protection of areas of ecological interest. Thus the stakes are high for the south of the country and especially for Brabant, with its dense urban and economic fabric under pressure due to the extension of industrial areas and a growing population.
Preparations for this popular consultation process began in September 2000 while the process itself took place from March to May 2001. A budget of BF4 million (about ?99.000) was provided for the operation by the two Ministries.
The "citizens’ panel" organized for the occasion was composed of 62 people chosen from those that had answered positively to phone calls inviting them to participate. They were recruited by an opinion poll company that contacted nearly 3,300 people by phone. At least 130 contacts were made out of the 1,300 genuine discussions that were held. Lots were drawn, resulting in a representative group in terms of sex, age, socio-professional background and the three sub-regions of Wallon Brabant. They were a group of non-specialists, half of which had not received further education.
The participants were invited to give their opinions in the form of "guiding principles" on the revision of the land use plans for the future development of the region.
The members of the panel gathered for three consecutive days by sub-region and were given courses in subjects related to sustainable development, economic development, mobility and territorial development. Each module consisted of exposés and practical work, such as group discussions, voting, simulations and role plays. In the territorial development module, the panel members were invited to propose modifications to the land use plans of an imaginary village and make choices and proposals in the form of principles ("low rent housing should be integrated in the village or district to prevent ghettos from forming", etc.).
At the end of the first three days, the panels were invited to select people and institutions capable of providing them with further information. Thus some 35 people were called on to join the panel: representatives from the business world, unions and environmental associations (Federation of Farmers, Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Christian Workers Movement, League of Families, "Inter-Environnement Wallonie", etc.).
During the following step, the participants were invited to vote individually on a questionnaire that grouped the principles (identified during the imaginary village exercise and during the meetings with representatives from different sectors of society) and select the best proposals from those selected during the previous steps.
An assistant-secretary, present from the beginning of the process, used these results to write and submit a draft text to an editorial committee composed of delegates chosen by the panel members. Once reformulated, the text was sent to all the panel members for amendment. 22 articles were amended and examined before the final text was approved.
The definitive text containing the opinion of the panel was sent to the two Ministries, which undertook to take into account the comments and observations while reserving the right to make the choices they judged necessary, with the responsibility they incur.
Failure by the participants to reach consensus during the process was rare and when it did occur, principles were adopted by majority voting.
The advantage of this type of project is above all the possibility of giving the ordinary citizen his or her role, place and right - by definition - to participate in the decision-making process. Experiences of this type carried out up to now show that participants are proud to have been consulted, given their opinion and participated in decision-making. Also involved is the task of educating these non-specialized adults participating in the panel. This entails initiation in learning about the concepts and data related to the issue in question and dealing with complex subjects where the stakes involve the interaction of economic, environmental and socio-political factors. Thus, the members of this Belgian panel expressed their awareness of the limits of the opinion they gave, in particular because they saw that the time devoted to consultation was inadequate to deal in-depth with the complex issues of territorial development. However, this initiation made them want to learn more. In addition, the educational role of this experiment also highlighted an attitude of increased responsibility with respect to the management of public issues and leads to hope that the participants will continue to feel as responsible in their daily lives. This experience also raises the question of the specific and vital role that lifelong education organizations can play in the public consultation process.
The panel members expressed great satisfaction with the experience:
"We would like to express our satisfaction at the end of this first citizens’ panel. Despite certain constraints inherent to its newness, we were happy to have been considered as actors in and not of life in the city. The panel made us want to know more, to feel more a part of a region that should have been ours a long time ago. It proves the advantage of an approach based on building knowledge to make responsible decisions and it should go further than simply choosing representatives at elections.
At the beginning we were either motivated or curious but we came so hungry for information that our coordinators sometimes found it difficult to cope with all this energy and desire for responsible participation. We thank them for giving us the opportunity to live this experience and we would also like to thank the politicians that supported these meetings and hope that they will repeat it."
The panel members were remunerated with a small sum for their participation.
This text was written by Yolanda Ziaka on the basis of documents provided by Mr. Hans Harms, sociologist and coordinator of the Citizens’ Panel in Spain. He has also described the basic principles and operation of this method of popular consultation in his article entitled "Community participation: a tool for Environmental Education", published in the book "Environmental Education for the 21st century (Polis-RIEE, 2000).
POLIS-RIEE (Réseau international en Education à l'Environnement) - BP4, 84100 Ermoupolis, GRECE - Tel.: 30 / 22810 / 87804 - Fax : 30-281-87840 - Greece - polis (@) otenet.gr