Book tip by Petra de Boer:
It is up to citizens to solve the greatest challenges of our time. That is the appeal of Eva Rovers to the Netherlands with her booklet ‘Now it’s up to us, call for real democracy’.
Booklet? Yes, it is literally a small handy little book. 184 postcard size pages. You can read it in one or two evenings. And then you are a lot wiser about why citizens should have a much more active role in our democracy and what it takes to realize that.
Citizen convention for sensitive issues
Rovers argues in favor of organizing citizens conventions on sensitive issues when society gets stuck; difficult dilemmas with often divergent interests and complex considerations. Major issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, housing shortage and institutional racism, with potential consequences for all of us.
What exactly is a citizen convention?
In Rovers’ words:
“In a citizens’ convention, a group of residents drawn by lot considers a complex social challenge. They are thoroughly informed by experts and people with experience and together they look for solutions that serve the common good. They do this by thinking out loud together, or with a fancy word ‘deliberating’.”
I can only endorse Rovers’ plea for dialogue and deliberation. Exactly ten years ago I wrote an essay about this in response to a call from the National Ombudsman and newspaper NRC about how to improve the relationship between government and citizens. Debate tends to focus on differences and on convincing each other of your point of view. That quickly ends up in a ‘war of opinions’ with more losers than winners. In a dialogue you exchange knowledge, values and perspectives. The focus is on communality, or as the Americans call it common ground, to design solutions and actions from there.
What does it bring?
The OECD has collected hundreds of examples showing that citizen deliberations can come up with viable recommendations on complex or precarious topics within months. Topics that politicians now get stuck on, so that they gradually develop into ungovernable crises.
Politicians today seem to be mainly guided by the issues of the day and party-political interests. After all, the next election is never far away. Rovers cites Michael MacKenzie who argues that residents are independent and can therefore have a greater eye for the common interest and that of future generations.
In the dialogue processes that we facilitate at Perspectivity, we regularly see that when diverse stakeholders come together around a shared interest, people not only learn to understand each other in dialogue, but that it also creates mutual understanding for other people’s situation and their perspective. This in turn leads to new insights and unconventional solutions that none of those involved could have come up with by themselves.
The Netherlands is lagging behind
Rovers lists numerous examples of successful – and not so successful – citizen deliberations around the world and describes some of them in detail. About the abortion legislation in Ireland (2016/2017), the French Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat (2021), and the permanent citizen deliberation in German-speaking Belgium (since 2019). The Netherlands was one of the first countries to have a citizens’ forum on a new electoral system for the House of Representatives (2006), an initiative of the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Pechtold. However, when the report was ready, the government had also fallen, and the new cabinet ignored the results.
Think before you start
And that brings me to the most valuable part of Rover’s book for me, namely the preconditions and principles for a successful public consultation. No matter how good your intentions are, the pitfalls are many and inexorable.
One of those crucial conditions is political commitment and clarity in advance about how the results will be embedded in the democratic decision making process. If this condition is not met, there is a huge risk that the recommendations will die a quiet death and trust in democracy will only be further undermined.
Because the most important condition according to Rovers is: “Politicians who trust citizens. A government that is curious about the knowledge, experience, concerns and needs of its residents, and that dares to ask for help.” I couldn’t agree with her more. If politicians – and the government in the broadest sense – dare to give that confidence, it is a crucial first step in narrowing the gap between citizens and politics.
A citizen convention is not the solution for all political hot topics in the Netherlands or anywhere in the world. In fact, there are many more participatory processes – large and small – that may be more appropriate depending on the issue at hand. But the underlying principles and conditions that Rovers describes should be taken seriously by anyone who wants to organize a participatory process.
More information about participatory dialogue processes, contact Petra de Boer.