Six reasons to combine a citizens' forum with a Participative Value Evaluation
On 4 July, Minister Rob Jetten announced that the cabinet wants to organize a national citizens' forum on climate policy in the spring of 2023. In a letter to parliament about what the contours of the national energy system will look like, he indicated that he wanted to explore whether a citizens' forum could be part of the process to arrive at a picture of the energy system in 2050. In the same letter to parliament, Minister Jetten indicated that the Cabinet wants to give citizens influence on the implementation of the national energy system plan and the Energy Main Structure Program through a Participative Value Evaluation (PVE). What are the reasons for combining a citizen forum and PVE?
The Participative Value Evaluation and the citizens' forum both have their strengths. In practice (in Sudwest-Fryslan, Gelderland and Foodvalley) both instruments are used in conjunction because they can reinforce each other for six reasons.
1) Citizens' forum members want to represent their fellow citizens well
In our experience, most citizens' forum members feel the need to base their advice partly on the preferences of fellow citizens. They take their job seriously and want their advice to be in line with the values and preferences of society. In the citizens' forums in Ireland and France on climate policy, it was decided to give citizens the opportunity to write an opinion for the citizens' forum. 3,400 French and 1,200 Irish wrote advice to these climate citizen forums. But can you expect citizens' forum members to read all of this advice? They are already busy with the experts who come to visit and the consultation they have with each other. Practice shows that these recommendations are hardly read or not at all. Independent observers of the French Citizens' Forum therefore called engaging the general public through letter writing "pointless". It is therefore important to obtain structured information about values, preferences and concerns of citizens and the PVE is an extremely suitable instrument for this. A PVE collects structured input because participants give advice from the same framework, so that the advice can be summarized well for the citizens' forum. In Sudwest-Fryslan and Foodvalley we collected input from the general public in a structured way with a PVE and the input was very useful for the members of the citizens' forum. Citizens' forum members were happy to start off with a solid foundation.
2) Citizens who are not drawn in the citizen forum can also contribute ideas
A PVE that we recently conducted about involving citizens in decision-making around Schiphol showed that 30% of the participants themselves want to be involved in government decisions that have a major impact on their daily lives. Not all Dutch people are fine with being involved only through a representative (members of a citizens' forum, a residents' representative or a people's representative). Many Dutch people would like to be able to think along personally. If you do not carefully involve citizens in decisions about wind farms, shifting escape routes, placing asylum seekers' centres, etc., a group of citizens will experience this as very unjust because they were unable to think along about solutions, alternatives, considerations, etc. This leads to feelings of powerlessness and protest. Confidence in government is taking a hit. A citizens' forum meets this need to a limited extent, because only a limited number of people can participate in a citizens' forum. But if you combine a PVE with a citizen forum you solve this. A PVE is clearly in line with the participation needs of citizens, given the large number of participants in the PVEs on climate policy and corona policy.
3) Higher percentage of low-skilled people registers for the citizens' forum in combination with a PVE
A point of criticism on citizen forums is that the group of participants is not representative of society. In G1000 programs in Amersfoort, Kruiskamp and Groningen, the proportion of participants with a higher education was 77%, 85% and 77% respectively (Binnema & Michels, 2016). A clear overrepresentation as only about 30% of the Dutch have a higher education. Questions were also raised about the representativeness of the participants at the Amsterdam mini-citizen council. Journalist Zoelen van het Parool, for example, wrote: “Furthermore, the question is how representative the citizens' deliberations were. The participants were indeed selected by drawing lots among all Amsterdammers, but by no means everyone accepted the invitation. Not all population groups were therefore equally well represented, admits Brenninkmeijer. “The mix could have been more diverse.” You cannot say that a photo of the civil deliberation corresponds one-on-one with a cross-section of the population of Amsterdam.” Journalist van Bemmel van de Volkskrant made the following observations: “The question arises: how representative is the group that is allowed to make such major decisions? View the windows during a Zoom session with 107 participants and you will only see a single Amsterdammer with a tan.”
Why is it difficult to ensure that citizens' forum participants are a representative reflection of society? One possible explanation is that citizens' forum designers are often highly educated themselves and opt for a design that fits well with their own needs. For example, if you give a citizens' forum a lot of autonomy to determine the question or if you opt for a broad and abstract question such as designing the entire climate policy of a municipality or even a country, this ties in with the needs of highly educated citizens who are well-educated able to think and deal with autonomy. A second statement comes from Christine Bleijenberg of The Hague University of Applied Sciences. She compares an invitation to a citizens' forum with an invitation to a party where you don't know anyone and where you don't know the host (the government) and maybe even have bad experiences with it. People with a lot of trust in the government and knowledge about how the government works (often highly educated people) are more likely to accept an invitation. The Belgian researcher Jacquet (2017) shows that one reason citizens give for not participating in a citizens' forum is that some people are not comfortable with the idea of talking to strangers about topics on which you may have strong differences of opinion. .
In Gelderland we chose to first do a PVE consultation. At the end of the consultation, people can register for the citizens' forum. We see that the number of low-skilled tenderers is high. We don't know exactly how this happened. A possible explanation is that low-educated citizens rate their participation in the PVE positively. They think it's a nice way to pass on their preferences. Another possible reason could be that the invitation to the party has already become more familiar, because you will meet citizens who participated in the consultation just like you. A third possible reason could be that people have already participated in a consultation for 20 minutes. Because people have already invested time, there may be a greater tendency to participate in the second step in the participation process: the citizens' forum.
4) Politicians have more confidence in a participatory process in which the general public can participate in a careful manner.
In practice, politicians have various doubts about the extent to which they should trust the recommendations of a citizens' forum. Highly educated people are overrepresented in many citizen forums. Are the results of such a process representative enough? It follows from the literature that experts, organizers and lobbyists can have an enormous influence on the recommendations of a citizens' forum. As a result, politicians wonder whether the citizens' forum from which they receive advice has also been subject to undesired influence. It follows from the literature that citizens also doubt the legitimacy of a citizens' forum. Research by den Ridder et al. (2021) shows that 20% of the Dutch are in favor of a democracy in which as many decisions as possible are taken after advice from a citizens' forum. 25% of the participants think that a citizens' forum can make a good judgment about political decisions and 27% think that the political advice of a citizens' forum should be adopted. It follows from an earlier study that 5% – 10% of the Dutch support lottery as the basis of a democracy (Jacobs, 2017).
An evaluation of the participation process in Súdwest-Fryslân showed that politicians trusted the recommendations more because they were partly based on a PVE consultation in which a large number of citizens had participated. Jacobs (2021) also indicates that online tools are not only a low-threshold way to obtain input from the wider society, but that they are also an excellent way to increase the legitimacy of a citizens' forum, because they give the broad Dutch population the opportunity to to provide input. Jacobs points to Iceland where a combination of a citizens' forum with online tools was used to ensure a widely supported process.
5) A PVE doesn't make decisions, a citizen forum does
A PVE describes the preferences, values and concerns of different groups of citizens. This provides politicians with information about the policy options that are and are not considered desirable by citizens and why this is the case. In doing so, the researchers establish (common) values and how these values should be translated into policy according to citizens. But the researchers are not making decisions for policymakers. A strong point of a citizens' forum is that decisions can be made where politicians cannot. Citizens listen to each other's opinions and try to reach agreement (partly on the basis of the results of the PVE). A good example is the Irish Citizens' Forum on same-sex marriage and abortion. No solution could be found by the usual political route because politicians did not want to take a step for fear of losing face. A citizens' forum provided a breakthrough here.
6) The PVE ensures that policymakers can already think about how citizens' input can be used before the recommendations of the Citizens' Forum are known
A risk of participation processes in general and citizen forums in particular is that in the end nothing is done with the results by politicians and policymakers. The disappointment is then great. Citizens' forum members have invested a lot of time in formulating recommendations, and they feel it has been in vain. A logical explanation that this is still happening is that policymakers need time to think about how recommendations from citizen forums can be incorporated into policy. If there is insufficient urgency or an unexpected development (a crisis or elections), the follow-up to the recommendation of the citizens' forum can be watered down. The advantage of a preparatory PVE is that the final report already yields a number of concrete final results of citizen input even before the results of the citizens' forum are known. This enables policymakers to think at an early stage about any policy adjustments that could follow from the citizens' forum.