EU Science Hub

A cultural change: the European Commission embraces citizen engagement

The European Commission moves towards more citizen engagement at the European level.
The European Commission moves towards more citizen engagement at the European level.
Jan 06 2020

The JRC organised the second Citizen Engagement Festival (9-10 December 2019) to strengthen and widen the role of citizen engagement in all phases of policy-making at the European Commission.

The Festival provided a space for thought-provoking discussions about citizen engagement, presented best practices and invited European policy-makers to reflect on the prospects of mainstreaming citizen engagements across the whole policy cycle.

Sixtine Bouygues, Deputy Director-General for Communication said at the Festival that she sees a culture change in how the Commission perceives the value of citizen engagement. Speaking from the institution’s perspective, she told the audience that Commission sees that "it is absolutely vital to have citizens on board, because it’s a matter of trust".

The inclusion of citizen engagement methods into the Commission’s work, what started in 2012 with Citizens’ Dialogues, will make a major step ahead next year with the Conference on the Future of Europe.

This time it won’t be only about politicians, citizens will also have their say at the Conference in a large-scale citizen engagement exercise.

To ensure the success of this exercise, unprecedented on this scale at the European level, Bouygues stressed the importance of a clearly defined scope, transparency of the process and follow up action on what citizens deliberate.

European examples to learn from

The Citizen Engagement Festival demonstrated that several EU member countries show great examples of large-scale citizen engagements.

One of the prime examples is the case of Irish Citizens’ Assemblies, introduced at the Festival by Jane Suiter from Dublin City University.

The assemblies came after the financial crises as a response to citizens’ decreasing trust in politics. In the assemblies, randomly selected citizens discussed issues that matter for Irish citizens, such as marriage equality or abortion.

The organisers ensured that participants represent Irish society and that experts from both sides of the debates provide information for the participants, so that they can deliberate on the base of evidence.

With the help of citizens’ assemblies Ireland could tackle divisive issues. Following the deliberations in citizen assemblies Ireland first voted for marriage equality in a public vote and later another public vote repelled an absolute ban on abortion.

Another example is the case of the French Grand Débat National. The French government started the Grand Débat amid the protests of the yellow vest movement to restore a more peaceful way of dialogue.

People could voice their ideas among other channels through citizen conferences with randomly selected participants, a dedicated online platform, emails and local meetings.

Within the Grand Débat 10,000 meetings and 21 citizens’ conferences with 1,400 randomly selected participants were held, almost 2 million people shared their views on the online platform and 27,000 emails were received from citizens.

The main conclusion of the Grand Débat was that citizens want a focus on ecological transition and they want more of citizen engagement.

As a result, France organised a citizen convention on ecological transition to find way to reduce French greenhouse gas emission by 40% compared to 1990 levels.

Citizens say

The Citizen Engagement Festival also invited citizens participating in local civic initiatives to share their experiences about citizen engagement.

Ine Plovie from Bruges, Belgium participated in a Flemish citizen science project, in which 20,000 citizens measured air quality near their houses.

She said that she decided to join the initiative to do something for the community and that afterwards in the project she really enjoyed the team spirit what developed between the participants.

Paco Roda from the Canary Islands said that he joined Dry Walks – Tenerife, a local citizen engagement initiative, to contribute and to be part of the solution.

From his engagement he learnt that one needs a lot of patience with politicians in such a project, but also a lot of patience with people.

JRC develops new citizen engagement inventory

A new JRC website was also introduced at the Festival which aims to collect and store knowledge on citizen engagement in an easily accessible, collaborative and well searchable format.

The website is an inventory for citizen engagement’s practices, projects and organisations within the Commission and from EU Member States.

After the website goes online in the end of January, policy-makers and citizens will have a practical and accessible new tool to further strengthen the role of citizen engagement in politics and policy-making across Europe.