Innovating democracy

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Democracy in Belgium – and it seems, everywhere else in the world – needs innovation.

The King Baudouin Foundation initiated several projects with the aim to look for ways to invigorate democracy in Belgium. FutureLab Europe, a program for outstanding young professionals from different EU- and non-member states who want to play an active role in discussing the future of the European project, debated with the Friday group, a group of young and committed Belgians, on the challenges of tomorrow. The workshop participants formed mixed Innovation Forces and worked together on innovative ideas to revitalize Belgium´s democracy, resulting in three concrete ideas:

Migrants and the elderly

Both the aging society and immigrant issues have been hot topics in Belgium. Between them, these communities have a wide range of possible perspectives on society and have particularly unique views on the weaknesses in the Belgian political and social fabric. In their exchange of opinions on democratic participation, policy makers could detect pressure points and opportunities for change towards a better climate in society.

Together with Belgian partners and experts, this Innovation Force aims to create a framework for a meeting between elderly people and migrants where they can talk about topics related to democracy, from rights and obligations to active participation in the community.

We approach this project having no illusions about the difficulties of the task at hand, but also with an awareness of the hidden commonalities that live beneath the surface. In feeling victimised, in being dependent on greater society, in having experienced the rugged edge of democracy and in sensing the need for it to be preserved, these two groups may find each other.

Citizen Education and Empowerment

Modern democracies are faced with voter apathy going hand in hand with feelings of powerlessness or even helplessness. Supporting active citizenship, equal opportunities and social cohesion were mentioned as goals for the next decade in the Lisbon Treaty signed in 2007, as part of an overall objective to transform the European Union into the “most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world.”[1]

What is necessary to achieve those goals?
Citizenship education becomes a fundamental element in tackling these problems. But more than a decade after the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, education about the institutional make-up of Europe is scarce to non-existent in most countries, or when present, not engaging enough for schoolchildren.

What do we propose?
Adapting the educational curriculum or implementing a proper public scheme of citizenship education in every school, particularly in countries with different language communities, is a very delicate and challenging course of action, not to mention very costly for the parties involved. We therefore propose to create a scheme of civic education that relies on private participation from civic society and the business world. This means not only getting as much private funding as possible, but also involving NGOs, experts, university students and companies’ personnel in teaching and organising projects on active citizenship. The scheme will include not only elements of ‘passive’ education, but also other ways in which schoolchildren can be actively engaged in changing their surroundings.

Public by default

‘Public by default’ is the basic principle that says that in a democracy, everything the government and its representatives do should be made public. Currently, representatives and civil servants have perverse incentives to use their authority to classify documents as confidential. Errors, corruption or broken promises can be hidden from the public, even though the public should be in control of the final checks and balances in a democracy.

Making all government data accessible to the public will result in more transparency and a better representation of citizens. Publishing this data in a machine-readable format and by default will also reduce the costs of FOI-legislation and create positive externalities for innovation. The privacy of individuals should of course be respected. But the government’s work is by and for the people.

Follow-up and conclusion

The three presented proposals, ‘Migrants and the Elderly’, ’Citizenship education and Empowerment’ and ‘Public by default’ will be fleshed out in the following months. By the end of spring 2015, each project will have published a policy recommendation paper based on the findings of extensive research. These policy recommendation papers will then be presented to politicians and other relevant stakeholders in Belgium.

However, the results are not meant to be limited to a single nation. We hope that the results and policy recommendations will be universally applicable to any democracy in the world.

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[1]: Marga de Weerd et al., „Indicators for monitoring active citizenship and citizenship education.“ (European Commission / DG EAC, 2005). http://ec.europa.eu/education/more-information/doc/citizenship_en.pdf, p. 1.


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