Ines Piersma and Elsbeth Bembom | 19 December
The REGROUP mini-publics as seen by participants
Mini-publics are an important and innovative part of our project. As part of work package 4 led by the University of Groningen, in the past months we have invited around 80 citizens from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Italy to participate in five national mini-publics, and share how they experienced the pandemic and how they perceive political trust, the circulation of scientific knowledge, disinformation, and the role of unelected experts in post-pandemic governance. Taken together, discussions within these five mini-publics resulted in over 40 concrete policy recommendations based on national considerations. These recommendations can now be read in our recently published reports.
In this article, we reflect on how several REGROUP mini-public participants look back on this experience. We asked them: 1) what motivated them to participate 2) what was most memorable about their mini-public, and 3) how they hope their input will be used.
What motivated participants?
When asked what initially sparked their interest in the REGROUP mini-public experiment,. a recurring theme emerged among participants: the allure and novelty of our initiative. Many expressed being intrigued by the possibility to engage in public policy-making:
‘I tend to think that it is thanks to the strength of the collective that we can achieve great things […] Participating in a jury is also an opportunity to simply learn new things: It’s a source of motivation for me.’ – Participant, French mini-public.
‘When I saw the ads for this project, I immediately wanted to participate, so I could see for myself how deliberative democracy worked.’ – Participant, Dutch mini-public.
‘I participated in the citizens’ jury out of curiosity and civic duty, I believe in public participation on social issues. – Participant, Italian mini-public.
‘This was […] the first time I heard about such an activity […] outside of parliament or political parties. […] As a fresh immigrant, the jury was an opportunity for me to get out of my comfort zone and test my capacity to debate in a foreign language.’ – Participant, French mini-public.
Participating in the mini-public did not only provide citizens with an opportunity to learn about how the pandemic was experienced by others, but it was also a means to include their voices more tangibly into the political sphere.
‘It is always nice to be able and allowed to express your opinion. It is a free country so I like to take advantage of that.’ – Participant, Dutch mini-public.
‘In a time of increasing disenchantment with politics […], it seemed appropriate to try out and demonstrate new possibilities for participation, even if they initially seem purely academic.’ – Participant, German mini-public.
When asked about the most memorable moments in the two days of deliberation, participants’ responses took on a more personal tone. Interestingly, similar sentiments emerged in several answers.
‘Finding not only respect for my ideas from other participants, but that the things I said resonated with them. It made me feel less alone’ – Participant, Dutch mini-public.
‘Exchanging with people with beliefs and opinions different from my own was a captivating and very enriching experience. Being able to express oneself freely and be listened to seriously, I consider it a real opportunity.’ – Participant, French mini-public.
‘I best remember the coffee breaks when we joked with the rest of the participants [..].’ – Participant, Polish mini-public.
The focal point, for many participants, was the vibrant discussions with their peers. Yet, others mentioned the challenges for a diverse group of people to come up with a single set of policy recommendations. This, in turn, highlighted the tensions between, on the one hand, contributing one’s own ideas to the discussion, and on the other the necessity of making compromises that reflect the different opinions within the group. All this underscored the nature of collaborative decision-making and the delicate balance between individual expression and collective consensus.
‘The group of citizens, despite all differences, appeared willing to reach a consensus, even if personal priorities had to stand back.’ – Participant, German mini-public.
‘Putting a group of people together, not knowing each other and still having a vision come together […], that we had created something.’ – Participant, Dutch mini-public.
How participants hope their input will be used
Finally, responding to the question of how they hope their input would be used, all surveyed several participants mentioned the aspiration to contribute to a better informed society, and to increasing transparency in policy-making processes. They were not only eager to contribute at the national level, but also to a broader European dialogue.
‘I hope that the ideas that we have developed will be considered in the EU’s decision-making bodies and that there will be an appropriate discussion on them.’ – Participant, Polish mini-public.
‘I hope the outcome shows the institutions, the problems perceived by the average citizens and that this input will be valued and considered by specific expert authorities.’ – Participant, Italian mini-public.
In contrast, others took a more critical stance, expressing the limits of their impact on the political sphere. Instead, they see greater potential for channelling their insights into the process and results of REGROUP research, and only indirectly into national and European policies.
‘I hope our ideas will be taken into consideration, I would like them to contribute to the final document [the REGROUP research paper].’ – Participant, French mini-public.
‘What I am […] enthusiastic about is being part of a scientific study into new forms of democracy and I really hope that the data we’ve produced in these sessions will become useful to researchers.’ – Participant, Dutch mini-public.
Additionally, some participants called for more opportunities for mini-publics, emphasising the importance of ongoing and expanded avenues for public participation in shaping the decision-making landscape.
‘I hope that the process itself will set a precedent and that similar bodies with real influence will be established on different political levels.’ – Participant, German mini-public.
Overall, by actively participating in the REGROUP mini-publics, these citizens aimed to be catalysts for change, ensuring that the collective voice of citizens reverberates within the broader political and scientific community.
As our five national mini-publics are completed, and their respective reports published, the REGROUP team prepares the next step, namely: the transnational mini-public, to be held at the European Policy Centre in March 2024. Four participants from each of the national mini-public will meet again in Brussels to continue exchanging ideas on (post-)pandemic politics and governance, with a view to producing policy recommendations that can be implemented at the European level. Stay tuned!