A study on political engagement in Belgium
Follow-up research on finding alternative ways for citizens to participate in political decision-making
Voting is just one of the ways that citizens have of taking action. Although parliamentary democracy remains the cornerstone of our society, there are numerous other forms of public and citizen participation that keep democracy alive. A new study from VUB, ULB, at the request of itsme®, lists all of these initiatives and provides recommendations for increasing the involvement of the citizen in the political decision-making process.
To what extent are Belgians involved in voting and wider political decision-making? Besides the voting booth itself, what are the alternatives for involving citizens in public policy development? That is the subject of a two-part academic study conducted by the Political Science Department (POLI) at VUB and ULB’s Centre for the Study of Political Practice (Cevipol). The research is supported by the identity app itsme®, which is the access key to the online services of the government (and many private partners).
Part One 2021
Part One of the study about political engagement appeared in October 2021. In it, VUB and ULB investigated people’s motivation for voting, or not. According to the latest estimates, 17% of Belgian voters give election day a miss, and either not vote at all, or vote invalidly – despite the country’s compulsory voting requirement. The reasons for this vary from purely practical obstacles to casting a vote and sociological factors, to carefully considered ideological choices.
The researchers came up with solutions for getting more people to the polls, both in the short and long term. These proposals include more public education programmes, the development of online voting tests, more direct contact with elected representatives, better representation of minority groups, making the voting process simpler and voting online.
In the longer term, the researchers also highlighted the need to promote political participation outside elections. Instruments such as petitions can ensure that citizens have a greater say in things, which in turn can lead to greater transparency in the decision-making process. In this sense, they help to restore the link between politics and citizens, which helps to combat the root causes of voting abstention.
Part Two 2023
Part Two of the study by VUB, ULB and itsme®, which appeared this year, delves more deeply into this theme. The study provides a detailed overview of all the possible tools that could be used to encourage citizen participation that are being developed within the Belgian political system.
A study about civic participation without political participation would make little sense. Which is why this new section of the study has already been circulated to political parties for information and to prompt their reaction. Some political personalities and parties have therefore already been invited to share their feedback to the findings.
Despite the growing importance of citizen participation, it appears that participatory democracy should not be considered a panacea for increasing public involvement in political decision-making. First of all, analysis of the legal framework shows that there are not many institutionalised mechanisms for citizen participation in place today.
In addition, it also appears to be difficult to engage certain citizens in the participatory democracy process and, not surprisingly, these are often the same citizens who do not vote. Geographical distance is one factor that can make it difficult to participate in elections, as can the time needed to go and vote. There are plenty of individual barriers that can also be listed, too, including people having a low level of digital skills, or speaking a different mother tongue or simply not being familiar with institutional spaces such as parliaments or municipal councils. Some individuals also think they are not qualified to express their opinions and therefore do not participate in elections. This self-disqualification is one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome.
Furthermore, there are many organisational pitfalls that can prevent these participation mechanisms from finding their rightful place in our institutional systems. For instance, the majority of participation processes seldom result in practical recommendations, and so there is little room for evaluation and feedback afterwards.
Lastly, it also appears that few civic initiatives include a digital component. This would appear to be counterintuitive, because digitisation can be an interesting way of engaging more people and, better still, the technology to do so is already available. Digital technologies create opportunities to share information directly with each other in a virtual space. In other words, technology provides the opportunity to overcome the barriers of time or distance. And perhaps people would also become more politically engaged more often anyway if their participation in elections could be digital.
Part Two of the study by VUB, ULB and itsme® concludes that there is still a great deal of improvement possible in the area of citizen participation in Belgium. There is no clear legal framework or calibrated vocabulary relating to participation – in fact the terms ‘recommendation’ and ‘proposal’ are confusing enough in themselves. This leads to the risk of citizens being critical about the voting process, not going to the polls or simply showing a lack of support. Indeed, their expectations tend to be influenced by vague and varied designations that are difficult to translate into practical implications. The report provides a summary of best practices that government authorities could apply. Among other things, communication and transparency emerge as being decisive factors for the success of any citizen participation initiatives.
In addition, there are numerous other forms of incentive that might encourage people to participate in the process. These include: reimbursing any expenses incurred in voting, using a vocabulary that people can better understand, engaging in inclusive communication, making online participation processes a priority – and so on.
The use of digital participation tools or e-participation might improve exchanges and in doing so improve engagement between governments and the voting public. And a widely supported app, such as itsme®, could certainly play a role here.
Almost 7 million Belgians – that’s over 85% of the adult population – have already created an itsme® account: so the reach it provides is very high. Using itsme® would give voters a secure and easy way of identifying themselves, which in turn would make it simpler for them to take part in citizen participation processes. In doing so and through itsme®, voters would be able to have their voice heard remotely, via their own computer, tablet or smartphone. This can be done entirely anonymously, too: by logging in with itsme®, the voter’s identity can be guaranteed, albeit without linking this identity to the vote itself. The online voting platform, which is in no way linked to itsme®, records the person’s voting choice completely anonymously. Integrating this digital component would be designed to encourage more citizens to cast their vote on political issues.
Since Part One of the study was released, itsme® has already taken additional steps to make e-participation more accessible. These include making the app open to 16 and 17-year-olds. These would be young voters will have to register to vote in the 2024 European elections. The platform for young people who want to vote in this European ballot has already been opened since 1st May 2023, which means that they can use itsme® to log on and register.
In June 2024, Belgians will once again be going to the polls to elect their federal, regional and European representatives. And on the second Sunday of October, they will be able to vote for new municipal and provincial councils. All of which means there is a great deal to play for... In that respect, this study is fascinating because it demonstrates that remedies do exist for the waning relationship between voters and politics.
The study provides possible solutions for overcoming the current difficulties of getting people to participate in the democratic process in Belgium. At the same time, the two-part study also proves that there is no magic formula that solves the problem. Only the combination of various solutions and proposals will take our democracy forward and help restore confidence in our institutions and our elected representatives.