Written for IAF magazine
In 2013, the book ‘Tegen verkiezingen’ (Against elections) was published by David van Reybrouck. The title is intriguing and provocative: How can one be against elections? Elections are a democratic right and some say even a moral duty. Van Reybroek hits a taboo and is, according to critics, changing democracy into a lottery. Based on his study of democratic renewal, from the first democracies until now, he rediscovered the drawing of lots as a method to achieve a ‘fair’ decision making process. Inspired by this idea in Amersfoort, at the initiative of residents, 6000 citizens were invited through drawing of lots to register for the G1000Amersfoort on March 22nd, 2014. 350 Citizens accepted the invitation and voted for an agenda for the period 2014-2018, which they formulated together with 40 employers, 40 artists, 45 politicians, 45 civil servants and 80 table secretaries.
In The Netherlands the feast of local democracy has turned bleak in recent decades. Local politics has become something for a small group of die-hards rowing against the tide. Elections ask for sharp debates, endlessly rehearsed one-liners, issues and leaders. Maybe that’s why many people do not feel connected. In current society there is much more need for connection, dialogue, content and participatory decision-making. Indeed, there are plenty of tools available to shape democracies’ renewal. And it’s not just about the Internet and social media. Methods of participatory decision-making and dialogue have been developed by the American Institute of Cultural Affairs, The World Cafe, Open Space, and the so-called large group interventions for almost 30 years. These techniques give participants the chance to contribute actively to an event. Afterwards they feel ownership of the result.
The organization of the G1000 Amersfoort was based on three pillars. First there was the campaign to attract citizens and stakeholders, secondly there was the logistics of the day itself and thirdly the facilitation process. The first two followed the lines of active campaigning and organization of big events. What was very special was the fact that G1000 Amersfoort had no formal organization. Everything was organized, within three months, by a network of local citizens, companies and supported by the local authorities, making the best use of their personal and social capital. Starting with one person with a dream and ending at the day itself with 200 volunteers.
A special group worked on the facilitation plan for the day. Harm van Dijk was the central moderator. Harm was supported by two ‘directors’, acting as timekeepers and troubleshooters. The hall, a former repair station for trains, was divided into eight squares. At 9.00, 600 participants sat in six squares. The remaining two squares were filled with observers from several countries. That marked the start of the 3-round Town Café, 120 tables with 5 participants each, 20 tables per square. The first question was projected on three giant screens: “What do you think is important for Amersfoort for the next four years”. After 20 minutes, all participants were asked to type one word in a kind of login frame on a website on their smart phone. The word had to be connected to the dialogue they just finished and the question asked. The words were ‘drawn’ towards the screens, on which a giant word cloud appeared and changed during the voting.
After all the votes were processed, some words, typed many times, were big and some very small. The participants had defined their first themes of the day. There were two more rounds of twenty minutes and 2 other questions to explore: “What should happen to achieve the things you dream of for Amersfoort within the next 4 years?. “What could be my contribution, or would I like to contribute, to the things that matter for Amersfoort in the next 4 years?” . When you walked through the hall during this dialogue you heard a harmony of civil voices, which Van Reybrouck described as the sound of the G1000. He was touched by the sound he remembered so well from his experience in Belgium in 2012.
We then moved to the second part of the day. The main goal of The Amersfoort dialogue was to develop proposals connected to the themes. In addition to the central moderation, each table of ten had a table secretary, whose main role was to keep track of what was said and develop a prezi-presentation on the group’s proposal. The secretaries were mostly consultants and trainees from six consultancy companies based in Amersfoort. The notes taken by the table secretary were presented on a TV screen next to the table, which proved to be a very necessary tool.
Sixty proposals were developed and processed into prezi presentations by the table secretaries. Creating new configurations for each phase was a daunting thought when you have 600 people. This time, the whole venue had to be cleared of tables and chairs. This was another goose bump moment, when we saw all these people walking around with chairs and tables. 20 minutes later, the space was free to put all the TV screens in an oval boundary, building an ‘agora’ for the ‘civil council’. This civil council, the 350-sorted citizens present, was invited to enter the agora and have a look at the proposals and vote. Ten proposals were chosen. Main features were sustainable development and improved neighbourhoods, which are greener, safer, friendlier through cooperation with space for contact both in the real and the virtual world.
Space rearrangement was called again. The TV screens with the ten winning proposals were placed back to back in the centre of the agora. From each screen ribbons were drawn to create ‘pizza slices’. When the matching arena was ready, Harm stood in the middle and invited citizens to stand next to one of the proposals if they were willing to contribute to the follow up. It was very rewarding to see people float into the ‘pizza slices’ and show their commitment for the proposals. With a final speech from the Mayor, thanking the participants for this present to the city, a day to remember had ended. It was very special to be part of this and experience the success of a network organization.