Citizens Assembly News Digest
April 18, 2006

Netherlands Citizens Assembly Convenes

The update comes from David Hulshuis, a member of the Netherlands Citizens Assembly, and Professor van der Kolk, who has been intimately involved in the planning for it.

From Professor Henk van der Kolk:

The Dutch Citizens Assembly on Electoral Systems (140 members) will have its third meeting on April 21 and 22. The first meeting was partly formal (officially installing the members), partly informal (meeting and getting to know one another) and partly dedicated to getting to know some basic ideas of electoral systems (what is an electoral formula, what are districts and what is a ballot structure?). The second meeting was dedicated to the details of the “five families of electoral systems” (plurality, majority, STV, list proportional and mixed). Through both lectures and group discussions, members were told about various alternatives to the current proportional list system used in the Netherlands. Many members were intrigued by the idea of having systems which combined plurality and proportional formula (mixed systems). Drop out has been low to non-existent so far and evaluations indicate most members think the “learning phase” so far is stimulating but at the same time not “over-demanding.” Of course, since the group is extremely heterogeneous, some indicate the lectures are too difficult, whereas some others think they are too simple. The overall evaluations, however, are very positive. The atmosphere among the group members is very good. The informal meetings on Friday evening in the bar are well attended.

For more information, check out (in Dutch).

From David Hulshuis:

Dear Jim,

I'm sorry you haven't heard from me, but I have been rather busy and wasn't able to answer all my emails. I will give you an update on how things went so far.

The assembly gathered for the first time in The Hague on friday march 24th . This first weekend was mainly a festive meeting in which the assembly was installed and where the members got the chance to get to know each other. As 2 or 3 members had not replied to the invitation for the first weekend (for reasons I do not know), some people who had been on the reserve list were invited as well. In the second weekend it would become clear that due to this, the final number of members amounted to 142.

The installation meeting started off with a group photo of all the members taken at the parliaments' house. Right after, the assembly was installed in the stylish old parliament room, by vice prime-minister Zalm (as PM Balkenende was abroad) and minister Pechtold (the initiator of the assembly) . In his speech, Zalm praised the initiative, which he said was fully supported by the cabinet, and was enthusiastic about the fact that an assembly is an ideal way of bridging the gap between politicians and citizens. To me it seemed he is a bit skeptical about the eventual outcome, although of course he did not say this literally. Minister Pechtold was very enthusiastic about the enormous response to the assembly's invitations and advised the assembly to come up with an advice that is both widely supported by the Dutch people and also matches with Dutch national culture. The installation ended with a symbolic handover of a bag - or rather a "toolkit" - to all the members. Afterwards there was a drink with the members, the ministers and the secretariat/project group.

During a several course dinner there were discussions on rules of conduct, activities to get to know each other better, some entertainment and discussions on what we want to achieve. The following day consisted of lectures and workshops that dealt with the actual subject matter: electoral systems. The three main elements of electoral systems (voting procedure, election formulas and districts) were explained and discussed. All in all, it was a productive weekend, but most importantly it was a very good opportunity to socialize and to get to know other members.

It was great to see how the assembly really seems like a cross section of the Dutch population, including people from 18 to 86, native Dutch people and foreigners, people with all kinds of educations and backgrounds and from all parts of the country. It is interesting and quite inspiring to be working with such a varied group of people for the next couple of months. Also, I found it motivating that practically everybody, no matter whether they are usually into politics or not, is extremely motivated to participate.

On the 7th and 8th of April, the second weekend was held, also in The Hague. This was a far more serious weekend, with more in-depth education on different kinds of electoral systems. Both on friday night and during the whole saturday there were lectures and workshops. The major electoral system "families" were explained and assignments were done in groups in order to understand the different systems better.

In the next weekend (April 21/22) we will receive still more education about electoral systems and we will start talking about the effects and cons and pros of the different electoral systems. Also, we will be discussing what we personally believe is important in an electoral system. Finally, we will be preparing for meetings in May when member will hold regional meetings open for the public and meetings with organizations.

Apart from the assembly meetings, members have the opportunity to take extra courses in several subject like media training, computer training, debating training, training focusing on project-based working, etc.

So far everything was planned extremely well, with great attention for detail and room for feedback. Both practically (when it comes to accommodation, catering, communication, etc) and concerning the contents, the organization succeeded rather well at making it enjoyable and understandable for practically everyone. It was great to see that the people from the secretariat were looking forward to the weekends at least as much as the members. Both weekends were evaluated and the feedback will be used to further improve the next weekends.

Concerning media coverage: in Holland the forum has had some media attention, but mainly limited to TV news press coverage of the installation of the assembly. The organization has chosen to wait with a media campaign till after the education phase in order to make sure the members have a better idea about the subject and feel more comfortable talking about it. However, some press releases were put out for the Dutch media. A large campaign in the Netherlands will be started in May with billboard ads and TV commercials drawing attention to the assembly. I have no idea if there are plans for addressing foreign media.

I hope this is of interest for your news mail. I'd like to stress that the information above is my view on things, which might of course differ from other members' perceptions or the views of the organization. Nevertheless I have tried to give an objective account.

Kind regards,

David Hulshuis