The National Assembly’s Citizen Round Table: A Tool for Boosting Citizen Participation in Parliamentary Proceedings and Activities
François Paradis was President of the National Assembly of Québec from 2018-2022.
The Citizen Round Table was an innovative consultation on ways to facilitate Quebecers’ participation in parliamentary proceedings and activities. Tying directly into the parliamentary reform launched during the 42nd Legislature, the Citizen Round Table was designed to inform parliamentary thought on mechanisms for public participation at the National Assembly, both current mechanisms and those desired by the public. In this article, the author outlines how the Citizen Round Table was formed, some of the suggestions that arose from it, and how the National Assembly has already been responsive to implementing some of its recommendations. This article is an expanded version of the text “The National Assembly of Québec’s Citizen Round Table: Boosting Quebecers’ Participation in Parliamentary Proceedings and Activities”, which appeared in The Parliamentarian: Canada Profile, 2022: Issue Two Supplement, pp. 10–12.
Our system of parliamentary democracy is based on representing our constituents and expressing their hopes and concerns. That is one of our principal roles when we are elected, alongside our role as legislators.
Our citizens’ confidence in us cannot rely solely on the possibility of them having their say at an election every four years. Transparency and openness are principles that are vital to remaining in constant touch with the population and to enabling real dialogue. The various mechanisms of public participation therefore have a role to play in informing us and providing input to our work as parliamentarians.
Public expectations towards all levels of government have much changed in recent years. We see a desire among our fellow citizens to participate more, to express themselves and to have exchanges with decision makers. Elected officials and Parliament have a role to play in implementing conditions that encourage such citizen participation.
As the President of the National Assembly, it has been my privilege to direct a Parliament that is mindful of maintaining this connection to the public. Having a Parliament that is open to the public tops our list of general policies, and our actions are a testament to our commitment in this regard.
Even though the National Assembly is an instantly recognizable landmark at the very heart of the city of Québec, the public still has to make it its own.
Ever since the visitor pavilion opened in 2019, the National Assembly has been finding new ways to bring Quebecers closer to their institutions. This new, decidedly modern pavilion has led to a whole new visitor experience.
Our spaces are now home to a myriad of different activities for the public. Concerts, conferences, screenings, exhibitions and interactive workshops breathe new life into the parliamentary routine, and help people discover our emblematic institution. The National Assembly is now a partner in its community, available to everyone, and becoming a place everyone wants to see and experience!
This concern for inclusion and openness has also filtered into parliamentary activities and proceedings. The Assembly carries traditions that are hundreds of years old, but it is also aware of how important it is to adapt to its time.
At a time when disinformation is casting doubt on the legitimacy of democratic institutions, parliamentarians are asking how to modernize their practices. The parliamentary reform process undertaken during the 42nd Legislature is intended not only to make parliamentary proceedings more effective, but also to meet the public’s expectations.
This is why the Assembly recently held focus groups to gain a better understanding of people’s democratic needs and aspirations — so that the knowledge gleaned could be incorporated into reflection on the ongoing evolution of Québec parliamentarianism. The Citizen Round Table was one of the inclusive undertakings designed to bring Parliament closer to the people by starting a dialogue.
The Citizen Round Table: an innovation
The Citizen Round Table was an innovative consultation on ways to facilitate Quebecers’ participation in parliamentary proceedings and activities. Tying directly into the parliamentary reform launched during the 42nd Legislature, the Citizen Round Table was designed to inform parliamentary thought on mechanisms for public participation at the National Assembly, both current mechanisms and those desired by the public.
In our view, citizen participation has many dimensions and is not limited to public consultations. We seek to approach it from a broad perspective.
It begins with education, the cornerstone of citizen empowerment prior to any effective involvement. And education does not apply only to young people. It must be made available to citizens of all ages and aim to further understanding of our institutions, how they work and their importance in our society.
Another condition essential to full participation lies in access to parliamentary information. Here, the media plays a crucial role in informing the public. As an institution, however, we must stand out as an essential, reliable and accessible source of information on all the activities that take place within our walls.
Lastly, our reflection extends to the occasions when the population makes its voice heard and participates directly in our work through petitions, comments, responses to online consultations, submissions of briefs, testimony in committee, and more.
It is important to note that this consultation process was unprecedented for our institution. It was the first time in its history that our Parliament had used focus groups in a public consultation to gain a better understanding of people’s different experiences and worries as citizens.
Although our institution often comes under scrutiny, both from the media and the public, we rarely have the opportunity to be involved in a two-way discussion with the population as part of a structured process.
By establishing the Citizen Round Table, the National Assembly embraced the challenge of opening itself up to criticism and questioning its own practices.
It was also counting on the analysis to spur improvements and help it evolve.
The consultation had many objectives:
- To better grasp and gain a deeper understanding of the points of view, perceptions and needs of those wishing to follow proceedings at the National Assembly;
- To identify the main obstacles to public participation in parliamentary proceedings and activities; and
- To gather ideas and proposals so that they could be integrated into MNAs’ reflections on parliamentary reform.
The Citizen Round Table: meaningful participation
In order to gauge the public mood and ensure the focus groups would be representative of Québec’s diversity, the National Assembly launched a public call for applications, which ran from April 19 to May 19, 2021. The intention was not to hear from the largest possible number of people, nor to paint a statistically representative picture, but rather to take a deep dive and make room for all voices in our society.
Several means were used to reach the greatest number of people possible. A special page on the National Assembly’s website promoted the Citizen Round Table. Ads also appeared in traditional and digital media, and on social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).
Dozens of groups representing different citizen profiles were approached to encourage their interest in the consultation process: women, men, members of LGBTQ+ communities, various age groups, Indigenous groups, representatives from ethnocultural communities, people living with a disability, people living in each of the administrative regions, etc.
I also got involved by participating in a promotional video shown on our various platforms. I gave interviews with different media outlets in order to raise the initiative’s profile. My fellow MNAs were invited to share the call for applications in their ridings.
The National Assembly received 347 applications, of which 330 met the eligibility criteria. We were glad to see that the people who applied were representative of the diversity of Québec’s population.
For the National Assembly, the call for applications was a success! Our inclusiveness and representativeness strategies had borne fruit. The positive response showed us that we were on the right track.
From this pool of candidates, 56 were selected through a draw designed to produce a representative sample based on variables such as gender (male, female, non-binary), age, Indigenous identity, ethnocultural diversity, linguistic diversity (French, English, other mother tongue) and regional diversity across Québec.
This first experience also allowed us to take on board lessons for the future. We had to deal with some last-minute withdrawals, which is normal, although they did have an impact on the representation of certain groups for which we had few representatives in the first place — Indigenous representatives in particular.
This strengthened our determination to redouble efforts to reach out to all groups in society in order to include them in our institutions.
The Citizen Round Table: rich, wide-ranging exchanges
Due to the global pandemic, the Citizen Round Table and focus groups were held virtually in June 2021.
Participants were divided into seven groups, each of which met once for two and a half hours. These meetings were held either during the day or in the evening, so that everyone could take part.
Out of a concern for representativeness and inclusiveness, the groups were formed in accordance with specific profiles. For example, English speakers, people with disabilities and people living in different regions of Québec were placed in three distinct groups to expedite crucial discussion.
Each focus group was moderated by a member of the National Assembly staff. All of the participants gave voice to the perceptions, experiences and obstacles standing in the way of their participation at the National Assembly. They proposed concrete ways of improving existing consultation mechanisms, as well as new methods.
The exchanges focused on the dissemination of information and communication with MNAs, petitions, public consultations and other initiatives regarding public participation. In order to facilitate discussion while maximizing the possibilities for analyzing the results, semi-structured interviews were supported by a detailed interview grid.
The National Assembly also made a commitment to protecting participants’ anonymity. We were hoping people would speak freely, and we encouraged them to do so. The content of the remarks confirms that the exchanges were unfiltered, which makes them even more meaningful. Raw material made available in this way provides better foundations to guide our thought.
In addition, the participants were unanimously enthusiastic about this type of consultation process. The post-consultation survey found a very high rate of satisfaction. In fact, many people called on the Assembly to repeat the exercise on a regular basis.
The Citizen Round Table: an invaluable aid
Once the focus groups were over, the National Assembly continued the work. A working group made up of administrative staff from various directorates at the Assembly compiled the responses. It took note of the participants’ suggestions and followed up on their top suggestion, namely the drawing up of a detailed report, which is available online.
The report, which was tabled in the National Assembly in October 2021, contains 96 courses of action. In a demonstration of the strong commitment to put the report to good use, it was made public the same day on our official publications page. The report can be accessed—in English and in French—on our website:
- French: http://www.assnat.qc.ca/fr/publications/fiche-rapport-table-citoyenne.html
- English: http://www.assnat.qc.ca/en/publications/fiche-rapport-table-citoyenne.html
The participants’ remarks were most instructive for the National Assembly. For instance, members of the focus groups told us they were impressed and surprised by the amount of information and the quality of the educational content that our Parliament publishes. Nonetheless, most were unaware of the resources before taking part in the Citizen Round Table.
Their conclusion was that the general public is insufficiently informed about, and all too often disinterested in, what goes on inside its Parliament. In their opinion, this information should be made more widely available and aimed at a broader public of all ages. Activities for young people were equally well-suited and interesting to adults.
Means of informing and communicating with the public are constantly changing. The participants mentioned the obstacles they had encountered in their search for information. They expressed a desire for that information to be more available to all, regardless of a person’s mother tongue, and especially to people with disabilities.
The participants stressed the importance of writing content in plainer language. The information that the Assembly makes available is not easy to understand for the uninitiated. The specialized language, density of information and complexity of the rules and procedures can seem unclear and impossible to grasp.
Finally, several pointed out the need for the Assembly to vary its means of communication and to adopt tools and publication strategies that correspond to current realities. Participants mentioned smartphone applications, customizable alerts to follow proceedings, podcasts and a greater presence on social media, among other approaches.
As institutions that carry on long-held traditions, our parliaments have a long way to go if they are to catch up with today’s innovators and the latest communication trends. Far from being a lost cause, this is a way to ensure that everyone has access to quality, understandable information at the right time. This capacity is key to the relationship of trust we enjoy with the population as a whole. Without this essential link, our transparency efforts are destined to be limited to a small circle of insiders. Echo chambers and disinformation will continue to thrive.
Several British-style parliaments are pondering how to modernize the petitioning process, a matter that is also of concern to us at the National Assembly.
The people we met in our focus groups made us aware of their expectations and made a number of suggestions. Petitioners attach importance to the act of petitioning. They see it as an accessible way to contribute to democratic life and to intervene as individuals in order to draw the attention of parliamentarians to issues. Citizens support causes that are close to their hearts and that reflect their values, concerns and beliefs. In that respect, they value this form of involvement, putting greater value on it than on surveys and other anonymous means of expression.
It must be remembered that petitions are not the prerogative of parliaments. The spread of electronic platforms has brought with it a certain confusion, since not all petitions are considered “in order” by the National Assembly and the criteria and procedures that must be followed for a petition to be in order are not well known.
We will have to consider our role as parliamentarians in the process. The people we heard from expect that the concerns they have relayed to us via petitions be reflected in our work. But as things stand, it is rare for a committee to examine a petition for consideration at the National Assembly. In fact, that is something of a euphemism: no petitions were examined in committee during the 42nd Legislature. Proposal papers for reform, including the one that I had the opportunity to put forward, address this problem directly.
Several ideas are on the table. Among the elements examined, we proposed creating a petition committee whose sole function would be to examine the petitions presented to the National Assembly. This was based on the finding that parliamentary committees at the National Assembly are already very busy with their legislative activities. A specialized committee and the adoption of criteria leading to the examination of petitions appear to be ways of enhancing the practice of petitioning.
Citizen participation also comes to life in other existing mechanisms. This is true of participation in the public consultations held at the National Assembly, be that within the framework of consideration of a bill or mandates adopted on the initiative of a committee. For example, over the course of the 42nd Legislature, MNAs set up two select committees on issues that were both sensitive and important to Quebecers: the sexual exploitation of minors and the evolution of the Act respecting end-of-life care. It goes without saying that it is vital to actively consult the public, experts and groups concerned when dealing with such delicate matters.
We must, however, give thought to the mechanisms we make available to the public to participate in public consultations. The exercise can be daunting for members of the public or group representatives. Citizen Round Table exchanges made us aware of a desire to learn how to participate in these forums, which includes having the necessary information and resources to prepare testimony and draft a brief.
Information and communications technologies provide us with opportunities to help the public feel engaged by our work. From the outset, the possibility of using videoconferencing facilitates the participation of people from remote regions or who face other constraints. This practice, which quickly became a matter of course during the pandemic, remains useful in certain contexts, though it is no replacement for the richness of exchanges in person.
New avenues for consulting citizens stood out over and above the usual public hearings. Some of the people we heard from at the Citizen Round Table believed they did not have sufficient opportunity to express themselves through the traditional mechanisms. And most people invited to parliamentary committee meetings are indeed experts or groups from civil society. General consultations are rare.
After the Citizen Round Table report was published, a follow-up committee made up of administrative employees at the National Assembly was created to examine the feasibility of engaging on the courses of action suggested by the participants. The changes in question would involve many different directorates, and several suggestions would require parliamentary reform. However, in a number of cases, the administration has the latitude and required expertise to bring about improvements.
This step also allowed the administrative teams to take stock of all the mechanisms in place and to gather complementary ideas from administrative staff. By the end of the exercise, a number of existing practices will be able to be reviewed in the short term. In the longer term, the Citizen Round Table constitutes an important contribution to the review of our strategic plan for 2023–2027. The findings from this consultation will be incorporated into institutional planning.
Citizen Round Table: focused on the future
A consultation process like the National Assembly’s Citizen Round Table can be an inspiration to any institution or administration that aspires to greater openness and inclusion in order to reflect the reality of the population it serves. Drawing on this initiative from the National Assembly is a means of pursuing the ongoing democratic process, a process designed to ensure that the voices of those who compose our society can always be heard.
Over the course of discussions with the participants, we noted that we already offer a number of hands-on ways for Quebecers to get involved: a busy lineup of citizen events, pioneering educational programs, an impressive and valuable Library. Our National Assembly is open and accessible to the public. The people we met acknowledged those qualities, but noted that our initiatives are not well known and do not reach a sufficiently broad segment of society, in all its diversity.
We strive to foster a genuine dialogue with the public and to maintain confidence in our democratic institutions. No matter their age, anyone can learn more about parliamentary institutions and become involved in grassroots democracy. Although parliaments are not solely responsible for citizenship and democracy outreach, as the seat of parliamentary democracy we are unquestionably well placed to play a key role in that regard. It is important that we reach out to the public and develop proactive approaches.
I have full confidence that the Citizen Round Table will lead to positive outcomes for all Quebecers and for the public participation mechanisms at the National Assembly.
Some of the courses of action have already led to changes in our public participation practices and tools. Others will have effects in the medium or long term, depending on the priorities identified by MNAs. This initiative has been an undeniable success, and it has opened up new avenues for consulting citizens and continuing to improve democratic practices.
As the President of the National Assembly, it makes me proud to see that our institution is more alive, open and relevant than ever. Thanks to initiatives like the Citizen Round Table, the National Assembly will be able to keep pace with the challenges of our time.