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Florence School of Transnational Governance

Citizens’ Assembly in Serbia - Example of Good Practice

The Citizens' assembly ‘Food Labelling in Serbia and Possible Alternatives: Road to Healthy and Environmentally Friendly Diets’ took place in Belgrade in April.

20 June 2024


by Teona Birkner*

It was implemented by the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory at the University of Belgrade within the framework of the Real Deal project, financed by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.

The assembly in Serbia is a real example of how deliberative democracy can lift the spirits of the citizens and inspire them to dive deeper into important social and political issues. It was very well organised and successful in terms of its outcomes and participants’ engagement. I will not engage here with the topic of the assembly, but instead offer an overview of different aspects of its implementation. My hope is that these reflections can serve to highlight good practices to inspire organisers of similar deliberative processes.

The idea behind citizens’ assemblies is that participants are supposed to represent the demographic characteristics of the area in which the assembly is held, so that they could, as accurately as possible, advocate for the needs and interests of the whole community. The assembly in Serbia was a national one, and it gathered 70 participants that were selected based on gender, age, level of education, and the region they come from. Professional sortition agency, Kantar, oversaw this aspect of the process.

Prior to the assembly, the participants were introduced to the concept of deliberative processes and citizens’ assemblies and the organisers shared with them the reasons why this approach is beneficial for Serbian citizens. The citizens also received informational material to get more acquainted with the topic and the current framework for food safety, labelling and regulation in Serbia.

The assembly lasted for two days and it took place in the historic Metropol Palace Hotel, where the citizens were accommodated. The process consisted of discussions in small groups, consultations with experts and government representatives, and a plenary session where participants agreed on recommendations. In this instance there were seven groups of ten, created to make discussions easier and enable more direct participation. The organisers randomly assigned the citizens into groups, but taking into account gender, age, level of education and level of knowledge of the topic, which was based on the participants’ self-assessment. Each group was assigned a professional moderator (trained specifically in deliberative processes), and a facilitator (a PhD student from the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory). To ensure that the deliberation flowed seamlessly, a coordinator systematised and synchronised the work of the moderators and facilitators. The group discussions all tackled the topic of the assembly in a similar way; in order to ensure representativeness they were not based on different sub-topics.

During the group discussions, the members agreed on a list of questions they wanted to pose to the experts and government representatives who were available for consultation. The organisers reviewed these questions, merged in cases of repetitions, and divided by thematic categories. The experts’ panel included academics and practitioners in the fields of public health, medicine, sustainable development and environment. The government representatives were officials working on health, environmental protection, food safety, and agriculture. Some were members of the parliament.

In both panel introductions, the experts and government representatives were introduced to the citizens’ assembly model and its purpose, as well as their role in the process. It was underlined that their responsibility was to be at the service of citizens and offer their knowledge and experience to help the assembly make informed decisions. The participants of the panels presented their work and offered their perspectives on the topic. They then replied to the citizens’ questions. The citizens were, however, unable to ask additional questions during the panels, which seemed inconvenient at times, because listening to the answers naturally opens up new questions. Considering the time constraints, this structure of the panels was a practical solution that enabled everyone to equally contribute to the question list (since a more ‘open’ model carries the risk of neglecting less outspoken citizens).

After two days of deliberation and consultation, every group came up with a set of recommendations, and the plan was to present those in a plenary session, discuss them and vote. Surprisingly, the recommendations were almost identical in all of the groups - the citizens came up with the same solutions for issues of food safety and food labelling. The organisers consolidated these proposals and presented them in the plenary, asking whether there were any objections and if additions were needed. The only disagreement in recommendations was the choice of the nutritional rating system to be used on food labels. After the participants presented arguments for the two rating systems that were suggested, it was agreed that both would be included in the final recommendations.

The citizens’ recommendations will now be sent to the authorities, but there is no formal agreement regarding their implementation or, at least, feedback. Drawing on the lessons from other citizens’ assemblies, it is usually beneficial to include the decision-makers from the very beginning. Making them a part of the process prevents them from perceiving it as a threat to their jurisdiction and increases the chances of the recommendations being taken seriously. In the case of this Assembly, the recommendations will also be sent to the Association of Consumers, which has committed to use them while advocating consumer interests.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the assembly was the atmosphere among the participants. During breakfast on the first day, the citizens were sitting by themselves, not interacting much with each other. By the coffee break after the first session they were already more animated, and by the end of the weekend some of the participants seemed to have made friends and were behaving like a team.

The citizens were engaged and dedicated to the discussions. They were incredibly focused the whole time, nobody left the room, used their phone or lost interest. My impression was that they took their role seriously and that they were fully committed to identifying problems and finding potential solutions. The culture of dialogue was high. The citizens were respectful and listened to each other attentively. The questions posed to the experts and the government representatives showcased their critical thinking vis-a-vis the measures that are being taken to ensure food safety.

The overall organisation of the assembly was impeccable, and there were no noticeable issues or complications. The core team was efficient, well-coordinated and, most importantly, made the citizens feel welcomed and appreciated. It was an occasion to revive faith in democracy and further proof that citizens are willing and competent to contribute more directly to public decision-making.

*Teona Birkner is currently working for the Transnational Democracy Programme, based at the Florence School of Transnational Governance, as part of the Democratic Odyssey team. She was an observer of this citizens’ assembly in Serbia.

Last update: 20 June 2024

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