By Darren O’Rourke
The arguments in support of Citizens’ Assemblies are many. Bring a group of randomly selected citizens together, provide them with balanced information and allow them to discuss, deliberate, and reach a resolution in a considered and measured way. In the process it is suggested that we end up with better decisions, reflective of a greater number of perspectives. Participants themselves have a greater input, and therefore ownership, of decisions and this leads to the resulting policies having greater legitimacy. The prospect, in the current climate of widespread frustration and disillusionment with ‘politics as usual’, is an attractive one.
In the Republic of Ireland, we have some experience of Citizens’ Assemblies in recent years. A collaboration of academics and activists came together to pilot the We the Citizens Citizens’ Assembly in 2011. In the wake of the economic crisis, this was a forum for ordinary citizens to discuss their ideas on the future shape of Ireland. Successful, the model was adopted and amended and gave rise to the Government-initiated Constitutional Convention in 2012 and, more recently, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly in 2016.
Do Citizens’ Assemblies complement or duplicate the current methods of policy-making e.g. by elected politicians in national/regional/local parliaments? Do they hold the potential to help tackle major (contentious and otherwise) policy decisions? Should they be a staple of the policy process – or how and when should they be employed? Are they sustainable? Are they affordable?
Through its handling of the contentious abortion issue, in particular, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly is generally accepted as a major success and has served to greatly increase interest in the Citizens’ Assembly approach. In political and policy circles there is a growing focus on the potential of the approach, but questions remain. Do Citizens’ Assemblies complement or duplicate the current methods of policy-making e.g. by elected politicians in national/regional/local parliaments? Do they hold the potential to help tackle major (contentious and otherwise) policy decisions? Should they be a staple of the policy process – or how and when should they be employed? Are they sustainable? Are they affordable?
Despite these questions, there have been calls from a range of quarters that the Citizens’ Assembly model should be employed to help address issues as diverse as climate change, democratic reform and health service planning. As a student at Maynooth University it is the latter that interests me. Decisions to close hospitals, particularly emergency and urgent care services, are amongst the most contentious in health and often result in decades-long opposition. We know the process of decision making is problematic. My research aims to explore the potential for inclusive methods of decision-making to provide a better way forward. In the process I have been introduced to a wide range of public involvement strategies employed across the world – e.g. citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries, planning cells, deliberation panels, health councils – aimed at putting health service users and the wider public at the heart of decision making.
So it was with that interest that I attended, as an observer, the recent Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland. Here, a representative sample of the population of Northern Ireland met over two weekends to discuss, debate and agree recommendations for delivering a sustainable, fit-for-purpose, social care system. Not a mean undertaking! By my account, 77 citizens met and were engaged. Presentations were followed by questions and answers, were followed by carefully-facilitated roundtable discussions. Facilitators and event organisers drew the opinions and ideas emerging from the group discussions together and drafted initial resolutions. The exact wording of these resolutions was then discussed by all Citizens’ Assembly members, amended (if deemed necessary) and agreed. The process was iterative and the level of engagement was notable. Once the wording was agreed members voted on individual resolutions.
In the end, after two weekends of listening and learning, and considered discussion and debate, Citizens’ Assembly members agreed the principles and values which they believed should underpin the social care system in Northern Ireland. They also agreed a wide range of specific recommendations on how that social care system should work, with particular reference to person-centred care, the role of carers, and system structures.
Through it all there was an obvious sense of purpose and an equally obvious appreciation of the process.
Research says it’s important to consider – 1) representation, 2) procedural rules, 3) information and 4) decisions/outcomes – when setting out to design a Citizens’ Assembly. I would suggest that the organisers of the Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland were successful in this regard. Likewise, if this was an exercise in ‘whetting the appetite’ – of showing Government the potential of the Citizens’ Assembly model to make specific concrete recommendations on a matter of public importance – then I would suggest it was a job well done.
If this was an exercise in ‘whetting the appetite’ – of showing Government the potential of the Citizens’ Assembly model to make specific concrete recommendations on a matter of public importance – then I would suggest it was a job well done.
It was clear from my observations that citizens are passionate about the issues that affect them (and more broadly the issues that affect society) and they welcome the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way. This point is noteworthy in and of itself. It remains to be seen how Government and those in positions of power will perceive these efforts. Research tells us that a crucial prerequisite for the success of citizen participation is the willingness on the part of politicians and senior administrators to see participation as a support for their work and as an enrichment of representative democracy rather than as an obstacle.
Debate on particular aspects of Citizens’ Assemblies (e.g. specific design, evaluation, sustainability, empowerment) will continue in the time ahead. But, in my opinion anyway, the model has the potential to play an important role in a more inclusive and representative democracy. Surely that can only be a good thing?