We the Citizens

A story in the Irish University Observer leads to an organization called “We the People“. The organization is apparently led by a group of politicians and academics.

The organization held a meeting of randomly selected people (“citizen’s assembly”) over a weekend in which various policy issues were discussed. The general structure seems very similar to that of a Fishkin DP – a limited, pre-defined scope; a term measured in days; expert opinion presented; small group discussions alternating with large group sessions.

The organization released a report in December. It describes the process as follows:

We the Citizens was a pilot project to test whether a more participatory form of democracy could work in Ireland. The model tested was a Citizens’ Assembly, which is a form of deliberative democracy.

A representative group of citizens was randomly chosen, by an independent polling company, to attend the pilot Citizens’ Assembly on 25th and 26th June 2011 in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

  • Seven regional citizens’ events had been held in May and June 2011 to inform the agenda of the Citizens’ Assembly.
  • A series of independent surveys – also informed by the issues raised by citizens at the regional events – was conducted to monitor and evaluate changes in the views of participants.
  • At the assembly, participants were given expert information and the opportunity to deliberate on particular policy issues.
  • They were surveyed afterwards to see whether deliberation had led them to change their views about the issues discussed. Control groups who had not
    taken part in the Citizens’ Assembly were also polled.

The report also states:

Key factors for success

For a citizens’ assembly to be successful:

  • It must be set up for a specifc purpose, and once that purpose has been achieved, the Citizens’ Assembly ceases to exist. In other words, the assembly cannot and should not act as another House of the Oireachtas: its work and membership are limited by time and purpose
  • The members must be selected randomly to give a balanced social and demographic representation. They are not elected, nor are they there as representatives of particular sectors. There is therefore no risk of specific interests subverting the work of the assembly
  • The members must be given balanced briefing notes and have the opportunity to hear from and to question experts
  • The members should be given sufficient time and space to debate and deliberate over the issues
  • It should be made clear what will happen to the outcomes of the Citizens’ Assembly.

Three possible models:

  • The Citizens’ Assembly produces a specific proposal for change, that may be directly acted upon by the government in the form of a legislative act
  • In a case where a matter has constitutional significance, the Citizens’ Assembly produces the wording for the referendum question. This may go to a parliamentary committee for consideration or be put to the people in a referendum
  • In the case where the matter in question relates to local budgetary issues, the decision of the Citizens’ Assembly should have a direct impact on a portion of budgetary expenditure in the local area.

A citizens’ assembly can be used nationally, regionally or locally. What is important is that citizens have a voice, not just a vote.

The regional citizens’ events and Citizens’ Assembly showed that despite the blows which have shaken our economy, society and political system, there is a strong spirit of determination among the people and an appetite for national renewal. Participatory democracy can and should be part of this drive for national renewal.

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2 Responses

  1. I was vaguely aware of this project, but have not yet gotten around to reading its report. Elaine Byrne is a colleague of mine here at Trinity.

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  2. In this case, Peter, maybe you could ask Dr. Byrne to address the issues of lack of independence and power limitations associated with the kind of short-term, ad-hoc, pre-defined scope setup that is proposed (https://equalitybylot.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/institutional-design-power-parameters)?

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