When Citizens Assemble

What happens when Irish citizens get to deliberate on abortion law?

Ireland’s efforts to break a political deadlock over its de facto ban on abortion inspired a bold response – the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly to tackle on the issue.

During five weekends spread over five months, a random selection of Irish people deliberated on the highly divisive and controversial issue. Their conclusion, in April 2017, recommended a radical liberalisation of existing laws, including a change to the Constitution.

Their work helped prompt Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to pledge a national referendum on abortion. In 2018, Irish voters will have a chance to make new laws.

Breakthrough moment

The Assembly represents a breakthrough moment not just for Ireland but also for ways of doing politics in the rest of the world. Ireland used random selection and deliberation on a highly contentious issue, rather than leaving it to elected politicians. The effect is to gift us all a real-life lesson in doing democracy differently.

At a time of deep dysfunction in our electorally driven political models – what issue wouldn’t lend itself to a citizens’ assembly approach?

When Citizens Assemble is the first in a global, nine-film series on the state of democracy and efforts to radically improve the way it works. Please feel free to sign up for project updates, to offer funds for its completion or other support in kind.

 

When Citizens Assemble from Patrick Chalmers on Vimeo.

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Teaching students government skills

Adam Cronkright, co-founder of the Bolivian organisation Democracy in Practice, gives a Democracy Talk audio overview of the group’s findings so far with experiments in student government.

Democracy in Practice has been helping run student councils in a few different Cochabamba secondary schools since 2013, using lottery selection rather than elections to choose candidates.

Doing away with elections allows for a more representative body of students on council, making room for less charismatic or popular pupils to have a chance at government.

Changing selection methods is one thing, governing differently is another – with all the usual challenges of having representatives turn up on time, or at all, learning how to take collective decisions, not dominating proceedings and following through with promised actions.

An encouraging finding, Adam says, is that students can, and do, learn the necessary skills to govern. That raises hopeful prospects for better government in societies who manage to improve their citizens’ governance skills more generally.

An intriguing curiosity, albeit an anecdotal one according to Adam, is how students who appear to stand out as natural leaders, those who might usually get chosen in elections, are often not the best suited to actual government.

Catch the full audio interview below.