Ireland has citizens’ assemblies aplenty. A few weeks ago the Cabinet gave the green light for two new citizens’ assemblies on biodiversity and a Dublin mayor. This immediately prompted a debate in the Oireachtas over why the Dublin mayor citizens’ assembly is being prioritised over one on drugs use that was promised in the Programme for Government, along with citizens’ assemblies on rural youth and the future of education. Almost every day there are groups calling for still more citizens’ assemblies: the recent list includes such topics as a united Ireland, the funding of our armed forces, and a new forest strategy.
This all comes hot on the heels of three previous assemblies since 2012, the most recent of which, the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality, completed its work last year and, after some delay, its well-considered report is about to be considered by a special Oireachtas committee, chaired by Ivana Bacik.
It’s no wonder that Ireland is seen as a leading light in the world of citizens’ assemblies: they have made important contributions on issues like abortion and gay marriage. But these high-profile successes disguise the fact that many, many other recommendations from previous assemblies have been ignored, rejected, or left to gather dust: that’s a lot of time and effort (not least by citizens’ assembly members) and public funding wasted for rather little return.
Much praise has been heaped on Ireland as a trailblazer in this space, but is this praise still deserved? Before steaming on with a series of new citizens’ assemblies there is a need to reflect on why we need them, how their outputs are dealt with, and how they are organised. In all three respects, Ireland now lags behind best practice in other countries.
If public funds and time are to be spent on processes like this, then it would seem quite reasonable to expect a return on the investment
First, the agenda is too tightly controlled by government, which can lead to rather daft issues being discussed, such as the length of the Irish president’s term of office, the Taoiseach’s power to the determine the date of Dáil elections, or the manner in which referenda are held. Why should any of these require the attention of a citizens’ assembly?
Following the mantra garbage-in-garbage-out, it is perhaps not surprising that none of the assemblies’ recommendations in these areas were accepted, or even listened to, by government. But nor were a host of other recommendations.
Some might feel it right and proper that the government of the day should retain a tight hold over the agenda and outcomes of a citizens’ assembly. But if that agenda is poorly designed and the output in large part ignored, then surely that begs a question over the point of the whole exercise. If public funds and time are to be spent on processes like this, then it would seem quite reasonable to expect a return on the investment. The agenda should, at least, be sensible and ideally also addressing an issue of sufficient weight to merit the outlay of resources and time. And the recommendations should be dealt with respectfully.
Recent innovations in Belgium offer examples of good practice that could be followed here, such as giving a non-government body the power to influence the agenda of a citizens’ assembly, and requiring the parliament to respond in full to the assembly’s recommendation, inviting members of the assembly to debate with them over areas where they might disagree.
Citizens' assemblies have much to offer in Ireland. I say this as a strong supporter of their potential. But they need to be given a chance to work
We also have much to learn about how to better organise our citizens’ assemblies. What has evolved over time is an “Irish model” that in a number of respects is sub-optimal. The organisation tends to be very top-down and managerial, tightly controlled by senior civil servants and a government-appointed chair, supported by a small advisory group whose remit is focused largely on the substance of the topic rather than on latest developments in the management of citizens’ assemblies. No use is made of the expert services of professional agencies such as Democratic Society, Involve, Mission Publiques or the Sortition Foundation. Path-dependency has set in, with the senior civil servant of one assembly passing on the baton and the lessons they’ve learned to the civil servant leading on the next one.
It is understandable why a government might like things run this way, but it leaves little scope to learn insights from other cases and runs the risk of stifling innovation. It allows poor practices to become embedded, such as a long-held reluctance to pay honoraria to the members (which was finally allowed in the most recent assembly), a sub-standard method for recruiting members (most likely a reason why Ireland is an outlier in having a high turnover of citizens’ assembly members and low turnout at the meetings), and restrictions imposed on the (independent) researchers charged with evaluating the process, which again limits the scope for proper lesson learning.
By sticking to a tried-and-trusted approach, there is a risk of citizens’ assemblies becoming too formulaic. We have much to learn from exciting innovations such as in Belgium, France or across the UK, but if we’re going to allow this to happen then we need to replace an organisational model that has become somewhat set in stone.
Citizens’ assemblies have much to offer in Ireland. I say this as a strong supporter of their potential. But they need to be given a chance to work, and this requires careful attention to the reasons given for setting one up, the processes set in place to ensure that its outputs are not ignored, and the structure of its organisation so that it is up to date with best international practice. Without this, we run the serious risk of the enthusiasm for citizens’ assemblies withering on the vine.