The Initiative for Civic Space Citizens’ Panel brought together a diverse group of people from across Northern Ireland to explore how the Northern Ireland Assembly could better capture ‘citizen voice’ in future approaches to engagement and participation in decision making.
Problems and Purpose
The Initiative for Civic Space Citizens' Panel brought together 45 randomly selected citizens in Belfast as a new way of engaging citizens in public policy. They needed to understand the public's needs for various modes of participation and evaluate how the Northern Ireland Assembly might better capture the 'citizen voice' in the future in order to foster a more inclusive and participatory democracy.
Background History and Context
The Northern Ireland Assembly is also known as the Stormont Assembly of Northern Ireland. With the Stormont Assembly suspended for more than two years since 2017, there is a growing understanding that reverting to old politics would not address the widening chasm between people and the politicians and authorities who make decisions on their behalf. Rather than that, they say that in order for the government to rebuild public confidence, it must provide new avenues for individuals to influence public discussion and policymaking.
In reality, however, Northern Irish society is too divided for meaningful cross-community conversation and deliberation, which seems to be the case repeatedly in traditional political arenas.
The Initiative for Civic Space (ICS) is a non-aligned network of academics and engaged citizens dedicated to promote open and respectful discussion among all residents, regardless of political opinions or community background, in order to further Northern Ireland's inclusive and participatory democracy. Through the Citizens' Panel, ICS hopes to demonstrate that citizens can communicate with one another and find solutions despite their diversity, divergent political views, and divergent interests, as well as gauge public perception that increased public participation would improve the way political decisions are made.
Consequently, ICS commissioned the Citizens' Panel to gain a better understanding of the public's desire for greater involvement and participation, as well as the methods they prefer, and will utilise its findings to provide citizen-led suggestions to the UK and Irish governments, as well as local political parties, in order to assist in the development of a more democratic, participatory form of politics.
The initiative is part of a series of attempts by Northern Ireland to work towards a way out of the political deadlock in Stormont. It is committed to restoring the structures of civil society involvement that were part of the Belfast Agreement, which promoted better understanding between communities. That is, the reform of the structures of civil dialogue will not only allow citizens to discuss constitutional issues, but will also enable them to discuss and participate in the socio-economic and cultural issues that affect the region.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Citizens' Panel was a collaborative effort between the Initiative for Civic Space, the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, and the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security, and Justice at Queen's University, Belfast, and was supported by the Irish Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The initiative is open to all Northern Ireland citizens and the campaign is promoted through media formats such as radio. The panel's members were picked at random from a citizen's lottery, with 45 persons picked at random. In terms of age, gender, community origin, and occupation (socio-economic position), geographical location, and degree of political activity, the 45 people over the age of 16 from throughout Northern Ireland were broadly representative of the population.
Methods and Tools Used
The Citizens' Panel, also referred to as the Citizens' Reference Panel, was an outgrowth of the 2004 and 2006 Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reforms conducted in British Columbia and Ontario, respectively. Citizens' Reference Panels are an optional public jury system used in Canada to advise the public and elected authorities on policy matters. They are typically convened by a government or public organisation and meet repeatedly over many weeks or months to learn about, discuss, and agree on solutions to contentious public concerns.
Citizen Reference Groups shall consist of between 24 and 54 citizens, with an equal number of males and females, and will reflect the region or jurisdiction's age profile and demographic geography. Members of the Citizen Reference Group are invited and chosen at random via a citizen lottery procedure. They are considered volunteers, and each person serves on the panel in exchange for performing a public service, such as jury duty.
It is structured similarly to a citizens' jury, however the meeting may go far longer than a jury. Prior to the meeting, attendees are provided with background information on the subject through a workbook. The subject is chosen in advance by the group's convener and important players. As with a citizen jury, participants are exposed to pertinent facts and information from a variety of experts and engage in structured debates and group deliberations.
However, unlike a Royal Commission, a Citizens' Panel's recommendations are not binding, but they do have ethical value. After all, it has the potential to operate as a suggestion. Thus, Citizens' Panel provide individuals with the knowledge and skills necessary to convert their thoughts and ideas into credible recommendations for decision-makers to consider when making decisions. This procedure enables residents to speak on behalf of their community's common good, rather than simply their own personal experiences.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The Citizens' Panel was held at Queen's University Belfast on 11 May 2019 to consider how to improve and enhance civic involvement and decision-making in Northern Ireland.
The committee was tasked with addressing the following critical question: How can the Northern Ireland Assembly accommodate people' opinions while also fostering an inclusive and participatory democracy?
ICS facilitated the debate by offering 4 different avenues for public engagement in decision-making:
1. Mass Online Participation.
2. Constitutional Convention (based on the Irish Model).
3. Citizens’ Juries.
4. Citizens’ Assemblies.
Participants were given an equal opportunity to speak during the discussion, and presentations discussed the several characteristics of each model and how they can/have been used in different circumstances or while examining various themes.
Small group conversations were facilitated to examine the strengths and shortcomings of each model before recommendations for enhancing each model's efficacy were given in plenary. However, members also evaluated the models' relative 'space' in the Northern Ireland context, which means the viability of its development, as well as the attitudes of politicians and the general public on the legitimacy of each approach's conclusions. Besides, post-it notes were used on site to collect comments, regardless of whether they were good or negative, they were heard and documented. This enables for a more accurate representation of everyone's 'voice'.
Finally, an anonymous website voting application was used for the voting. For the four models of increased citizen participation, the poll showed: 51% support a Constitutional Convention, 39% support a Citizens' Assemblies, 7% support for Mass Online Participation, 0% support a Citizens' Juries and 3% support none of these. Of these, the constitutional convention is the most popular method. Participants agreed that it has the ability to bring together representative groups of people and officials and to promote a more evidence-based approach to contentious topics such as flags and symbols, language, and a variety of other historical concerns that continue to obstruct progress.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The initiative has generally had the desired effect, the outcome of these discussions on the day showed that:
¨ In response to the current state of the Stormont Assembly, the public should have a greater say in political decision-making in Northern Ireland.
¨ A group of individuals with little or no prior understanding or interest in the subject may get together to make a serious contribution to the larger discussion, expressing clear preferences and suggestions. Even though some of these participants had little prior knowledge of politics, they were able to produce ideas and articulate a notion of legitimacy throughout the discussion.
¨ Additionally, the assessment demonstrates that members recognize the group's diversity and the effectiveness of the structures and facilitation mechanisms in place to encourage inclusive, collaborative, and informed discussion. Also, ignoring profession and background enables perspectives to be heard more clearly.
¨ Participants believed that a welcoming environment made participation simpler, and that face-to-face connection provided a more comfortable communication atmosphere.
The discussion covered a wide range of views, and it was considered to be of a high quality, with all participants feeling that they were given plenty of opportunity to speak and felt that they were treated fairly and respectfully, however some participants were perceived to have had the upper hand during the discussion.
In other words, through this initiative it can be concluded that citizens from different backgrounds can be involved in democratic consultation, whether they are politically savvy or not, it is possible to achieve the desired effect of consultation through learning and discussion. The result is inspiration on how governments can capture the ‘voice’ of their citizens and help facilitate future government-citizen interaction.
In January 2020, the Northern Ireland Assembly resumed after a three-year hiatus and in the same month a protocol New Decade, New Approach was published. The document refers to structural changes to civic engagement in Northern Ireland, in the form of a Citizens Advisory Panel, which will commission one or two issues per year for citizen participation, and which will consider specified issues and make recommendations to the Executive.
Method sees: https://participedia.net/method/635