We the Citizens: Solutions First, Diagnosis Second

One of my favourite old jokes is about aNew Yorkgrandmother who happens upon a small crowd gathered at the side of the street as she wends her way home.

She walks around the edge of the crowd, straining to see what is happening. Eventually she works out that there has been a road traffic accident and that there is a doctor in the centre of the crowd giving first aid to an injured cyclist.

Pushing her way through, she starts calling out to the Doctor: “Give him an enema, give him an enema”. Hearing her advice being repeatedly hurled at him, the Doctor turns to her and curtly says: “Madam, this young man has a broken arm – an enema is not going to help him”.  “Maybe”, comes her reply, “but it couldn’t hurt”

We the Citizens are a lot like that old woman. They are well intentioned and genuinely concerned, but are so fixated on the treatment that they are blind to the ailment.

It’s deciding the treatment before attempting a diagnosis. They have an enema they want to give us, and we are going to get it. In their defence, the reforms they suggest would neither hurt nor damage anyone. But on the other hand, they would not make major changes either.

The conclusions they reached were modest enough: retaining PR STV, reducing TDs pay, but given the scale of the problems we face do any of us have the time or energy to expend on tackling the superficial ills?

This is not to disregard the importance of political reforms, but just to wonder why they pick this precise moment. They accept that all the political parties have committed themselves to political reform. Well then, let us wait and see what the Government proposes when it puts its package of reforms to a referendum next year.

My problem is twofold. First, I keep getting the feeling that We the Citizens is trying to be a non political, political party. It seems to want a voice and a say on a par with the existing political parties without all the hassle of sending candidates door to door to argue their case, or making spending returns to the Standards in Public Office commission.

Its leaders, or mentors, lambast what some saw as the focus group populism of Bertie Ahern, yet miss the fact that the model they have chosen is effectively a giant focus group itself.  The members of their Citizens Assembly were, after all, chosen by a polling company on a set of criteria, broken down by age and sex. (I sometimes feel a bit that way myself).

My second problem is the suggestion that 100 people meeting together over a weekend is something new or unique. It happens in communities up and down the land, look at the campaign in Roscommon and Portlaoise to save their A&Es.

In most of these cases the local TDs and Councillors are there to state their case, take the flak and to listen to what the people are saying. Yet, We the Citizens say that they want “to demonstrate to Government and to all of the political parties that engaging with citizens in between elections works,”

But Irish politicians and Irish political parties already know that. We might not like the conclusions they reach or the actions they take – but no one can say that we do not have one of the most highly competitive constituency systems and most connected national politicians inEurope.

This surely is the paradox, or even the contradiction, at the heart of this whole exercise. It is this very level of local political engagement, this responsiveness to public mood that so many blame for our woes – including it seems We the Citizens.

Or could it be that the wrong group of politicians were just being responsive to the wrong mass of citizens. Or, to put it the way a Labour activist tweeted during Primetime: “I wonder how many people who are in that studio repeatedly voted for FF and then complained about the state of the country.”

Isn’t that the public’s prerogative?

One thought on “We the Citizens: Solutions First, Diagnosis Second

  1. You are the one who is fixated on the solution.

    Regarding your first “problem” a citizens’ assembly is definitely NOT a “focus group”. Yes, they are invited by stratified random selection, but a CA are not simply surveyed in a group. The whole point of a CA is to get these diverse people together to *deliberate* with the help of facilitation. Focus groups don’t deliberate, they just tell you as individuals their often misguided attitudes (especially when they are selected from marginal electorates to drive political manipulation). With deliberation, participants explore each other and unpack their various perspectives, beliefs and values. That’s what facilitation is meant to help them with, because most people aren’t used to doing that. We are more inclined to argue with each other and push our views as right and true. But by learning about how others approach problems, participants realise that the simplistic, commonly-expressed “populist” solutions may not be so hot.

    Now you can judge the WtC recommendations as you want, and the process itself may or may not have been ideal (I wasn’t there, I’m in Australia). Perhaps these citizens were asked to do too much–their project was certainly ambitious. But in more local contexts, smaller-scale public engagement formats like “citizens’ juries” have been working very well in recent years to bring public values into the policy-generation mix and help politicians and administrators set policy about specific issues that satisfies most people most of the time, rather than pissing off half the people all the time.

    Your second “problem” mixes apples with avocados. For some policy questions, especially those big messy ones, it may be better to get unaffiliated citizens involved, those who do not have an invested interest in any particular outcome. By randomly selecting participants, the organisers ensure as much as possible that the broadest range of public values and beliefs can find expression in the conversation. This is what gives these processes their democratic legitimacy. On the other hand, there are other types of policy problems that should involve stakeholders, partisans, activists or resident busy-bodies. Such processes are more akin to conflict resolution than democratic initiative.

    The WtC project was clearly a demonstration of an initiative to enhance democracy. A project like WtC should spawn a national conversation about the benefits of public engagement and how it should be done best–that’s what the academics are examining.


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