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Citizen participation and building real engagement at local level is vital to democratic process

Citizen participation is key to a thriving democracy. It has become clear that we need a new forum and structure for discussing issues on which people disagree as political and mass communication systems develop.  It is crucially important for our democracy that people feel engaged in this process and all voices are heard in a constructive way. There are many ways in which this can be done through both technology and personal engagement. A civil society forum and the formulation of a new social contract against exclusion has the potential to re-engage people with the democratic process.  

Ensuring that people are involved in making the decisions that affect them and their communities is a key element of real democracy. True involvement requires participation that goes beyond voting and representative democracy. Local and national Government policies affect every one of us, and every one of us should have our say. At a time when the very fabric of democracy is under threat across the globe, this is something we must strive to protect.  Our Social Justice Matters Policy Brief 'Participation' outlines how we can support citizen participation and real engagement.  

Main Findings

  • The Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing health advice meant restrictions on movement, gathering, on being together, on taking part, on participation. However, new communities were forged both online and in “real life” as a result of looking anew at issues as diverse as housing, mental health, creative arts, fitness and sports, nutrition, education, digital skills, access to safe outdoor spaces for those with mobility issues and wellbeing.
  • Citizen participation is key to a thriving democracy. Individuals and groups need access to relevant information and ways to engage with policy makers.
  • The infrastructure, services and policies that a country develops and implements are determined in large part by that country’s demography, that is, the make-up of its population.
  • Every person should have a right to have a say in how and where infrastructure is delivered, what services are required and provided and what policies are implemented to shape their communities.
  • Building real engagement at local level is a developmental process that requires intensive work and investment.  Public Participation Networks provide an opportunity for real engagement between local people and the local authorities across the country on issues that are vital to the future of their communities. This engagement is critical as Ireland strives to implement the Sustainable Development Goals and well-being at a local and regional level.
  • Our highly centralised government, both in terms of decision-making and financially, means that citizens are represented more by professional politicians than by their local constituency representatives. While there have been some structural improvements, such as an enhanced committee structure, the introduction of Public Participation Networks (PPNs), better success rates for Bills led by the opposition and a budgetary oversight process, much remains to be done before Ireland has a genuinely participative decision-making structure.

Policy Priorities for consideration

  • Adequately resource the Public Participation Network (PPN) structures for participation at Local Authority level and ensure capacity building is an integral part of the process.
  • Promote deliberative democracy and a process of inclusive social dialogue to ensure there is real and effective monitoring and impact assessment of policy development and implementation using an evidence-based approach at local and national level.
  • Implement the Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities Strategy.
  • Resource an initiative to identify how a real participative civil society debate could be developed and maintained.

One component of real participation is recognition that everyone should have the right to participate in shaping the society in which they live and the decisions that impact on them. In the 21st century this involves more than voting in elections and referenda. Ireland needs real, regular and structured deliberative democracy to ensure that all interest groups and all sectors of society can contribute to the discussion and the decision-making on the kind of society Ireland wishes to build.

Download our Social Justice Matters Policy Brief Participation here.