Delivering Deliberative Democracy

Posted on Friday, 18 September 2020
genuine engagement

Involving people in making the decisions that affect them and their lives is a core principle of democracy.  Real participation goes beyond voting (representative democracy) to a situation where people and government work in partnership to co-create infrastructure and services, solve problems and work towards the well-being of all in this generation and the generations to come (deliberative democracy).  By definition, such an approach requires a leaving aside of power differentials, and making a specific effort to ensure that the voices and views of people who are not traditionally influential are heard and taken into account (Elster, 1998[1]; Coote, 2011[2]; Healy and Reynolds, 2000[3] and 2011[4] ).

In 2013, the Government commissioned a Task Group on Citizen Engagement in Local Government, chaired by Seán Healy of Social Justice Ireland to come up with proposals for more extensive and diverse input by citizens into the decision-making process at local government level.  The report of that group in late 2013[5] proposed the development of Public Participation Networks (PPNs) in every Local Authority Area.  These networks would be the main point of contact between Local Authorities and the environmental, social inclusion, community and voluntary organisations in an area.  Their core role is to

  • Facilitate the participation and representation of communities in a fair, equitable and transparent manner through the environmental, social inclusion, community and voluntary sectors on decision making bodies
  • Strengthen the capacity of communities and of the environmental, social inclusion, community and voluntary groups to contribute positively to the community in which they reside/participate
  • Provide information relevant to the environmental, social inclusion, community and voluntary sector and acts as a hub around which information is distributed and received.

The PPNs operate under a number of guiding principles, namely to be inclusive, participatory, independent, valuing of diversity, transparent and accountable. They currently have over 15,500 member organisations nationally and partipate across a broad range of policy Committees and Boards at local level. 

The PPNs are a structure which can be part of a movement to reconnect people and the state.  Reconnecting people and re-establishing trust at local government level is essential if trust is to be developed at a national level.  Positive experiences of volunteering and participation, and seeing real change happen as a result of that participation, are required to move towards a more participative society.

However, participation invokes both rights and responsibilities in the context of the social contract.  It is incumbent on Government locally and nationally to create real opportunities for broad collaborative dialogue and partnership, which are accessible and interesting to people.  They must be truly open to a wide range of inputs from the full diversity of people. They need to continuously feed back to people on how their suggestions and ideas have been considered and incorporated (or otherwise) into policy.  To achieve this will require significant capacity building for staff in government and state agencies. We need more innovative ways of gathering views and working with people, which fit in with the realities of busy lives.  It also requires a public and civic education programme to rebuild peoples trust and address consultation fatigue.  In turn, people must make the effort to inform themselves and avail of opportunities to input in a considered way to policy and decision making processes.  This will require developing an understanding of the constraints under which decisions have to be taken, being able to come up with coherent and viable policy proposals (however informal), and being willing to take on the extra responsibilities that come with real partnership.

Public Participation Networks have the capacity to work at grassroots level to develop the community side of the social contract.  To do this, they must be properly resourced by both Local and Central Government.

Extracted from Bourke, S (2017): Public Participation Networks in Ireland - Re-engaging People and the State as presented at our 30th Annual Social Policy Conference, 2017.

[1] Elster, J. (1998), “Deliberative Democracy”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Coote, A. (2011), Equal participation: making shared social responsibility work for everyone in Trends in Social Cohesion No. 23, (provisional version), pp. 199 -200, Strasbourg: Council of Europe

[3] Healy, S. and Reynolds, B. (2000), ‘Developing Participation in a Changing Context’ in Reynolds, B. and Healy S. (eds.), Participation and Democracy: Opportunities and Challenges, Dublin: CORI Justice Commission.

[4] Healy, S. and Reynolds, B. (2000), “Sharing Responsibility for Shaping the Future - Why and How?” in Reynolds, B. and Healy S. (eds.), Sharing Responsibility in Shaping the Future, Dublin: Social Justice Ireland.  Viewed at

[5] Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (2013) “Working Group Report on Citizen Engagement with Local Government” viewed at