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Every person should have a genuine voice in shaping the decisions that affect them

Recent international political events points to a public who feel alienated from the political classes and democracy generally.  It has been suggested (Antonucci, 2017; Dauderstadt, 2017) that increasing inequality between classes, within and between countries and even continents is a major contributor to this alienation. In any democracy, voting in elections is a core right.  Voter turnout in Irish general elections is close to the European average of 66 per cent.  However, there are concerns about the participation of young people and those living in poorer areas. 

But 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 a deliberative democracy 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 (Coote, 2011; Healy & Reynolds, 2011; Elster, 1998),

In a deliberative process, issues and positions are argued and discussed based on the available evidence rather than based on assertions by those who are powerful and unwilling to consider the facts. It produces evidence-based policy and ensures a high level of accountability among stakeholders.  Deliberative participation by all is essential if society is to develop and, in practice, to maintain principles guaranteeing satisfaction of basic needs, respect for others as equals, economic, religious, social, gender and ethnic equality.

Some of the decision-making structures of our society, and of our world, allow people to be represented in the process. However, almost all of these structures fail to provide genuine participation for most people affected by their decisions, resulting in an apathy towards the political system as a whole.  The lack of participation is exacerbated by the primacy given to the market by many analysts, commentators, policy-makers, politicians and media.  Most people are not involved in the processes that produce plans and decisions which affect their lives. They sense they have little power of these decisions and, more critically, they realise that they and their families will be forced to live with the consequences of the decisions taken. This is particularly relevant in Ireland where, ten years since the bank bailout, people are still living with the consequences of a decade of austerity policies.

Although Government has engaged with members of civil society on specific issues as part of the Constitutional Convention[1], and the Citizens Assembly[2] such initiatives are extremely limited. People want to be more involved and to participate in debates concerning policies, particularly those that directly affect them.  The extensive use of social media as a forum for discussion and debate indicates a capacity to question the best use of State resources to develop a just and fair society.  What that society might look like may change depending on the individual and their ideology, but there is certainly appetite for debate.  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 via both technology and personal engagement.   With local elections coming shortly, it is imperative that groups with power, recognise and engage with, and develop partnerships with people to co-create services and policy.

Public Participation Networks

In 2014, the Local Government Act was amended to introduce Public Participation Networks (PPNs).  The PPN recognises the contribution of volunteer-led organisations to local economic, social and environmental capital.  It facilitates input by these organisations into local government through a structure that ensures public participation and representation on decision-making committees within local government (Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, 2017).  These PPNs have been established in every local authority area in Ireland.  By the end of 2018, over 14,000 community and voluntary, social inclusion and environmental organisations were members of a PPN.  Over 880 PPN representatives were elected to over 380 committees on issues such as strategic policy, local community development, joint policing and so on.

Local authorities and PPNs work together collaboratively to support communities and build the capacity of member organisations to engage meaningfully on issues that concern them.  PPNs have a significant role in the development and education of their member groups, sharing information, promoting best practice and facilitating networking.  Local authorities also have a vital role to play in facilitating participation through open consultative processes and active engagement.  Building real engagement at local level is a developmental process that requires intensive work and investment.

[1] For more information see https://www.constitution.ie/Convention.aspx

[2] For more information see https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/