Democratic Innovations for Engaging and Empowering Citizens

From Clodagh Harris

Research shows that people have ‘become more and more disenchanted with the traditional institutions of representative government, detached from political parties, and disillusioned with old forms of civic engagement and participation’ (Yetano, Royo and Acrete, 2010: 783).

In response, in recent years there has been growing interest not only in increasing participation, but also in the quality and form of the engagement between citizens through the use of direct, deliberative and participatory democratic mechanisms (Smith, 2009). It is argued that if the decision-making process is inclusive and dialogue between citizens is unconstrained, it will lead to greater understandings of different perspectives, more informed debate and decisions that are widely accepted by participants (Fishkin, 2009).

As part of their course work, the students of GV4404 ‘theories and origins of democracy and ideology’, a final year module offered on UCC’s B.Sc Government, the B.Comm and the B. Comm (international) programmes prepared a report on democratic innovations for engaging and empowering citizens. This report makes recommendations on how to boost public involvement in the political process. It examines specific democratic innovations, referring to international examples and presents them as viable and realistic options for Irish democracy. These recommendations which include participatory budgeting, citizens’ assemblies, consensus conferences, citizens’ juries and direct initiatives offer opportunities for wider and deeper citizen engagement in the democratic process at a time of general citizen distrust of political players and institutions. For example, a recent Eurobarometer poll showed that only 32% of EU citizens expressed trust in their Government and 33%in their Parliament. In Ireland these figures are 42% and 39% respectively (Eurobarometer 75).

This citizen disenchantment with and detachment from the traditional institutions of representative government has contributed to academic and wider public debates about whether or not the Irish political system is fit for purpose. Concerns about democratic accountability, participation, representation, to name but a few, have been raised in the Democracy Commission report (2005) and more recently on the PSAI (Political Studies Association of Ireland) blog, and ideas for the reform of the Irish political system featured in all of the parties’ manifestos in the 2011 general election.

It is hoped that this report will not only serve as a useful teaching tool for future students but that it will also contribute to the ongoing academic and public debate on Irish political reform.

Please click here for the report :

This report was funded by the President’s award for innovation in teaching and learning and edited by Dr. Clodagh Harris, recipient of the award.

9 thoughts on “Democratic Innovations for Engaging and Empowering Citizens

  1. This tends to annoy political theorists and lawyers when I mention this, unless the government gives you an invoice of services and payment to be received; and actual presents a physical social contract; it cant ever claim to represent the people. Current “democratic” models are relics from despotic times.

  2. It is possible that some of the innovations mentioned in the post (key passage below) might have some beneficial effect. However the implication that such innovations would radically transform society is fanciful. It is abundantly clear that groups of citizens have very different and conflicting interests. The asset rich citizens (the rich) determine what happens in society. The only citizens assembly that can change this is an assembly which is part of a network of assemblies which replaces current ruling structures and is not an adjunct to them.
    “These recommendations which include participatory budgeting, citizens’ assemblies, consensus conferences, citizens’ juries and direct initiatives offer opportunities for wider and deeper citizen engagement in the democratic process at a time of general citizen distrust of political players and institutions. For example, a recent Eurobarometer poll showed that only 32% of EU citizens expressed trust in their Government and 33%in their Parliament. In Ireland these figures are 42% and 39% respectively (Eurobarometer 75).”

  3. I have no wish to slam these laudable efforts, though I’ll probably be accused of it anyway, but I’m wondering, before considering all these wonderful machanisms to fill the gaps between citizens and existing systems of governance, would it not be worth while trying something really old-fashioned such as representative democracy with efforts to secure a sensible and workable balance between the legislature and the executive? Or something nearly as old-fashioned such empowered and resourced local government rasing most, if not all, of its revenue from local taxation/charges for services?

    And to supplement it why not look at how governance has become so centralised with a huge and expensive state apparatus with much governance administered by statutory, but ‘independent-from-government’ ,regulatory bodies and quangos? This means that citizens use their TDs to act as intermediaries between them and this huge, sprawling apparatus, rather than working to scrutinise government or hold it to account.

    Or even equally importantly, but generally not noted, why not consider the extent to which governing politicians, policy-makers and regulators have been captured by ‘producer interests’ (comprising investors/owners, managers and workers and their unions)? And reflect on how this, in the absence of the effective advocacy of the collective interests of most citizens as consumers of goods and users of services (whether publicly or tprivately provided), tends to atomise, individualise and disenfranchise these citizens.

    And finally might it not be worth while to reflect how our academics and public intellectuals have been captured by the governing politicians, policy-makers and regulators – who in turn have been captured by the ‘producer interest’. Is it any wonder that so many ordinary citizens are disenchanted and disaffected?

    It will need hard graft to solve these problems, but the first step is to recognise they exist – and not to start with airy-fairy ‘solutions’ that will have no impact on the huge imbalances of political and economic power.

    But that would all be a bit frightening.

  4. I think it would be a good idea to enhance the education of students in secondary school on the importance of democracy and participation in the democratic process. My experience is that alot of people are turned off by political discourse because their is disagreement – which unfortunately often becomes personal. Disagreement is part of the democratic process – if we all thought the same then would we need democracy? In the Frontline debate on RTE the other night I was disappointed that Norah Casey personalised the debate in respect of Declan Ganley’s bone fides in relation to the debate.Respect for the other person’s perspective needs to be emphasised constantly. I am involved in promoting greater female participation in politics through the introduction of gender quotas for candidate selection. There are lots of people who disagree, don’t understand the arguments, are ill informed but are genuine in their opposition and I respect that. Having the debate is what democracy is about in my view. What ever promotes that in a respectful manner is political reform that I would like to see.

  5. I beg to differ.

    If the democratic representative institutions have become detached it’s not because of ‘the people’ it’s because of the calibre of people who get involved in politics now. By any modern standard of honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability the current generation of politicians is by far the worse there has ever been since WW2.

    These people have actively placed a wedge between ‘the people’ and the institutions that are meant to serve the interests of the people. Look at how Enda Kenny refuses to debate the merits or otherwise of one of the most monumental treaty’s ever placed before the people. Because he lacks the intellectual capability to engage in such a debate he deprives the people of the right to question him – he puts his personal interests and failings above the requirements of being the leader of a government.

    By even the most rudimentary standards he has turned out to be an even bigger disappointment as Taoiseach than Brian Cowen because the expectations for Enda Kenny were set so low it was felt even he could reach them but he hasn’t. Whereas Brian Cowen could never have met the expectations set for him and of course we now know he too didn’t even meet our lowest expectations.

    We’ve gone from ministers being charged for the cost of providing meals to them while they were under siege at the foundation of the state in the early 1920s – and those ministers paying their bill from their own pocket – to the obscenity of our current Taoiseach thinking leading by example is claiming he did us a favour by accepting a salary of €200k (plus perks of course) instead of the €220k he could have accepted – with his pension of course still based on the higher €220k amount.

    If there was no increase in salary on becoming Taoiseach or a Minister would none of them want the job?

    But of course we have also seen the buck stops with the people when they cast a vote and time and time again when they are able to cast their vote they choose the rogue, the sleveen, the con man, the me feiner and the sort of person who would be the type of TD/Sen/Cllr/MEP they claim to want wouldn’t even ever make it into the ballot paper for a political party.

    The pillars of Irish society didn’t rot from the inside out for no reason, they rotted because the people charged with their upkeep were themselves mostly rotten to the core. I dare say the majority of them still are.

  6. Clodagh, no offense, but most folk are fully aware that our legislators (with a few exceptions) are useless. The partyfied ones are just geldings. The indos are well meaning but impotent.

    So, what to do? Well you could pay attention to the experiences of those who were members of one of our political parties, but who realised that the parties were expensively decorated sepulchures. The elected deputies only used members as electioneering fodder. But with the advent of electronic media – even they are now redundant. Its all about style Clodagh – f**k the substance. “I MUST maximize MY vote!”

    You cut-out and burn infected timber Clodagh. Applying a coat of gloss merely postpones the evil day. If you do not have the stomach for butchery, best not linger near an abbatoir. Bad days are ahead.

  7. One of the issues which has suffered from a democratic deficit is Irish immigration policy, or lack of it. The greatest demographic change in the history of the country, greater even than the Plantations of the 17th century, and it has been debated not even once, not for one second, in Dail or Seanad.

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