Citizens Assemblies are a powerful tool for hearing the thoughts of a population without the filter of political interference, lack of understanding, and the polarity that has been driven by social media and surveillance capitalism.

One of the best examples of the use of Citizens’ Assemblies is in Ireland. Clodagh Harris of University College Cork was involved in the first pilot, ‘We the Citizens’, in the subsequent Irish Convention on the Constitution (2012 – 2014), and in the more recent Citizens’s Assembly (2016 – 18), to find out more. Rob Hopkins asked her how the Assemblies in Ireland came about, and how they work:

Clodagh Harris: I started with the We the Citizens. That was a pilot Citizens’ Assembly, and was essentially an academic‐led experiment. It took place in 2011 and you’ll find its report online. It’s a really good report. I’m sure you’ve already seen it. That was pretty much the brainchild of Professor David Farrell at UCD, and as you know in Ireland, and this was post‐2008, around 2010, 2011, we faced severe economic and financial crisis.

A relatively new sovereign state was brought to its knees and had to rely on the IMF and others to bail us out of the situation. There were a lot of calls at the time for reform, and one of the areas identified for reform was our political system and the need for political reform, because it was felt our parties, our politicians, our institutions, had been asleep at the wheel. And were perhaps a little too ‘cosy’ as well in their relationships. Understating that a lot. Far too cosy in some cases.

Also I suppose ideologically we bought into globalisation. We were very proud of the fact that we were all trying to come out first/second in globalisation indexes. We very much followed a light touch regulation approach. There were calls coming from our side of the house I suppose, political scientists saying any discussion of political reform shouldn’t come exclusively from politicians. It needs to involve the citizens directly.

One of the things that was put out was this idea of a Citizens’ Assembly. Primarily I suppose there were a few of us who were familiar with it, and very much advocates of it, and David Farrell himself had been involved as an expert in the Canadian’s citizens’ assemblies. That project got money from Atlantic Philanthropies, essentially because the Irish political system was a bit concerned, reserved, at this idea of a Citizens’ Assembly. Not all, but by and large, there was a bit of resistance or concern about the risk involved and this sense that Irish people couldn’t possibly deliberate.

Yes, the polite, civilised Canadians could manage that, but please don’t ask Irish people to do it! Essentially what that project did was it proved Irish people could deliberate. It was very much an academic project reported online, and you see what they discuss. It showed that, yes, people could sit down and respectfully discuss issues, and come to recommendations.

Following on from that, as you know, there was the shock general election of 2011 changing government, and all the parties in the run up to that election had included some form of political reform in their manifesto. Most of them had referred to some form of Citizens’ Assembly, or citizens‐led process.

Coming from the programme for government from that Fine Gael programme for government was this idea of a convention on the Irish constitution. It wasn’t clear at the outset what that would look like. Fine Gael were looking for it to be more like a traditional citizens’ assembly where all members were chosen randomly from society, the citizenry. Labour wanted something that included civil society and political representatives. So what you found with the Convention on the Constitution was you had this hybrid body. 33 of the 99 members were from political parties, North and South, and 66 were randomly selected citizens. So stratified random sampling, so keeping an eye to gender, socio‐economic status, geography, etcetera.

It was given a very eclectic mix of things to look at, ranging from reducing the voting age to looking at the electoral system, to looking at the introduction of same sex marriage, to removing the offence of blasphemy. What was interesting about that process is that there’s an awful lot of cynicism, particularly from the commentariat, those in the media in particular, you know, op‐ed journalists, towards this. But it actually – from very early on, and very quickly – it seemed that the process was working well.

Politicians were working well. For the politicians I suppose it was an eye opener for them because they were actually sitting at the tables. Those who were there were full members. You saw a number of historic decisions, recommendations, coming from it. Those involved took the task very seriously. The first few reports were responded to quickly in the Dáil but unfortunately after a period of time the responsiveness rate dropped.

I suppose it’s had a couple of achievements. Its first achievement was that historic referendum on marriage equality. That came from a recommendation from that body. But obviously there were people campaigning for that for decades beforehand. That’s what brought it on to the agenda, so you couldn’t say that that was totally a consequence of the assembly. But I suppose having this outside body brought a degree of independence to the decision, gave more momentum to it.

Its legacy as well can be found in the Citizens’ Assembly. The success of the Convention, particularly in persuading politicians that this could be done – because those politicians who took part would go back to the Dáil debates on the floor afterwards, all of them from all the parties spoke very positively about the process and what had come from it. We began to see buy‐in from the political establishment.

You saw then in 2016 the creation of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, because one of the things that was being raised at the time, and again I suppose arguably long‐overdue, was the need to repeal the 8thamendment to our constitution, so that provision to permit abortion in Ireland. Again, this Citizens’ Assembly was more akin to what we would see in the Canadian system. It was 99 citizens, no politicians. In some ways this was the politicians trying to remove themselves from a very sticky and potentially divisive issue.

I suppose that’s particularly true for Fine Gael, who are our lead party and they would have gone through a lot of internal divisions and lost members the last time this was discussed. But as part of the Citizens’ Assembly they didn’t just look at repeal of the 8th, they also looked, as you know, at the whole issue of how to make Ireland a world leader in tackling climate change. To be honest if we could just get into the world top 10 we’d be doing well!

I like the ambition of it. Initially it was envisaged that that would only take one weekend, and I don’t know how you discuss something as substantial as climate change in one weekend, but that went over two weekends. The recommendation in the report that came from it is now currently being discussed in the Joint Oireachtas Committee, and they will report back on the 31st January. So it will be interesting to see what comes from that.

Rob Hopkins: So if I was somebody who had been chosen as one of those 99 people, or 66, some of them had 66 wasn’t it?

CH: Yes, the Convention had 66 people.

RH: So if I was one of those people, what would my experience have been?

CH: You would have been chosen, and you would have been invited to come along. In advance of the weekend – now I wasn’t one of them so I’m trying to think from the other side – in advance of each weekend you would have received some briefing documents that would have been prepared by experts in the area.

You would have had your say. The process has differed a little. Particularly in the Citizens’ Assembly. You would have received short accessible information from the experts in advance on the given topic. You would have arrived in the hotel on the Friday evening, and been met by the team. You would have early on Saturday morning sat down – it varies a little bit from weekend to weekend – but the general programme was that on the Saturday morning, you would come in, you would look at the table plan, you would see which table you were seated at.

If you were a member of the Convention on the Constitution you would be sitting there with a number of fellow citizen members and one or two politicians. There would be a facilitator and a note taker. Usually the morning sessions, but again it varied a little bit from weekend to weekend, would be where some information was provided, whether it was from a legal perspective, medical, ethical, whatever. Depending on the topic.

Then they would break out then into smaller group discussions. Presentations, plenary sessions of question and answer, small local discussions, still the opportunity to ask questions but to invite the expert over to your table, so working with that idea that there’s an empty chair there the expert could slot in to provide further information if required. I know at the Convention there were feedback mechanisms during the day where we would take the note taker’s notes and feedback after lunch what had been discussed in the different tables. That varied a little bit in the Citizens’ Assembly, but again there were still those feedback mechanisms.

Then usually on the Sunday, if the topic was only given one weekend, which was the case mostly with the Convention – not with the Assembly, the Assembly was better at allocating more time – what you’ll find is on the Sunday as a Member you would come to your table and you would see a draft ballot paper, but it would only be a draft ballot paper, and you would discuss its content in a small group, then feedback. An awful lot of deliberation went on on the ballot papers because the way both processes made decisions was by majority decision.

So by majority decision, and to recognise the formality of the process, there were ballot boxes – like the ones we would normally have in our polling stations were there. It was very official looking, and they were locked, and there were observers as well. It was taken very seriously. I suppose that’s really what your experience would have been. You would have been mixing a lot with your fellow members.

RH: Were people paid for their time?

CH: No, they weren’t. I personally have issues with that. I think they should be. But that wasn’t the case. The Convention ran something like 9 weekends, and bearing in mind that people would spend at least one, if not two nights in a hotel, that would be covered, all their travel expenses would be covered. The Convention ran 9 weekends, seven regional meetings, plus whatever experts invited, for under one million euro, which was shoestring really when you consider the amount of work involved. You consider the amount of actual people involved.

A lot of the Convention work was actually done on goodwill. Most of us who worked on the Convention did it for free, were happy to do it for free. But the citizens, I’m a firm believer, should be paid. Also in some cases where some of the expertise was given by some of the professions, particularly nowadays, they should have been paid too, I think, or given something. Expenses were paid and the hotel was paid, but again, that’s my own personal opinion on the experts.

Certainly the citizens, there are many of us in the field who would say that they should be given honoraria, and I know on a number of projects they are. Not a huge amount of money, but you know, if you want a diverse mix of people, you’re asking people who are in precarious employment, which is very much the norm today, and there’s a gendered aspect to that, and there’s an age aspect to that as well, and you’re asking somebody to give up possibly a Saturday job or the opportunity if they’re on zero hour contracts to forego hours. There should be some kind of recompense. Also recompense just because it’s work. They’re actually working. It’s not a jolly!

RH: If you weren’t one of those people, how would you be able to contribute? How would you know they were happening? How would you be able to contribute, or did they just happen away somewhere and then they made a recommendation?

CH: Again it comes back to the resources, because often the money for advertising wasn’t there. But because they were obviously government‐sponsored and government led initiatives, there would have been calls put out for submissions. The submissions page both of the Convention and Assembly are still live as far as I’m aware. You can’t submit but you can see the submissions.

They received a lot of public submissions. They were livestreamed. The plenary sessions were livestreamed. Obviously the small group discussions weren’t. At various times they got coverage in the media, so I suppose you could have an awareness from that perspective. But in terms of actually having input as an ordinary member, I suppose it was through public submissions by and large. Also, what was interesting about the Irish versions of these assemblies is that there was space within these processes for relevant advocacy groups or civil society organisations to give expertise.

You found, for example, the National Women’s Council were invited in to contribute to discussions. The Youth Council, Amnesty International, the churches. These were other ways of making sure a diversity of perspectives were considered. But as an ordinary Joe Soap, unless you were randomly selected or you made a public submission, you wouldn’t. But it was covered in the newspapers a little.

RH: You may have heard that here in the UK we had a referendum a little while ago. How could we have done that better? What would that have looked like if we’d taken a more deliberative approach to such a hugely complicated question?

CH: Yeah, referendums work well if something can be reduced to a binary question but most things can’t be reduced to a yes or no. I suppose you could have had a multi‐option referendum. You could have had a commission perhaps checking the facts, more of what’s being said. But to be honest, Britain is not unique in that regard. We face challenges all the time with referendums in Ireland. Referendums are a very blunt instrument.

What’s interesting is a couple of things. It would have been useful to have had some kind of Citizens’ Assembly process that would have informed the debate, or at least given recommendations and said, “Well listen actually in/out might be too simplistic. What does out look like? Is it soft, is it hard?” At least have the discussion around custom unions.

Also even have a discussion – I know I’m Irish so I’m coming from my perspective – but even recognition of the fact that there was a member state that could potentially block you from leaving, and this is what’s happening with the backstop. Anyway. But that should have been at least discussed, what people chose to do obviously was their own business, but it would have been a more informed decision.

I think what’s interesting is what they do in Oregon, that Citizens’ Initiative Review. John Gastil’s work. In other ways Citizen’s Initiatives, which are similar – again can be a very blunt tool of direct democracy, and I don’t want to be disparaging because I’m very much in favour of increased citizen engagement and direct democracy – but what they do is in advance of an initiative or vote, like a referendum on something, they create this Citizens’ Panel to debate the issue and put out the information. At least I suppose it would have been another source of hopefully relatively independent information.

The quality of it was so poor. Alan Renwick is at UCL, the Constitutional Unit, UCL, and Professor Graham Smith of Westminster, Centre for the Study of Democracy in Westminster. You’d really like his work, because he also has a keen interest in participatory processes, deliberative processes, and environmental justice. They got money from the ESRC to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit. Now it happened last year, so it worked on the premise that Brexit was a reality, but what should Brexit look like? Well worth reading their report.

They also wrote an article in Political Quarterly. They did the random selection thing, but they wanted to make sure that they had more leave than Remainers in the group so that they couldn’t be accused of bias. They wanted to make it as scientifically rigorous as possible. They found that people by and large wanted a much softer Brexit than was being discussed. When people sat down, those with different views, different backgrounds, they started to tease out what it meant, people wanted a softer version.

RH: How do you think deliberative democracy approaches like this help the imagination? How do they help us to imagine the future in more positive ways? How do they create the space where the imagination is given some room to flourish?

CH: One of the powerful things again in the Irish processes is they’ve brought in the role of testimony. They had people’s experience of crisis pregnancy both from a pro‐life and a pro‐choice perspective. They brought in the lived experience of being a gay person and unable to marry, and being a gay person and being worried about your parents, your two mums who are not able to marry and how can you look after them in old age, etcetera.

Nowadays, I suppose we all operate in bubbles. We can choose what newspapers we read, we can choose what articles, you don’t even have to see what’s on the front page. Likewise on Twitter, on Facebook, we can choose who we follow, how we get our news. We don’t actually always hear different views. We don’t necessarily hear different perspectives on things and we’re inclined, from what I can understand, to take things more personally because we’ve become so isolated and individualised and even maybe just having discussions with people of the same colour, socio‐economic class, etcetera. We’re not as mixed.

Social media has been great but it’s actually made us more isolated because we’re not going out more into communities and meeting different people. But also we can choose very carefully whose opinions we hear, so we’re not going to hear something that’s going to be offensive, that we don’t like. Not offensive, but that we just don’t like, we don’t agree with.

What they do is first off they give us time because again our lives seem to be busier. Now we probably have made them busier through technology like this, and things like this. I’ve personally got to the stage where I hate emails. I’m actually very happy to be chatting. I suppose it gives us the time. I don’t know about you, but even in my own life, the time to actually sit down and reflect and read and converse with people, with people that you wouldn’t normally meet with.

You might be at times uncomfortable. You also get access to information. Hopefully in a way that is accessible. Or should be. It should be accessible, and it should be again respectful, and in a way that you can ask questions and you can challenge it. That’s where it’s surely good for imagination. The only thing with these processes is you have to be careful. One of the things I am always concerned about with the time constraints is that because we’ve tried to cram so much into one weekend or two weekends, that can have a negative impact on creativity.

I suppose at least if something is over two weekends and you have this period of time and space between the two weekends, people have a chance to reflect, revise, come back with more ideas. Actually, to be honest, anything that takes us away from our social media, takes us away from how we’re constantly bombarded, at least gives us an opportunity as people to chat to one another face to face, and also an opportunity to perhaps hear things that we hadn’t heard. Whether it’s actual facts, evidence based scientific fact, or whether it’s just people’s lived experience of a piece of legislation, or the lack of a piece of legislation.

RH: My last question is a question I’ve asked everybody that I’ve interviewed, which is quite a lot of people by this stage. If you had been elected as the Prime Minister, President of Ireland, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make Ireland Imaginative Again’, that you had felt like the big challenges that the country faces in terms of climate change and so on, require a refocusing and a reprioritising of imagination, that we focus so much on innovation that we’ve neglected imagination, and this is not a problem that we can innovate our way out of, it’s a problem we have to imagine our way out of, so we needed to reprioritise imagination in political life, in education, in every aspect, what might you do in your first 100 days?

CH: If I had a 100 days – this would be more of a benign dictatorship than a democracy so I’m not going to try this – but I’d really try and shut down social media accounts. I’d give us all a break from bombardment. Not that I’m anti‐social media. We are all guilty of just being constantly bombarded, and we don’t give ourselves that time to think. I’d love to create creative spaces where we could be creative. Literally create a space. I don’t know how you would do that.

It could be a virtual space but then you might need your social media. I know Michael D. Higgins (new Irish President) has been very good at opening up spaces for discussions and bringing ideas, and I think if you were a leader… I think that’s the saddest part. Currently I have a very small management role. I’m head of our department. What I’ve noticed is that my energy is going to things like office space, allocation of office space. This is the equivalent of Armageddon in our place. All room for thought of anything academic or creative is gone. The time for it, the space for it in my head is gone. It’s been shoved out by something else. When I think about modern leaders, I think they’re so busy managing they’re not actually leading.

Sometimes it’s nice just to have the space for ideas. People don’t need to agree with your ideas, but literally a discussion and a space for a discussion. What that looks like, I do not know. I don’t know whether that looks like something… People always go, “Oh, we’ll go to the young people and we’ll have a poster competition”, and you’re thinking, “Okay, we’re going to dump all this crap, plus the responsibility, and the conversation on young people.”

I think there should be conversations, there should be ways in which you can fund conversations or fund projects, whether it’s through Men’s Sheds, whether it’s through first time mothers who are having challenges of breastfeeding. You should be challenging. Climate change issues you need to be talking to parents. You need to be talking particularly to first time parents who are seriously traumatised by the experience. Or the parents because, again, particularly anybody who’s at home all the time, they have the heating on all the time. They’re caring. They’re worried about the next generation and what can be achieved. That’s where you begin.

My sense would be I would literally go straight out into the community. I would make money available for different projects, whether it’s meetings, whether it’s art installations, whether it’s small films, whether it’s participatory theatre. I’m a huge fan of participatory theatre and forum theatre. They can work really, really well, and to start engaging very much at the local level with the view to trying to I suppose start to come up with ideas locally. Obviously they’re not going to solve the global problem, but I suppose if we start to think and act locally and see one small change that we can make, it can have some difference.

If I were leader, this is one of the things I would do, I would move away from putting all the onus on the consumer, because at the moment it’s all like, “Oh, you consume too much. You consume too much energy. You’re driving your car too much.” Whatever. There’s very little debate about what about the large meat processing companies or the other lobbying groups who are using an awful lot more energy. I’d love to have a debate and a vision that focused more on energy citizenship as opposed to the active consumer. The active citizen. But not just the active citizen.

I suppose you’d need to sit down and look at a set of values. A lot of this is very ideological. To be honest, this is all ideological. Part of our biggest problem is that everything is premised on growth, as you mentioned, and growth comes at a huge cost. In Ireland we are obsessed with growth. We’re not alone. But we are very obsessed with growth. And the really sad part is that growth has led to more social injustice and energy injustice. So I’d have an awful lot in 100 days but ideologically I’m hoping that I’d be starting in a good place. Ideologically I’d like to have a conversation about compromise and values and as Irish people we talk about being green, we value having our green spaces and our fields and our green butter and our cattle and all this, but really what does that look like?

One parting shot that occurred to me was that we need to listen more. We’ve all become very good at talking, and I’m very guilty of this myself. But that’s one of the biggest problems in modern life, is we’ve stopped listening.

Rob Hopkins was in conversation with Clodagh Harris

First published by Resilience, 14 February 2019

If you’re wondering how you might run your own Citizens’ Assembly, Marcin Gerwin has written a great guide that you can download here.