A Real Citizens Assembly Must Link Deliberation with Political Power

I just watched the Prime Time discussion on the recent ‘We the Citizens Assembly’ that took place in different venues across Ireland last weekend. This is an initiative funded by Atlantic Philanthropies and originally coordinated by a variety of political scientists, primarily Prof David Farrell and Dr Elaine Byrne (both of whom I have a lot of respect for).  The objective is to encourage citizen engagement in public decision making. Yet at the same time it is not a ‘political movement’. This is the core problem of the initiative. It does not engage with the reality of power relations, the structure of political parties and the absence of a real choice in Irish politics.

The analysis on Prime Time began with the honest observation that there is no difference between the present government and the previous administration. But failed to ask why? The reality is that Ireland is governed by two center-right political parties that are indistinguishable  in public policy terms. This is the core problem of the Irish political system. The electorate are not presented with a real choice over who will govern the state. Political parties are the most important political actor in the system of decision making and no tinkering with the administrative processes of decision making will change this (i.e. reform of the Senate). Any change in politics requires a radical change in the political party system as these are the collective actors with the power and legitimacy (via the ballot box) to do it. The same applies across Europe. Most center-left and center-right parties have converged in public policy terms. This should be recognized as a real crisis of democracy.

Secondly, there was no reference to the power relations that underpin the structures of politics. The Irish parliament rubber stamps decisions that take place in cabinet government. This is unique in comparative European terms. Not only does all political power reside in cabinet, it is concentrated in the core executive (prime minister and finance). Therefore, the holders of these political offices wield significant power over the public policy departments of the state. Internally within these departments, all power resides with the minister. Therefore, when we blame the system or polity to introduce real change, in reality we should be blaming the ministers from political parties.

Thirdly, and most importantly, a decision making body that claims to be apolitical ignores the importance of ideas and ideological difference. Our system has failed not because of too much ideology but because of its absence. The Irish state has been dominated by pragmatic, populist, catch all parties with no vision for the type of public policy regime required to ensure a democratic political economy. The result of such populism is a low tax economy trying to meet the democratic demands for high quality services. It is a circle that cannot be squared. Thus, the basic absence of a left-right divide in the Irish parliament is one the primary problems afflicting Irish society.

Finally, there was no talk about the type of multi-level governance required for a functioning democratic system. Local government needs to be empowered to make local decision whilst the national requires a capacity to engage in European transnational governance. It is true that Ireland is not a corporation but a republic. This, however, requires the political to interact with the economic. Political democracy in the absence of economic democracy is not possible. Therefore the absence of any engagement with the current political choices on how to resolve the economic crisis is quite simply, a cop out.

Deliberation is massively important in democratic decision-making but unless that deliberation has direct access to political power it is futile. Most of these citizens initiatives stem (whether they acknowledge it or not) from the ideas of Jurgen Habermas. Several years ago he argued that liberal democracy is not the end of history and that democratic societies need to evolve into deliberative democracies. Only through dialogue and discussion can one really determine the political preference of citizens. You cannot assume fixed political preferences but ensure a rational process premised on direct democracy for political will formation (this is a far cry from what most journalists who argue that we had an election, the people spoke, time to move on). More importantly Habermas talked about the need for communicative power. Deliberation must feed directly into administrative power to ensure it is not empty consultation or one big talking shop, it must turn into communicative action.

Thus, deliberation and political power must be linked not separated.  This requires a political counter movement not an assembly that gives Irish people another opportunity to ‘voice’ their opinion (this is what Joe Duffy is for).

2 responses to “A Real Citizens Assembly Must Link Deliberation with Political Power

  1. IMO, the “we the citizens” assembly was only a demonstration of a process that can inform public policy formation at a national scale. It’s purpose is to start a national conversation about the potential of deliberative processes. To suggest that it is meaningless until it is actually embedded in the operation of government puts the cart before the horse. This is, of course, the very mission of deliberative democrats, and it’s a tough road to get there. I reckon the organisers have done a terrific job of gaining media attention and public interest in their initiative.. How could they have done better?

    However, I do think that your point is important that the participants didn’t get to the heart of some of the issues: power. Most people don’t talk about power because they lack a vocabulary about it. Their understanding is tacit. Same with ethics. Facilitation and process design should be improved to help participants articulate better the values and beliefs they bring to the frame.

  2. I agree with your first point but this is the problem it is not meant or has no intention of becoming embedded in the operation of government. It is simply designed, from what I can observe, to gather opinion and then pass this on to policy makers. Thus, it is a deliberative lobby forum which is less effective than say, what Ireland had for 23 years, a system of interest intermediation between civil society and the state (locally known as social partnership). This was arguably, closer to political power and process of decision making than ‘we the citizens’ assembly.

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