The Irish Citizens’ Assembly
The Citizens' Assembly was an exercise in deliberative democracy, placing the citizen at the heart of important legal and policy issues facing Irish society. With the benefit of expert, impartial and factual advice the 100 citizen Members considered five topics. Their conclusions formed the basis of a number of reports and recommendations that were submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas (the Irish Houses of Parliament) for further debate by our elected representatives.
The Citizens' Assembly was an exercise in deliberative democracy, which placed the citizen at the heart of important legal and policy issues facing Irish society. Under intense scrutiny and at all times operating transparently, 99 citizen Members considered five distinct topics over a 19-month period.
The five topics covered a range of complex policy issues, all potentially divisive and some particularly emotive. The challenge faced by the Assembly was how best to add depth and quality to the public debate and understanding of these five issues in an era of social media.
Of particular significance was the consideration of the abortion topic. As in many jurisdictions, this issue brings legal, ethical, medical and constitutional complexities. In the Irish context, it is an issue which has been the subject of public debate and the subject of referendums for over 25 years. The Assembly process brought forward tangible policy and legislative proposals that were uniquely citizen led. The approach adopted through the Citizens’ Assembly allowed for a mature and informed debate that ultimately led to an amendment to the Irish constitution and related legislative change on this highly charged topic.
Following the general election in 2016, the Government committed to the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly within six months and without participation by politicians, with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues. The establishment of the Assembly was approved by resolution by both Houses of the Oireachtas.
The Assembly began its work in October 2016 and held 12 weekend meetings between then and the final meeting in April 2018. There were 99 citizen Members of the Assembly, in addition to the Chairperson, chosen at random to represent the views of the people of Ireland. The membership of the Assembly was broadly representative of society in terms of gender, age, social class and regional spread, as reflected in the Census. The five issues the Assembly was mandated to consider were: 1) the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (which concerns abortion); 2) how we best respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population; 3) how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change; 4) the manner in which referenda are held; and 5) fixed term parliaments.
For each of these five topics, the Assembly was tasked with not only considering the matters but “to make such recommendations as it sees fit and report to the Houses of the Oireachtas”. In so doing, it was vital that workable policy proposals be produced through a list of recommendations on each topic that would have the public’s support as shown through a representative sample of well informed citizens.
A submissions process on each topic widened the reach of public engagement and resulted in approximately 15,000 submissions being received across all topics.
All public meetings were live streamed and then archived online, all papers presented to the Members were made available online to the public immediately and all policy decisions were made available to the public, together with, where appropriate, the rationale for same.
In accordance with the Assembly’s rules and procedures, a Steering Group was in place to support the Assembly in the efficient and effective discharge of its role and functions. In practice, the Group assisted with planning and operational issues associated with the work programme. The Steering Group consisted of the Chair and a representative group of Members elected by the Assembly Members.
The Members voiced their perspectives and opinions with both an awareness of and the intention of having a positive impact on the lives of their fellow citizens. Supplemented with expert, impartial and factual advice the Members voted recommendations formed the basis of four reports on five topics that were submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas for further debate by our elected representatives. The recommendations have provided politicians with further insights from voters on policies and pathways that would have the public’s support, based on the representative nature of the Assembly members.
Deliberative democracy exercises are gaining traction worldwide as a way to better respond to the challenges faced by democracies. Ireland has had two constitutional amendments passed which originated as proposals put forward by deliberative democracy exercises (marriage equality as recommended by the Convention on the Constitution and replacing the Eighth Amendment as recommended by the Assembly). This makes Ireland a world leader in the use of the deliberative democracy model, as demonstrated by the high levels of international interest in the Assembly process in terms of media coverage and invitations to present the Assembly’s work abroad.
The Taoiseach (the Irish Prime Minister) has publically stated the Government’s proposals for the establishment of a future Assembly to consider other societal issues.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
• Members randomly selected from the voting population, did not include a proportion of elected representatives.
• In keeping with the commitment to the principles of openness/transparency, all public proceedings were “live streamed” and all papers and presentations were made available in real time on the Assembly website. With sign language and Irish interpretation also available, the live streamed proceedings were accessible to the widest possible audience as they took place.
• The provision of information based on facts/expert testimony was key to enabling a rational and respectful debate by the members on all issues.
• The use of trained and experienced facilitators at the member roundtable discussions allowed for equality of voice in their deliberations.
• Expert Advisory Groups, comprised of academics/practitioners, were fundamental in developing the work programme, selecting speakers and providing expertise/advice particularly in relation to the development of ballot papers.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The Assembly has submitted four reports on five topics to the Houses of the Oireachtas as stipulated by the resolution approving the Assembly’s establishment.
As an example, the report on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (which concerns abortion) was considered by a joint committee of politicians from both Houses, who in turn also recommended a referendum to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution. This referendum took place on 25 May 2018 and passed by a majority of 66.4%. The Assembly had voted for this by a majority of 64%. Following the recent conclusion of legal challenges to the result, the Government is progressing legislation to allow for the termination for pregnancy in line with the results of the referendum.
The report and recommendations on climate change are currently being considered by a similarly constituted Committee on Climate Action.
The remaining reports are awaiting further consideration by the Government.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Expert Advisory Groups assisted with work programme development. Speakers from academia, professional bodies, civil society and international organisations contributed to the process/presented to the Members.
Collaborative relationships were built with civil society representatives, allowing the Secretariat to understand and address concerns that were raised. These groups played a vital role in publicising the Assembly’s work amongst their members/the media and through social media platforms.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
The Secretariat went to great lengths to engage with stakeholders/media through advocacy groups, NGOs, representative organisations, State bodies, academia and individuals throughout the process.
Recommendations were the outcome of presenting evidence based material to the members, balancing, listening and respecting differing views, thus strengthening the quality of public debate and aiding public understanding of complex, divisive issues which may otherwise be deliberated in reductive ways.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The Assembly generated a large body of expert evidence/analysis on topics it considered, all of which is available on the Assembly website and is an important repository of information.
The Assembly produced four Reports on five topics, which include 77 recommendations spanning constitutional, legislative and policy proposals.
With respect to specific substantive outcomes of the Assembly, the most notable lasting change is that a proposal developed by the citizen Members and voted on by them was put to the people at referendum and has resulted in a change to the Constitution, the foundational law of the State. Deliberations on the 8th Amendment of the Constitution saw the Assembly’s result almost exactly mirror that of the wider electorate in the subsequent Referendum (64% v 66% in favour respectively).
The Assembly also witnessed significant interest from both political/non-political groups at home/abroad in the process and received many requests to present on the Assembly model.
Challenges and Failures
As recognised by the Chair in the final Report, structuring a comprehensive and coherent work programme in the timeframe afforded to the Assembly was challenging. The topics assigned were wide-ranging and often spanned a broad spectrum of disciplines/policy work being carried out across different Departments. To ensure the full completion of the work programme it was necessary to seek two extensions from the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The extended timeframe had a knock on impact on some Members ability to continue in their role. Members participated in a voluntary capacity. It is clear from feedback from Members that, while many were proud to serve for the entire period (61 Members in total); this level of commitment took a considerable toll on their personal lives. It is also clear that during the 19-month period, some of the Members who withdrew from the process did so as their circumstances and availability changed, which is inevitable over such an extended period.
Conditions for Success
An independent Chair with status, personal credibility and authority to lead the process impartially, oversaw consideration of the issues in a balanced, neutral and informative way.
The small Secretariat demonstrated extremely high levels of commitment, energy and determination to make the process a success. Continuity of the Secretariat and almost two-thirds of the original members encouraged a sense of shared commitment/responsibility. New members were supported/encouraged by the Secretariat and existing members to contribute to deliberations.
Clear administrative procedures alongside appropriate logistical and financial resources were integral to the Assembly’s success.
Underpining the Assembly’s work were six key principles - openness, fairness, equality of voice, efficiency, respect and collegiality. The Assembly has proven that operating in an open and transparent manner, and ensuring that all views are listened to equally and respectfully, better serves all stakeholders.
The Assembly is a unique exercise in deliberative democracy, however many of its central engagement mechanisms are adaptable to other Departments in the Civil Service and the wider Public Service. The Assembly Secretariat has already engaged with multiple Departments and agencies to share experiences. Examples include the National Dialogue on Climate Action, which is currently holding regional meetings around the country on Climate Action. At these meetings they have adapted the deliberation model to meet their specific requirements. Learnings have also been shared with An Foram Uisce and the National Centre for Curriculum and Assessment. The open approach to communications and engagement with stakeholders is currently being examined as part of Action 4 under Our Public Service 2020, with a view to sharing our approach across the public sector more widely.
The project has demonstrated the merits of an alternative and innovative way to gain and better understand citizens’ perspectives, preferences and opinions outside the traditional representative democracy model. It has highlighted the potential for considering certain topics in a format in the future that could in turn produce workable policy measures which have the public's support.
The level of public scrutiny from the outset was very intense, meaning that all decisions and actions taken were the subject of rigorous discussion and enquiry. Operating openly and transparently, an approach that public bodies are often criticised for not adopting, was recognised as being one of the pillars of success of this project by commentators.
The Secretariat observed throughout the process that the level of interest in the process/its structures/its outcomes from international audiences; media, academics and other agencies and representatives from foreign Governments was very high. The Secretary presented on the Assembly’s deliberative democracy process to various groups - the State Ministery of Baden- Wurttemberg, Germany; the World Forum on Democracy, Strasbourg; and Building Change Trust, NI to name a few.
In the final Report, the Chairperson made a number of reflections on the process, which also serve as lessons learned. They were, briefly, as follows: the importance of transparency; certain procedural aspects around the recruitment of Members; potential reimbursement and a maximum length of service for Members to encourage continuing participation; consideration given to the types of topics referred to a deliberative democracy body; the length of time given to each topic; engagement with academia (as outlined above); the provision of a clear path for recommendations; the importance of facilitation of the deliberations, further research into the deliberative nature of such bodies and the impact of social media on proceedings.
Further detailed information about the work of the Assembly is available on the website www.citizensassembly.ie.