On January 10th 2013, in the opening weeks of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a Citizens’ Dialogue was held in Dublin, inviting members of the public to question political figures about issues close to their hearts. Just a month later, on February 15th, a similar event was held in Cork with the same goal in mind.
The Citizens’ Dialogues are not a purely Irish phenomenon. The EU Citizens’ Agenda was published in 2012 and outlined the point of these Dialogues: they are part of a broad debate on the future of Europe. Open forums for 200-500 people, the Dialogues are intended to create a genuine EU public space for consultation with citizens. After two of these Dialogues in Ireland, we are now in a position to review the system with the goal of making it better.
The spirit and heart of the Dialogues is beyond reproach. I don’t doubt that they are a genuine attempt to make contact with European citizens, but I do think they can be improved in a number of ways to increase their efficiency and maximise their capacity to contribute to the Citizens’ Report, due to be prepared by the European Commission following the Year of Citizens.
To gauge the response to the Dialogues, I asked several people for their opinions on the idea of citizen contributions. Cork student Dean Duke said that he felt the Dialogues have the “capacity to stretch beyond a talking shop”, but added that “a Dialogue is only useful if it leads to actionable outcomes.”
Perhaps the best example of actionable outcomes comes from the United States town hall meetings. A useful tool of federal and local politics in the USA, town hall meetings are set up to enable citizens to meet their representatives and demand answers. They have proven to be highly efficient and seem to genuinely affect significant change. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has built his political reputation on them, and during his 100th town hall meeting, he hauled Congress over the coals to gain aid for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. It was delayed, but the aid did come through, and Governor Christie is tipped for the Presidential race in 2016.
Town hall meetings are informal affairs, gathering hundreds of people in local centres. Where more people show up than can be heard, they are split into smaller groups and questions are filtered through one spokesperson. It means that multiple questions can be quickly answered. The Citizens’ Dialogues in Ireland demonstrated a great spirit of involvement and engagement, but unfortunately lacked that efficiency. Perhaps a less formal atmosphere, with fewer speeches, would facilitate more answers? During the Cork Dialogue, by the time the speeches were complete, only thirty minutes remained for questions. This ran to forty minutes, during which time ten questions were answered. I would love if the capacity had been there to answer even a handful more.
The Dublin Dialogue was attended by 200 people, who filled in application forms and were selected to attend on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. The application forms were basic in nature, asking for names, addresses, occupations and organisations. In theory, it was a good way to make sure a broad range of people attended. But I contest that the Dialogues were intended to produce a public forum; this is an actual stated goal in the Citizens’ Agenda. Perhaps the goal should have been to engage with citizens who have no particular interest in the EU?
Attending that day were the Director of Amnesty International Ireland and the head of Social Justice Ireland; both of whom already get a lot of airtime in Ireland and are recognisable public figures. Both had questions answered on the day, but as a normal citizen, I would have liked to see questions from those who’ve never had a voice before. Whether through viral marketing or media saturation, my dream for the Dialogue was that every member of the public would hear of it and know of it. It would have been amazing to see average citizens wander in from the street to have their say.
Throughout both Dialogues, social media played a large role. Citizens actively engaged with the event-specific hashtags and the Dublin Dialogue trended on Twitter throughout the afternoon. This in itself was wonderful – but the Dialogues have the capacity to build on it for the future, as do all politicians. In 2011, Barack Obama answered questions from the public in a virtual town hall meeting. The hashtag was #askObama, and the President received over 60,000 tweets in just a few hours. It may be a new form of democracy in action; but it is democratic and the Dialogues across Europe should invest in it.
When I spoke to Siobhán de Paor, who attended the Cork Dialogue, she said that she felt some of the answers given made her feel “fobbed off.” She felt that while the answers were honest and factual, they lacked the passion of the questions. If this is the case, representatives in Ireland must be more like Governor Christie and face questions head on.
As a final note, the Dialogue events felt special, with wide media coverage and central locations in City Halls. I would love these events to become so common that they lose their sheen and become, if anything, less special; I want people to be able to ask questions of their representatives in public forums as often as possible. The word ‘forum’ comes from the Roman Forum, which Michael Grant once called the most celebrated meeting place in all the world and throughout history. It was a place for public gatherings and involvement, the precursor to all modern civic engagement events. Citizens’ Dialogues have the capacity to bring great power to the public. With a little more work, we can get there.