Do Citizens’ Dialogues Actually Work?

 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.

Verbatim #3

#Verbatim is a soundbite-based project devised by two of our YMIP journalists, Marie Dromey and Aisling Twomey, which presents multiple viewpoints of events through memorable quotes, word for word.  In its third installment, #Verbatim exclusively reports tweets from the Cork Citizens’ Dialogue.

Verbatim #3, Tweet based quotes from #cdcork

More Questions than Answers at Citizen’s Dialogue in Cork City Hall

Local citizens, politicians and media gathered at Cork City Hall on February 15th to partake in a Regional Citizens’ Dialogue, which followed on from a larger Dialogue held in Dublin in January.  2013 has been dubbed the Year of Citizens by the European Union, but the question remains as to how useful these events can truly be when only a handful of questions are taken from the gathered crowds.

At City Hall, the day began with speeches from the assembled panel, which featured Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore TD; Danish Ambassador to Ireland, H.E. Niels Pultz; President of Network Ireland, Julia Lynes; and European Movement Ireland Executive Director, Noelle O Connell.  The panel and audience were welcomed to Cork by Councillor John Buttimer, Lord Mayor of Cork, and Ralph Riegel of the Irish Independent acted as moderator throughout the event.

Many of the assembled panel members mentioned citizenship in some manner during their speeches.  Lord Mayor John Buttimer outlined his belief that all citizens should be able to contribute to the national debate in the hope of developing the EU for 2020, a core theme of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union.  The Lord Mayor stated that active citizenship meant “bringing about change or resisting unwanted change”, and that Irish people must feel that they have the power to effect change.  The Tánaiste outlined a similar belief that Europe, while remote and complicated, is ultimately all about its own citizens.  Noelle O Connell stated that Europe is not just an economy or a currency, but an organisation of citizens.

The Dialogue was due to begin at 1pm and was intended to last just one hour.  After thirty minutes of speeches, little time was left for what Ralph Riegel referred to as the most important part of the event: the actual questions from the assembled citizens.

A particular local focus emerged in the questions, with Diarmaid Ó Cadhla of The People’s Convention voicing the opinion that small local businesses in Cork have been decimated with the introduction of multinationals to the area. The Tánaiste countered that multinationals should be a significant part of any future for Ireland.  Ken Curtin commented on the Irish Presidency and, comparing it to previous Irish terms including our last in 2004, asked why it is primarily based in Dublin this time around.  Mr Curtin asked whether this was deliberate or if it was simply the case that Cork and other counties had been neglected.  The Tánaiste responded that the Dublin-centric nature of Presidency events was a result of a conscious decision and part of the budget process to cut as many costs as possible.

One speaker asked the panel what could be done for her specifically, stating that she had relocated to Cork in the hope of finding work and had never had the opportunity to go to college because she could not afford it.  She outlined her struggle with honesty but the panel responses were lacking.  Discussions about the Youth Guarantee and the €6 billion allocated to this scheme were enlightening and seemed hopeful.  Noelle O Connell provided information about internships and opportunities in Europe to the speaker.  But for someone without a college education, is there truly hope of a job in the European Union?

Twitter’s active engagement with the event was insightful and provided sideline debate and analysis.  The #cdcork hashtag was busy throughout a very short event where only ten speakers had questions answered.  There were hopeful and supportive tweets about the pending Youth Guarantee and a brief discussion about the involvement of women in society and politics, but common trends demonstrated apathy and anger for the European Union and the current government.  Tricia Purcell, reporter with Youth Media and the Irish Presidency, expressed her belief that the questions in Cork were tougher than those asked at the Dublin event in January.

The Citizens’ Dialogue in Cork ran slightly over time, allowing for some final questions to be presented.  With a large panel of experts, limited time and a wide range of issues, there were more questions than answers when the day was over.  Consistent fears about employment prospects, apathy toward the European Union and a focus on local interests combined to demonstrate the harsh truth that these debate-style events are useful only where the questions incite a movement for change.  Arguably, the opportunity to affect change, so lauded by the Lord Mayor at the beginning of the afternoon, remains a pipe dream.