Session 1: Better Civic Engagement
New forms of Governance/ Democratic Deficit/ New Forms of Decision Making
Discussion initially focussed on the limitations of the first past the post voting system, and the d’Hondt system as applied to the Assembly mandatory coalition.
Some time was spent looking at how decisions are made by the Assembly and the UK government, and the frustration at dealing with a very rigid approach to legislation and amendments.
The idea of a ‘preferenda’ system was discussed, and that it might make for better decision making, if an economic appraisal was carried out, and a list of evidence based options presented as a basis for policy decisions.
An ‘outcomes focussed’ approach was put forward as a means of making the best of where we live, along with the need to create a shared government. (South Africa was given as an example of a country were the concept of sharing had not been fully developed.)
There was a reasonable level of consensus that a revision to the current system was needed, as the Assembly was ‘designed not to work’ to ‘keep the two sides happy’ and it was far from a normal functioning political system.
It was noted that the PR system was designed to allow trade offs and that the NI situation doesn’t allow for this at present.
The group began to explore how NI could become more outcomes focussed, and whether rating of options would work, while wondering if looking at how we use electoral procedures and referenda was somewhat of a red herring.
It was postulated that there is a need to redefine the outcomes towards which the Assembly is working, and how the political system works to address peoples needs.
“The person who frames the question holds the power”.
It was generally accepted that politicians don’t like taking unpopular decisions, due to the risk of losing votes e.g. current lack of decision making regarding a budget, lack of desire to have control over social security and benefits. The idea of would-be politicians taking an exam prior to being allowed to stand for election was suggested.
There was discussion around the need for more interactive intervention by civic society and increased public pressure, with suggestions put forward as to how this could be achieved. It was acknowledged that there is a difference between democracy and populism, and that there is no electoral accountability within civic society. There is a need to reconnect voter needs and political outcomes.
There was consensus that we need our voters to be more informed, and that this will require an ability to access information that is accurate/true. The issue of self-interest, versus principles was discussed and it was noted that people in NI can often end up voting against their self interest due to lack of information and the constitutional issues.
So what can be done?
Citizen Access: Public information kiosks can be used to involve the community in decision-making and to have positive conversations with citizens. For example, kiosks were used in Larne as part of a consultation on re-siting of the football ground.
*It was pointed out that someone had set the options and that use of this technique would require a ‘write-in’ facility, but equally, that it was the role of civic leadership to arrive at options. Communication needs to be two-way
Pre-election Material: The idea of a simple single election communiqué for each electoral area was discussed, with each candidate having a single page. It was felt that this would encourage voter confidence and cut down on inaccuracy in party campaigning e.g. ‘only two parties standing in this area’. Could be online as well as hard copy
*It was pointed out that election material is probably at too late a stage to properly engage the community properly. And that it was vital for politicians to meet the public face to face to discuss issues well before any election.
Compulsory Hustings: Require candidates to meet with the public in a series of compulsory hustings held in community venues e.g. schools, community halls.
Citizens do not realise the power they hold in their vote. A massive push is required on education and engagement to move away from dysfunction and out of our entrenched comfort zones