A fortnight ago I attended Building Change Trust’s Democracy Day, as part of the Imagine Festival. The event showcased 8 civic activism projects run by civil society organisations in Northern Ireland – and mentored by Involve and The Democratic Society – that have used a variety of creative and innovative engagement methods. It also marked the launch of the report ‘Beyond voting: Deliberative Democracy in Northern Ireland’, which applies Simon Burall’s deliberative systems framework to Northern Ireland’s democracy.
Falling at a very significant time in Northern Irish (N.I.) & British politics, the event was incredibly interesting and lively. It is also one of the first I have been lucky enough to attend with Involve.
Here are my 4 takeaways from the day:
1 Deliberation is key in almost every setting.
93% of those who attended Democracy Day, when asked to choose a better political system for NI, voted for a deliberative assembly alongside efforts to involve citizens in decisions. What became apparent to me is how important this is even when addressing turbulent political settings and complicated issues, such as the current situation in N.I. In fact, when speaking on a panel during the day, Involve’s director, Tim Hughes, suggested this is when deliberative processes are most crucial, as they are sometimes the only way complicated issues can be addressed. While this is undeniably a turbulent time in N.I. politics, the existing situation also offers space for change, and opportunities to take steps towards a more deliberative political system.
2 The methodology used in the report has wider applications.
The seven components set out by Simon in ‘A Room for a View’ are used in ‘Beyond Voting’ as a framework for analysis in Northern Ireland. Using this as a basis offers a guide to conducting further studies and building on the BCT report. The deliberative systems framework may, therefore, be applied to different contexts but also to the democratic system as a whole.
3 Engagement can be creative and fun.
Forum theatre, music and art can all be used to engage people and inform decision making. These methods were investigated by Corrymeela who reported that they enabled participants to feel empowered. The approaches offer a way of reaching different audiences and creating more inclusive policy making processes, but it’s vital to make sure that such methods go beyond tokenistic gestures of engagement and have an actual impact on policy making for any sustainable or real change to occur. For more ideas of engagement methods see Involve’s Knowledge Base and Build Change Trust’s Civic Activism Toolkit.
4 To create a better democracy, we need better citizenship education and more involvement of young people in politics.
Throughout the day I spoke to delegates about what they thought solutions might be to achieving a better democracy. We asked participants to respond to questions such as ‘what might a better democracy look like?’, ‘what needs to happen next?’ and ‘who needs to be involved?’. The most popular suggestion focused around involving young people in policy making. This not only chimes with projects that we run at Involve such as MH:2K, but supports my own passion to ensure young people have a voice in planning for the future and influencing policies that will affect their lives.
I loved being part of democracy day and the opportunity to learn about 8 very different projects that all explored new methods of participation and ways of bridging the gap between citizens and decision makers.
If you’d like to read Building Change Trust’s report you can do so here.