The Trust takes next steps to Deepening Democracy in NI

The Trust takes next steps to Deepening Democracy in NI

12 September 2017

Since 2013, the Building Change Trust has been working on an area of work we call Creative Space for CIvic Thinking, and now we're taking the next step. 

Put simply, this work has explored and developed the Northern Ireland Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector’s role in helping citizens play an active role in the decisions made about their lives.

We set up the NI Open Government Network, we commissioned research into the independence of the VCSE Sector and, through our Civic Activism Awards programme, we funded a number of innovative projects piloting methods and ways for citizens to get closer to the decision making process.

Throughout all this work, we keep on coming back to the idea that a more deliberative, participative,  democracy is sorely needed in Northern Ireland. Essentially, as our recent Beyond Voting research emphasises, our democracy needs to be about more than showing up to the ballot box and voting.

At our Democracy Day event back in March we began exploring whether there was an appetite within civil society and government for a more ambitious collaboration to take this agenda forward. The answer was a resounding yes!


Building on this, we launched a co-design process starting with a workshop in June  at The Mac in Belfast where participants from diverse organisations and backgrounds pitched their own ideas for new deliberative democracy initiatives and then ‘voted with their feet’ in relation to which ones they most wanted to collaborate around.

These ideas were further developed over the summer and this week all the groups, plus some new participants, came together again in The Mac to add in the detail and begin the work of turning their ideas into reality. Participants have focused in on three big ideas that could help push deliberative democracy forward in the next couple of years.

One is a Citizen Assembly for NI. Following on the coattails of pioneering work in Canada, Great Britain and most recently Ireland this model empowers ordinary citizens to consider, debate and decide on complex political issues where politicians have not been able to find a solution.

Citizen Assemblies use sortition - random selection - to compose a representative group of citizens reflective of society as a whole. They’re then provided with information and expert input covering all viewpoints on the issue at hand, and most importantly, the time and space to deliberate amongst themselves and eventually recommend the best solutions.


The second idea is Participatory Budgeting - the simple but radical idea that ordinary citizens be given the power to directly decide how a portion of a public budget should be spent. Participatory Budgeting has been around for decades having originated in Brazil in the 1980s and been credited with citizen empowerment and significant reduction of poverty and inequality in and around the city of Porto Allegre.

Since then it has spread around the world and is now being widely used by councils in Scotland. Northern Ireland has been very late in joining this movement but with the advent of Community Planning and a range of public agencies deeply aware of their need to engage the public more effectively, now could well be the moment.

Triangle Housing Association already took the brave first steps with a pilot last year and participants at the workshop are now hoping to support, encourage and collaborate with councils and other public agencies to spread participatory budgeting across Northern Ireland.

The third idea being explored is to apply deliberative engagement methods within the official work of the committees of the NI Assembly. The committees have a crucial role in scrutinising legislation and policy as it passes through the Assembly and therefore could greatly benefit from direct engagement with the public to garner views and ensure the outcomes of the legislative process are in line with what people want and need. Working with Assembly staff and members the idea would be to agree the principles of deliberative engagement, provide training to key personnel and conduct a pilot in a key area of policy. Of course with the Assembly currently suspended this idea is very much dependent on the restoration of devolution!

With committed groups of individuals from across civil society and public agencies working on each of these ideas the next stage will be to turn them into formal proposals for consideration by funders. The Trust has set aside £100,000 for this phase of its deliberative democracy work and will be considering these specific ideas in the coming weeks. However this will not be enough to deliver them at scale and the Trust is hopeful such an investment can act as seed capital to attract other contributions from elsewhere.

Looking to the Trust’s legacy beyond 2018 we are convinced that deliberative democracy is a crucial area that needs long-term support and investment in order to unlock its potential to help Northern Ireland find solutions to some its most chronic and longstanding challenges.

We’re excited by the emerging collaboration and eager to see where this goes next!

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