Edmond Grace SJ and Gerry O’Hanlon SJ played key roles at the Participation Summit 2018 to explore and discuss citizen participation at Croke Park in Dublin on 25 May 2018. Fr Grace, Director of PeopleTalk (Citizen-Juries Shaping Government) and contributor at the Summit, presented his report, Enabling citizens: a two-way street (open here), which is a reflection on the experience and achievements of the Galway County PeopleTalk Jury. Fr O’Hanlon, former Irish Provincial, and members of the Dialogue of Hope group were present specifically to explore with attendees the possibility of secularists and people of faith working together towards creating a more participatory democracy.
The reports were the second stage of a project jointly sponsored by The Wheel (a support and representative body connecting community and voluntary organisations and charities across Ireland) and the Carnegie Trust (an organisation that influences public policy and changes lives through innovative practice and partnerships), entitled ‘The People’s Conversation’. The other contributors included Nat O’Connor and Marcus Ketola of Ulster University and Audry Deane and Paul Ginnell of the European Anti Poverty Network.
The ‘Two Way Street’ in the report of Fr Grace’s title refers to the need for both citizens and public servants to be enabled. The achievement of the Galway Country Jury is that they devised a form of dialogue between public servants and citizens which was both respectful and productive of change. PeopleTalk is an initiative of the Jesuits in Ireland which seeks to rebuild trust in public life by giving citizens a say in public sector reform. The means of doing this was the establishment of Citizen-Juries with the endorsement of the state. The initial launch of PeopleTalk, in 2013, had the endorsement of every political grouping in Dáil Éireann. The first Citizen-Jury was set up at the invitation of Galway County Council.
Those involved in the running of PeopleTalk were aware that they would at some point need some help in learning about the practicalities of public administration. The idea was to wait until the Jury posed some specific problem and then to help them examine it. After conducting a number of listening sessions the Jury was clear that one clear problem concerned the phone and, in particular, the frustrations caused by recorded messages. They did come up with proposals on this matter but beyond that they found them self completely uninformed. They did not, however, look for help. Instead they came up with a practical proposal and requested that the Director of PeopleTalk set about implementing it.
The proposal was that five public agencies – Galway County Council, the Department of Social Protection, an Garda Síochána, the H.S.E. and Údarás na Gaeltachta – nominate two employees working with citizens at ground level. This ‘Public Service Dialogue Group’ (originally called ‘Exploratory Encounter Group’) was the first of its kind in this country.
This group came up with a Report which began with a statement on how they saw their own work as front-line public servants. They then singled out a situation which they, as public servants, found ‘disquieting’ and which posed ‘a formidable and quite unnecessary barrier’ to citizens in seeking their rights. This situation related to persons who suddenly found themselves seriously ill and unable to continue in employment.
These people find themselves deprived of work, income and housing; they have to deal with a number of agencies but the agencies cannot have any dealings with each other, because of data protection law. This means that they have to give the same painful and humiliating details repeatedly. The Galway County Jury came up with a practical solution to this problem of repetition which has since been implemented by both Galway County Council and the western division of the Department of Employment Affairs and Public Service.
‘Enabling Citizens – a Two Way Street’ proposes this method of dialogue between ground level public servants and fellow citizens as a model for a much more extensive and cumulative form of public discourse. The fact that that this process was devised by ordinary citizens should give it added legitimacy. The Report of the PeopleTalk Exploratory Encounter and the Recommendations of the Galway County PeopleTalk Jury are available on the PeopleTalk website.