The mood music in the room

“If only you could experience the mood music in that room.”

So said David Farrell, Professor of Politics at University College Dublin, and research leader of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly. David was a panel member at the Shaping Scotland event organised by The Electoral Reform Society Scotland. He was talking about how every participant in the Irish Assembly rose to the occasion to tackle complex political issues, in a toxic political environment, whilst dramatically improving the tone of political discourse.

Change of tone was a common theme of this well attended and actively engaged forum, the purpose of which was to discuss the Scottish Government’s proposal for a Citizens’ Assembly to deliberate on issues of constitution and national values.

“The Citizens Assembly is going to try to change the tone of the debate to one of respectful discussion. We want not just 100 better informed citizens, but a better informed society as a whole.” David Martin MEP

“We need to do better than shallow exchanges. Democracy needs to evolve to meet the challenges of our time.” Dr Oliver Escobar

“We are moving beyond a vote-centred democracy to a voice-centred democracy.” Professor David Farrell

“Politicians allow red lines to kill progress. Party politics is designed to create division where it doesn’t exist.” Lesley Riddoch, Journalist

The mood music in this particular room was one of optimistic curiosity. The questions from the floor examined both general principles and detailed practicalities, but the general subtext appeared to be that people want this to work and were looking to be convinced. This was encouraging given that the assembly has already become a party political football.

Indeed, the panel members were at pains to emphasise the independence of the assembly.

“This is about what can be achieved when we put aside tribal affiliations.” Joanna Cherry MP

David Martin MEP, the Convenor Designate of the Scottish Citizens’ Assemble, suggested that the Assembly could effectively have its cake and eat it. It will benefit from the enhanced status of being sponsored by the Government, whilst operating completely independently from the Government.

This sentiment was echoed by Dr Oliver Escobar, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Edinburgh University. “People criticise these things when they come from the top down for lack of independence. But they also criticise them when they come from the bottom up for lack of influence. You can’t win.”

The mood music in the room was that of citizen empowerment. The most enthusiastic responses, from both panel members and the audience, were reserved for stories of assembly participants rising to the democratic occasion. And there was a strong sense during the questions, and on Twitter, that the presence of the Irish panel members, who “have the deliberative democracy T shirt”, was a huge bonus to the proceedings. Louise Caldwell, who was randomly selected to participate in the Irish Citizens’ Assembly (and who features in our film, When Citizens Assemble), spoke convincingly from first-hand experience in response to some detailed questions of procedure - how facilitation worked, the duty of care shown to participants, how media involvement was sensitively handled, how consensus was arrived at, how ballot decisions were made.

“We were all very proud of the work that we had done. We stepped outside of the black and white to sit in the grey area.” Louise Caldwell

“The power is with people who are actually experiencing life, rather than people who are used to commentating on life. You can see the strength that is in inherent to citizens. It is the averageness of the group that gives it its strength.” Lesley Riddoch

The mood music in the room was one of transparent realism. The panel balanced their conviction about the opportunities for positive change with a willingness to acknowledge and embrace the challenges. These challenges include how to balance protection for participants with a desire for transparency and inclusivity through the media, how facilitation works in practice, how the Assembly will deal with what appear to be relatively broad (vague?) topics and questions, and the various issues of process design and administration.

“There are challenges for citizens, challenges for politicians, and challenges for journalists.” Dr Oliver Escobar

“The magic is in the activity of doing it. If you [the media] wait for consensus, you’re going to miss the point. The point is the process.” Professor David Farrell

“Facilitators must be impartial on content, but they can not be neutral on dynamics.” Dr Oliver Escobar

So the mood music in the room was a combination of optimistic curiosity, citizen empowerment and transparent realism. These three notes should combine to make a pleasing democratic chord change.

You can watch a video recording of the event here. And thank you to Electoral Reform Society for allowing us to borrow their image to illustrate this post.