02 November 2010

I Said You Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'

Given the recent irregularity in the frequency of posts and the sudden downturn in the pleasantness of the weather you would be forgiven in thinking that I had slunk away with my metaphorical tail between my allegorical legs to climes more hospitable in both meteorological and economic terms, but alas, no, I have merely been simultaneously too busy and too lazy to commit pen to paper, or the digital equivalent thereof. But do not take this lack of posting to be indicative of a shying away from grumpy curmudgeonly activities, for in fact I have been going beyond the mere writing of angry words and engaging in what can only be classified as the doing of angry deeds, or as close an approximation as one can get without actually endangering life, limb or liberty.

On Saturday a nation awoke to the sight of thousands of ordinary citizens tired of political intransigence, meaningless rhetoric and a complicit media that exacerbates the worst aspects of the situation, gathering en masse to provide an alternative vision for their country's future based on positive communication, polite discourse and meaningful engagement with each other and the wider society around them. Nope, I'm not talking about the little shindig that happened on DC's majestic National Mall over the weekend, I am instead referring to the other Rally to Restore Sanity that occurred in the only slightly-less-majestic Royal Dublin Society, the modestly named "Claiming Our Future" event, and I was pleasantly surprised by just about every aspect of the day.

Billed as "a progressive movement for an equal, sustainable and thriving Ireland" and based on a similar movement in Iceland, the day brought together over a thousand citizens (and a thousand more on the waiting list), a hundred facilitators and good few organisers and volunteers to try and formulate a non-political positive response to our current social and economic woes. The organisation of the event itself was very impressive; held in Industries Hall it was a conference in the round, with a central (slightly) raised podium that hosted the speakers and musical interludes surrounded by a hundred tables, each seating up to ten participants and a facilitator, with a networked PC or laptop on each table for use by the facilitator to capture the discussions and allow for data from all participants to be collated and aggregated over the course of the event. The cost was covered by a number of donors ranging from Atlantic Philanthropy through to SIPTU, though I believe that many of the donations were strictly for the event itself as a once-off occurrence and were not commitments to fund an ongoing movement. The participants were a diverse group, drawn from all aspects of civil society, and while for many this was their first attempt at any meaningful form of civic engagement there were also a wide range of activists (the usual SWP/PBP and WSM suspects were out in force) and other notables present (I spotted Dr Katherine Zappone facilitating at a nearby table). There was a fairly good gender balance throughout both the participants and the organisers, though the participants did tend towards the older end of the age spectrum, with far more over 50's than under 30's, but sure with the kids today (shakes fist in the air) what else would you expect?

The format of the event was highly structured. There were almost no speeches, just the posing of a number of questions designed to create policy priorities for the movement to focus on, all to be discussed by participants at individual tables. Each question was presented along with five suggested policies and the tables were asked to rank them in order of priority, with opportunities to add comments or suggest alternative policies. Each facilitator had a computer and submitted their table's decisions and comments, and the results were tabulated and the aggregated decisions were then relayed back to the participants later in the day. The suggested policies were based on the outcomes of a series of preliminary meetings held since the start of the year between the groups that coalesced to form the Claiming our Future movement, and thus reflected a diversity of economic, social and environmental priorities.

It was this multiple-choice nature of the decision making process, the fact that discussion was effectively limited to a small number of possible topics with limited and predetermined outcomes, that seemed to be the major focus for criticism on the day, that the exercise seemed to be one in consensus building rather than open and free-form dialogue. I do not fault the organisers for this though, the difficulties inherent in attempting to hold an event of this magnitude and deliver any form of meaningful outcome at the end necessitated a highly structured approach. In advance of the event there was an open call for online submissions from prospective participants and a number of regional consultation events were hosted, all of which fed into the proposals submitted for discussion in the RDS. While Saturday's event was quite directed and formulaic, the process and movement itself was overwhelming endorsed by an afternoon vote by the participants.

The participants themselves were the subject of the other major criticism that I heard on the day. Much of the value that any individual took from the event depended on the nature of the discussions that occurred at their table, and despite strong facilitators the quality of any dialogue was entirely dependent on the composition of any given table. Given that participation was open to any, and indeed was intended to be broadly representative of civil society, it was inevitable that the quality of participation would very. When preregistering for the event participants were asked to indicate their field of interest, and based upon the broad range of backgrounds at my own table I had assumed that each table was composed to give as diverse a range of opinions as possible, but talking to other participants it seemed that some tables ended up being top-heavy in particular fields (political activism for example), and this led to more intransigent and less productive discussion.

My own table seemed very balanced, four women and three men (and a female facilitator), three mature students, one self-identified environmental activist, one social worker, one self-identified women's activist, a blogging curmudgeon (me) and a monk. A dairy farming monk. There in purely a personal capacity, neither representing his order nor his cattle, but determined to be a part of making things better. Perhaps it was the lack of any overtly political activists (self-identifying with a particular party or organsiation), perhaps it was the strong gender balance (reflective of a pretty good gender balance across the 1000 participants as a whole, if not at every individual table), but I was rather impressed with the level of discussion at our table; no one person dominated, there were no arguments even when strongly differing opinions were held and a genuine consensus was reached on each topic (and no, that doesn't mean I got my way each time. Far from it in fact). While I didn't come away from any of the discussions with a changed opinion, I did enjoy the debate which was both collaborative and constructive, and I felt that the final submitted results and accompanying notes accurately reflected the mood of the table, even if I was not always in agreement with them, but hey, that's what Democracy is supposed to be all about.

The big question though is on whether any of this made any difference whatsoever, and that all depends on what happens next. The organisers themselves seemed unwilling to suggest any immediate next steps, preferring to draw suggestions from the participants and report back later. Marches and other public demonstrations were mooted, as were ongoing capacity building exercises using the skills of those in the room to train up others around the country to go out and promote whatever it is that Claiming Our Future eventually decides to do. Overall the mood in the room was that this was definitely the start of Something, but that despite the adoption of various policy strands nobody was exactly sure what that Something was.

Not as radical as I would have liked, not as radical as its Icelandic counterpart and altogether a bit too comfortable and middle-class, but I was glad to have been there and genuinely hopeful that this may lead to real change if only because it shows that there is a genuine demand for action from civil society, and all that needs to be done is for someone to figure out how to properly tap into that desire.

(many apologies for the poor quality photos, as I was there to participate rather than observe I didn't bother bringing along a camera and just snapped a few pics with my phone)

Summary of Outcomes

Question 1 - What are the Values that Claiming Our Future should promote at this moment (twelve values presented, top five as voted by the participants listed below):

Equality
Environmental Sustainability
Accountability
Participation
Solidarity

Questions 2 & 3 - Right now Ireland faces serious challenges and choices and people need hope that their future will be more secure. What sort of transformative policies should guide Ireland into the medium term?

2a: Economy and environment policies (five presented, to be ranked in order of priority, top two as voted by the participants listed below):
1) Change the current development model and define and measure progress in a balanced way that stresses economic security and social and environmental sustainability.
2) Regulate banking to change the culture from one of speculative banking to one where currently state-owned banks and new local banking models focus on guaranteeing credit to local enterprises and communities.

2b: Income, Wealth and Work policies (five presented, to be ranked in order of priority, top two as voted by the participants listed below):
1) Achieve greater income equality and reduce poverty through wage, tax and income policies that support maximum and minimum income thresholds.
2) Prioritise high levels of decent employment with a stimulus package to maximize job creation in a green/social economy.

3a: Governance (five presented, to be ranked in order of priority, top two as voted by the participants listed below):
1) Reform representative political institutions to enhance accountability, equality, capacity, and efficiency of national and local decision makers.
2) Develop participatory/deliberative forms of citizens’ engagement in public governance and enhance democratic participation by fostering the advocacy role of civil society orgs, civics/ethics education in all school levels and a diverse media

3b: Access to Services and Public Sector Renewal (five presented, top two as voted by the participants listed below):
1) Provide universal access to quality healthcare, childcare and services for older people.
2) Invest in equality in access to and participation in all levels of education (preschool to university).

Question 4 was an open vote on endorsing the continued existence of the Claiming Our Future Movement

Question 5 was an open brainstorming session on the next moves for the Movement. Suggestions and ideas will be collated and published soon on the Claiming Our Future Website, but a quick analysis on the day showed that there was a strong sense that the Movement should not become a political party, and should continue to operate outside the party political system.

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