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The madness of repeating Partnership failure Hogan Working Group’s neat PPNs replicate stagnant social partnership model, locally

Phil-Hogan-PPFBy Niall Crowley.

You would not immediately associate Phil Hogan, Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government, with an interest in participatory democracy. However, last September he did set up a “Working Group on Citizen Engagement” as part of the voguish and typically bumptious ‘Putting People First – The Action Programme for Effective Local Government’. The Working Group is to make recommendations for “more extensive and diverse input by citizens into the decision making process at local government level”.
There is a contradiction in asking a national working group to make recommendations for local citizen engagement. You would expect some form of citizen engagement over the recommendations. The Working Group does contain people with a strong track record in the community and voluntary sector and is chaired by Sean Healy of Social Justice Ireland. However, it does not reflect the diversity of citizens. There are only two women in the group of eight, no minority ethnic people, no people with disabilities and no young people.
Village has seen a near final draft of the report of the Working Group. Its centrepiece is “a new framework for public engagement and participation, to be called ‘The Public Participation Network (PPN)’” in each local authority area. The PPN would be made up of voluntary, social inclusion and environmental organisations in the local authority area that are registered with the PPN.
Each PPN will develop “a vision for the well-being of this and future generations”. It will facilitate “networking, communication, and the sharing of information” between organisations, “facilitate the election of participants from the environmental, social inclusion and voluntary sectors onto city/county decision making bodies” and “encourage and enable public participation in local decision making and planning of services”.
PPNs are neat and participatory. However, neat and participatory never really work when it comes to democracy. Participation cannot be neat if it is real. We already have Community and Voluntary Forums in local authority areas. These were established by the City and County Development Boards to ensure the voice of the community and voluntary sector is represented in the development of the county or city. There is no review of this largely negative experience and the structures now proposed merely replicate these Forums.
The huge diversity of groups in the Community and Voluntary Forums often squeezed out some voices, especially those of smaller and unpopular minorities. The draft report does state that the PPN should “support the inclusion of social excluded groups” but does not say how this is to be achieved. Local authorities’ unreceptiveness to input from Community and Voluntary Forums made for a deeply frustrating experience for many organisations. The draft report does identify this issue but makes no recommendations to address it.
The PPN is essentially a social partnership model. Social partnership at national level has withered due to political aversion. It did yield gains for community and voluntary sector organisations in its early years. However, later it merely facilitated evolution of most of these organisations into expert lobbyists divorced from their original constituencies. Social partnership did not serve the types of transformative change needed. Recreating sterile models at local level is unlikely to enhance our democracy. Current political alienation calls for more invention and innovation. repeating Partnership failure
Hogan Working Group’s neat PPNs replicate stagnant social partnership model, locally
By Niall Crowley
‘The “Action Programme for Effective Local Government” suggests processes for citizen engagement including participatory budgeting, petition-related rights, plebiscites and town/area meetings’

You would not immediately associate Phil Hogan, Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government, with an interest in participatory democracy. However, last September he did set up a “Working Group on Citizen Engagement” as part of the voguish and typically bumptious ‘Putting People First – The Action Programme for Effective Local Government’. The Working Group is to make recommendations for “more extensive and diverse input by citizens into the decision making process at local government level”.
There is a contradiction in asking a national working group to make recommendations for local citizen engagement. You would expect some form of citizen engagement over the recommendations. The Working Group does contain people with a strong track record in the community and voluntary sector and is chaired by Sean Healy of Social Justice Ireland. However, it does not reflect the diversity of citizens. There are only two women in the group of eight, no minority ethnic people, no people with disabilities and no young people.
Village has seen a near final draft of the report of the Working Group. Its centrepiece is “a new framework for public engagement and participation, to be called ‘The Public Participation Network (PPN)’” in each local authority area. The PPN would be made up of voluntary, social inclusion and environmental organisations in the local authority area that are registered with the PPN.
Each PPN will develop “a vision for the well-being of this and future generations”. It will facilitate “networking, communication, and the sharing of information” between organisations, “facilitate the election of participants from the environmental, social inclusion and voluntary sectors onto city/county decision making bodies” and “encourage and enable public participation in local decision making and planning of services”.
PPNs are neat and participatory. However, neat and participatory never really work when it comes to democracy. Participation cannot be neat if it is real. We already have Community and Voluntary Forums in local authority areas. These were established by the City and County Development Boards to ensure the voice of the community and voluntary sector is represented in the development of the county or city. There is no review of this largely negative experience and the structures now proposed merely replicate these Forums.
The huge diversity of groups in the Community and Voluntary Forums often squeezed out some voices, especially those of smaller and unpopular minorities. The draft report does state that the PPN should “support the inclusion of social excluded groups” but does not say how this is to be achieved. Local authorities’ unreceptiveness to input from Community and Voluntary Forums made for a deeply frustrating experience for many organisations. The draft report does identify this issue but makes no recommendations to address it.
The PPN is essentially a social partnership model. Social partnership at national level has withered due to political aversion. It did yield gains for community and voluntary sector organisations in its early years. However, later it merely facilitated evolution of most of these organisations into expert lobbyists divorced from their original constituencies. Social partnership did not serve the types of transformative change needed. Recreating sterile models at local level is unlikely to enhance our democracy. Current political alienation calls for more invention and innovation.
The local level needs to be a laboratory for new forms of participatory democracy. It is unlikely to be so where the national level sets out and imposes a detailed model for citizen engagement. It would have been better to develop broader, guiding principles and standards, and to let loose some local creativity.
The “Action Programme for Effective Local Government” suggests processes for citizen engagement including participatory budgeting, petition-related rights, plebiscites and town/area meetings. It might have been more useful to explore how these and other participatory methods might be implemented.
Ireland endures low-energy democracy that fails to mobilise people, is in thrall to the markets and is unable to effect transformative change. Citizen engagement at local level should be a starting point for new models of high energy democracy that secure a real engagement from people, and advance the change required for a more equal, environmentally sustainable and participative society. All of thirty-one aseptic Public Participation Networks cannot do this job of liberation and creation.