We The Citizens: The Goo Goo Dolls

For a couple of centuries, New York City was politically dominated by the Democratic Party machine known as “Tammany Hall”. All-powerful and frankly corrupt, Tammany was the machine through which immigrants, particularly the Irish, rose through the ranks of New York politics. You could almost call it the Fianna Fáil of old New York.

With such unsavory types in charge, it was little wonder that the rich, protestant New York establishment viewed politics with distaste. In the 1890’s they decided something had to be done, and set up “Good Government Clubs” around the city. Well-to-do and high-minded, they brimmed, despite their protestations of non-partisanship, with unacknowledged political and class motivations. Though corruption was the target, the “Goo Goos” as they were known, were essentially objecting to the wrong kind of people (poor, catholic, often recently immigrated) being in power.

After all, what is “good government”? Every political party has it’s own idea of what kind of government is good. Arguing about which kind is best is what we have politics for. “Good Government” is a normative term, a way of presenting your own views as unquestionably true. Others engage in partisan bickering. You are simply doing what’s right.

Our own Goo-Goos have been having quite the time of it recently. Calls for a national government have died away in the wake of the last general election, but the lure of a politics that denies being political is still strong. When the Democracy Now movement failed to get off the ground, some worthies, mostly hailing from academia, decided to effect reform by extra-parliamentary means.

Funded by philanthropist Chuck Feeney, We the Citizens announced a series of events around the country. Citizens were invited to attend and, facilitated by political scientists, air their thoughts on what’s wrong with Ireland. The twitter stream from these events makes interesting reading. There was not one mention that I can recall of the possibility of debt default. Unemployment too, was not a hot topic. What we did get was a lot of reinventing the wheel. Some suggested that county council meetings be held in public (they already are). Another citizen called for a Bill of Rights & Respnsibilities (we already have one). Perhaps most bizarre was the suggestion “parents should quit telling children not to use their brains”. Well, yes. If parents have been doing that, they should indeed stop. But what was striking about the conversation was how institution-focused it was. There was a tendency towards topics like, say, reform of the Seanad, or changes to the electoral system. It was all, dare I say it, a bit Political Science-y.

These events were arranged with a view to setting the agenda for a Citizen’s assembly, to be held after the roadshow had concluded. I was under the impression that I had voted for a citizen’s assembly, Dáil Eireann, a few months ago, but I guess if 100 unelected people in a room want to give themselves that title, then they are free to do so.

In the run-up to the Assembly, some background was given on the We The Citizens website.

Professor David Farrell, Academic Director of We the Citizens, explains that citizens’ assemblies have been used successfully in other countries….

“I have some personal experience of this, having participated as an expert witness to a number of them (in British Columbia, Ontario and the Netherlands), and I’m delighted that we have the opportunity to demonstrate how this method can also work here”, added Professor Farrell.

It’s worth taking a look at the history of the assemblies to which the Professor refers. The Ontario Assembly (from where We The Citizens appear to have pinched their name) was mandated by the Provincial government, and explicitly geared towards a change in the electoral system, rather than a more general remit of reform. Its proposals for change were put to the people in a referendum, and rejected by an impressive 63% of voters. An Assembly member commented, Goo Gooishly, “There’s an awful lack of understanding on the proposition”

The British Columbia Assembly was constituted along similar lines, and though its recommendations gained the support of a majority of votes, it failed to reach the 60% threshold required to pass. In a second referendum (holding second referenda on the same topic is very Goo Goo), support collapsed to 39%.

The Dutch Assembly did not even lead to a referendum. Its report is gathering dust somewhere in the Hague. I disagree with Prof Farrell that these experiences are examples of how citizen’s assemblies have been successfully used, but I imagine he defines “success” differently to me.

So how was the Assembly to be selected? The organizers were a bit fuzzy on this. I asked their twitter account a few times what pool or database they would select membership from, and drew a blank. The standard line was that the membership would be a randomly selected representative cross-section of all areas if Irish life. But “random”, “cross-section” and “representative” do not mean the same thing.

On 8th June, Suzy Byrne reported that one Assembly member was contacted and invited to take part by his friend who worked in MRBI, who carried out the selection for We The Citizens. MRBI said this was a coincidence.
When Fianna Fail activist and commentator Jonny Fallon was invited (he declined), this too was a coincidence.

But look at the selection process and it becomes clear that nothing, at any step of the way, was random. The sample from which the members were chosen was a mere 1,001 people. This itself was, say We The Citizens, “nationally representative, and “was quota controlled using the latest CSO estimates for age, gender and region”. We are already a long way from randomness here. Having chosen this sample, rigged to fit somebody’s definition of “representative” (I would love to hear what that definition is), MRBI phoned them, and asked were they interested in taking part. Those who thus self-selected were further refined for “representativeness”, before the final 100 people being chosen. A bunch of randomers this assembly was not.

And so, this past weekend, 100 anonymous people gathered to tell us how to run the country. In case they strayed off the reservation, We The Citizens made sure assembly members were addressed by plenty of academics. Most of these “expert witnesses” inevitably worked in the Political Science area.

If you asked a randomly selected group of people what they thought was wrong with the country, what would they say? Banks, jobs, too little public spending, or too much? Eroded sovereignty, trouble brewing in the north? All of these things, probably, and much more.

If you spend a year pushing your pet ideas of political reform in the media, (to which you are never short of access), then very un-randomly select 100 people, put them in a room and make them listen to lectures from people in the same academic field as you, what spring to their lips are subjects remarkable for their similarity to those aired on the politicalreform.ie blog.

As to the substance of these recommedations, I do not have a whole lot to say. They’re not even bad ideas, a lot of them – though the eagerness to have unelected experts running the country is very Goo Goo.

So what will happen to the report? Here’s my guess: Having invested no capital in the initiative, but also wishing to be seen as listening to the people, the government will thank We The Citizens for their ideas, and put the report on a shelf somewhere. Having a programme for government of their own already decided upon, they will carry on attempting to implement it. Some of their initiatives (gender quotas, for eg.) will be similar to those advocated by We The Citizens. If We The Citizens wish to take some credit for these, the government will not mind all that much.

And so everyone goes home, feeling an enthused, patriotic glow. The Citizens were engaged. The Ship of State sails uncertainly on. Its deckchairs have never been so rationally and responsibly rearranged.


  • steve white says:

    some of this is very lazy, most parties put in pfgs, a citizens assembly and argued 4 venue outside of election 4 big change

    you criticise citizens involved for getting things about are political process wrong, or maybe not developing their legitimate concerns properly and then criticize WTC again for having political science experts who could correct these technical points

    not that I don’ agree the main theme of your post

  • Luke says:

    I have been working with the We The Citizens project helping document and record the process on film but I am not in any way posting here as an official representative of the project 🙂

    A couple of things:
    There was quite a bit of discussion about both unemployment and debt default at the meeting last weekend, certainly among the tables I was listening to. I personally think that having a vote on debt default would have been very interesting. But although it did come up, it didn’t figure as highly on most people’s agenda as I would have expected.

    I don’t really see how the selection process could have been handled any better – employing a highly reputable market research company with a long track record, who then chose a pool of a thousand people, which as far as I know this a standard sample size that has produced highly accurate and representative polling data in the past – seems like a fairly above board approach.

    Naturally there is self-selection at the next stage where the 1000 is cut down to a subset of people who are free or willing to attend the assembly. But I’m not quite sure how this could have been handled differently? You can’t actually press-gang people to attend something that they can’t or don’t want to.

    Having met every member of the group, the diversity in age, gender, geographical location and occupation was impressive, to my eyes at least. It really did feel like a miniature Ireland.

    My understanding is that the discussion was deliberately institution-focused for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is a widespread desire for fundamental change in our political system. Institutional reform would be at the heart of this. Secondly, institutional reform would be relatively speaking cost neutral, which given the state of our public finances is distinctly non-trivial. Thirdly and most importantly, member s of political institutions are often not best placed to decide on how they should be reformed. They, after all, have all benefited from the institutional status quo; turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. So the reform of the Oireachtas is the perfect topic for decision-making by an assembly of outsiders without a personal vested interest in the workings of the Oireachtas.

    I think that bold, powerful concepts like a Citizen’s Assembly should be part of the political reform discussion. As you rightly point out, we have elected an assembly of citizens already – the Dail. But the undemocratic nature of the Seanad elections and the feeble powers of the Upper House, means there is still a crisis of legitimacy in the Oireachtas.

    For me, last weekend was an honourable and fascinating experiment that opened a window of possiblity by showing that involving ordinary voters directly in the legislative process can produce sophisticated, intelligent discussion and reasoned, rational decision-making.

    What could possibly be wrong with that?

  • Anon says:

    Hear, Hear, Luke!

  • Thoughtful article.

    Part of the problem is that what is behind mucha of the proposals for political reform and citizens assemblies to drive that reform, is the economic crisis which, however, was not caused by our political system, but rather by particular parties implementing particular policies underpinned by political ideology. If the ideology that underpinned political decisions over the past few years was questioned more by opinion formers including political scientists in the column inches they have access to of late, we might have had an even more resounding move to the left in the 2011 General Election. As it was there was a subtantial shift by voters. ‘We the Citizens’ is apparently ideology free, but there is no such thing as ideology free. And blaming our political system for our problems is ideological in itself.

    Unscientific, though the ‘We the Citizens’ proceedings were, I was reassured by the strong majority in favour of retaining PR STV. There were other findings I agreed with, such as the one on third level fees, and there were some I disagreed with, such as compulsory voting and gender quotas. My fear about the push for Citizens Assemblies and political reform in general is that the recommendations that come out of such an assembly, if they were to come to fruition, might mean a less democratic political system, for e.g. a move away from PR STV. Proposals such as gender quotas, which I acknowledge are not unique to ‘We the Citizens’, but again have been given oxygen by our economic crisis and the the search for solutions, are the slippery slope to having list systems in this country, and will mean less democracy and less say for members within political parties. If political scientists are prominent in a citizens assembly, I worry that there will be a tendency to look to at reforms to the electoral system that are really about engineering electoral outcomes on the grounds that the voters do not know what is good for them.

  • Orlaith says:

    Incredibly, in her comments above Joanna Tuffy renounces gender quotas in one sentence and then goes on to express (without any sense of irony) her fears for a political system that is ‘less democratic’. Of course the very purpose of putting in place a temporary gender quota is to make our current system more democratic and representative. Our current level of female representation in the Dail is abysmally low by international standards.
    As someone suggested on Twitter recently, if Joanna Tuffy is so steadfast in her opposition to gender quotas because they are somehow ‘undemocratic’ then surely it would follow that she is equally opposed to having TDs in the dail who inherit seats or an established political base from family members? I’d be interested in hearing her thoughts on this.

  • Orlaith,

    If it were possible to inherit a seat I would be against that, but in our system you have to be elected by the people, and if the people want to vote for someone with a relative also involved in politics, that is the voters prerogative. Hilary Clinton’s husband may have also been a politician but she had to run for election to the Senate nevertheless.

  • And just to add Joan Burton’s husband may have been a well known and well thought of Dublin City Councillor but she got selected and elected based on her own work and efforts.

  • Orlaith says:


    You give two very valid examples above which show clearly that irrespective of whether an aspiring candidate has a perceived advantage in terms of political ties or family association which might help that person get selected as a candidate, it does not automatically guarantee election. Equally, gender quotas do not guarantee election but are designed to ensure that political parties offer sufficient candidates (of both genders) to the electorate ahead of an election. It is ultimately up to the candidates to ensure that they win the support of voters and get elected. To oppose gender quotas because you think it’s undemocratic is frankly ludicrous, not least because the system of candidate selection within parties has so often been determined by factors which are not entirely based on individual merit (to put it mildly).

    As usual I got side-tracked by the gender quotas issue but should have mentioned that I really enjoyed the post, Fergal. Reminds me of Gene Kerrigan’s take on ‘the bright, chirpy people’


  • steve white says:

    the grand painters of word pictures and Joanna TD may want to read the manifestos and PFG, where most said they needed to look at political structure outside of election setting http://www.labour.ie/policy/listing/12974237476564288.html

    A new Constitution. Labour will ask a people’s convention to draw up a new Constitution setting out the aspirations, the values and the rules that Irish people want to live by now.

    Building on the well-established and tested Constitution of Ireland, and decades of judicial
    determination of rights under that Constitution, we will establish a process to ensure that our
    Constitution meets the challenges of the 21st century, by addressing a number of specific
    urgent issues as well as establishing a Constitutional Convention to undertake a wider review.


    Change must involve the citizens: The people must be consulted on and involved in the process of political reform. That is why we will establish a Citizens Assembly, along the lines of that used in the Netherlands to make recommendations on electoral reform. It will be composed of up to a 100 members who will be chosen from the public to reflect the demographic make-up of the country

    here was a trial of such

  • Fergal Crehan says:

    The fact that the government parties also had similar ideas doesn’t really address my points. I thought the Labour and FG proposals were mostly guff too. But should either of these proposals ever materialise, it will have (as the Dutch Assembly had, for all the good that did it), the legitimacy of a mandate from a government elected by voters unsupervised by Pol Sci academics. WTC did not have this mandate. It was put together by a group of people who had not received so much as a single vote between them. This is my main objection to it, and the whole reason I wrote the post in the first place.

    “the grand painters of word pictures”

    I am not sure if this is an insult or a compliment. Either way, it is awesome. I might put it on the masthead of the blog.

  • steve white says:

    as I said it was trial!, a way of lobbying for a proper state run national assembly by doing a smaller one, nobody thought it had a national mandate or was supposed to be what the parties promised. I don’t hold you dumb enough to think that for a second, so you must have deliberately left out the pre-election debate and manifesto promises so enamored were you with your (accurate) goo goo analogy, you thought a snarkey remark would do, without backing up your point. I expect that from the Sindo http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/we-the-citizens-have-a-clear-idea-of-what-our-needs-are-already-2621707.html but not from someone who holds themselves to higher standards. They’re branding was a bit immodest and they have now senator and academics and other influential people in the organisation but they just submit their proposals to lobby like the Nth other number of groups. You haven’t address the problem of short terminism, the many constitutional issues that never get addressed at election time and keep getting put off by the parties once in power, every party said they needed to deal with these issues apart from elections and that went beyond party politics. You not one of these types who says we can’t do anything else but concentrate on the economy, that political reform and half dozen referendums we need are a waste of money, I don’t believe so. You participate in this goo-goo politics as much as anyone don’t try to be radicaler then all now.

  • Luke McManus says:

    Fergal, I’m not quite sure why the legitimacy of the Assembly at the weekend is such an issue.

    “It was put together by a group of people who had not received so much as a single vote between them. This is my main objection to it.”

    It was an academic experiment and a proof of concept. Nothing more. None of its recommendations are binding in any way or will have any legislative impact. My understanding is the event was purely designed to show that a Citizen’s Assembly could work. From my perspective it achieved that.

  • The organizers, unwittingly or otherwise made an untrue claim that IPSO/MRBI randomly selected the participants. The selection process as described is just not random, unless by ‘random’ the organizers mean it in the nonspecialist sense of describing something that is completely unconsidered and haphazard. The organizers, who include political scientists would or should have known that there were serious methodological problems with their sampling method. At the very least they should have qualified the quantitative data which they published with a strong health warning about sample problems.

    (There is a small possibility that I am wrong above and I would be happy to correct it if the full figures are produced and I turn out to be wrong. WTC have told us some but not all of how the selection proceeded – the critical numbers about how many phone numbers were dialed in total in relation to the survey, how many hang-ups, refusals and non-completes they encountered have not been given, so it is impossible to even guess at how large the sampling error was.)

    This points to another problem with Irish life, one that goes deeper than our political system – a lack of respect for the use of appropriate, rigorous quantitative techniques. Fuzzy figures that don’t add up are what we frequently get. I am not at all surprised when we get it from politicians and civil servants, but this is a new low for political science in Ireland.

    Equally, there are problems with the overall method (outside the quantitative issues). The website doesn’t explain what the Citizens’ Assembly was supposed to be for, what it was supposed to do, or what it could achieve. Rather than being a measurement of anything, or a forum for exploration, it seemed to be more of a vehicle for sending out press releases. At least that is what it seems to me.

    The outcome in terms of issues and results of votes confirms the scepticism about the method. The outcome featured issues that are just not major issues for most Irish people. That is not to say that these are unimportant issues. But they are in no way representative of Irish people’s concerns. If the goal was to provide a forum to represent citizens’ concerns, then surely the Assembly has failed? WTS is not, as Fiach Mac Conghail hoped, supporting the political process, or even supplanting it. It is just obfuscating it.

    On the separate issue of electoral reform: some people in this thread say that there is a fundamental problem with our electoral and governmental system. The important problem of short-termism was mentioned.

    It is true there was a fatal problem with our last two governments. But this was not necessarily because of a fundamental problem with the electoral system. The problem was with the decisions the electorate made. The electorate made bad decisions and at some stage we the electorate have to face up to that (and in fairness, I think most of the electorate now take politics a lot more seriously than they did this time five years ago, though I have no hard numbers to back that up).

    Of course, WTC and anybody else are entitled to have any meetings they like, and announce any outcome or opinions they like. They are to be applauded for trying to get people’s opinions, which is a difficult, thankless, expensive task. But the issue is whether their results should be attributed any importance in this case. The signs are that they should not.

  • steve white says:

    searched the wethecitizens site for the word random comes up once, obviously http://www.wethecitizens.ie/news/article/how_the_citizens_were_selected

    A random digit dialling (RDD) approach was employed and listed, unlisted and mobile phone numbers were used in order to ensure that all segments of the population were included. The sample was quota controlled using the latest CSO estimates for age, gender and region.

    they weren’t looking for random.

    For a national citizens assembly any major reform suggestions would be put to referendums, so that’s when you get your mandate, ultimately the questions would be chosen by the gov I fear, more details of this and future citizens assembli’ are needed. The WTC site lacks detail, politicalreform.ie made go through a PR filter perhaps.

  • Antoin O Lachtnain says:

    The claim is made here. http://www.wethecitizens.ie/news/article/the_national_citizens_assembly_june_25th_and_june_26th

    “The National Citizens’ Assembly will take place on Saturday June 25th and Sunday June 26th in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. The assembly will be made of over 100 Irish people representing a cross-section of society and coming from every province in Ireland. They will have been selected randomly by IPSOS MRBI – an independent polling company. “

  • Luke McManus says:

    Describing this claim as “untrue” is overstating the matter. It’s an oversimplification at the very worst.

    My understanding is that the Assembly had two purposes – a) to be part of an academic experiment designed and supervised by four of the country’s leading political scientists and also b) to be a test case show that such an assembly can achieve a high standard of debate and a reasonable outcome in term of deliberation and decision-making.

    I haven’t seen the data, but the event was impressive to attend and felt viable, purposeful and worthwhile. The level of committment from the delegates impressed me.

    I would also disagree that our political system is blameless in the debacle. FF/PD did not achieve a majority of votes in 02 or 07, and the other parties spinelessly adopted their programme in ’07, offering little viable choice to the voters. Irresponsible fiscal policy and legislation was driven by a populist political agenda and the institutions were too weak to stand up for sanity. There was a lack of transparency and honesty that were primarily a result of FF culture, but also of systemic failings. The other reasons political reform was high on the agenda is that it is cheap.

    It’s an interesting point that WTC should be applauded. I agree, they should. But the online community and mainstream media seem more interested in picking holes – either in the methodologies or with sneering remarks about the source of funding. Depressing, but predictable…

  • This is the first I heard about an ‘academic experiment’. If there was an academic experiment going on, then the participants should have been informed about the purpose of the experiment in advance and it does not appear they were.

    What is the purpose of this experiment? There have been citizens assemblies before, including in Ireland (the Citizens’ Jury on Incineration comes to mind). They are a valuable exercise in themselves. What is wrong with this one is that it seems to be mainly a publicity vehicle for its promoters. Academic experimenters do not send out press releases with headlines like ‘We are making history today’ before the experiment has actually been carried out.

    What was the null hypothesis for this ‘experiment’?

    In fact, the overt purpose of the Assembly was publicly stated, and it has nothing to do with experiments at all. Fiach Mac Conghail (whose day job, I understand, is in the theatrical profession) told the assembly that “The purpose of your work this weekend, is to demonstrate to Government, to all of the political parties and to Irish public life, that listening to citizens’ voices, that engaging with citizens in between elections, works.”

    He did not mention anything about an experiment. He just said that the delegates were going to demonstrate the truth of a statement that is blatantly obvious to anybody who lives in a democracy.

    I am glad that you found the citizens’ assembly impressive and that you had it evoked those feelings you describe. I hate to be critical of your impression, but that really isn’t good enough when critically considering a forum of this type. Public policy is not Riverdance. It is a rational business, not an emotional one. I cannot understand your comment about the level of commitment from the delegates. Most people in Ireland are committed to Ireland and it is no surprise that a disproportionate number of this group would show up at an event like this. From what I can see in the videos, they were emotionally engaged by the process. But that does not mean that they were committed to the process. The whole point of the exercise was that the citizens chosen were *not* asked to commit to anything signficant or long-term. This was strictly a one-day deal.

    I did not say that ‘our political system is blameless’ or anything like it.

    In your last paragraph you complain about the amorphous mass that is ‘the online community and the mainstream media’. In fact, what is happening is that people (in this case Fergal) are calling WTC out and putting it to WTC that there are big, obvious problems with the claims it is making. WTC has little in the way of responses to these legitimate criticisms so far.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.