The Public Service Reform Plan 2014 lists 'a Focus on Service Users' as the first of three Better Outcomes which the Plan seeks to bring about. Under that heading it speaks of 'Improving Customer Experience' and 'Designing Customer Services' and refers to 'Service Design training workshops for public servants.' Ireland's National Action Plan 2014-2016, submitted to the Open Government Partnership speaks of 'Fostering citizen participation/more active citizenship' and lists 'Customer engagement' among the actions to be taken. This is to be done by various means - 'customer' service training, review of 'customer' charters and surveys of 'customers.'
Customers have options and every supplier has the right not to supply what this or that customer wants and the customer is free to go elsewhere. Citizens have rights and the state has a duty to serve the citizen. If those who are served have no say in how that service is provided, they will resent those who claim to 'serve' them. In spite of all the genuine reforms which have taken place in public administration in Ireland in recent years public anger continues to grow. People are angry because they have no say in the design and delivery of public services; they are not customers to by humoured but citizens to be respectfully engaged.
Jacqueline McGrath from Tuam was chosen as Teachtaire ('messenger' in English) by the Galway Jury at its most recent meeting. Why choose a Teachtaire? We all know the tradtional figure assiciated with juries - the'foreman' - but the Jury decided against using that term. Likewise they decided not to have a 'spokesperson.' Spokespersons are there to defend the interests of some group or organisation. A jury has no interest to be defended. All it has is a simple message to deliver, so they are sending out a teachtaire or messenger. The message is new; its about Citizen-Juries shaping government. It is rooted an old and reliable practise - the jury; hence the use of the first national language - teachtaire. In the coming weeks you will be hearing more about the message of the Galway County PeopleTalk Jury, so watch this space.
The proposals of the Galway County PeopleTalk Jury were finalised in June. There were four key proposals
- On Public Service Phone Numbers - the key item was a call for recorded messages to tell the callers where they come in the queue. This would reduce the frustration of citizen, especially when they make that first call to a state agency.
- On Data Protection and Citizens' Rights - the key item was that agencies should give citizens a print out of the information they give in an application to facilitate them when when they make parallel applications to other agencies. Often when someone hass to apply for help from the state they are in a stressful situation and have to make separate applications to separate agencies.
- A reversal of centralisation policies. Many public service offices, especially of the Department of Social Protection, have been closed in recent times. On closer enquiry, however, PeopleTalk learned that, while this is the case, they encourage business to be done as much as possible by phone and, where a face to face meeting is needed, officials will vistit people in their homes if they are in remote situations. This meets the underlying concern of this proposal.
The Jury underlined the importance of the Ombudsman's Office and the need for a text to which all can refer in their dealings with public agencies. Such a text already exists - ‘Public Bodies and the Citizen, The Ombudsman’s Guide to Standards of Best Practice for Public Servants’
Finally the Jury spoke of two untapped resources as a means of bringing about change.
- If we are to have the best possible service from state agencies we need to draw on the experience of public servants who work directly with citizens, as happened with this Jury and the Exploratory Encounter Group
- At the same time, a Jury made up of willing citizens randomly selected ensures that the ultimate concern is not with the agencies themselves, and their own dealings with each other, but with the service of the people of this country.
The Calway County Jury wants PeopleTalk to continue promoting the role of Citizen-Juries in Shaping Government.
PeopleTalk has received the backing of 'Citizens Rising' a major report which calls for a rethinking of citizenship to honour the centenary of 1916. The People's Conversation, an initiative of the Wheel , invited people throughout the country to address two questions - 'What is shaping our future?' and 'what do citizens expect and what is expected of citizens?' Over 30 group conversations took place in community centres, offices of national voluntary organisations, hotels, art centres and prisons. These conversations were diverse, reflecting the concerns of members of 15 different civil society organisations, but certain common themes began to emerge including:
- A political system that is not detached from the concerns and experience of citizens.
- Reform of government and admnistration to involve citizens in making decisions.
- A voice for citizens outside elections.
In their Forward to the report 'Citizens Rising' the Co-chairs of the Reference Board of the People's Conversation talk of democratic renewal and how citizens should be involved 'not just in chosing their representatives but in the design and delivery of public services. The report itself referred to PeopleTalk. 'There is a role for jury-style deliberation in local government as well as in key public services such as health and education.' A full copy of the report is available in www.peoplesconversation.ie
Wednesday, in Tuam, and Thursday, in Ballinasloe, members of the Galway County PeopleTalk Jury conducted two more Public Listening workshops. The sessions began with a brief outline of PeopleTalk and its underlying philosophy of rebuilding trust in public life by bringing a citizen's point of view to bear on the reform of public sector. Then those present were each invited to write down two good/encouraging examples and two bad/discouraging examples of interaction between citizens and government in their experience. This was followed by a discussion in which the paricipants prioritised the issues which came up. This process generated a lot of energy and interest among the participants and details of the noted taken are available in BRIEFING ZONE on the main menu of this website. Thiese notes will be used by the Jury, along with those from the other workshops, in desiding what issues to focus on in framing the final recommendations. Next week two further workshops take place -
Loughrea Kinsella’s Pub, Main St. Tue, 23 Sept., 7.30pm
Gort Gort Community Centre Wed., 24 Sept., 8.30pm
PeopleTalk - Citizen Juries Shaping Government
YOUR SAY IN PUBLIC SECTOR REFORM
We want to hear about your experience, good and bad, of public services. The good shows what’s possible. The bad shows what needs to change. What has your experience taught you about how public services work and fail to work? We will be running seven Public Listening Workshops throughout County Galway in the coming weeks.
We are the Galway County PeopleTalk Jury, set up last year at the request of Galway County Council. After a public recruitment campaign, we were chosen by lottery, six male and six female, from those who volunteered. Our task is to formulate practical proposals for public sector reform. We cannot do this effectively without the help of our fellow citizens in Public Listening Workshops.
PeopleTalk – Citizen Juries Shaping Government - is an initiative of the Jesuits in Ireland. It is endorsed, not only by Galway County Council, but by ALL political groupings in Dáil Éireann. The objective is to rebuild trust in public life by promoting public sector reform from the citizen’s point of view.
The Listening Workshops will be held at seven venues throughout Galway county:
Tuam Beechtree Enterprise Park Wed., 17 Sept., 8pm
Ballinasloe Ballinasloe Enterprise Centre Thurs., 18 Sept, 8pm
Gort Gort Community Centre Wed., 24 Sept., 8.30pm
Loughrea Kinsella’s Pub, Main St. Tue, 23 Sept., 7.30pm
Moylough Moylough Hall Tues. 30 Sept., 8.30pm
An Ceathrú Rua t.b.a.
Monday, 1 September, 2014.
Based on a model developed on earlier events in Ballygar, Moycullen Gort, the Galway County PeopleTalk Jury conducted a Listening Workshop on Thursday, 28 August with the Executive of the Communityn and Voluntary Forum. It took place in the Liosbán offices of Galway County Council Listening to citizens in the different electoral areas was always envisaged as part of the PeopleTalk process but as the Jury set about planning the details it soon became clear that the biggest challenge would be to get the word out. It was also clear that the best way of doing this was through networks of personal contact and giving key people a practical experience of what a workshop would be like. The most effective network, within easy reach, was the Executive of the Galway County Community Forum, which represents 300 organisations around the county. The Executives members are actively involved in a number of community activities all around the county. The Executive was approached not just to spread the word but with a view to its members actually taking part in a Workshop. Hence the meeting on Thursday which was both interesting and lively. If there was a complaint it was that there was not enough time as the Workshop was followed by a business meeting of the Executive. In the coming weeks we will be holding six Public Listening Workshops in different parts of the County.
18 April, 2014
Something good happens when a group of citizens are brought together to consider a matter of public significance. They act with a sense of responsibility and they come to conclusions which commands respect. We trust juries to act honourably and to do right. Respect for other public institutions has been undermined in recent years, but the standing of the jury has remained unaffected.
The conviction yesterday of two former directors of Anglo-Irish Bank - and the acquittal earlier this week of a third - highlight this enduring effectiveness and credibility of juries. The trial judge in his summing up reminded the jurors, who were brought together in this case, that they were there to decide on the guilt or innocence of the defendents of a limited number of specified crimes - and nothing else. Satisfying public outrage at the the damage done by the collapse of Anglo was not to be considered. The fact that Seanie Fitzpatrick was acquitted, while his name 'enjoyed' much wider public recognition than the other defendants, indicates that the jury was both willing and able to heed what the trial judge had to say.
The banner of the PeopleTalk website carries the phrase - 'citizen juries shaping government.' The jury is the means used by PeopltTalk to promote public sector reform from the perspective of the citizen. That perspective is needed if those at the top - in public service and in politics - are to make fully informed decisions. The objective is reform; the means is the jury. Our elected national political leaders in Dáil Éireann have acknowledged the value this process, as has Galway County Council. When a jury speaks, it commands respect.
3 April, 2014.
Two articles in two successive days in the Irish Times speak to the same reality in complimentary ways. On 1 April, Tom Arnold, Chairman of the Constitutional Convention wrote: 'The convention experience shows that when people feel they are having a meaningful input into decisions aboutn the future they will respond.' The following day President Higgens, writing about his Ethics Initiative, named values such as friendship, care, trust, justice and equality. He poses many questions about ethics and public life including: 'How can deliberative democracy work with the tools of participation?'
Values need to be nurtured by structures which enable people with diverse relationships to the state to encounter each other. Standing for election is a valuable public service as is being an elected representative; working within administrative structures is likewise a valuable public service, but neither these groups are seen to enter into public dialogue with the rest of the population. Elections are the back bone of democracy but they do not constitute dialogue; they are once off occasions. Both politicians and administrators are in constant contact with the wider population, but always from positions of power. That power has become a barrier between government and people and until this barrier is dealt with trust in public life will continue to erode.
The Constitutional Convention has shown the value of public formal encounter between politicians and odinary citizens, but to become part of public life this encounter must be ongoing. PeopleTalk is designed to provided this element of continuity - an ongoing reflection, from the bottom up, on the working of government. A PeopleTalk Jury of twelve conscientious citizens will carry weight; they have to be conscientious to undertake the two year commitment required of them and they will be under a healthy pressure to appeal to values held in common with their fellow citizens. Their proposals will be free from the pressures of electoral politics, bureaucratic convenience, and narrow group interest.
Modern government is like a slowed down computer. It is making us all frustrated, impatient and suspicious. PeopleTalk Juries will be like a belevolent virus; instead of causing breakdown and alarm they will pinpoint different possibilities of progress which will accumulate. They will do this by getting the differing perspectives on government to meet and talk and listen and cooperate.
15 March, 2014.
In a recent edition of The Economist newspaper the front page announces a 'six page essay' entitled 'What's gone wrong with democracy and how to revive it.'http://www.economist.com/node/21597917?frsc=dg%7Cd Ittalks about a slide towards autocracy in many newly emerging democratic states and about the rise of China which sees its model as more efficient. It also talks about the erosion of trust in government in Europe - a familiar theme for PeopleTalk. It sees the solution in terms of delegating in two directions - upwards towards technocrats in such areas as monetary policy and downwards towards local decision-making but in a manner which must take responsibility for the financial side of things. In all this treatment, however, the word 'service' is only used once and in a context which refers to a consumer product. This reflects the prevailing view that service as in 'public service' is a problem but service as in 'consumer service' represents all things good. In reality the earliest forms of democracy all required a particular form of service of all citizens - military service. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a professional civil service was effectively the backbone of government and, in that particular context, 'public service' was a thing of honour. The crisis facing democracy in our time won't be resolved until the concept of service is once more linked with citizenship. To see government as something to which we pay taxes and from which we demand 'service' is inadequate. We are expecting others – described, often with distain, as 'public servants' - to know our situation automatically and to respond effectively. In our complex technological world public service cannot happen unless we play our part and, if we do, we will be doing a service to ourselves and others. Everyone benefits; that’s what makes it ‘public service.’ This is what modern citizenship is about - playing our part in ensuring that the state serves effectively. Fortunately, there are people – both working in public administration and working with neighbourhoods and organisations around the country – who understand this. It seems that the Economist does not quite get the point.