Randomly Selected "Politicians": Transforming Democracy in the Post-Conflict Context

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Hist, Anthrop, Philos & Politics


After decades of violent conflict in Northern Ireland, the 'peace process' led to the historic 1998 Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement and the establishment of power-sharing institutions. However, one major criticism of the process and the resulting power sharing governance relates to the focus upon securing compromise between elites (political party leaders), somewhat at the expense of ordinary citizens. Citizen engagement is constrained by two features of the power sharing system. First, the fact that all politicians elected to the Assembly have to declare themselves to be either 'unionist' or 'nationalist' (or 'other') means that ethno-national issues relating to the nationalist-unionist divide dominate politics, and other issue areas - perhaps relating to social and economic matters - are downplayed in importance. Second, the fact that all political parties are included in the power sharing government means that it is not possible for voters to 'throw out' the government and replace it with a different one. Hence, despite the fact that power sharing has certainly solidified peace and stability, there is still much to be done to ensure a political system in which all citizens are engaged - in terms of being represented and in terms of contributing to decision making.

We propose a practical intervention to help achieve this engagement. We suggest amending the current political institutions by adding a new parliamentary body - an 'upper house'/'second chamber' of randomly selected ordinary citizens. A virtue of randomly selecting citizens is that, as demonstrated by statistical theory, a group of such citizens would look very much like society as a whole. It would contain equal numbers of men and women, and would contain people from low-income backgrounds and ethnic minorities in direct proportion to the numbers of people from low-income backgrounds and ethnic minorities in society. And it would contain the cross section of views that exist right across society. So, if 10 percent of the entire Northern Ireland population are Protestant working class who feel that flags should be flown on public buildings all year round, then (almost exactly) 10 percent of a randomly selected body would contain such people with such views. A randomly selected upper house of parliament would be a mirror image of society as a whole.

Randomly selecting political decision makers has actually been widely used in history - in ancient Athens (often seen as the birthplace of democracy) and in medieval Florence and Venice - and randomness is also the selection mechanism underlying the use of juries in legal trials. Furthermore, there have been some contemporary experiments internationally using randomly selected citizens to make policy recommendations (for example, in British Columbia and in the Irish Constitutional Convention). However, there has not been work on formally incorporating random decision making into the political system in deeply divided places in order to enhance inclusion and allow a legitimate democratic space for 'protest' voices of ordinary citizens.

The purpose of our project is to come up with a good, well worked out, suggestion as to how best to include a randomly selected decision making body into the existing Northern Ireland political system. First, we bring international academic experts together to generate a range of possible ways of doing so. Second, we ask ordinary Northern Ireland citizens what they think of our suggestions. Third, we interview half of all elected politicians in Northern Ireland and identify their main objections to a possible role for randomly selected citizens. Bearing in mind this evidence from public opinion and the opinions of politicians, we finalise our suggestions as to how best to amend existing institutions to build in a role for randomly chosen citizen decision makers. Finally, we illustrate in a small real-world trial citizen decision making in action.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from the research? Why will they benefit?

1/ Northern Ireland society
Our recommendations are designed to aid long term peace and stability by reforming the political system to enhance inclusion and participation, and the perceived legitimacy of the system. The peace process is an ongoing one - from the 1998 Agreement (and its refinement in the 2006 Agreement) to the 2013 Haass Talks - and stabilising democracy over the long term may be helped by directly including ordinary citizens in (one component of) the political decision making system. Northern Ireland society will benefit from our project in two ways. First, our work seeks to provoke a novel and informative debate about democratic systems and the possible advantages of incorporating random citizens as decision makers. Second, our work provides Northern Ireland's political actors with an option to consider in the context of the ongoing debate over political institutional reform to solidify peace and stability.

2/ Northern Ireland politicians: MLAs
Our project represents a novel case of the co-production of knowledge via the incorporation of the views of the political elite into the research design. Specifically, when we have generated our recommendations - through the process of expert academic analysis and information from public attitudes - we engage directly with almost half of Northern Ireland Assembly MLAs to assess their reaction to our draft recommendations. We seek to take on board their concerns, and make clarifications, in the final draft of our recommendations, consistent with maintaining the fundamental radical nature of our proposals.

3/ Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition
After the failure of the political parties to reach agreement on contentious issues relating to cultural identity, such as parading and flag display, Richard Haass (chair of the 2013 inter-party talks) advocated a systematic public conversation in society as a whole to address these issues. To facilitate this, Haass advocated the establishment of a Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition. The work of such a Commission, we believe, would benefit enormously from our proposed one-day trial (phase 5) of citizen decision making on the intractable issue of flag display.

4/ Alienated and disaffected individuals and groups
A randomly selected component of decision making would proportionately represent all groups and beliefs in society. This will enable 'protest' and disillusioned voices to have a legitimate input into the democratic system.

5/ Community Relations Council NI
We contribute our ideas and original data to the ongoing work of the CRC NI, particularly relating to the Annual Peace Monitoring Report generated by Research Director Paul Nolan.

6/ United Nations: Mediation Support Unit
We present a report which outlines our suggested ways in which citizen participation and engagement in post-conflict democracy building can be maximised.

7/ European Union: Directorate K Security Policy and Conflict Prevention
We outline how democratic design in post-conflict democracies in the EU can be aided by our recommendations. Specifically, we explicate the implications of our work for the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

8/ Second level students in Northern Ireland
We provide educational resources to second level Politics teachers in Northern Ireland. Linked to our docu-drama, these resources are highly student friendly.

9/ Westminster Committee on Standards in Public Life
We present our findings and explicate how the integrity and legitimacy of the Northern Ireland power sharing system can be enhanced by random selection.
Title Democracy Without Politicians 
Description This is a five minute animation. It seeks to illustrate the potential of decision making by randomly selected citizens. It begins by simply explaining the concept using the example of decision making by randomly selected citizens in legal juries. Next, it sets the idea of decision making by random citizens in historical context, showing its origin in ancient Athens (5th century BC). The animation then focuses on how this approach may be of use in Northern Ireland to make decisions on difficult issues that politicians find it hard to agree on. The example of flag display is honed in on. In the animation we describe the results of our empirical work in our project: 1/ our experiment into how random citizens made a decision on the flag issue, 2/ citizens' attitudes to the idea of decision making by random citizens, and 3/ how the political elite regard the idea of decision making by random citizens. The experimental and survey based findings are described in simple terms. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact This animation was disseminated to the public via a targeted Facebook campaign. We secured an independent evaluation of the impact of viewing the animation on citizens knowledge and understanding of the ideas in the animation. Also, this animation was shown to 50 of the 108 elected MLAs in Northern Ireland the impact of viewing the animation on MLA attitudes to the potential of random citizen decision making was measured. These systematic evaluations of the impact of viewing the animation are currently being written up. 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPncxJiJWck
Description We have discovered that, in a deeply divided place such as Northern Ireland, if a randomly selected group of citizens reflects upon and considers the pros and cons of a policy proposal on a contentious issue, they are likely become more in favour of the 'compromise' position on the issue.

We have discovered that there is a high level of support from the general public for decision making by randomly selected citizens.

We have discovered that there is a very low level of support from elected politicians (MLAs) for decision making by randomly selected citizens. There is, however, significant level of support from MLAs for randomly selected politicians to 'make recommendations' rather than final decisions.
Exploitation Route There is growing academic and policy community interest in the development of institutions to give greater voice to citizens and hence increase the quality of democracy. Our specified and demonstrated way of doing this via decision making by randomly selected citizens (in the form of a Citizens' Assembly) is offered to the Northern Ireland policy community as an institutional option.

We specify, and demonstrate, a novel method of deliberation. This 'internal deliberation' approach to deliberation emphasises thinking and reflection via citizens watching, and reflecting upon, specially created videos providing balanced information as well as conducting a mental simulation task in which the respondents imagine how their own views compare to other people's views. Our project has demonstrated the feasibility of this novel approach. Hence, anyone seeking to establish a deliberative-democracy based decision making approach to an issue (such as a Citizens' Assembly) can credibly choose to implement our 'internal deliberation' approach. This is applicable to any type of society.

We have demonstrated the extent to which there is support among the general public for recommendation making and citizen making by ordinary citizens in a citizens' assembly. This is especially important given the agreement between Northern Ireland's political parties to consider establishing an annual Citizens' Assembly.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPncxJiJWck
Description I have created an animated video which dramatically presents the substantive findings of my research project. This animation is in the form of a youtube clip which is publicly available on the web at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPncxJiJWck The purpose of the animation is to engage a non-academic audience in the project. It is aimed at the general public. It went live online on March 5 2016. The number of views the animation has had is available by clicking on the youtube clip. The project findings have thus been used, via this animation, to increase public understanding of the issues focused on in the project. Specifically, the animation focuses on political discussion regarding the merits and demerits of a 'Citizens' Assembly', which is a randomly selected group of citizens who are tasked with deliberating on a controversial political issue and making a decision on it. The animation describes how our project studied a pilot testing of a Citizens' Assembly and examined what impact different kinds of deliberation had on the decision outcome of the citizens. Also described in the animation is the extent to which ordinary citizens would support (or oppose) the idea of a Citizens' Assembly. Furthermore, the animation describes our research on the extent to which the current political elite (MLAs) would support (or not support) a Citizens' Assembly. In addition to seeking to increase public understanding of issues relating to democratic reform, our project also seeks to engage with the policy making community. Specifically, we seek to influence Northern Ireland politicians (MLAs) and policy advisers. We do so by preparing a briefing paper for the Northern Ireland Assembly and presenting the substantive findings of the project at Stormont on March 9 2016. The briefing paper, presentation slides, and a filmed version of my full talk is available here at the Northern Ireland Assembly website: http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/research-and-information-service-raise/knowledge-exchange/knowledge-exchange-seminars-series-5/knowledge-exchange/#participatory On foot of my work on this project I was asked to serve on the Expert Advisory Group of the Citizens Assembly established in Ireland in 2017: https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/About-the-Citizens-Assembly/Background/Expert-Advisory-Group/EAG-Revised-ToR.pdf I have completed my work on the Expert Advisory Group which ran 2016 to 2018 and involved advising on the full range of policy topics focused on during the two year exercise. Of particular note is the fact that the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on the topic of the 8th Amendment to the Constitutiuon (abortion provision) were subsequently supported in a population wide referendum. I have been invited to serve on the Expert Advisory Group of a new Irish Citizens' Assembly established in early 2020 on the subject of gender equality. This highly policy relevant role builds on and uses my academic experience from this project. I have now completed my contribution and the final report has been written and submitted to the Irish government.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Title Internal Deliberation on Flag Display 
Description Our project conducted a deliberative democracy exercise in which citizens were asked to deliberate on the sensitive issue of flag display in Northern Ireland. Citizens were asked to engage in 'internal' deliberation. This involved watching a short video we created which provides balanced background information on the issue. It also involves watching a further short video we created which provides a balanced set of perspectives or arguments on the issue. Finally, the respondents are asked to imagine how they might debate this issues with someone from the 'other' community in Northern Ireland: they were asked to engaged in a mental simulation task that took the form of an 'imagined dialogue' on the issue. In this exercise we wished to identify the impact of deliberation on attitude formation and so we followed an experimental design in which our 'deliberation' group could be compared to a 'control' group who did not engage in any deliberation. The respondents in our study were a sample of 1000 Northern Ireland citizens (representative of Northern Ireland as a whole). 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Our study demonstrates the feasibility of conducting a Citizens' Assembly on the basis of 'internal deliberation'. Our study also finds that those citizens who engaged in the deliberation were more likely, compared to the control group, to favour a compromise-based policy option when asked to indicate a preference after the deliberation. 
URL http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-854811
Title Political Elite's Attitudes to a Citizens' Assembly 
Description A representative survey of elected Northern Ireland politicians (MLAs) was conducted. The purpose of the survey was to identify elite attitudes to the idea of a Citizens' Assembly in Northern Ireland, which would be made up on randomly selected ordinary citizens and would make decisions on controversial issues that parties find hard to resolve (such as flag display and welfare reform). The data was collected in face to face interviews and contains a mix of closed and open-ended questions. The survey was conducted by Ipsos-Mori. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact We have identified a low level of elite support (17%) for decision making by a Citizens' Assembly. However, we also identify a more positive attitude from elites for a Citizens' Assembly if it provides advice to politicians rather than making a final decision. Also, politicians are relatively positive about the abilities of citizens to serve in a Citizens' Assembly, to make good decisions and to not simply follow their own selfish interests. In the open-ended questions the strong opposition of the elite to a Citizens' Assembly making binding decisions is associated with the elites interpretation of democracy being election based: any final decision about public policy must come from elected representatives as otherwise it is seen to be undemocratic. 
Title Public Attitudes to a Citizens' Assembly 
Description A representative sample of 1000 citizens in Northern Ireland responds to a set of survey questions on the theme of a Citizens' Assembly in Northern Ireland. The data allows researchers to identify the extent to which there is support for (or opposition to) the idea of a Citizens' Assembly among the public. The data also allows researchers to investigate the determinants of citizen support for (or opposition to) the idea of a Citizens' Assembly: what types of citizens are particularly supportive (or opposed)? 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact We have identified a relatively high level of support among the public for a Citizens Assembly in Northern Ireland. 65% of respondents are in favour of a Citizens' Assembly (i.e. a randomly selected body or ordinary citizens) making decisions on controversial issue that parties find hard to resolve (such as flag display and welfare reform). We have found that certain types of Citizens are particularly supportive. In particular working class respondents and respondents who place high value on the ideal of equality are highly supportive. Also, citizens who do not typically vote at general election time are supportive. Also, citizens in Northern Ireland who do not strongly identify with one community or another (i.e. Protestants who are not strongly unionist/ Catholics who are not strongly nationalist) are supportive.