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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019
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Column: A new way to ask TDs questions – and get a direct answer

Launching this week, the DáilWatch project will allow Irish citizens to communicate directly with politicians, explains Sarah O’Neill.

Sarah O'Neill

TRIBUNAL FATIGUE AND economic collapse has left the Irish electorate feeling cheated and jaded with the political system.

Stories of bankers’ wives being forced to sell their jewellery and TDs evading correct expenses procedures filter through as the most resilient representations of the decisions made by politicians. Anecdotes become caricatures of the decision-making process subject to disdainful ridicule over pints with friends. Politics seems like an abstract practice, distant and irrelevant from most peoples’ daily reality.

According to the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, 90 per cent of Irish people feel that the government is not listening to citizens’ needs and feedback. This figure indicates a massive breakdown in communication between the average citizen and their elected representatives, with the recent demise of KildareStreet.com suggesting that the disconnection is widening.

Constituency hours, participation on social media platforms and an Oireachtas telephone number are ineffective in facilitating the kind of substantial and accessible engagement that is lacking. Politicians who want to communicate their accomplishments and intentions have no neutral platform that allows them to reach their constituents directly. Feedback comes from an active minority who can be unrepresentative of the community at large.

A deferential nation

The Occupy Movement set out to ignite a global revolt against inequality. One year on, it is apparent that the movement was more an expression of frustration and anger, than a campaign with clear and substantive goals. In Ireland in particular, the disintegration of the movement reinforced how ineffectual protest is as a way of generating sustainable, long-term reform.

We are a notoriously deferential, non-confrontational nation, reluctant to react against the status quo. While politicians battle to decipher the loudest voice among the clamouring interest groups, the majority of the electorate remains silent. However, apathy is not the only alternative to protest.

Meaningful political change can only be achieved through co-operation. Consistent citizen participation in the political process, beyond election time, is essential if we are going to rebuild ourselves as a nation. Challenge and scrutiny are essential to the political process and we should all feel responsible for the constant revision of State matters.

In March, as part of Change Nation, Ashoka invited the German organisation ParliamentWatch to Ireland to cultivate demand for a version of their platform, which enables citizens to communicate with their representatives directly. The forum attracts between 5,000-10,000 visitors per day in Germany and has made a substantial contribution to citizen engagement in political life.

Direct questions, direct answers

Overseen by a board of trustees from across Ireland, dailwatch.ie will launch here on Thursday, October 11, allowing anyone to ask any TD a direct question and receive a direct response. All questions and answers are public, and once posted to the site they remain there forever, forming ‘the voter’s virtual memory’, encouraging accountability and transparency.

Beyond Q&A, the website will provide additional information on TDs’ attendance and voting records, how the Dáil works, and the committees appointed by the Houses of the Oireachtas. It will be available in both English and Irish.

The widespread dissent over measures such as the Household Charge has demonstrated the dangers of top-down decision-making and the importance of buy-in from the citizen population. The electorate will only tolerate a sacrifice if they recognise it as contributing to the overall good of society. Policy decisions enacted unilaterally are perceived as attempting to use the public as a scapegoat to save a privileged few. If the electorate feel that they have been excluded from the process, new legislation is impossible to enforce.

According to Edelman, 7 in 10 Irish people don’t trust Government leaders to tell them the truth. The eye-watering cuts that will be pushed through in the upcoming budget will require faith in our leaders and a consensus over the common good for our society. There must be a platform for open and honest discussion between the electorate and the elite around the direction of our country, to generate the level of trust and unity that is required to achieve the necessary sacrifices.

Shaped by the people

Social media is direct but unsubstantial, while constituency hours are significant but inconvenient (and private). Dailwatch.ie will provide TDs with a tool to efficiently communicate with people in a meaningful way, lowering the barriers to participation and making politics more accessible and relevant.

By streamlining the interaction and making it public, constituents can search through previous questions by issue area and busy TDs do not need to answer the same question multiple times. The platform recognises the magnitude of responsibility that each representative undertakes and is designed for mutual benefit.

Politics should not be a distant, inscrutable affair, far removed from citizen influence. Our government must be shaped by our people. By increasing engagement from both sides, we can create a more open and unified society.

Engage with your representative from October 11 and contribute to how decisions are made on your behalf.

Sarah O’Neill is the CEO of DáilWatch, which will launch this Thursday. You can follow @dailwatch on Twitter or use the hashtag #askaTD.

The DáilWatch project is part of the ChangeNation initiative, begun by Ashoka in March 2012 when 50 of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs gathered with Irish leaders to begin implementing solutions to some of Ireland’s biggest challenges.

For more information, visit ChangeNation.org or Ashoka.ie.

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Sarah O'Neill

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