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Have your say: a chance for the public to tell policymakers where we go from here

Live discussions on Science Week platform will hear what Irish citizens think the ‘new normal’ should look like.

Dr Jane Suiter

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has turned many things on their head. We have been asked to work from home, many businesses are closed, students are struggling with online learning while sports and culture are also effectively paused.

At the same time, we have seen some positive advances. Cycle lanes and greenways are appearing, our doctors can email prescriptions and conduct online consultations and people are rediscovering their local areas.

There are many important decisions which lie ahead in determining how we move forward as a country.  The next few months will be crucial for the direction of Irish society. We hear a lot about the “new normal” but what will it look like?

So far we have heard from many experts and interest groups in the approach to the pandemic, but apart from the occasional survey, we know little about what the Irish people want. There’s also been frustration from ordinary people when it seems like their daily experiences and concerns aren’t being considered. There are choices and trade-offs to be made, and it is important that we all have the chance to be heard when it comes to making those choices.

In Ireland, we have a new tradition of citizens’ assemblies which allow a small, randomly selected group to come together, discuss major issues and make recommendations. But we still do not have a real culture of citizen participation.

Yet many things depend on us as citizens and the policies implemented will have real impact on all our lives. It is up to us to provide our best ideas and to let policymakers know where we want to go.

Citizen participation is a process which allows people an opportunity to input their thoughts and to influence public decisions. It can be a real part of the democratic decision-making process.

One thing we have learned from the pandemic is that public trust and cooperation is an essential part of any public health response, yet rampant misinformation and a sense of disconnection between the public and decision-makers can lead to reluctance to follow guidance and the emergence of anti-science narratives. Giving citizens a voice in the process is an important part of creating a sense that we are all in this together. 

Up until now the main forum for participation has been through elections, and through civil society, but now as part of Science Foundation Ireland’s Science Week there is a platformfor people to make their voices heard. ChoosingOurFuture has brought together a range of experts on a number of topics. They will be leading discussions on issues which matter to us, the general public. We want to hear what people think of this expert input. We want the public to debate and discuss and to provide their own solutions and ideas.

We want to know your thoughts on vaccines, on housing, on education, the economy, the future of live music and the arts and sports. There are threads on all of these and more. You can, for example, join Professor Luke O’Neill to discuss vaccines or join the conversation on liveable cities with Dublin City Architect Ali Grehan.

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We want to know how students think we can try to beat the boredom, stress and loneliness that many feel from online learning. On music, we want to hear about how we can support artists and musicians who cannot perform at the moment. Other conversations are on the economy where we are talking about balanced regional development, and about “doughnut economics” where we can decide how best to measure wellbeing. 

Importantly the conversations will be facilitated. The rules are that participants should be respectful of one another, people should listen to one another and no personal attacks will be tolerated.

A key belief driving this deliberative experiment is that if we can offer expert voices, and just as importantly, offer ordinary citizens the chance to engage with those expert voices, we can help to find innovative and appropriate solutions to policy problems while also increasing public trust and participation.

In other words, this forum is a space for the public to have a voice and an opportunity for policymakers to listen to citizens directly. We would invite everyone to register on ChoosingOurFuture.ie to join the conversation. Active debate is happening there now and will run until Friday, 13 November, 4pm.

Dr Jane Suiter is director of FuJo, the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at DCU, and her current research focuses on citizen assemblies, participation and disinformation.

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Dr Jane Suiter

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