Deliberative Democracy: How can I have a say in my Country?

Is voting for a Government every five years my only contribution to democracy?

For many people, democracy begins and ends at the ballot box. Elections tend to be useless for gauging support for, or opposition to, specific policies.

On the other hand, Citizens Assemblies can build civic capacity and trust while ensuring that the people get policies which best serve their needs. This is what should happen in a democracy and how we achieve a ‘Government by the People, For the People’.

This article will explore how Trinidad and Tobago can introduce Citizens Assemblies to allow for Citizens to participate in developing policies plans and programs that will help to transform T&T. The introduction of Citizens Assemblies would give citizens the opportunity to have their say on a variety of matters which affect their daily lives.

In a democracy those affected by policy decisions ought to have a chance to take part in shaping such policies rather than be treated as subjects ruled by decree.

By way of example one could establish a Citizens Assembly to consider issues touching an endless variety of matters such as:

1. What principles and values best represent Trinbagonians aspirations?
2. What steps can be taken to assist in the reduction of crime?
3. Should T&T introduce technical/vocational education as a part of the curriculum for secondary schools?
4. Should NGO’s be funded to establish nursery schools among our challenged communities?
5. Should we plan the layout for introduction of new cities in T&T?
6. Would a mass transit system reduce traffic congestion and better serve the need of the public for transportation?
7. How can we encourage the tourism industry in Trinidad and Tobago?
8. Should we introduce daylight saving time and staggered hours for starting and ending work?
9. What type of electoral system would produce a fair and representative democracy in Trinidad and Tobago?

In establishing a Citizens Assembly to consider any policy It is usual that an independent Chairperson with skills as a facilitator who believes in consensus building, be appointed as the sole judge of order, responsible for the smooth running of the Assembly in accordance with agreed rules. The Chairperson is assisted by a Steering Committee to assist with planning and operational issues associated with the work programme of the Assembly.

In terms of preparing information and the giving of advice to the Assembly with respect to the various options with respect to the policy Issues being considered an Expert Advisory Group selected by appropriate procurement methods as representing relevant disciplines and fields are engaged to assist with the work of the Assembly.

One of the key components of ensuring that the Participants of the Assembly are broadly representative of Trinidad and Tobago society is to ensure that their selection is representative of a cross-section of the demographics of Trinidad and Tobago.

It is suggested by experts that 40 hours of deliberation by up to 100 Participants is an appropriate amount of time to learn about, discuss and make decisions on an issue arising for determination by a Citizens Assembly.

These Participants not only become active agents of self-government; they also build civic skillsets that can be used to improve their lives and the lives of others while helping to ensure that governments are responsive to the people they are elected to serve.

A sample that mirrors the demographics of the Country is key to the success of a Citizens Assembly, by taking into account factors such as region, gender, age, race, religion, income, education, and so forth. A Civic Lottery is one methodology which has gained acceptance in Canada for accomplishing a balanced selection of Participants reflective of the demographics of the Country.

Civic Lotteries are an important tool that can use to broaden participation while also guarding against the disproportionate influence of organized interests hoping to move a crowd and sway an outcome. Civic Lotteries make it possible to establish a Citizens Assembly which is a representative sample of people to discuss and decide on an issue, free from the pressures of outside influences.

Are we ready to engage our population in the formulation of policies for the governing of Trinidad and Tobago? Citizens Assemblies are a route to an engaged populace and the deepening of our roots in the land of our birth, ensuring a growing sense of patriotism.

Without such a movement, regardless of wealth, the transformation of our Country will not be achieved through policies which are adopted by a critical mass of citizens, fostering unity and respect for our brothers and sisters.

I look forward to hearing from you as usual as to what policy issues you would like to have made the subject of recommendations by a Citizens Assembly and any questions about the procedures which you would like to see addressed in future articles.