Irish mayor: the challenge of integrating youth in public participation networks

“I am seeing the age profile rise,” the mayor of Cork County Gillian Coughlan said about people involved in local civil society. [Frank Kehren/flickr]

Forms of deliberative democracy, such as public participation networks, can support traditional politics – but integrating young people into the process remains a challenge, Gillian Coughlan, mayor of Cork County in Ireland, said in an interview with EURACTIV.

In 2014, Ireland introduced so-called “Public Participation Networks” (PPN), in order to help bring the concerns and ideas of civil society organisations to public authorities and the more traditional institutions of representative democracy.

As an elected mayor of Cork County, Gillian Coughlan is part of the representative democracy, rather than the deliberative democracy that the PPNs represent due to their largely consultative role in policymaking. Nevertheless, Coughlan sees a lot of value in the involvement of PPNs in local policies.

“As you become more and more involved in the political side of things, you lose some of that on the ground feeling,” she told EURACTIV.

“And so, to keep our policies as close to the citizen as possible, the public participation network was established. And it’s extremely successful.”

The blooming of PPNs across Ireland appears to prove Coughlan’s point. By the end of 2020, roughly 17,500 local civil society organisations were part of one of the 31 PPNs that have been established all over Ireland, according to a 2020 annual report. This is an increase of more than 10% compared to 2019.

Members of a PPN can nominate representatives who sit in on meetings of local policy committees of city councils and county councils to provide their views. They act as a “failsafe”, as Coughlan puts it, ensuring that concerns, as well as practical information held by environmental, social, and economic associations, is not overlooked.

However, since involvement in the PPNs is self-selective, they do not automatically ensure the inclusion of all people.

“I am seeing the age profile rise,” Coughlan said, relating this to the issue of reduced civil society activity at the local level.

“People who joined in their 50s are now still there in their 70s. But the people now in their 50s are no longer joining. It is a challenge, there is no doubt about it.”

“It is not necessarily a bias, it is a real reflection of the people who are doing what needs to be done on the ground.”

But Coughlan fears this might result in skewed priorities of local politics – for example, on climate issues.

“I don’t want to be ageist about it, but maybe, when in their middle-ages, where people are in council, they maybe see primarily short-term goals. Whereas I think the breadth of vision of a younger person can maybe spur us to action,” she told EURACTIV.

As a secondary school teacher herself, Coughlan knows about the challenge of getting young people to participate. She thinks that the COVID pandemic made the situation even more difficult.

“Some of the teenagers have become very insular. They are not necessarily afraid to go out, but out of the habit,” she said.

“When they came back to school, there was no boldness. In fact, there were no real behavioural problems. But everybody was just sort of zoned out”, Coughlan said, adding that her former teacher colleagues often used the word “zombified” to describe the situation.

While this COVID-related issue might normalise over time, the challenge of how to include young people looks set to remain.

“You can get them together and they’ll talk and talk and talk. But how do you get them to take the next step to action?” Coughlan asked.

A recent case study of PPNs conducted by the Irish authorities states that the inclusion of young people is an important facet of meaningful participation. It suggests that this can be done through local child and youth councils and through community groups that cater primarily to young people, for example, sports or environmental groups.

Another question is how ready local politics will be to hear the suggestions of young people once they shake off their lockdown-related zombification and regain their boldness.

“Maybe some politicians think young people are too radical,” Coughlan told EURACTIV, affirming that she was not one of them.

“We must have their dreams and their creativity”, she said.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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