Reporting citizens’ forums

by Terence MacNamee

Last week I talked about Flemish Belgian writer David van Reybrouck’s pamphlet “against elections”. He praises the recent innovation of the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, which discusses ideas for legislation and constitutional change, and which contains 99 ordinary citizens chosen by lot, plus a chairperson (a judge). He thinks there should be more of this, instead of everybody going to the polls every few years and then leaving all decision-making up to the politicians.

However, putting a group of people in a room and telling them to talk is not quite the answer in itself. Politics is no stranger to the committee. The trouble with committees is that viewpoints cancel each other out and that the consensus that emerges is well-nigh meaningless; or else the “spontaneous hierarchy” effect takes over, which means that some people succeed in dictating their views while others are ignored. There has to be some way of ensuring that all participants speak their minds and are heard.

Again, in any citizen consultation, the essential point is to hear what the people are saying, but also to understand what they mean.  This means that we need some kind of record and analysis of what is said at the meeting. Verbatim reporting usually turns out to be too much, while impressionistic notes are far too little. There needs to be an independent rapporteur who captures everything that is being said but also makes sure that all viewpoints are heard.

Some years ago I developed such a method for the rapporteur role based on the precedent of conference interpreting.  The rapporteur at a consultation meeting can best be compared to a simultaneous or consecutive interpreter at a multilingual conference. In conference interpreting, the interpreter listens to what each speaker is saying, and, almost simultaneously,  translates it into the target language for the benefit of participants who are speakers of that language.  In the case of an extended intervention by one speaker, he may wait until after the intervention is concluded and then interpret it consecutively (as it is called).  It is important to understand that the conference interpreter does not provide a mechanical word-for-word translation.  Instead, he gives the meaning, the sense of what has been said.

That is precisely what the rapporteur does according to my method.  He captures the meaning of what is said, writing it on his computer screen.  The rapporteur does, however, often use the terms that the speakers have used, if those terms seem to have some significance to the participants which should be brought out in later analysis.

It is important that the rapporteur operate in “real time”, as a conference interpreter does.  This enables him to provide feedback to the discussion as it unfolds, using an overhead projector to show what he has heard. This regular feedback clarifies to the participants what they have been saying, if that is needed.  It helps to keep the discussion on track.

When the rapporteur has done the first part of his work in “real time” the text of the meeting (ephemeral, volatile, spoken language) has been captured for further consideration and analysis. He then proceeds to analyze this material and summarize it. Following further input, if any, from the participants, this becomes the report of the meeting.

I suggest this could be used as an approach for citizen forums, and could serve as a tool for participatory democracy.