In July last year, councillors talked a bit about whether or not to get rid of the “Lord” from “Lord Mayor” in the title of Dublin’s first citizen.
They couldn’t decide. So they voted instead to send the idea on to the Public Participation Network (PPN) to be teased out there.
There’s been no noise or news since then, says independent Councillor Mannix Flynn, who put forward the motion in the first place.
PPNs were set up across the country and linked into councils in 2014, one of the changes that came in with the Local Government Act of that year. That way, the idea was, different communities would have more of a voice in local government decisions.
But as some councillors see it, the PPN for Dublin city hasn’t worked that way.
Many argue that there’s a lack of clarity around that PPN’s mandate, and those in the network say they want greater understanding of their role among councillors, and to be more involved in making decisions.
A Bit Unclear
Each PPN gets €50,000 a year from the central government, and at least €30,000 a year from its local authority, according to a spokesperson from Department of Rural and Community Development.
The funding is intended by the department to be used to employ a full-time resource worker, office space for the resource worker, and for expenses such as holding meetings, trainings and elections, and creating publicity materials.
Part of the idea behind PPNs was that if communities knew more about how decisions were made, and had buy-in, then local governments would have more legitimacy, says Labour Party Councillor Andrew Montague.
He says that has worked to some extent – but that most people are probably still oblivious to the existence of PPNs, and have no idea how they work.
Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan said he thought the idea was counterproductive when it was brought in. And still sees it as “an erosion of community development”, he says.
The bureaucratic name puts people off, and the way it is set up is a hassle for groups and hard to navigate, he says. “You could create community forums that are easy to connect,” he says.
The way the PPN in Dublin works at the moment is through three “pillars”.
Groups such as charities or community groups or residents’ associations can sign up to be part of the PPN, choose a “pillar” to sit under, and send representatives to meetings. One pillar community and voluntary, the second is environment, and the third is social inclusion.
So far, 699 groups have registered in the Dublin City Council area.
Each pillar puts forward three elected members to form the secretariat, which co-ordinates the PPN’s activities. Representatives of PPN member groups can also sit on the council’s many strategic policy committees, which focus on issues such as housing, transport, and arts.
PPNs have monthly meetings where representatives of member groups talk about what they’re working on. And they have a plenary meeting twice a year, where members review their progress over six months and prepare an agenda for the months ahead.
There is a massive difference in the number of groups that has signed up to each pillar.
Nationwide in 2016, the community and voluntary sector made up 78 percent of the member organisations, followed by social inclusion at 19 percent, and environmental at just 3 percent, said a spokesperson for the Department.
At the moment, the Environmental Pillar, a network of NGOs, is researching ways to get more environmental organisations involved.
John Redmond, who is on the Lakeglen Residents Association and is a member of the PPN’s secretariat, says he has been on the body for two and a half years.
He is still trying to get to grips with it, he says. “It’s not ideal, but we’re getting there.”
Doolan says the problem is the structure, and that the PPN here in the city doesn’t seem to interact with the council. “Nobody speaks of the PPNs,” he says.
When the Cherry Orchard Local Area Plan was being put together, the PPN had no role, he says, It should have been the link between the government and the community.
Fine Gael Councillor Naoise Ó Muirí, also says there’s just not much engagement between the council and the PPN. “Is it just another channel, when politicians are directly elected?”
Nobody seems to know what its mandate is, or who those on it are accountable to, he says.
That’s something Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey says he wonders about too. Elected councillors need to be more empowered to make changes at community level, he says.
But Lacey sees the PPNs as frustrating the activity of local authorities by delaying the local authorities’ decision-making.
He thinks, similar to Doolan, that it would be better to just make residents associations stronger to improve community involvement in local government. “Most councillors love when there’s a strong residents association,” he says.
Rares-Mihai Nicula, a member of the PPN’s secretariat who represents the New Communities Partnership, said that right now there aren’t a lot of linkage groups – groups of PPN members who share interests on certain issues, such as disability – because people are unfamiliar with the structure of the PPN.
But it’s a way to get people with special interests involved in more local-authority decisions, said Nicula.
Missing a Role
Doolan suggests that the PPN be organised in line with area committees – which are the committees where councillors from the city’s five administrative areas discuss issues in their areas – rather than in these city-wide pillars.
That way the organisations that are part of the PPN could link in with discussions over how discretionary funding is spent, he says. “There’s no real method for distributing that money. Bring in local community groups to have a say in how it’s spent.”
Redmond, from the PPN secretariat, says he hopes PPN members will soon have a greater voice on the council’s strategic policy committees. “What we need is individual people on that who are elected” from the PPN, he says.
Most of the committees do have representatives from the PPN on them. But right now, there isn’t a PPN representative on the housing committee, he says.
That’s because there are no vacant spots so the PPN has to wait for next May’s local elections to put forward their own people.
The PPN is a new concept, and many of those in the network are just regular people who don’t have experience in local government, says Redmond. “We would train people to be part of the process,” he says.
Redmond himself is a former Labour Party councillor, and has a background in community development. The biggest challenge, as he sees it, is getting more people onto the strategic policy committees. “It would make a big difference,” he says.
“Sometimes, we hear the information from leaflets, but after the decisions have been made, and that’s not right,” he says.
Nicula of the New Communities Partnership, says he wants the PPNs to have more credibility, “to show people it’s something that actually works”.
One PPN member on the transport committee helped to ensure that new Dublin Buses were accessible for people with disabilities, he said.
Pauline O’Shaughnessy, chairperson at the Northside Centre for the Unemployed who is also on the secretariat, says it can be a challenge to get information on what’s been discussed at meetings out to the wider community, but it’s still a new idea.
“I don’t think anyone thought [those] from the ground up would be involved in decisions. It gives people a voice,” O’Shaughnessy says.
People need to be upskilled and think outside of their own groups, she says. “A voice on the ground is a voice at the table; that’s the major role for the PPN.”