Headline: Debate, Participate, Change

Citizens in Leupoldsgrün, a LOSLAND village in Bavaria, discuss new ways of strengthening their community.
Citizens in Leupoldsgrün, a LOSLAND village in Bavaria, discuss new ways of strengthening their community. C. Bernstorff

How public dialogue and participation can promote democratic engagement and strengthen local politics

With right-wing populism surging across Europe and many of the institutions of social cohesion such as churches, trade unions, political parties and associations struggling to maintain their relevance, what can be done to facilitate dialogue between citizens to promote the common good and foster democratic principles? The former president of the German Federal Constitutional Court, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, once noted that democracies live by prerequisites which they cannot themselves guarantee: “As a liberal state it can endure only if the freedom it bestows on its citizens is regulated from within, both through the moral substance of the individuals and a certain homogeneity of society at large. On the other hand, it cannot by itself procure these interior forces of regulation, that is, by means of legal coercion and authoritative decree. Doing so, it would surrender its liberal character (Böckenförde 2006, p. 112f.). In recent years, a succession of crises – among them, the climate emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the illegal invasion of Ukraine – have brought many societies closer together, at least for a time. However the measures taken (or not) by states in response to these crises have also been met with growing and sometimes even radical opposition, as Stefan Goertz recently described in his analysis of Germany’s so-called Querdenker movement.

Facilitate experiences of agency in political processes

Different views are not in themselves a problem. In fact, they are one of the great strengths of democratic societies, provided that spaces exist in which citizens can meet as equals and peacefully debate how important issues should be dealt with. But for many people today these spaces seem distant and disconnected from their everyday lives. In their view, the established bodies of representative democracy are out of touch with reality; this disaffection is a fatal symptom of the often-cited “crisis of democracy”. Participation formats such as mini-publics and citizens' assemblies aim to (re)establish these deliberative spaces as a complement to the machinery of representative democracy. These consultative formats can be used to harness citizens’ experiential knowledge in support of political decision-making and, at the same time, enable participating citizens to experience agency in the context of political processes. Examples of successful and inspiring public dialogue and participation processes can be found up and down the country.

Among them is the LOSLAND project (www.losland.org), which facilitated public participation at the local level. As part of the project, ten cities and towns across Germany were invited to experiment with so-called assemblies for the future that would be tasked with preparing recommendations for measures to improve sustainability for future generations. Each municipality put together a steering group that developed a guiding question and planned the procedure. Subsequently, about 20 citizens were selected by sortition from the resident register to participate in the process. Supported by a team of professional facilitators, the assemblies developed their recommendations.

The recommendations of these assemblies were presented to each mayor and municipal council at a public event at which citizens were also invited to have their say. Following this, the steering groups planned further steps together with spokespersons from the assemblies. The LOSLAND project showed that this basic principle can function across a wide variety of communities. It doesn't matter if they are large or small, more conservative or progressive: Forms of dialogue-oriented citizen participation can be adapted to fit issues and contexts as needed. They can add value anywhere and strengthen democracy on the ground.

On the federal level, a citizens’ assembly was convened in 2021 to discuss Germany's role in the world. The Bundestag's Council of Elders reached a cross-party agreement on the issues that the assembly should address. The assembly, which was conducted online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, defined a set of guiding principles for future German foreign policy and proposed that Germany should assume the role of a “partner and mediator” in global politics. While the topic was complex and far removed from everyday life, the citizen’s assembly successfully established a free and equal exchange among its members, shared knowledge and limited the influence of elites. An evaluation of the project conducted by researchers from the IASS Potsdam and IDPF Wuppertal revealed that school pupils and holders of secondary school qualifications who participated in the process reported more frequently than others that they felt their arguments were taken seriously.

Participation can also improve outcomes in less prominent settings and promote self-efficacy among participants, as ethnographers and social scientists Victoria Luh, Julia Gabler and Jeremias Herberg discovered in their workshops on structural change with trainees at Lausitzer Energie AG. There, participants learned to better understand their role and their options for action within broader processes of structural transformation in the region. The trainees developed strategies to engage in public debate on these processes, including a survey of other trainees as well as recommendations relating to the future of the company and for political actors at the local and state levels.

More spaces needed for the development of a sustainable culture of cooperation

Participants in all these projects – along with administrative staff and mayors – have emphasized that one-off events and model projects are not enough: Instead, they are calling for more spaces for experimental practice and a planned approach with the aim of developing a democratic culture of cooperation between citizens, politics, public administration, and civil society actors.

Active participation in democratic processes, they argue, can foster positive connections among citizens and between the public and representative institutions. Participants regularly report that the experience enabled them to develop an understanding of how differently people perceive certain situations, for example, the lockdowns during the pandemic. When citizens are empowered to take responsibility, their desire to develop a more nuanced perspective on events grows in parallel. Many assemblies issue recommendations for action to policymakers or other actors at their conclusion. These are fed back to the actors that commissioned the participation process. Assemblies may also simply conclude that there are very different positions on an issue. This encourages people to engage in democratic processes, because it shows that it is nevertheless possible to reach an agreement that will contribute to the common good. Results are by no means merely the lowest common denominator, but can also provide important insights beyond the actual question. Almost all of the assemblies for the future hosted by LOSLAND recommended to their mayors and city or town councils that they improve communication between political actors, public administration and citizens and that they involve stakeholders more in local decision-making processes.

Expand funding to encourage municipalities

In order for public participation to become an established element of democratic culture, political decision-makers will need to understand and experience its capacity to expand their scope for action. In the LOSLAND project, however, it became obvious that many municipal administrations are already operating at their limits. Most simply lack the capacity – financially and in terms of personnel – to take on additional projects of this kind. Few municipalities are able to hire personnel, allocate responsibilities, or provide promising new projects and ideas with the necessary resources. This is where state and federal governments must come into play. Funding programmes need to be expanded and longer-term funding made available. In addition, there is an urgent need to streamline procurement law. But the states and the federal government could also provide support in the form of non-monetary resources: for example, by advising municipalities on participation free of charge or supporting training to build relevant capacities in towns and communities.

Participation alone cannot solve the problems of liberal democracies, but it can present important opportunities for people to get involved in and contribute to their communities. But this only works reliably and on a broad scale if local authorities are empowered and able to implement good participation processes.

Further sources:

This article was published in late March 2023 in Böll.Thema - Das Magazin der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.


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