When Citizens Participate

Civic participation, dialogue forums and referendums have been widely discussed, at least since Stuttgart 21 (a public opposition movement against the redevelopment of the Stuttgart central station) and since the mayor of Duisburg was voted out of office. Under public pressure, parties, associations, and enterprises are more and more frequently involving citizens, neighbours or affected persons in decision-making processes. However, most politicians and businessmen still consider this form of participation an incalculable risk. Only few of them see it as an opportunity.

By Simon Wiggen, translated from the German by Christin Brauer, Nadja Gröner and Lea Schiefen

After only a few months, German Chancellor Angela Merkel considered the Dialogue on Germany's Future a tremendous success. More than a million visitors to the homepage left about 65,000 comments on nearly 10,000 proposals for Germany's future. At three civic dialogues in Erfurt, Heidelberg and Bielefeld, Chancellor Merkel met with 100 citizens of each city and discussed social, educational and economic issues. On the one hand, concrete proposals were discussed, for example the ACTA Agreement, the strengthening of the position of midwives or the legalisation of cannabis. On the other hand, fundamental proposals and suggestions were made, such as an unconditional basic income, a new education system and discussions about Islam. The input is being evaluated by researchers and professionals and will be translated into concrete recommendations for action. Angela Merkel says that the dialogue is not considered a philosophical discussion, but an opportunity to find out which proposals can be implemented. She hopes that there will be a few results that would not have emerged without the dialogue.

How to Participate

Professor Hans J. Lietzman, political scientist and head of the research centre for civic participation at Wuppertal University, also considers civic participation a great opportunity. In fact, nothing will work without it, says Lietzman. According to him, the question should not be whether, but how citizens can get involved. It is no longer possible to serve up ready-made decisions to them; otherwise, situations like the one in Stuttgart with the construction of the new central railway station will occur. The citizens will resign themselves to the situation and only if they have no opportunity to participate or if they feel that their opinion does not have any influence on decisions will they become enraged. Civic participation does not necessarily have to end in a vote. Sometimes it is enough to reach a consensus between all citizens involved, and sometimes it is even enough to have a dialogue to settle conflicts.

From the Beginning

When it comes to civic participation, it is important-as it is in stakeholder dialogues between companies and customers, people affected or neighbours-to consider all interests from the very beginning. Lietzmann says that a project might fail if citizens are only expected to rubber-stamp a decision. This happened at the end of March in Gladbeck when the city, together with the Federal German Government and the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia, had drawn up a plan for the extension of a federal highway into a motorway. In a referendum, the citizens rejected the plan, which has since been put on hold. The positions are hardened. The risk that the citizens will decide 'conservatively' and therefore prevent progress is incurred in every form of civic participation. Democracy in individual projects, however, can also cause citizens to pursue serious interests that differ from those of their political representatives. Of course, citizens can have a different opinion than the administration or investors. Examples include the protests against the expansion of Frankfurt Airport, the enlargement of Marl Chemical Park, Bayer's CO pipeline project and the selection of routes for new power lines. Yet citizens need to be especially involved in decisions directly affecting them, for example in transport projects, and all projects that cause emissions, such as aircraft noise or particulate matter. In Stuttgart, for example, urban planners learned about the population's subjective noise pollution and their desires and expectations in workshops, in addition to objective noise measurements.

Expert Dialogues Versus Pub Chats

According to Hans Lietzmann, the opinion of citizens must also be considered when addressing more complex issues like sustainability and the energy transition, because the success of such projects depends considerably on the attitude of the citizens. Therefore, the participation of experts and an exchange with them are essential. Otherwise, the dialogue ends up becoming an exchange of pub slogans and in failure to reach a consensus. From the experience with his own research projects, Lietzmann reports that the more citizens know, the more they are willing to put their own interests aside. According to him, this applies to both political decisions and business investments because civic participation and dialogues with stakeholders offer many chances for enterprises, in spite of all the risks. Even initially unpopular projects might in the end become acceptable to affected persons if they are allowed to join the discussion and if a consensus can be achieved. The citizens accept the decisions taken and thus potential subsequent conflicts are avoided at an early stage. As a side effect, smaller businesses get a feel for what part of the population shares which interests and from which direction headwinds can be expected. The considerable, yet often underestimated know-how of some stakeholders can even be useful to the enterprises. This has been shown in the case of the city of Rottweil, where citizens and experts came together for nine months to discuss the future energy supply of one of the city's districts. The result was a EUR 7.2m biomass CHP plant. The city's public utility company benefited from civic participation because many citizens suddenly joined the district heating network. At the same time, the city's public utility company enhanced its (eco)-image among the population.

Simon Wiggen is a journalist. He studied geography and works for

More articles to the range of subjects participation, partaking and involvement can be found not only online but also in our magazine Partaking & Taking Part. Nicely illustrated and readable on tablet computers and monitors the PDF magazine contains all posts and photos as well as additional figures and quotes.

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