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Citizens’ Councils in Vorarlberg: Building a culture of participation

Interview with Michael Lederer, Head of the Office for Future Affairs in Vorarlberg, Austria

Vorarlberg is well known as a place where citizens are often in the driver’s seat when it comes to policy making. How did it start?

In Vorarlberg, we started experimenting with Citizens’ Councils in 2006. Since then, they have become a success — widely accepted by politicians, policy makers, and citizens as the usual way of public decision making. Over the years, Citizens’ Councils, together with other programs geared towards increasing citizen participation, have led to a growing culture of participation.

The public is broadly aware about Citizens’ Councils. Some citizens look forward to finally receiving an invitation to take part in one. In this context, it’s not surprising our politicians decided to embed such deliberative practices in a more permanent way.

Before we go to their institutionalisation, what is the Citizens’ Council?

The Citizens’ Council (or Burgerrat in German) is a model of representative deliberative process. It is typically composed of 15 randomly selected citizens and lasts 1.7 consecutive days on average. The first part of the process allows participants to identify issues of public interest to be discussed by the Citizens’ Council within the proposed subject, or to address a problem clearly defined from the outset. During the next step, citizens engage in facilitated deliberation, develop solutions to the problems identified, and produce collective recommendations.

A distinguishing feature is dynamic facilitation, where the facilitator encourages participants to speak their minds without having to follow a strict agenda or process. Recommendations are then presented and discussed with the broader public in a Citizens’ Café, open to anyone.

Finally, the Citizens’ Council’s recommendations are presented to the public authority and a small group of participants are assigned to follow up with the government regarding the recommendations’ implementation.

Citizens’ Council model

Source: OECD (2020), Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions: Catching the Deliberative Wave, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/339306da-en.

How did Citizens’ Councils become institutionalised in Vorarlberg?

In 2013, Citizens’ Councils were institutionalised by a constitutional amendment within the State Constitution, which now states: “the State of Vorarlberg wants to focus on participatory democracy’’.

In addition, the Office of the Future Affairs has created guidelines on how Citizens’ Councils are initiated and the steps of the deliberative process. In these guidelines, we added in the possibility for citizens to initiate such a process by collecting a thousand signatures in support of it. Since then, citizens have already initiated a Citizens’ Council twice — and they were interested in deliberating over issues such as land use (in 2017) and the future of agriculture (in 2019).

The key elements of Citizens’ Councils are set, such as the use of dynamic facilitation, random selection, organising a Citizens Café. Everything else is up to interpretation. The law gives us enough space to adapt the design of a deliberative process to the issue at hand.

For example, recently we have organised a Citizens’ Council on agriculture. Statistically, when we select participants randomly, there are no farmers in a final sample. As they were key stakeholders in this case, we were free to organise workshops comprised of randomly selected farmers prior to the Citizens’ Council, to gather their opinions that later fed into the information presented to the randomly selected citizens.

After the recommendations are presented publicly, is their implementation monitored?

Yes, we monitor the impact of the recommendations of each Citizens’ Council for sixmonths after the process. We give feedback to participants about 1–2 months after the process has been completed, and after six months they get a report from the public authority that explains how their recommendations have been taken into account.

We also experiment with ways of measuring impact. For the 2018 Citizens’ Council on mobility, we invited participants to a follow-up workshop a year after to see how they perceived the implementation of their recommendations. Citizens examined the finished mobility concept and discussed how their suggestions were reflected in it — concluding that they had a high impact on the final result.

Citizens’ Council in Vorarlberg on land use, 2017

What key lessons have you learnt over the past 15 years of implementing Citizens’ Councils?

One needs to experiment with the design and different elements of a deliberative process to find the right fit, which we did a lot in the first years. We initially established a Citizens’ Café, but not the way it works right now. Participants of the deliberative process were presenting recommendations they have produced, the audience was there to ask questions. We soon noticed that this setup did not work very well, as the event was becoming instrumentalised by a powerful interest group through their questions. To overcome this issue, we introduced a world café format, where participants and the audience split into small groups to discuss recommendations. This decision led to much more constructive discussions.

The more salient, burning, and concrete the issue is, the more meaningful the process is and the more citizens are keen to take part in it. In the beginning, we had multiple processes that were on very broad topics such as quality of life or future visions of the community. We observed that the results of those were quite redundant and suggested to politicians to propose more salient questions to citizens instead.

As a result, in 2015, a Citizens’ Council discussed the situation of asylum seekers and refugees. It was one of the most powerful and meaningful processes. It brought the community together and helped shape the public narrative on the issue in a positive way, as a situation that is possible to handle if we come together in solidarity. Citizens lost their fear of asylum seekers and became active agents in helping them feel welcome in Vorarlberg.

What advice would you give for those politicians or policy makers who are thinking of initiating a deliberative process?

You don’t have to be afraid of your citizens. It is often the case that politicians have an irrational fear of organising deliberative processes, as they fear that citizens will come with destructive energy and simply criticise politicians. In 15 years, I have never seen such a situation. Maybe in the beginning of the process people vent a little, we let them express their baggage, frustration of any kind. But after they have done that, they are free to learn and discuss in an informed and genuine way.

This post is part of the New Democratic Institutions series. Read the other articles:

Introducing the New Democratic Institutions series

The New Democratic Institutions Participo series will take a closer look at how some of the institutionalised representative deliberative processes came about, how they function, and what lessons can be drawn from their implementation so far.

How Ostbelgien became a trailblazer in deliberative democracy

An interview with Yves Dejaeghere, one of the key people involved in designing the permanent Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien, the German-speaking Community of Belgium.

Citizens’ Initiative Review: Helping citizens make better informed voting choices

An interview with Linn Davis, programme manager at Healthy Democracy responsible for the Citizens’ Initiative Review

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