Citizens’ Councils in Vorarlberg: Building a culture of participation

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

Ieva Cesnulaityte
Jun 25, 2020 · 5 min read

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.

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.

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’’.

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.

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.

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

Participo

A digest on innovative citizen participation research & practice

Participo

Participo is a digest for the OECD Open Government Unit’s area of work on innovative citizen participation. Articles by external contributors are their own and do not reflect the views of the OECD.

Ieva Cesnulaityte

Written by

Working on innovative citizen participation at OECD #delibWave | Twitter @ICesnulaityte | Views are my own

Participo

Participo is a digest for the OECD Open Government Unit’s area of work on innovative citizen participation. Articles by external contributors are their own and do not reflect the views of the OECD.

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