Many citizens would like to be more involved in democracy; others are more sceptical. We asked two experts about the opportunities and risks of citizen participation.
This July the participants for the first Citizens' Council of the Bundestag were drawn at random. How do the experts assess this step towards citizen participation?
Brigitte Geißel: I support citizen participation at the national level and am naturally pleased that the Bundestag has opened itself to this democratic innovation. However, I also see the danger that hopes will be placed in such a citizens' council that cannot be fulfilled. It will not resolve polarization in society or lead to better laws being passed right away; but it can provide additional information to legislators.
Gordian Haas: I am also very pleased that the topic of citizen participation has now reached the highest level. Citizens' councils have existed at the local and state levels, but this is the first time they have been mandated by our main political body - that's great. At the same time, it is important to emphasise that a citizens' council is not intended to be an alternative to a representative democracy, but complementary to it. Just as the Bundestag is already advised by experts, citizens now have the opportunity to contribute their opinions.
Geißel: In this context, the discussions in a citizens' council go beyond a mere regular table discussion. Experts representing different perspectives will be invited and discussions are moderated in small groups so that all voices are truly heard.
Haas: Such a citizens' council is a very firmly structured form of citizen participation and is initiated "from above". However, citizen participation can also take the form of a grass roots movement: local citizens joining together and starting a petition or organising demonstrations. Citizen forums and future workshops (german: “Zukunftswerkstätten) are also variants of citizen participation.
Geißel: Researchers are currently discussing intensively which opportunities these various forms of citizen participation offer our democracy. For example, political decisions should be perceived as “better” because they are closer to the needs of the citizens. This can help alleviate disenchantment with politics, or rather with political parties. It is also hopeful that citizen participation will help to develop political skills and encourage citizens to be more proactive. We know from countries with referendums that people are better informed on these issues. Citizen participation can also make politics more inclusive because all segments of the population are truly heard - not just the core constituencies of the respective parties. Last but not least, it should also increase the transparency of legislative procedures. All these are also the criteria by which the effectiveness of different forms can be evaluated.
Haas: In addition, citizens who have been involved in such processes often develop a greater willingness to engage in dialogue and a greater understanding of the situations of others. A sense of community like this is extremely important for a democratic society, and this has suffered greatly in recent years.
Geißel: What's more, citizen participation can increase political satisfaction, as Switzerland shows. There, support for the political system is incredibly high, which is also due to direct democracy. But it depends a lot on how citizen participation is implemented - it can also contribute to polarization. For example, the phenomenon of self-recruitment: When civic participation is not purposefully representative, it often brings together people who are relatively homogeneous, tending to be of higher income and educational status. True citizen participation takes time and resources; you have to plan it well.
Haas: I agree. For the Citizens' Council on Nutrition, for example, 20,000 people were contacted in order to ultimately recruit 160 participants representing the composition of the German population. The random selection process behind it is relatively complicated. Basically, there are a number of success factors for citizen participation. The most important is that the institution that instigates it must have a sincere interest in the outcome, otherwise trust can also be destroyed. Citizen participation must be used early in a political process to achieve this. Moreover, not every topic is equally suitable for citizen participation, of course.
Geißel: It also can't be particitainment, where you pretend there's participation, people kind of have fun, but in the end there's no real opportunity to shape outcomes. Otherwise, this is simply fluff.
Haas: This point is very close to our hearts at the Robert Bosch Stiftung: to promote genuine participation in democracy, for everyone. The various forms of citizen participation can also reach citizens who have not been so vocal in the democratic process in the past: A relatively large group that does not actively support democracy, but is not opposed to it either. It is precisely this group that we are trying to win over as active supporters of democracy. To do this, we need to remove obstacles. When citizens get involved in politics, they do so in their free time. We have to give them the opportunity to participate in the first place, for example through childcare, allowances, technical training, and the like. Not only should everyone have the opportunity to participate in principle - it must also be representable in the respective reality of life.
Geißel: All of these factors may contribute to a greater role for citizen participation in five or ten years’ time...
Haas: It is my hope and expectation that there will be an increasing institutionalization of citizen participation at all levels. I also expect that there will be a stronger link between direct and deliberative democracy. When a group of people has to make a complex decision, it is important that they first discuss it amongst themselves before coming to a decision. That's what happens in parliament, but we need to incorporate this in citizen participation as well.
Geißel: This interlocking is also very close to my heart. My vision is a democracy in which direct and deliberative processes are closely linked to our representative institutions. Political issues are discussed intensively among the population and, in some cases, also decided. The population also decides for itself how it will be involved. In addition, there are monitoring processes in place to verify that these procedures are working.
Haas: Exactly. Ultimately, the successes of citizen participation must legitimize these procedures themselves.