Close to the people

06. December 2020

Linus Strothmann is a commissioner for residents' participation in Werder an der Havel, Germany. Among other things, he was responsible for a randomly selected citizens' assembly to develop a concept for the city's important Tree Blossom Festival. We asked him a few questions about this.

Question: You have been implementing the idea of randomly selected citizens' assembly at the municipal level for several years. What can we learn from your experience?

Linus Strothmann: When I was hired for citizen participation in Falkensee in 2016, I did the first procedure there right away with a randomly selected citizens' assembly. Until then, the events with citizen participation were mainly attended by newcomers from Berlin and the old residents tended to participate less.

However, it was important to the mayor that a real cross-section of the population be involved. That is why I proposed to continue to offer open events as well as to make a more representative selection by randomly selecting people. The procedure then actually strengthened the trust in the administration towards citizens' participation.

Question: Who then appointed you to Werder?

Strothmann: The topic of citizens' participation played an important role in the local elections there, almost all parties campaigned for it and the administration also wanted to take action here. Since 2018, the Brandenburg municipal constitution has also stipulated that children and young people must be involved in all issues that affect them. In Werder, this is to be ensured by the city through a position as residents' commissioner.

Question: What were the elected representatives' views on this? Did they see it as competition or did they welcome it?

Strothmann: They were in favour of it, because there was also a lot of work to be done at the same time. There was a wish for a new concept for the Tree Blossom Festival, which is very important for Werder. So after only two months, the city councillors gave the mayor the order to start a big participation process. I think many people were glad that someone was in charge of this process.

Question: There were also conflicts within the residents!

Strothmann: Yes, the tree blossom festival was a real bone of contention! And that's where participation makes the most sense for me, where it's about the big and controversial issues of the city. If you have well-designed participation, you can get better results there. But bad participation can also ruin a lot of things and lead to disappointment.

Question: What are the essential ingredients for success?

Strothmann: It's a bit like building a cupboard. I need different tools at different times. Bad processes are often like trying to hammer a nail in with a saw because I have only learned that one method. In good participation, an overall process is planned, but then implemented step by step. If necessary, I have to adapt the process again and again, because apart from my planned process, there are a lot of things going on in the process that I don't always have a direct influence on.

Question: How did the actual participation go?

Strothmann: The first step in this case was to inform the residents. The second step was a digital and analogue survey on how the population as a whole sees this festival. We then presented the results and found a tendency, namely the desire for a more decentralised festival. However, it was then necessary to delve deeper into what this decentralised orientation means.

Based on this question, we designed the first workshops, one with random selection from 16 years old, but also one specifically with young people. Because one of the contentious issues was what the offers for young people should look like. So we asked them themselves what ideas they had. In addition to these two random selections, we also offered open workshops. With all participants, this resulted in a total of 60 proposals in 5 workshops.

An external expert planner then drew up a concept from all the suggestions. In order to check its appropriateness, we put it up for discussion again in a final phase. A large event was actually planned for this.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we then carried out this step online via a participation platform, where the overall concept could be commented on section by section. Based on the comments, the concept was revised once again. It was then adopted almost unanimously at the city council meeting.

Question: So you developed two special additions to the sortition procedure. On the one hand, a targeted selection of participants depending on the topic, and on the other hand, the outreach procedure.

Strothmann: Selection based solely on chance is not practised anywhere, but differentiation is almost always made according to age, gender, etc. I can, however, of course also differentiate according to the topic. But of course I can also apply other criteria depending on the topic, e.g. participants from all residential areas or educational levels. We also invite children and young people in particular. In principle, the question is always: How can I get the greatest diversity of opinions and experiences into the process?

Question: And what do you experience when you visit people at home?

Strothmann: It varies a lot. One hurdle is simply that many people don't have the time. Another issue is the lack of child care or the care of relatives. Even if help is offered in the letter, people often shy away from it.

In a direct conversation, I can often convey to people how important it is to us that they come. This also applies to the large group of people who do not assume that they can contribute anything important. They simply haven't had the experience in their lives that someone is interested in them and their opinion. Then I often say that when many think this way, a whole perspective on the issues is lost. That is the point where people often change their minds and say: Ok, then maybe I will come!

But it is also important that we then work with the appropriate methods in the meetings to involve exactly such people. For me, the outreach process is not only a method to get other people into the process, but it also includes the willingness to work differently with each other.

Question: What do you do differently then?

Strothmann: I don't necessarily do everything differently, but a lot of things that are done in any good facilitation. There are often people who don't want to speak in front of a large group. So we work as much as possible in small groups. There, too, we are very consistent about letting everyone speak in turn.

It is always extremely helpful to have participants write down their ideas first, because this ensures that they concentrate on their own points when speaking and do not just react to what the person in front of them has said. These are a few examples of small but effective aids. The most important thing, however, is to have a curious attitude yourself and to want to find out what each person brings to the table.

Question: Do you experience in all these years that people flourish, that they develop joy in their effectiveness?

Strothmann: Definitely. There are many people who come and yet are rather sceptical and afterwards tell how much fun it was for them. People often say, "This is the first time I have discussed in such a constructive atmosphere. And there are examples where people selected by chance continue to get involved afterwards. Especially with children and young people, it makes a lot of difference to experience that you can have different opinions and still work out joint proposals.

Question: Can you see that this kind of citizen participation has an influence on the culture of the city?

Strothmann: It's hard to say. But if it is generally experienced and documented how solutions are found to contentious issues and the city councillors come to joint decisions, then this is already perceived: Yes, citizen participation can contribute to peace!

Question: Are there different results in the randomly selected assembly and the open procedure?

Strothmann: Sometimes there are similar results, but the acceptance is higher. For example, in Falkensee we discussed whether a bowling alley should be integrated into the new indoor swimming pool to be planned. At the open meeting there was a strong faction in favour, also because the bowling clubs had mobilised strongly. However, they were not represented at all in the randomly selected assembly and everyone was initially rather negative about it.

Then someone said that it could be interesting for birthdays and company parties. At that moment, the whole discussion changed and everyone started talking about the fact that exactly such a place was missing in the city. So in the end there was also approval, but for a different reason, not out of a particular interest, but rather out of an orientation towards the common good. The city councillors could also accept this in a completely different way.

Another example is the participatory budget that we are currently carrying out in Werder. It is about the distribution of 200,000 Euros. All residents were able to submit their proposals, but it is now the pupils from the 4th grade who decide. Some of the proposals were very difficult to understand. In this process, we therefore convened a so-called Future Council with randomly selected children, who were then able to examine each proposal and revise it in a way that everyone could understand. An openly invited circle of pupils who were interested anyway would not have been able to do this "translation work" so well for everyone because of its homogeneity.

Question: These are also examples of how sortition procedures can prevent the further division of society by appreciating and including people's practical view of life.

Strothmann: Yes, that is true. But the best random selection is of no use if I, as a process designer, am not open to learning something myself. Another aspect is that open events usually bring together people who already know each other and have already pigeonholed themselves. They are either against or for it, depending on who says something rather than what they say.

In a randomly selected assembly, people often don't know each other and as a moderator I make sure that they don't pigeonhole themselves right away. I've seen two people at a table develop a creative proposal and only realise at the very end that they represent completely opposite poles. If they had known about each other from the beginning, they would not have been able to engage with each other in this way.

Question: But an open event can also be designed as a dialogue, can't it?

Strothmann: Yes, of course, definitely! For example, I ask everyone to write down both negative and positive aspects of a proposal. If I manage to make that visible, then a rapprochement often takes place. Or I ask people to try out a point of view they actually reject. This leads to better solutions as well as mutual understanding, because I was involved in the process myself.

Question: Have you ever worked like this with city councillors? Is this culture of dialogue also perceived there?

Strothmann: It can work, but our political structure does not provide for it. It is true that the content of discussions is discussed in committees, but rarely is a moderator called in. One party chairs one committee, the other another. There is still a long way to go to co-creative methods.

In politics, we have formalised procedures and that is partly in contradiction to consensus-oriented methods. These open processes are difficult to integrate into formalistic rules on which politics is necessarily and rightly based. Fundamental structural changes are needed that meet both requirements. And this always requires good facilitators. I find it helpful when, for example, city councillors can exchange ideas in a workshop beyond the constraints.

In Falkensee, I have facilitated several such meetings, for example on a first draft of participation guidelines or on the future of the municipal library. Once, for example, we worked together in such a small group to prepare the documents for a survey. In Werder there have already been such preparatory joint meetings, for example in the context of the traffic development plan. These are sensible formats for jointly discussing the further participation process. Unfortunately, many municipalities do not have the resources for such processes.

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