Who knows his/her MPs in the German Bundestag? How often do we come into real contact with politics? How do MPs get a good picture of what concerns people in their constituency? And how can politicians meaningfully incorporate the opinions of many different people into their decisions? These questions are at the heart of the "Hello Bundestag" project.
In 2023, the association "Es geht LOS" will bring together randomly selected people from Bundestag constituencies across the country to spend a day talking to each other. The results of their discussions on federal policy issues are discussed with the respective constituency MPs. This is to give participants the opportunity to actively shape politics.
Different needs and perspectives
"Different life experiences lead to different needs and perspectives. Our goal is to bring these into conversation with each other," it says on the democracy project's website. In this way, it is to be tested how the voices of different people can be heard more in politics.
For the so-called constituency day, the participants receive information material that has been tested by scientific institutes. For the so-called constituency day, participants receive information material that has been tested by scientific institutes. Young people between the ages of 12 and 18 are invited to a preparatory meeting to learn more about the project and to get to know each other. At the constituency day, a professional moderator ensures that everyone has their say and feels comfortable. In the mornings, the participants, who have been randomly selected, discuss the respective topic in small groups and prepare a statement for the politicians. In the afternoon, the MPs join them and they discuss the results of the exchange of ideas.
All constituency day participants receive an allowance of 100 euros. Food is provided by the organisers.
Because on average only 5-10 per cent of those invited respond to an invitation to a citizens' assembly, the so-called outreach lottery procedure was used to form the constituency days. People who had not responded to the written invitation were asked again in person.
The aim is to find out what prevented those who had been selected from taking part in the constituency day and what they need in order to be able to take part. "It also turns out time and again that people don't get the letters delivered or don't take them seriously when they first read them, don't understand them or don't take a closer look at the invitation for some other reason. Therefore, we always leave a letter with a reminder with those we don't meet," the association explains the background.
"Many people don't have the time"
"One hurdle is simply that many people don't have the time. Another issue is lack of childcare or caring for relatives. Even if offers of help for this are in the letter, people often shy away from it," Linus Strothmann of Es geht LOS describes his experience.
"In a direct conversation, I can often convey to people how important it is to us that exactly 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's the point where people often change their minds and say: ok, then maybe I'll come!"
Mapping constituency diversity
According to Es geht LOS, the constituencies were selected for the "Hello Bundestag" project in such a way that they represent the diversity of the 299 Bundestag constituencies with regard to different criteria and at the same time allow comparisons. In order to be able to draw generalisable conclusions for the continuation of constituency councils, it was important to have economically weak as well as economically strong constituencies in the project. In addition, attention was paid to an appropriate representation of the party preferences of the participants, to a balanced representation of the genders as well as to regional differences.
- Hagen - Ennepe-Ruhr district I
- Erfurt - Weimar - Weimarer Land II
- Berlin-Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg - Prenzlauer Berg East
- Berlin-Steglitz - Zehlendorf
In the two Berlin constituencies, "Es geht LOS" had already held 2021 constituency days. The participants were enthusiastic and many were interested in continuing. Therefore, there will be a new edition of the process in these two constituencies.
The cooperation partners of the project at the time were the Members of the Bundestag Canan Bayram (Greens) and Thomas Heilmann (CDU). "I experienced (...) how refreshing it is to talk to people who are not politically active. Without the outreach procedure, that would not have happened," Heilmann described his experience. The sortition project was also able to reach non-voters. One of them was Till G. "I am glad I took part. This is exactly the closeness to the people that is still missing in Germany," said the self-described "most apolitical person in the whole neighbourhood".
"It is clear that with six constituencies we cannot represent all the criteria and characteristics of the 299 constituencies in Germany. Nevertheless, we are sure: if it works in these six, it will also work in the remaining 293 constituencies," it says on the website of Es geht LOS.
With the project, the association also wants to see to what extent people who were randomly selected into a constituency day want to and are able to continue working together as a group in the constituency council afterwards. This council, which is designed for longer-term cooperation, is intended to serve as an advisory council for MPs.
In order to find out what effect the project has on the participants, before/after surveys of those selected, interviews with MPs as well as participant observations will be conducted by e-fact dialog evaluation consulting eG.
In addition to this evaluation, partial aspects of the project are examined through accompanying research. For example, the research group of the Department of Comparative Political Behaviour at the Institute of Social Sciences at Humboldt University Berlin is investigating the influence of different incentives to participate in the constituency days.
The Hallo Bundestag project is funded by the Robert Bosch Foundation, the ZEIT Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. The federal political connection is funded by the Federal Agency for Civic Education.
Politicians misjudge voters' wishes
Perhaps the "Hello Bundestag" project will alleviate the problem of misinterpretation of the direction of political decisions desired by the population. According to the international study "Inaccurate Politicians: Elected Representatives’ Estimations of Public Opinion in Four Countries" published in January 2023 at the University of Chicago, politicians can only estimate such preferences very inaccurately. They make major mistakes and even regularly misjudge what the majority of voters want. In doing so, they not only misjudge the preferences of the population as a whole, but also those of their own electorate.