In Berlin, the first of several citizens' assemblies started in the Tempelhof-Schöneberg district in summer 2019. This democracy project was initiated by the group "NUR-MUT! We asked co-initiator Uta Claus a few questions about it.
Ms Claus, you initiated the Friedenau Citizens' Assembly in Berlin. What was the impetus for this?
Uta Claus: The original impetus was about three years ago. It was the time when there were more and more signals that our democracy, which we thought was so secure, was basically very vulnerable. Attacks on refugee shelters, hateful demonstrations against politicians, defamation of the media as the "lying press". I became more and more certain: I have to do something to strengthen our democracy.
I talked to friends who thought similarly and founded the group "NUR-MUT!" with them. We researched a form of participation that not only offers citizen participation but also promotes political interest and social interaction. The "citizens' assembly" model does just that!
What is the content of the Friedenau Citizens' Assembly and how does it work?
Claus: Friedenau is a sub-district of the Berlin district of Tempelhof-Schöneberg. The first Friedenau Citizens' Assembly is first of all about finding out what is on the minds of the citizens here. That's why we - together with the mayor - have set the first question very broadly: "How can we keep Friedenau liveable and shape the future together?
Citizens were randomly selected from the registration register and invited to the citizens' assembly. An astonishing number of people responded to the invitation, so that instead of one group, two groups of 14 people each were formed. These were led by two moderators - trained in a special method - who gave each participant the space to develop and contribute their ideas and suggestions.
This method (Dynamic Facilitation), which requires a lot of patience, was very much appreciated by the participants. It requires everyone to listen to everyone and to allow all opinions to be valid. Over the course of two days, the two groups worked out ten topics that were important to them and made many concrete suggestions on what should be improved. One week later, the citizens' assemblies presented their results to the politicians, the press and the citizens of Friedenau in a "citizens' café". The latter were able to add their own ideas to the proposals.
The district mayor was enthusiastic about the response from the citizens of Friedenau and the positive atmosphere in the hall. She took all the recommendations and ideas with her. In the district office, politicians and administrators are now brooding over which of the suggestions will be implemented first.
The citizens' assembly is supported by the city and the district. How did it come about ?
Claus: Almost a year ago, we approached various parties in the district and the district mayor to present the "citizens' assembly" model and met with great interest. We were supported by Daniel Oppold from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, who had written his master's thesis on citizens' assemblies in Vorarlberg. After several joint meetings, the district mayor was convinced of this model of citizen participation and wanted to realise it. At the end of last year, she managed to get it funded by the Senate Chancellery as part of a pilot project. So there will initially be a citizens' assembly in each of the seven sub-districts of Tempelhof-Schöneberg.
The "Citizens' Assembly on Democracy" will deal with ideas for the future of democracy in Germany. What do you think of this initiative?
Claus: I like your initiative very much, if only because it addresses a relatively large number of citizens and encourages them to think about the topic of "democracy" - and their own participation in it. I am very curious to see what proposals are developed.
Apart from these concrete results, media coverage is enormously important. With such a large, nationwide project, it should be accordingly prominent. This can then trigger further discussions on the topic.
Nevertheless, I think it is very important that citizens do not rest on this "big event" and say: "Great, things are moving forward with democracy and citizen participation ! Something is being done! In my opinion, the citizens themselves must create the fertile soil for "more democracy" by becoming active. In the meantime, we have experienced interest in the "Friedenau Citizens' Assembly" project from a gratifying number of residents of other Berlin districts and many enquiries about how they can imitate it in their district.