Teilnehmer einer Demonstration
Vasiliki Varvaki / iStockphoto.c

Interview: Enriching Democracy

Citizens' participation has always been present on the municipal level. But two things have made participation an increasingly important matter on the state and national levels in Germany as well: the "Stuttgart 21" project involving major changes to the city’s main railway station and urban landscape, and the "enraged citizens" (Wutbürger) phenomenon involving mostly middle-aged and financially secure citizens who angrily protest in the streets because of their disappointment with politics. Below, the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Robert Vehrkamp explains this "changing participation" – which is also the title of a study recently published by the foundation ("Partizipation im Wandel").

Mr. Vehrkamp, what exactly does participation mean within our political system? 

Robert Vehrkamp: Participation means citizens' participation. The core of this participation in our democracy has been and will continue to be elections. But participation is also working together with a political party or a citizens' initiative, or taking part in demonstrations. Furthermore, there are forms of direct participation, such as public petitions in municipalities, referendums in the federal states, and citizens' participation regarding large building and infrastructure measures. 

In a democracy, the people already play a significant role in electing their representatives. So why do we need more participation? 

Robert Vehrkamp: In a representative democracy, policymaking is mainly something done by the elected representatives of the people. But, in recent years, citizens' expectations have changed. Voting alone is no longer enough for many people, as they want to have more concrete possibilities for having a say in decision-making. Younger Germans, in particular, are going to the polls less and less often, and are less frequently involved in political parties. For example, these days, more than half of the members of the large parties are over 60 years old. At the same time, more and more people are participating in petitions and referendums. In one of our surveys, 67 percent of citizens stated that they would prefer to make many decisions themselves.

What has changed since the “Stuttgart 21" protests began (early opposition dates back to 2007)?

Robert Vehrkamp: What's new is that citizens today are demanding more of a say than ever before, such as when it involves new streets, airports or power lines. They also aren't shy about yelling "Stop!" or about exercising their direct-democratic rights when they don't agree with decisions made by politicians or administrators. This can be seen in the continuously rising number of local and national referendums, which have toppled projects and plans again and again.

How should decision-makers respond to this development?

Robert Vehrkamp: Our politicians should take seriously citizens' desire for participation, as citizens' participation aids the shared search for solutions. People's knowledge and experience can help make political decisions better as well as boost their acceptance. If citizens' participation is sincerely desired and done well, everyone ultimately benefits – politicians, administrators and citizens.

What are the preconditions for successful citizens' participation? 

Robert Vehrkamp: The most important condition is that all actors from politics, administration and the citizenry are ready and willing to have genuine citizens' participation. But to make this work at the local level, as well, citizens should be involved at a point in time when they can still exert influence on plans and decisions. In addition, financial and staffing resources must be made available – because there cannot be transparent and professional citizens' participation at zero cost. Lastly, there need to be appropriate methods for making sure that the opinions of as many citizens as possible can be heard – and not just those of the "usual suspects." More than anything, the people who should be targeted for involvement are those who politicians have so far viewed with indifference or skepticism.

How can one ensure that the process of citizens' participation works well? 

Robert Vehrkamp: Citizens' participation is not a panacea that will free us from conflicts. Having so-called "enraged citizens" use protest campaigns is also a completely legitimate way of exerting pressure on the government, as long as the principles of our democracy aren't violated. Our experience shows that it’s important to address conflicts early on and to above all hold talks. A dialogue that is led by a neutral moderator and based on rules recognized by all actors can contribute to defusing a conflict. And if this leads to a greater appreciation of the other side’s position, a lot has already been accomplished.

How can one mediate in practice between democratically legitimated public bodies and engaged citizens? 

Robert Vehrkamp: In our project "Bürgerbeteiligung Ortsumgehung Waren/Müritz" ("Citizens' Participation Bypass Waren/Müntz"), we tested a new model that dovetails participation in direct decision-making with the representative system. The state government of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern put the decision about whether to build a bypass around the city into the hands of the citizens of Waren. In this case, an intense process of information and dialogue was combined with a subsequent referendum.

If people want more participation, does it mean that they no longer have sufficient confidence in the old institutions? 

Robert Vehrkamp: No. When it comes to participation via representatives or in person, you're dealing with two sides of the same coin. These days, it's becoming more and more a matter of course that citizens view the traditional decision-making processes as going hand in hand with new forms of participation. It's not about existing in parallel, and it's definitely not about existing in competition with each other. Instead, it’s about an interweaving of direct, dialogue-oriented and representative democracy.

Does this mean that participation is changing our democracy? 

Robert Vehrkamp: Yes, it's becoming more varied. Participation isn't a replacement for our purely representative form of government; it's an enrichment and an expansion. When citizens view it as successful, participation helps our democracy, fosters satisfaction, builds trust and strengthens the democratic institutions, as well.