Berlin tests citizen participation according to Austrian model

A post by Timo Rieg.

The Berlin district of Tempelhol-Schöneberg (population 301,000) has been experimenting with a new kind of citizen deliberation, where the members are chosen by lot. The method known as “Bürgerrat nach dem Vorarlberger Modell” was developed in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg and has been practised there for 13 years. It has been part of the constitution of Vorarlberg since 2013.

For such a process of deliberation the administration chooses 12 to 15 residents by lot and allows them to debate the issue for two days. The discussions are moderated by one or two facilitators. What makes the method of “Dynamic Facilitation” unique is that the participants can only speak directly to the facilitator and not with each other. This is to ensure that everyone can speak for as long as they want and to alleviate conflict. The facilitators write every idea or keyword on a flipchart so that no thought is lost.

This is being trialed in seven sub-districts of Tempelhof-Schöneberg from August 2019 to February 2020. The results of every citizens’ assembly are presented in an open civic meeting (a so-called “Bürgercafé”), to which those interested are invited by the mayor to contribute. Because it is an experiment, the process is being observed by researchers from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam.

The idea started with a group of five retirees who were unhappy with the political developments such as the rise of the far-right (AfD) and populist leaders (Donald Trump). They were worried about democracy and saw it as a problem of disconnection between politicans and ordinary people. So they looked for a process that would give people a voice and make the politicans pay attention to them. They discovered sortition and the David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections, which proposes the allotment of citizens as representatives (and what has been known in Germany since the 1970s under the name “Planungszelle”).

The group of five initiators who took the name “Nur Mut” (Just Courage) proposed their idea to local politicians, including the mayor of Tempelhof-Schöneberg, Angelika Schöttler. Mrs. Schöttler was surprisingly open to the idea of allowing citizens to discuss issues. In order to avoid the common problem that only people with something at stake take part in discussions about local politics, a cross-section of the whole community would be invited. Since the proposal was a new form of deliberation, funding of 150,000 Euros was granted by the Berlin Senate, which meant that the project could begin sooner than expected.

The first assembly in the sub-district of Friedenau took place on 9 and 10 August 2019 and the results were presented four days later at a Bürgercafe. The question posed by the mayor herself was: “How can we keep our neighborhood livable and manage its future?” The participants identified problems in their neighborhood and generated a lot of ideas for how to make it more livable. The main topics included traffic problems (specifically motorists, cyclists and pedestrians sharing the same space), affordable housing, a senior-friendly city, youth facilities and public toilettes.

According to Karin Hübl, one of the initiators: “It is a learning process for both citizens and politicians. Some citizens would like to start immediately and don’t recognize the need for expertise. On the side of the administration they need to accept that expertise also exists amongst the people. Communication between politicians and citizens has broken down and must be repaired. I hope, assemblies can play a part in ‘remedying’ the situation.”

Short report and further links in German:

The Interview with two of the initiators:
About the author in English:

6 Responses

  1. From a democratic perspective there are so many flaws with this project that it’s hard to know where to begin, but the fact that it was the brainchild of a few anti-populist retirees speaks volumes.


  2. > “It is a learning process for both citizens and politicians

    This seems like a sure way to increase disillusionment. It seems citizens are expected to sit through the process without having any specific prospect that their effort would be translated into policy. “Communication” seems to be a euphemism here for “citizens put in the effort, politicians do as they wish”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Verfahren wird neu entdeckt (Umweltzeitung “Der Rabe Ralf“, Oktober 2019) English-Version (EqualityByLot […]


  4. Or not. People might get the new stoplight they were looking for, or an improvement for the park etc.
    Beyond that people are “doing democracy” with their peers, including perhaps, as Yoram suggests, being frustrated at the result and then organizing for something better. I will not poo poo any effort by people to try to affect their government no matter what I would have done differently.
    Ar any rate, thank you Timo Rief for reporting on this. It is good to know what is being tried, and especially with what model or “Vorbild,” they have in mind. The Valalberg model based on the Planning Cells of Peter Dienel are own of the most widespread models for using lot. Whether they are “empowered” or consultative is a separate issue, and one that those people on the ground participating will have to determine for themselves. What’s INTERESTING here and should be appreciated is that it was the initiative of individual citizens to put this on, not that or professionals or an civil society organization.
    As sortinistas, we should be noting HOW FAR the idea has come, beyond the confines of academics and activists.


  5. > being frustrated at the result and then organizing for something better

    Blindly trying various designs is not an effective reform strategy. “Something better” must be guided by a systematic analysis of what can be expected to work, based on theory and empirical evidence.

    > As sortinistas, we should be noting HOW FAR the idea has come, beyond the confines of academics and activists.

    Sure – there is a lot to be optimistic about and proud of. Sortition has been rapidly gaining ground over the last decade (as I have noted in just about every one of the traditional Equality-by-Lot end-of-year summaries over that decade). But, of course, that does not mean that there isn’t also a lot to be cautious and careful about.


  6. Ahmed,

    As a political theorist I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s important to be precise as to the meaning of the words that we use. In your last comment you refer three times to the role of “people” in the decision-making process. Oligarchs, dictators and aristocrats of various stripes are all “people” and I imagine these are not who you are referring to. Elected politicians are also people — the only distinction being that they have been chosen by their peers (anyone can, in principle, stand for office) to represent them. I guess the clue to what you mean is contained in the following:

    What’s INTERESTING here and should be appreciated is that it was the initiative of individual citizens to put this on, not that of professionals or a civil society organization.

    Given that “people” come in all shapes and sizes and there is no suggestion that the people involved represent their peers descriptively, why do you consider this to be something to be applauded? The other categories of people you refer to can make a representative claim, not so for individual citizens, who only represent themselves. You’ve expressed elsewhere an interest in republicanism, so are you endorsing Machiavelli’s claim regarding the inherent virtue of the popolo (as opposed to the corruption of the grandi)? If not then I’m at a loss to understand why you think this procedure has any merit.


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