Vorarlberg is a federal province located in the west of Austria which is better known as a tourist destination between Lake Constance and the mountains. It has a population of 400.000 inhabitants. In 1999, Vorarlberg founded the office for future related issues with the mission to increase the collaboration between the State government and the population. The team of this new office noticed that the population was much more active when they were involved in co-creating the solutions. And their initiative paved the way to today's culture of civic participation in Vorarlberg. Today, the Citizens' Councils are organised and coordinated by the “Office for Voluntary Engagement and Participation”, Office of the Vorarlberg Provincial Government. There have already been 13 statewide and over 60 regional and municipal citizens' councils on various societal issues since 2006: Climate, youth, agriculture, refugees and also education. This commitment to citizens’ participation was taken up into the province’s constitution in 2013.
Citizens' councils can be started directly by the government or parliament. The population can also initiate a citizens' council by collecting 1.000 signatures of Vorarlberg residents aged 16 or older, regardless of their citizenship. Participants of the Citizen Council are selected at random from the registration register, according to the criteria of age, gender and place of residence. It means that it can be anyone who lives in Vorarlberg over 16, regardless of their citizenship.
How does it work?
The citizens’ council is a four-step process:
- During a 1.5 day meeting, 15 to 20 participants deliberate on a specific question and jointly develop recommendations for the state parliament, with independent facilitators guiding the process.
- Results are publicly presented and discussed further during a citizens' café.
- Representatives from politics and administration examine a possible implementation of the recommendations. They complete the proposals and prepare a report.
- The documentation is sent to the provincial government and parliament as well as to municipalities who in turn supply information about the measures taken
- Flipchart paper
- Device for showing a video
- Participants learn what it means to get involved in civil society.
- Participants discuss the opportunities and challenges of civil society engagement.
- Participants learn about the democratic innovation of a citizens' council.
- Participants learn how to plan and carry out a petition campaign.
- Participants learn how to negotiate with decision-makers.
- Participants learn how to use the method of "systemic consensus" to reach a democratic group decision.
BEFORE YOU START
This exercise is not a simulation and is intended to give young people the opportunity to truly experience democratic participation at their school or recreational institution. It is therefore necessary to get the management of the school or recreational facility "on board" first. Make them aware of the steps and consequences of the exercise. Also, let them know that they will play an important role in this exercise. It would be a great disadvantage if the young people were to get the impression that they should only “play” democracy.
A. Introduction (20 min.)
Introduce the topic of democratic innovations in general and the citizens' council in particular (see introduction of the toolkit). Give an overview of the objectives and steps of the activity and add why you personally decided to do it.
B. Systemic consensus building (1 hour)
Hand out [Appendix 1]. Guide your students through the process of systemic consensus building by explaining each step.
Systemic consensus building
Systemic consensus is a decision-making process. It is based on the principle of consensus: your class (group) can decide on the issue with which everyone is most in agreement. In systemic consensus building, however, you do not ask the group members for their agreement on the individual proposals but focus instead on the degree of resistance. You decide on the issue that generates the least opposition from everyone. By doing this, you will arrive at a result that can be supported by all participants. (This is important so that everyone is willing and able to participate in the collection of signatures that will take place later.)
1. Formulate the issue: (15 - 30 min.)
In the first step, you develop concerns in small groups that you would like to present to the school administration. Use the brainstorming method to collect ideas. What should be changed urgently at your school? What could your school (leisure facility) do better? Please make sure that everyone in the group is given equal space to express their ideas and wishes. All suggestions are welcome! They will not be commented on, discussed or evaluated at this stage. After 15 minutes, please agree in the small groups on a concern that you would like to present to the class (group) for a vote. Use Appendix 1 to formulate your concern and create a flipchart sheet to visualise your idea. Please, show how you yourself can contribute to putting this idea into practice (volunteering).
2. Discussion: (15 min.)
In this phase, the concerns are presented on the flipchart sheets, discussed and commented on.
3. Decision phase: (15 min.)
Now you make a decision. You evaluate the proposals with "resistance points". If you do not feel any resistance to a proposal, i.e. if you completely agree with the proposal, then you give 0 points. If you do not find a proposal acceptable at all and feel a lot of resistance, then you award the highest number of points: 10 points. All concerns can be evaluated on the flipchart papers. Go to each flipchart paper and give each flipchart your desired score (between 0 and 10 points). Also add a flipchart paper that says: "No concern". This is because systemic consulting must always include the option of not changing anything (the so-called passive solution).
4. Evaluation: (15 min.)
When everyone has given their evaluation for each proposal, the resistance points for each of the proposals are added up: The proposal with the fewest points has generated the least resistance from the group. This means you have found the issue that all group members are most likely to support! Ask those with high scores to explain the reasons for their reluctance. This will help you to better understand the needs and possibly adjust the implementation of the decision for those who have great difficulty.
5. Video (45 min.)
Show the video after a short introduction to the Citizens' Council. Having formulated a concern themselves, participants will probably be able to easily put themselves in the shoes of the people presenting their concerns in the video. Start a discussion about the Citizens' Council and give the opportunity to ask comprehension questions.
- What do you think about this democratic innovation? Do you see strengths and weaknesses of this process?
- How useful does the Citizens' Council seem to you?
- Do you think 1000 signatures are easy enough to collect?
- What do you think of the procedure by which people are selected?
- Do you think the minimum age of 15 is legitimate?
- How did you like the special method of Dynamic Facilitation that was shown in the video?
- Should all cities and municipalities be obliged to hold a citizens' council? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
6. Negotiation with the management of the school / recreational centre (approx. 1 hour)
The students prepare to present the issue they have chosen through systemic consensus building at a meeting with the school management. They compile the arguments and consider how many signatures they think would be needed to move the issue forward. They also consider whether and what steps they themselves would like to contribute in order to advance the cause. A democratically elected delegation of pupils presents the issue to the school management and negotiates how many signatures the pupils have to collect in how long a period of time so that the school management "has to" deal with the issue.
7. Collecting signatures (lasting 1 day to 1 week)
The students create an information sheet for their concern and signature lists for the collection of signatures [Appendix 2]. They collect the signatures at school (during break and after class) or at their recreational facility. They can also arrange with the school administration to go to classes to briefly present the concern.
8. Signature delivery (0,5h - 1h)
Help your students arrange a meeting with decision makers. The pupils hand in the signature lists and discuss the next steps with the management of the institution.
9. Reflection (1h- 1,5h)
Meet with students after the whole process is finalised. Ask the following questions without expecting concrete answers, but be interested in the young people's experiences.
- Formulating a concern: What was it like to formulate a concern? What was fun? What was difficult?
- Agreeing on a concern using the method "systemic consensus building": What did you think of this method? Was it helpful in agreeing on a concern?
- Negotiation with the school management: How did the negotiation with the school management go? What worked well and what didn't work so well?
- Did you get enough signatures? If yes, are you satisfied with the way your concerns were dealt with? If not, what could have been the reason? Was the issue not important enough for a large number of your fellow students? What could be done differently next time? Did the school management nevertheless take up the issue?