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MANFRED HELLRIGL

Risking participation - or: Sometimes you just need a little luck

Dr. Manfred Hellrigl

Manfred Hellrigl is in charge of the Office for Future Affairs, a specialist team within the provincial administration of Vorarlberg which is concerned with the issues of citizen involvement, social capital and sustainable development in communities and regions.

Contact: manfred.hellrigl(at)vorarlberg.at

Melanie (19) is standing with a slightly embarrassed grin on her face next to a flipchart. Whenever someone calls something out, she jots keywords down on a poster with a squeaky green felt-tip pen. Pinboards on both sides are full of posters covered with writing in various colours. Why is Melanie spending the weekend in a stuffy, rather dreary meeting hall with people most of whom she met for the first time yesterday, when the sun is shining outside?

In Wolfurt, a community of roughly 8000 people between Bregenz und Dornbirn, an exciting experiment was carried out last September: for the first time ever the Office for Future Affairs held a wisdom council. Although Wolfurt has no shortage of actively involved citizens, this time twelve individuals had been selected at random to spend two days discussing whatever bothered them: badly cut hedges; juvenile delinquency and vandalism; traffic problems; missing zebra crossings. The task: to produce a joint public statement of their findings.

After fierce debates they reach a conclusion that surprises everyone: that they are actually doing pretty well. Wolfurt is flourishing, the community is on the move, and the mayor is doing a good job. “Things couldn't be much better, we're pretty well off”, is the general tenor. If there is a challenge to be met, it will be to maintain the current high standard of living in future, too.

As they finally set about wording demands on the local council, they find themselves addressing the citizenry in general: We must take more responsibility (for ourselves, our children, our family, the firm, for elderly people, for society at large); we must find more time for each other, we must be more courageous; we must set a good example; cultivate a sense of values; push education; treat other people (including minorities and those with different ideas) decently.

Two days later the group presented their findings to an audience of 150. These findings feed into the community's current process of developing a mission statement. The next wisdom council is due to be held in the spring.

I was and still am amazed by what these twelve “amateurs” have spotted: by the quality and authenticity of the results, but also by how much potential is on hand in ordinary people – if only they are given elbow room.
By the way, it took a whole year to find a community willing to take the risk of an experiment like this. But sometimes you just need a little luck.

Dr. Manfred Hellrigl, March 2007

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