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Participation & Sustainable Development in Europe

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All aboard! Public participation cannot be left to elites
© Stiftung Mitarbeit

Marion Stock is a specialist on public participation at Stiftung MITARBEIT, a foundation for participation based in Bonn. She gained a diploma in environmental studies at the University of Lüneburg, majoring in environmental communication, and is now a facilitator. As a co-worker in a communications agency in a suburb of Hannover she was concerned with activation, participation and collaborative urban development issues for several years. She was on the faculty of RWTH Aachen, working in the department of planning theory and urban development. Main focus: designing public participation and collaboration processes, collaborative urban development, handling conflicts and managing participation processes at the level of community administration and policy-making.

Contact: stock(at)

“The people who are here are the right ones.” For a long time this has been an axiom in implementing participation processes. But does it really apply?
There is plenty of room for doubt: not all stakeholders relevant to a given issue are easy to involve in public participation processes. Experience shows that we fail to reach certain groups of stakeholders with classical communication strategies and openings for participation.

In many cases it is always “the same people” who take part. They are involved on many fronts, and most of them are educated and well-to-do, i.e. they belong to the elites in our society. Of course they are vital for our democracy and the development of our society. But we must not be satisfied with that alone.

If public participation is to justify its claim to inclusive democratic decision-making, and achieve sound, viable, sustainable results, it requires all relevant stakeholder groups to play a part. We also need input from those who are not so easy to reach and who can / are willing to express themselves only to a limited extent (or not at all), because of their circumstances, their educational background or their position in society.

But how can that work? How can we succeed in reaching people who do not naturally participate and who live in circumstances that make it hard to join in politically? How can we win over (say) migrants, no-future youngsters and adults living on the fringe of society, so that they do actually participate, and how can we help them to articulate their interests?

First we need to find out why we fail to reach which groups of people. Where are the barriers, obstacles and hindrances? The causal factors are on different levels, and are not easy to nail down. At any rate there is more to non-participation than language barriers, lack of interest or educational alienation. Instead, we must also think about how opportunities to participate, and the frameworks around them, are designed: are we asking people – and society at large – the right questions? Do we succeed in engendering trust as a prerequisite for working together? Do we reach people via the communication channels we have chosen? But the central task is to find out what mechanisms operate to marginalize people in our society, and why the gaps between different social milieus are constantly widening.

Only when we know exactly why people do not participate can we develop strategies for dealing with the issue. The starting-points necessary for this are just as varied as the actual obstacles. Here too, attempting to solve individual problems in isolation does not work; instead, we need to link up several different approaches.

Opportunities to participate must be provided at the right time and place – and we must choose the right tone of voice. For many of the groups that it is hard to reach, the community hall or the internet portal are generally not where they want to (or can) engage in discussion. The actual processes must be designed for reliability, stability and transparency, so as to develop an atmosphere of trust. We must set up forms of dialogue that work with basic language and tempt everyone – not just the articulate – to join in.

Here we can learn from any number of tried and tested approaches and successful projects, ranging from planning-for-real processes via youth councils for secondary-school pupils (e.g. in Berlin) to activating opinion surveys and many other options.

We need to think over experience with successful projects. These must be made accessible and fitted into a system, so that we can develop comprehensive strategies for involving groups that are hard to reach. In the end, though, the day-to-day praxis of public participation needs to change. If we really mean to “get everyone on board”, we have to leave the beaten track. Participation will then need more time and cost rather more – but it's well worth while. The people who “are here” then will turn out to be the ones we need to stabilize our society and to place our projects to shape the future on a firm footing.

But this is only one side of the coin: the side from which processes on the spot can be influenced. In communal participation processes major areas of social imbalance can be alleviated in particular cases, but not resolved comprehensively. Social marginalization and difficult living conditions fraught with problems are basic challenges to society. Thus in order to get everyone on board it is vital to push integration measures forcefully and to override mechanisms that marginalize people. We must develop approaches that address the whole of society. Only if everyone living with us can and do see themselves as part of our society and feel welcome in it will we achieve a sound basis for successful participation. So apart from the stakeholders on the spot it's up to policy-makers in politics and elsewhere to get real integration on track.

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