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Participation & Sustainable Development in Europe

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POINT OF VIEW HELMUT KLAGES

Is citizen participation beneficial to politics and the executive branch of government?

Dr. Helmut Klages is an emeritus professor from the German University of Administrative Sciences, Speyer, where he previously held the Chair for Empirical Social Sciences. He is one of the pioneers of research into changing values in society, and also one of the foremost instigators of modernizing administration in Germany. For example, together with Prof. Dr. H. Hill he initiated the Speyer Quality Competition, which later developed into the European Public Sector Award (EPSA). Today he is mainly occupied with the development and institutionalization of far-reaching citizen participation concepts, especially at the local level. How does citizen participation benefit council members and the local civil service/administration?

Contact: klages(at)dhv-speyer.de

To many people the answer to this question seems clear: friction through arguments with the ill-informed, time wasted in debates without any results, more time spent on work and meetings, deteriorating quality of decisions, further loss of already scarce leisure time, problems with spouse or partner, less time for one's children, in short: deteriorating quality of life – and all that just because of a temporary fad and a few know-alls who try to profit from it. Seriously, though – citizen participation is already present in many indispensible shapes and forms. What would local communities be like without the participation of, for instance, “knowledgeable citizens“ in committees and advisory boards?

The first response to the question posed would therefore have to be: it is about tapping into the so far unused potential social capital of many ”knowledgeable citizens“ who are just waiting to be of service. So citizen participation means creating uses for potentially highly productive but free knowledge of citizens, for the benefit of those local communities who possess enough ingenuity to go ahead with innovative measures towards developing organisations more open and accessible to their citizens!

Of course that does not answer the question entirely, since, according to the results of many representative polls, the majority of residents would like to become ”citizens“ with the option of participating in making local government decisions affecting them. Of course so many ”knowledgeable citizens“ cannot be handled if the system is not to burst at the seams. So what should be done with all these people? And to what end? Would it not be better to leave things in the current state, let them occasionally vent their anger when something gets their goat, or should they perhaps even be encouraged by opening the floodgates of anger (i.e. relaxed quorum regulations regarding citizens' initiatives and plebiscites) further, so they can let off steam that way?

After discovering the logical flaw embedded in this last sneaky thought (relieving anger could become a popular Sunday ”family“ pastime!), one realizes that a further answer is needed in response to the question tabled. Yet citizen participation for the general public - is it really feasible and what does one actually get out of it?

The answer comes easily when split into two parts: broad citizen participation has the considerable advantage for local politicians that it provides them with a massive boost of legitimacy: people who, possibly using low-key options of participation like citizen panels, get information early and are heard when things of importance are to be decided, start getting the feeling of being directly involved in the previously remote and unapproachable „political system and sharing some of the responsibility. They honour this by granting acceptance, and in the end trust, and that translates amongst other things into increased voter turnout. The “spectator democracy“ of the fed-up is then a thing of the past. Every local politician who is a genuine democrat will consider this an invaluable improvement.
The answer would appear to be equally simple, even if somewhat different, in the case of local administration: the ”easily accessible participation instruments“ already mentioned are potentially excellent channels of information. Given appropriate design of the instruments, it is possible to infer from the ensuing results what the wishes, interests and needs of the overall population and its various segments, social backgrounds and subgroups are, how the public views (or ”marks“) plans and policies, what ”public value“ can therefore be achieved through them, how much acceptance and resistance policies (cutbacks, amongst other things) generate, in short where ”the shoe pinches“ and also how to achieve the best quality of life with scarce resources. Any civil servant who is capable of enlightened thinking and actions cannot but sense and recognize the invaluable benefit herein, that on this basis participation instruments with mediating effects can be employed very effectively, paving a direct way to  common ground in forward planning.

Also, citizen participation means gaining planning dependability in times of great uncertainty and lurking conflicts!

All in all the conclusion to be drawn is clear. Local politicians who grasp the potential have to lean on the civil service to embrace citizen participation. And on the other hand it is up to rational civil servants to enlighten reluctant politicians. Everyone can pursue his/her own gain, and yet - taking basic benefits for the citizens into account – a common good is created which helps to consolidate the community.

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