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The trouble with elections – elections and their influence on civic participation

Diplom Geograph Benno Trütken

Benno Trütken is a political consultant specialized in advising communities and participation. Together with the “ forum b” network he provides strategic consultancy and carries out civic participation processes; his special strength is the method “Citizen jury” (see also the citizen juries for “Children to the centre” - awarded an ÖGUT-environmental prize in 2005).

Contact: BTruetken(at) oder

At community level decisions with far-reaching consequences for residents' lives are taken – but not everyone realizes what is going on. In the case of issues like rebuilding the school or reorganizing traffic in the centre it's pretty clear, though; here people want a say, and sometimes they are given some. Politicians are particularly willing to discuss things shortly before a local election.

What happens to the results of discussions once the election is over?

In a large city in North Germany the issue of how to redesign a square in the centre, and how to reorganize the traffic there, aroused a great deal of interest over a period of years. At this stage different modes of transport were separated: motor traffic was at ground level, while pedestrians crossed the square underground; apart from its function as a street, the square was primarily used as a bus station. Various people suggested swapping modes of transport round – pedestrians should cross the square at ground level, and motor traffic pass through a new tunnel.

In this situation the city council decided to carry out a structured civic participation process. The local people around the square were invited to a future workshop, to develop ideas for their surroundings and thus have a chance of securing their livelihood. Juvenile users were brought in by way of a future workshop at a school. Apart from involving these target groups, the process provided for cross-sectional participation: 129 residents of the city, selected at random and ranging in age from 16 to 82, accepted the Mayor's invitation to take part in four days of consultation on the future of this central square.  They were divided into six study groups, each of which was confronted with the ideas of the local people and the youngsters, plus information from various experts, representatives of special interests and local politicians (this took up 16 study periods in all). In small groups of constantly changing composition they then compared this background with their own everyday experience; after 32 hours' discussion they presented recommendations for the policy-makers concerned.

Clear results – implementation unclear

The final result was clear: the core recommendation was to clear the square of cars (80 % in favour) and restructure the square to separate the bus station from the general-purpose public space.

The results were presented to the policy-makers concerned and to the general public a few weeks before the election. The media were full of praise for the job done by the citizen jurors. The subsequent election altered the majority on the council, and the issue of redesigning the square was downgraded. Supplementary reports by experts were commissioned, followed by a steering committee to draw up a master plan. Then the new majority remembered the citizen jury's work, and invited two of the jurors to join the steering committee as advisers.

In the meantime another election was held. Turnout went down again, and the majority on the council changed once more. It remains to be seen how important the issue of redesigning the square will be for the new council.

It needn't be that way!

Since this episode “forum b” has made it a rule to include a provision in the contract for every project stipulating an interim report on the implementation of the results. In the capital of an Austrian province financial constraints ruled out the immediate realization of the measures proposed by a citizen jury. As a preliminary step core demands were fulfilled; further implementation was postponed to a later date. The interim report contracted for took the form – a year later, after a local election – of a public presentation that all those who had participated in the process and all those interested were invited to. In spite of (or possibly because of) the limited extent of implementation, there was applause for the alderman responsible at the end of the presentation. Meanwhile plans for the second phase of implementation are going ahead, and a third phase is envisaged – an exemplary way of handling the results worked out by a citizen jury.

Conclusion: a structured process of civic participation leading to clear results in no way guarantees that these results will be implemented. If no lobby for implementation goes into action after an election, there may be no impetus to take the necessary steps. This can happen to non-participatory projects too – but in that case there is no snub to participating citizens. While consultative elements cannot and should not take the place of the bodies responsible in a representative democracy, the time and effort invested by the citizens taking part deserves more than just laudatory utterances as a reward, otherwise people's disenchantment with politics will grow. Contractual agreements to present an interim report are helpful here. If the citizens invited to take part in such a process are told that a report on how their recommendations are implemented is stipulated in the contract, they do not have a guarantee of implementation – that is not what they want – but they can be sure that their work will receive due recognition.

Benno Trütken

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