Kingersheim, a “democracy-construction”
Participatory Councils, “agorateurs”, and the House of Citizenship are some of the tools used to help enhance democracy here.
Before Joseph Spiegel was elected Mayor of Kingersheim (13,000 inhabitants) in Alsace in 1989 he had already served in politics for many years. Dissatisfied with his experience, he set out to gradually create something new: a “democracy-construction”.
Some personal turmoil had confronted Jo Spiegel with human fragility. This initiated his humble approach to power. Now he is of service to the community rather than to his ego.
For Spiegel, personal development and democracy-construction go hand in hand.
Democracy-construction means that everyone – citizens, city councillors and experts – is invited not just to express their views, but also to cooperate to come to agreements flowing from reflections, consultation, and co-decisions.
How does this work?
Democracy needs to be a permanent birthing process, says Jo Spiegel. If you want citizens to get involved in governance, they need to get excited about democracy. Here are a few of the amazing methods and practices which make this happen in Kingersheim:
Since 1998 the town has run its Olympics for democracy. The idea is to arouse the citizens’ curiosity and help them discover opportunities for participating in their community.
For each town project of the city, committees of three groups of people are set up: citizens known as “agorateurs“ (volunteers or determined by sortition/lot), town councillors and the relevant experts.
They form Participatory Councils, which meet in the town’s own purpose-built “House of Citizenship”. Such councils arrive at “decisions” that are presented to the city council. Partisan confrontation is replaced by a process of blending points of view.
.. and their philosopy?
Jo Spiegel advocates a mature relationship to power. Having citizens tick boxes every few years infantilises them, he explains. Democracy must also live between elections. Provide popular education, and you create a natural antidote to populism!
We need to move from the “I” to the “We”. Today’s leaders need to be modest and ready to work on themselves. This adds a psychological, almost spiritual dimension to politics.
The Kingersheim town council sees its citizens as equal partners. The role of the elected representatives is first and foremost to facilitate and process ideas/that of a facilitator.
Under the present system of representation, political parties still exist in Kingersheim. However, the way Kingersheim operates, political parties are not essential. They are not the key actors in democracy-construction.
To achieve the best results, Spiegel advocates calling on what he calls “engineers for public debate”; professionals in animating public debates. They are trained to guide and facilitate varied stakeholder groups to arrive at much more sustainable results.
Success and what’s left to do
What makes this model so successful is the proximity between politicians and citizens, really having them work together. A broad range of citizens and councillors gets involved. They seek agreement on common values, the same meaning of the words and the same understanding of the issues. Through this practice, they can arrive at decisions more quickly and make flexible adjustments to what is required in the town.
After some years of “democracy-construction”, participation as such is not yet the new “normal”. It will take longer to transform the political culture.
The local elections in March 2020 once again reflected the value of Kingersheim’s approach. The former Mayor, Jo Spiegel, had announced his wish to step down before the elections. By a large majority, citizens supported Laurent Riche, who like Spiegel, represented the “List Kingersheim, a city that brings [people] together”. The list won 64.70% of the votes and Riche was confirmed as Mayor in the first election round.
Evening for citizens’ engagement
Improving the local traffic situation together