Vorarlberg, where citizens’ participation has constitutional status
Here, a tradition of involving many stakeholders in decision-making led to the citizens’ constitutional right to participate in politics.
How it began
In 1999, Austria’s federal province of Vorarlberg transformed their environmental information service into an office for future questions.
The idea was to inspire people to change their behaviours in support of a healthy environment. This required getting as many people as possible involved. Hence the relevant actors started networking with citizens.
The initiative triggered self-organising processes that have led to today’s culture of Vorarlberg’s citizens’ participation.
How does it work?
Let’s turn Vorarlberg into the most child-friendly province of Austria! This was decided in 2004. The province government organised a week-long planning cell with 80 citizens.
At the same time, an expert commission worked on the subject. The outcome: 95% of identical results, with the citizens’ suggestions, however, being more daily-life-related and more legitimate.
This was encouraging, however, expenditure was too high. A citizens or wisdom council turned out to be more cost-efficient.
The citizens’ council is a four-step process:
- A 1.5-day meeting of 20 to 30 participants to deliberation the relevant questions, with independent facilitators guiding the process.
- A citizens’ café where results are publicly presented and discussed further.
- A resonance group composed of the relevant institutional actors debates the practical implication of the results.
- A documentation is sent to the provincial government and parliament as well as to municipalities who in turn supply information about the measures taken.
Citizens’ councils can be convened by both politicians and citizens. The latter requires 1,000 signatures of Vorarlberg residents aged 15 or older. Citizens can prompt politicians to work on specific issues. Participating citizens are selected by lot (sortition).
The practice turned out to be so successful that a commitment to citizens’ participation was taken up into the province’s constitution in 2013. An additional directive lays down the details around citizens’ councils.
As to the objective of the most child-friendly province, new children’s projects and specific new administrative structures were put in place.
Underlying core beliefs
Vorarlberg’s politicians agree across party lines that citizens’ personal responsibility needs to be strengthened. And decisions should be taken at the level where it makes the most sense (subsidiarity).
With Vorarlberg’s tradition to incorporate many parties in decision-making, getting citizens involved was just the next step.
Another reason for citizens’ participation is this: The roles of political parties and social partners are in decline. Hence by involving citizens, decisions can be taken on a broader basis and are more legitimate.
Political communication has changed in Vorarlberg. The head of the provincial government holds office hours not only in the capital but across the province. Municipalities have established new information channels to keep citizens better informed.
One of Vorarlberg’s peculiarities is that with about 400.000 inhabitants, people tend to know each other. This allows for short decision-making paths, a phenomenon which can also lead to abuse. The constitutional commitment here to include a broad basis in decision-making acts as a constraint.
The gap between rural and urban communities is narrower in Vorarlberg than elsewhere thanks to their tradition of close cooperation.
Despite a general commitment to more self-responsibility for citizens, in practice, there are still some shortcomings.
More work is required so that it becomes normal for politicians to seek advice from citizens just as they do from interest groups.
Hence Vorarlberg continues experimenting.
At the end of the citizens’ council on mobility in 2018, citizens were granted a feed-back loop: A workshop to verify in how far their suggestions had been taken up.
Citizens, politicians and administration, all welcomed this process as being transparent and very constructive.
Agility in Politics?
In Vorarlberg, specific elements permit flexible and fast decision-making in a complex world:
A variety of cooperative formats, working with project groups and process facilitators as well as online platforms such as Vorarlberg Mitdenken.
Effects and successes
Many years of persistently practicing citizens’ participation have led to a continuous further development of democracy.
Clearly defining beforehand the precise remit of citizens councils avoids disappointment: Citizens are made aware of their room for manoeuvre and politicians explain how they will take the citizens’ results into account.
A new generation of politicians emerges who consider citizens’ participation as a given and an opportunity.
The office for future questions is continuously accompanying many participatory processes. The matter-of-course way in which staff deals with citizens’ participation, normalises this way of doing politics. After all, their office directly reports to Vorarlberg’s head of government.