A new way to involve citizens in public decision-making

Connected Society 7 July 2017 Dr. Astrid Könönen

Setting the direction for an entire region is like flying a plane with hundreds of captains in the cockpit. That is, if you're ambitious enough to invite them in of course. The German State of Schleswig-Holstein finds itself in the middle of a complex development process where the level of citizen participation reaches new heights. And the forecast is that the approach will empower the regional strategy to become long-term sustainable.

12 mins

All across Europe, people brace themselves for times of transformation. While the rest of the world is moving fast, Europe faces a battle with structural weaknesses and policy-defining challenges from continued globalisation, scarce resources, sustainability, urbanisation, ageing and unemployment.

These changing conditions call for new solutions. Some of the key players in this process are the regions. Their role as major policy actors has become increasingly reinforced in Europe. How come? In the face of these new challenges, many policy-makers view regions as the most effective spatial level of governance. Regions continue to represent vital platforms for launching and applying development strategies and policies. And in this process, regional authorities have begun to recognise the influence of a new trend – citizen participation.  

In the northernmost part of Germany, bordering Denmark, the State of Schleswig-Holstein finds itself in the middle of this strategic transformation. The participation of citizens and other regional actors is at the heart of the process. But how do you in fact set the direction for an entire region? 

A bottom-up approach

The short answer is that you start from the bottom. In the design and implementation of a long-term regional strategy, Schleswig-Holstein has teamed up with Ramboll Management Consulting to apply a bottom-up approach that integrates the most crucial visions and priorities from citizens and key stakeholders.

The nature of this project is quite unique. Why? Because we are creating a well-grounded development strategy by combining insight from major political and socio-economic influencers with strong citizen participation. And the latter is essential to generate the right sense of ownership in the public and to make the strategy long-term sustainable.

Complex stakeholder engagement

While the approach may seem simple on paper, the complexity of the project is difficult to grasp. Like many European regions, Schleswig-Holstein deals with more than a few challenging changes: Demographic and climate changes, energy policies, debt-ceiling, increased individualisation and the demands of the knowledge society, just to name a few. How do you prioritise resources and efforts according to the global developments that influence the region the most? How do you frame a common vision and decide on specific actions? And how do you make sure that people get their voices heard?

Well, it surely isn't done overnight. The strategy stresses the importance of Schleswig-Holsteiners’ well-being over the paradigm of economic prosperity. We incorporate a new understanding of growth in a combination of economic growth and human development.

Co-development is at the core of the strategy. From the very beginning of the process, we’ve ensured citizens and stakeholders a strong role. The idea has been to kick off the strategy building with very limited pre-defined input and content requirements from the government and leave it to citizens and relevant stakeholders to define topics from scratch.

Hence, the process started at a conference in Büdelsdorf last summer where 120 randomly selected citizens discussed visions, ideas and concrete initiatives towards 2030.

A new way of thinking

Running over the course of more than two years, the strategy has been developed step by step. In an effort to encourage a broad level of participation, creative and sophisticated conferences and other forms of dialogue such as an online survey have shaped the development process.

More often than not, citizen participation begins at a later stage when key aspects of the decision process have already been defined. The risk is that citizens will only get the chance to comment on an existing draft with little chance of changing it. We’ve used elements of design thinking which represents a new way of involving the public in political decision-making. I believe that the participative principles make Schleswig-Holstein a frontrunner in terms of regional development strategies, something they can be very proud of.

At the moment, experts are enhancing and refining the strategy. The strategy building will materialise in decision-making support and a guiding framework that will help the government and relevant stakeholders to render Schleswig-Holstein more sustainable for the future. Simply put, to improve the life of citizens. During the process that will be wrapped up with a final draft in late spring 2015, Ramboll acts as evaluator, process consultant, facilitator and communicator in cooperation with EWS Group and the HafenCity University Hamburg.

About the project

After the initial “Bürgerkongress”, participants handed a so-called homework booklet to Prime Minister Torsten Albig, and the inputs were evaluated by the ministries. Meanwhile, Ramboll analysed the main challenges and identified the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in a SWOT-analysis, assessed the regional potential and recommended a strategic approach.

Online surveys provided further ideas from both citizens and stakeholders, and main topics within quality of life, education, employment and energy were discussed by more than 600 citizens, stakeholders and experts at three regional conferences facilitated by Ramboll this spring. In addition, a council of eight prominent personalities with complementary expertise from Schleswig-Holstein have met four times a year and enriched the process with ideas, experiences and views.

Creative graphic recording from one of the regional conferences.