Gütersloh, Germany-based Bertelsmann Stiftung today released a new study on public participation in Germany, which shows increasing citizen demand for various types of participatory processes and which confirms a number of ways public participation yields positive impact (pages 4-5, in German): Vielfältige Demokratie: Kernergebnisse der Studie „Partizipation im Wandel – Unsere Demokratie zwischen Wählen, Mitmachen und Entscheiden“ (PDF)
Here’s the summary (translation via Google Translate, modified):
In Focus: Ten key findings of the study “Participation in Transition – Our Democracy between Voting, Participation and Decision Making”
1. Germany is moving from a representative to a diverse democracy
In our democracy, the purely representative methods have lost their monopoly. Citizens want to have a say on important issues and (co‑)decide directly. Voting alone is no longer sufficient.
2. While the political elites are still reluctant citizens have already arrived at the diverse democracy
While citizens prefer participatory forms of governance over purely representative ones today already, elected politicians still depend more on the representative system. There are also differences in the interpretation of the representative mandate: politicians interpret their representative mandate much more openly and less dependent on the specific will of the people.
3. The largest untapped potential from the perspective of citizens in direct democracy
Citizens want to decide important questions themselves via direct democracy. They want much more direct democracy than has been practiced in Germany in the past.
4. Various forms of political participation are mutually supportive
The assumption according to which the various forms of political participation compete with each other has not been confirmed. The three pillars of diverse democracy stabilize each other. More public participation strengthens representative democracy!
5. Public participation promotes the common good
For the most part, citizens and decision makers see public welfare-promoting effects through more participation. Active public participation generates better information, new ideas and enhances the articulation and consideration of different interests as a basis for political decisions.
6. Successful public participation increases the satisfaction with the way democracy works and strengthens confidence in democratic institutions
Well-done public participation increases the satisfaction with the functioning of democracy and strengthens confidence in the representative institutions. However, poorly-done public participation has the opposite effect: It destroys trust and creates dissatisfaction.
7. Public participation strengthens the political interest and the democratic skills of their citizens
More participation by way of a more diverse democracy strengthens the political culture of a country. Democratic interest and expertise are conducive to engagement and participation, but the relationship also works the other way around:
8. Public participation increases the acceptance of policy decisions
The vast majority of citizens and decision makers see greater acceptance of political decisions through direct democracy and deliberative participation processes, even if citizens are not satisfied with the concrete results of decisions.
9. Public participation prevents bad planning and bad investments
More and earlier public participation can avoid time-consuming and expensive faulty planning and poor investments and helps to improve the results of policy decisions.
10. More public participation is not a democratic luxury
Whether rich or poor — the investment activities of municipalities are not dependent on their level of wealth. The cash position is not a decisive factor in the decision for or against public participation.
The research for this empirical study took place in late 2013 in 27 municipalities across Germany and included personal interviews with the mayor, online/phone interviews with city council members as well as interviews with three members each of the administrative leadership. In each of the 27 municipalities, 100 citizens were interviewed via phone.
The study also included a question about “online participation”, which received surprisingly low levels of approval. However, the way it was framed leads me to believe that the results aren’t quite as meaningful:
Question: “In what follows, I’ll give you various forms of public participation. For each form, please tell me how you rate it on a scale from 1 (= very good) to 5 (= very poorly)?”
Some of the specific forms of public participation and civic engagement listed include participation in local elections, collecting signatures, participation in opinion surveys, active participation in political parties and letters to the editor. The item “online participation”, on the other hand, is very general and would include everything from sending an email to your local representative, to online consultations, to e-petitions to internet voting. Without a more concrete definition of what exactly participants are responding to, it’s difficult to assess their true attitudes towards online engagement or what specific concerns may be responsible for their answers.
Future studies should aim to provide a more differentiated view of the public’s hopes and needs with regard to digital engagement.