In 2006, the first citizen council in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg took place in the municipality of Wolfurt. Since then, as of November 2021, more than 45 citizen councils have been held in Vorarlberg – and since 2016, most of them involving the digital participation platform CrowdInsights. There is a good reason for this: both the Insights process, which underlies the digital platform and the participation approach of CrowdInsights, and the Vorarlberg Citizens’ Council model are based on the same principle.
Here we have to backtrack a little. Because behind what is called a “citizens’ council” are different procedures, each with its own methods of recruiting participants, moderation, and finding results. There are citizens’ councils in the style of a planning cell, in the style of a citzens’ jury, individually tailored procedures, and the Vorarlberg model. What distinguishes the Vorarlberg model from other citizens’ council procedures is the form of the results. The Vorarlberg Citizens’ Council model does not deliver a vote of citizens as a result – as in the much-cited case of the Northern Irish Citizens’ Council on the legalisation of abortion. In the case of the Vorarlberg Citizens’ Council, citizens jointly develop plans and catalogues of measures, which are then revised and possibly sharpened by a so-called resonance group. At CrowdInsights were refer to this as insights. Insights are comparable to pieces of a puzzle: only when you have all the relevant pieces put together a usable picture emerges. Instead of who or how many citizens contribute to a certain piece of the puzzle, what matters is that no important piece of the puzzle is missing at the end. The CrowdInsights platform with its integrated analysis tools makes it easier to condense large amounts of ideas and text contributions into insights and thus ensures that no pieces of the puzzle are missing or lost. In Vorarlberg, the platform is therefore used to collect material throughout the entire process of a citizens’ council and to bring the results together at the end. An example of this is the Citizens’ Council on Agriculture (2019). Interim results from workshops with various stakeholders that were conducted in the course of the Citizens’ Councils are all documented on the platform under the heading “Responses.” On the platform are also the final findings – a list of ten items in total. Each finding is linked back to the participants’ responses from the process. The summary report of the results takes up the results documented digitally and embeds them in an overall presentation of the process.
Not visible in the report and on the online page, but nevertheless an important moment in the background is the analysis procedure, which is supported by the digital platform. The procedure consists of three steps. In the first step, core statements are isolated from the responses submitted online as well as from the workshop minutes, which were also uploaded to the platform as “responses.” It is important to note, that each core statement remains digitally linked to the full text of the answer, so that context and details remain usable. In a second step, the core statements are clustered into groups. In a third step, insights are derived from the clusters. In practice, this process is iterative. A fictitious but handy example: In order to extract the Bremen Town Musicians from core statements containing the terms “donkey,” “rooster,” “dog,” and “cat” as insights, it is better to have an idea what to look for in the final creation of the insights already during the clustering process. Otherwise, you might not even assign the animal names to a common cluster – and thus not find the solution.
The form of the results – whether it is a yes/no decision or “pieces of a puzzle,” or whether it is written down by participants themselves or produced by a resonance and editorial team – is crucial for the whole process. In a citizens’ council that boils down to a yes/no decision, it is enormously important that the participants reflect the make-up of the population; otherwise the result (whether consensus or vote) is not very meaningful. In the Vorarlberg Citizens’ Council, on the other hand, heterogeneity is more important than representation. Here, the most important thing is to take ideas and proposals from as many different people as possible so that no essential detail is forgotten. A second difference is the way of working together and moderation. While in the yes/no decision the joint weighing of arguments, i.e. deliberation, is in the foreground, in Vorarlberg the working together takes place in the mode of ideation, i.e. collecting ideas, and co-creation, i.e. the joint elaboration of ideas. It depends on the form of the results how well a citizens’ council can be complemented by asynchronous digital procedures such as chats or online surveys (as opposed to synchronous formats such as a video conference). Weighing up arguments does not tend to work so well in asynchronous digital mode, whereas ideation and co-creation do excellently. Therefore, in Vorarlberg, the CrowdInsights platform is used not only as a documentation and analysis tool, but also as a complementary channel through which citizens can contribute their ideas to the citizens’ council topic or to an existing draft prepared by a citizens’ council. A good example of this is the citizens’ council in Wipptal, where the results of the actual citizens’ council, as envisaged by the Vorarlberg model, were presented to a larger public at a so-called citizens’ café and commented on and supplemented once again. In Wipptal, in addition to the citizens’ café, a digital participation process was organised in which citizens and stakeholders from the region supplemented the citizens’ council template consisting of five content blocks.
Conducting parts of a citizens’ council purely digitally has recognizable advantages. In the standard method, a group of about twenty citizens drawn by lot comes together over a whole weekend or even over several weekends. This is often an impressive experience for participants. The autumn 2021 issue of the magazine “Gute Aussichten” (Good Prospects) of the Vorarlberg Office for Voluntary Engagement and Participation contains many almost exuberant reports of experiences. At the same time, it is not possible for everyone to devote a whole weekend or more to participating in a citizens’ council. In addition to expenses for space, catering, and moderation, the organisers also have to pay for expenses and offer childcare. Semi-digital procedures (see Wipptal) can be made much leaner in this regard. In addition, it is possible to involve a larger number of participants with different levels of commitment and time. Further developing semi-digital formats and adapting our platform to the requirements of citizens’ council processes, as has already happened in recent years, is therefore of particular concern for us at CrowdInsights.