Deutsch Intern
Institute of Political Science and Sociology

Participation for more sustainability? The role of citizens' councils for sustainability transformations

At a very well-attended online lecture and discussion round on December 4, 2023, exciting guests from science and practice discussed a wide range of perspectives on the participation instrument of citizens' councils. The event focused on the question of what role citizens' assemblies can play in sustainability transformations and how the opportunities and limitations of this format should be assessed. 

The guests for the evening were Prof. Dr. Miriam Hartlapp (Chair of Comparative Politics with a focus on Germany and France, Freie Universität Berlin), Dr. Rikki Dean (Democratic Innovations Research Unit, Goethe University Frankfurt), Prof. Dr. Andreas Schäfer (Department of Domestic Policy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Rabea Koss (BürgerBegehren Klimaschutz e.V.) and Ralf Holler (participant in the 2021 Citizens' Climate Council). After keynote speeches by the invited experts, there was a lively and detailed round of questions and discussions. 

The event was opened by Paul Polivka, a Master's student of social science sustainability research. After a welcome and introduction, the evening began with a keynote speech by Prof. Dr. Andreas Schäfer. The problem outlined was the trade-off between current and future benefits in relation to democratic processes and sustainable decisions as well as the "presentism" of democracies, which manifests itself in the limited time horizon of voters, elected decision-makers and interest groups. Prof. Schäfer outlined the characteristics and potential of citizens' councils as possible instruments for overcoming these challenges - including the desired representation of all social groups and the freedom from electoral competition as an opportunity for more independent opinion-forming. He also discussed the top-down vs. bottom-up initiation of the councils and the extensive independence from organized interests. These points were concretized in the Citizens' Council "Ernährung im Wandel” currently running at federal level. 

This was followed by an input from Dr. Rikki Dean, who focused in particular on the question of how limited the influence of citizens' assemblies is in terms of initiating and implementing truly radical sustainability transformations. A key aspect of increasing the positive impact of citizens' assemblies is to ensure that the solutions developed in such formats are more closely integrated and implemented in the political system. On a fundamental level, Dr. Dean put forward the thesis that, even when optimally implemented, citizens' councils always function as an instrument within an existing democratic system embedded in capitalist structures and that these system boundaries are naturally difficult to break with radical proposals for change - also because the implementation of far-reaching transformations by politicians is hardly possible within a system driven by growth. 

The subsequent presentation was given by Prof. Dr. Miriam Hartlapp, who used the climate citizens' councils carried out in Germany and France to discuss whether such formats are suitable for remedying representation deficits. The starting point for this was the observation that women as well as people with a migration background and from the working class are significantly underrepresented in the political system. Based on the results of her research into the representation of these groups through citizens' councils, Hartlapp stated that despite the efforts of deliberative-participative citizens' forums, no complete compensation for structural political inequalities has been achieved. It therefore remains a challenge to close the existing representation gaps and enable more balanced political participation. From both an academic and a practical perspective, the central question is to define the function of citizens' councils in the political system. 

The last keynote speech came from Rabea Koss from the organization Bürgerbegehren Klimaschutz e.V., who presented the Citizens' Assembly on Climate Change from 2021 in more detail as an example of a nationwide citizens' assembly and spoke about the possibilities and limitations of this format for achieving more ambitious climate policy. According to Koss, citizens' assemblies generally offer the opportunity to create greater acceptance for climate policy measures through participation in the political process. Like the previous speakers, she identified the binding nature of the recommendations developed for policymakers as a key challenge.  

In the following discussion round, led by junior professor Ulrike Zeigermann, there was an exciting exchange on the possibilities and limitations of citizens' councils addressed in the keynote speeches. First, Ralf Holler gave interesting insights into the process of the Climate Citizens' Assembly from the perspective of a participant, before all the speakers answered questions from the audience. 

The event was organized under the direction of Paul Polivka, Junior Professor Dr. Ulrike Zeigermann and the Forum Sustainability team. It was sponsored by the Human Dynamics Center of the JMU. The event can be re-listened to here: