Overline: Interview
Headline: The IASS Accompanies Municipalities During Participation Processes

Losland, a cooperation between the IASS and the association Mehr Demokratie, supports municipalities to sustainably shape their future. The Losland team draws from citizen participation methods to develop individualised participation processes in these municipalities. IASS political scientist Daniel Oppold has been scientifically accompanying the process since 2021. In an interview, he explains how the project works, what an “assembly for the future” is, and the project’s aims.

Daniel Oppold
Daniel Oppold has worked at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) since October 2016 in the research project "Co-Creation and Contemporary Policy Advice". IASS/ Lotte Ostermann

The Losland project is supporting municipalities in their efforts to create a more sustainable society through greater citizen participation. Where is the project at now?
Daniel Oppold: In Losland, we are supporting ten German municipalities in setting up individualised citizen participation processes to address the issue: What can we do to shape a sustainable future right here in our own municipality? Since there are around 11,000 municipalities in Germany, we probably would have been overwhelmed if we had called for applications. So, we decided to do it the other way around: We looked for mayors who already had a “participative agenda”. That is, those who have already gained initial experience with participation, who have just taken office, or who simply want to tackle issues relating to the future. In the end, we were able to find ten municipalities. Currently, most of them are still in the planning phase, but the first Losland “assemblies for the future” (or Zukunftsräte in German, editor’s note) will be held soon.

What exactly is an "assembly for the future"?
D. O.:  The assemblies for the future are the core of our participation processes. They draw from the Vorarlberg model of citizens' assemblies. We’ve given them the name “Zukunftsrat”, or “assemblies for the future”, because their content addresses the future of municipalities – and because many participation processes are now called "citizens' assemblies”. The core of the process is the group work of about 20 people selected by sortition. They prepare recommendations on behalf of the city or municipal council on a previously determined issue. 
By using the sortition principle, people beyond the "usual suspects" are included. And professional moderation ensures that their perspectives and ideas are incorporated as well. Almost all Losland assemblies for the future have already been scheduled: the first will be held in June (Flecken Ottersberg on June 15, 2022. Editor’s note).

In what way are these participation processes linked to local politics?
D. O.:  A prerequisite for municipalities to participate in Losland is that they have passed a council resolution to take part in the project. In these resolutions, the city and municipal councils have usually already decided what the focus of the participation process should be. The guiding question of “how to make the future sustainable for generations to come” is very broad, so it is approached by each municipality using a different topic or body of topics.

What kinds of topics do they discuss?
D. O.: Always topics that relate to the future. These range from more social issues such as improving the quality of coexistence and togetherness to very specific ways that a village could be reshaped. The discussions also include questions about what can be done locally to deal with major challenges such as demographic or climate change. Some municipalities will specifically focus on only one issue, while others will ask the assemblies more open-ended questions and allow for more topics.

How long does an "assembly for the future" last?
D. O.: In all municipalities, the assemblies last only one and a half to two days – unless there is a "learning phase" beforehand. Usually, they start on Friday afternoon and convene all day Saturday. At that point, their recommendations are agreed upon. This is ensured by our moderators, who create a co-creative exchange space where the participants stay on task and ultimately come up with a joint statement. However, the process doesn’t end there: Shortly after the joint statement is agreed upon, the results of the assemblies are presented to the mayor and the municipal council at a public event. This is an interactive process where the participants of the assemblies and local politicians address the different issues at hand. Representatives from public administration and all other interested individuals can also join in the discussion.

Does the approach differ across municipalities?
D. O.: Yes, it does. For example, in Ottersberg, children also have a right to participate in the process. Yet involving them is more difficult because the assemblies are designed for adults. So, parallel to the assemblies for the future, there is also a separate “workshop for the future” with fourth-class pupils from an Ottersberg primary school. They will "meet" on the same issues under the expert guidance of child participation experts, and their recommendations will then stand on equal footing with those of the adult council. In this and other cases, we have adapted the process design to the respective requirements. A prior information event may also take place where the municipal council presents a schedule or a plan – and thus provides the assemblies with information to work with.

Can other municipalities join the current Losland process?
D. O.: Unfortunately not: The Losland project only lasts a limited period of time, and the Federal Agency for Civic Education is only funding the work with the ten municipalities that have already joined.

And what is the goal of Losland?
D. O.: There are actually two goals: Once we’re on the ground, we really want to make a difference. We want to achieve progress with the citizens in terms of the issues relevant for their particular municipality. The second goal is to systematically collect the experiences from these ten processes, which are now running in parallel throughout the summer and fall, and compare them with previous experiences from other participation processes. Once the processes have been completed, we want to work with all stakeholders to formulate recommendations for state and federal policy to improve the regime for community participation in Germany.

What is the role of the IASS in the project?
D. O.: On behalf of the IASS, I am advising the municipalities together with my colleagues from the organisation Mehr Demokratie. I am also responsible for the research portion of the project. Together with other colleagues from the IASS, I will analyse different aspects of the participation processes and for example conduct surveys among the participants and interview the mayors. At the close of the process, the results will be evaluated and passed on as recommendations to federal and state policymakers.
What is special or new about the Losland process?
D. O.: Well, our approach is not exactly new. We’re really standing on the shoulders of many successful participation processes – especially citizens' assemblies – and drawing on their effect logic and process elements. What is important in Losland, however, is that we don’t approach the municipalities with a standardised approach, because each municipality has its own issues and participation experiences. Context is key to embedding the assemblies for the future in local circumstances so that they achieve the best impact possible.

You can find out more about this project and the individual municipalities on the Losland Website (German).