Citizens’ Councils for Promoting the Global Common Good

By Okka Lou Mathis

Prioritise climate protection, promote sustainable food production, increase funds for development cooperation, and create a sustainability ministry: These are just four of the 32 proposals from the citizens’ council on “Germany’s Role in the World”, consisting of 154 randomly selected citizens. The Bundestag will receive the final report on 19 March. The citizens’ council is an instrument of innovative citizen participation that has been used in many countries and at various political levels.

Citizens’ councils promise to reduce disenchantment with politics and to promote courageous solutions to socially controversial issues. The trick is that certain people come together by lot, ideally representing the socio-economic composition of society, in a so-called “mini-public”. The council is therefore much more inclusive and diverse than, for example, the Bundestag. Moreover, the councillors have neither voters, nor a party line, or lobby interests breathing down their necks. The idea is that this allows them to discuss political issues more impartially and at eye level. In addition to learning together, an appreciative, personal and yet fact-oriented exchange of experiences and views can take place according to the principle of “deliberation”: In the end, the best argument for the common good should actually be convincing, not just the loudest voice or the best-organised interest. For this reason alone, citizens’ councils are a useful addition to our democracy. In concrete terms, citizens’ councils can provide valuable impulses in terms of content, as the political recommendations on sustainability from the citizens’ council “Germany’s Role in the World” show.

The citizens examined this broad topic from five perspectives in working groups: sustainable development, peace and security, democracy and the rule of law, economy and trade, and the EU. The topics were selected in advance through a participatory process, and it is gratifying that sustainable development was considered very important. A small drop of bitterness, however, is that sustainable development was not, by its very nature, considered as a cross-cutting basic principle everywhere. Be that as it may, both the agreed guidelines and the concrete recommendations of the sustainable development group showed that the randomly chosen citizens were serious about wanting to anchor sustainability as an overarching guiding principle in German politics. For example, at their final meeting on 20 February, they agreed that Germany should “promote sustainability, climate protection, the right to clean water and the fight against world hunger as a global cross-sectional task (…) and place them at the centre of its political action so that future generations can also live well”. They proposed “enshrining sustainability in the Basic Law” and the “establishment of a sustainability ministry that coordinates, controls and monitors other ministries and ensures transparency”. They also found clear words for prioritising climate protection and for Germany to show “courage to embrace a reorientation towards the common good and end the continuous growth paradigm”. In addition, funds for “development aid” should be increased to 2% of gross national income (currently the rate is 0.6%). In addition, food production should become sustainable worldwide – “even if food prices in Germany rise as a result.”

If we think of the international agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, sustainability and the reduction of greenhouse gases are central and overarching political goals, and are not exactly new. What is new and encouraging, however, is that the international community’s existing goals, and their consequences for us in Germany seem to enjoy support among the general population, at least when citizens are given the opportunity to discuss them in an informed way. This could increase both the pressure on politicians for the ambitious implementation of these goals and the social legitimacy of sustainability measures in Germany. Despite all the euphoria, however, questions remain about the citizens’ council as an instrument, for example how to strengthen its political weight and how to attract broader public attention to the discussions and conclusions.

The citizens’ council “Germany’s Role in the World” shows the instrument’s potential for searching for solutions oriented towards the common good – both at national and global level. This makes the format directly relevant for international (development) cooperation, because the global common good is the very rationale behind the climate and sustainability agendas. The institutionalisation of citizens’ councils in Germany, especially on sustainability issues, would therefore be a promising way of exerting pressure for the implementation of these international targets. Incidentally, this is also a recommendation of the panel itself: “Germany should (…) use and account for citizen-based, political forums (e.g., citizens’ assemblies) on a permanent basis”. The next citizens’ council that could work for the global common good is already in the starting blocks – the topic: climate.

This post first appeared as The Current Column (2021), Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik / German Development Institute (DIE) on 18 March 2021.

Workshop Invitation: Democracy & Intergenerational Justice – Overcoming Harmful Short-termism Through New Institutions? (8–9 September 2020)

By Michael Rose

Sustainable development requires legitimate and effective governance for the long-term that somehow considers the needs of future generations. As part of the MANCEPT Workshops 2020, an annual conference in political theory at the University of Manchester (this time online), we co-organise a two-day panel to discuss the relationship between democracy and intergenerational justice and the opportunities and challenges of institutional reform.

Date: 8–9 September 2020, from 9 to 18:30 hrs (British Summer Time UTC+1), online

We welcome everyone who is interested in the topic! There is no fee for non-presenters, just send me an e-mail to get the Zoom login data. Let me know if you’d be willing to volunteer as a discussant (not required).

On Tuesday, Axel Gosseries will give a keynote speech “On Why We Should Not Expect Too Much from Intergenerational Legitimacy“ (11:3012:30).

On Wednesday, Simon Caney will deliver a keynote speech on “The Challenges of Governing for the Long-Term: Why the Problem is Deep” (11:0012:00).

Workshop Description

Democracies are commonly diagnosed with a harmful short-sightedness which makes it difficult to recognise and deal with long-term risks and challenges. This bias towards the present arises out of many institutional, cultural, and anthropological factors, among them the election cycle, the influence of special interest groups and the ineptitude of humans to deal with ‘creeping problems.’ In light of this, democracies seem ill-equipped to deal with challenges such as the climate crisis, artificial intelligence or microbial resistance. Thus, the ability of the living generation to take the interests of future people into account and to fulfil its obligations to future people is hampered.

Consequently, several countries have taken measures to facilitate long-term oriented decision-making, e.g. by establishing commissioners for future generations (Hungary, since 2008; Israel, 2001-06; Wales, since 2016) or a parliamentary committee for the future (Finland, since 1993), some of them having considerable capabilities for influence. Furthermore, scholars discuss a wide range of proposals for new future-oriented institutions (F-Institutions). These include the representation of future generations in parliament, ombudspersons for the future, regulatory impact assessments, advisory councils, deliberative mini-publics as well as the enfranchisement of the young, the disenfranchisement of the elderly and many more.

Despite the growing range of proposals for F-Institutions, questions regarding their justification and legitimacy, design, and implementation deserve further discussion. Intergenerational equity, democratic legitimacy, and generational sovereignty all exert their normative pull on the democratic system and consequently on the design of F-Institutions. For example, the ability of each generation to govern itself collectively seems incompatible with the idea of institutionally binding the currently living to ensure that they meet their obligations of intergenerational justice. Further, honouring obligations of intergenerational justice may suggest installing F-Institutions with extensive influence on the political decision-making process, while a concern for democratic legitimacy might foreclose many proposals for F-Institutions.

In sum, this workshop aims to bring together moral, political, and legal theorists and practitioners interested in democracy, intergenerational justice, long-term decision-making and short-termism to discuss the various tensions associated with these concepts on both the theoretical and empirical levels.

Macro-Level Datasets for Sustainability Governance

By Michael Rose

Comparative politics scholars love macro data. To comparatively analyze all kinds of nation states and institutions, they build datasets on their characteristics. For example, there are several datasets and indices that help to assess and eventually measure democracies and autocracies worldwide, such as the Freedom House Index, Varieties of Democracy, The Economist’s Democracy Index, or the Polity Project. But data are systematically collected and made available to the research community far beyond democracy indices (see below).

In sustainability governance research, though, these kinds of databases are rarely used or developed. This is a pity, as comparative (macro) data could help to conduct mid- and large-n studies, account for important parts of context variance in comparative case studies, and thereby facilitate relating and cumulating knowledge.

The following list offers a selection of open access datasets used in political science that can be of great benefit for sustainability governance scholars. Feel free to post additional datasets in the comment section!

The Comparative Constitutions Project codes the world’s constitutions, including variables on the states’ polity (branches of government, formal institutions, election rules, federalism) and the constitutions’ issue areas, e.g. if and how the constitution refers to the environment and natural resources. Constitutional changes are tracked on a yearly basis (Elkins et al. 2019).

Polity IV accounts for democratic and authoritative regimes, including variables such as the central state authority, executive constraints, political participation, and transitions (Center for Systemic Peace 2019).

ParlGov provides data on parties, elections and cabinets for 37 western democracies (Döring and Manow 2019).

The Party Manifesto Project codes, inter alia, the party family of ecological parties and statements regarding environmental protection and sustainability in party manifestos (electoral programs) (Volkens et al. 2019).

World Values Survey and European Values Study include aggregatable information on the interviewee’s membership in environmental organizations, attitudes towards environmental care, participation in demonstrations for the environment, donating behavior towards ecological organizations, confidence in the environmental protection movement, and satisfaction with issues such as air quality, public transport, or water quality (Inglehart et al. 2019; European Value System Study Group et al. 2019).

The Sustainable Governance Indicators analyze the policy performance and governance capacities in EU and OECD countries. This includes environmental policies and outcomes (such as waste and GHG emissions), the participation in multilateral environmental agreements and evidence-based instruments such as sustainability checks (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2018; Schraad-Tischler et al. 2018).

The Environmental Performance Index analyses 24 performance indicators for 180 countries (Wendling et al. 2018).

And, of course, the statistics departments of international organizations such as the World Bank and the OECD provide many additional time-series data on key economic, social, environmental, government and development indicators (World Bank 2019; OECD 2019).

Moreover, in their Sustainable Development Report, the Bertelsmann Foundation and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network jointly track the SDG achievements of most of the world’s nations statistically (Sachs et al. 2019).

Cited literature

Bertelsmann Stiftung (2018): Sustainable Governance Indicators. Gütersloh. Available online at http://www.sgi-network.org.

Center for Systemic Peace (2019): Polity IV Project. Vienna (Virginia). Available online at https://www.systemicpeace.org/polityproject.html, checked on 8/14/2019.

Döring, Holger; Manow, Philip (2019): Parliaments and governments database (ParlGov). Information on parties, elections and cabinets in modern democracies. Available online at parlgov.org, checked on 8/13/2019.

Elkins, Zachary; Ginsburg, Tom; Melton, James (2019): Comparative Constitutions Project. Informing constitutional design. Available online at https://comparativeconstitutionsproject.org.

European Value System Study Group; Tilburg University; GESIS (2019): European Values Study. Tilburg, Mannheim. Available online at https://europeanvaluesstudy.eu, checked on 8/13/2019.

Inglehart, R.; Haerpfer, C.; Moreno, A.; Welzel, C.; Kizilova, K.; Diez-Medrano, J. et al. (2019): World Values Survey. Edited by JD Systems Institute. Madrid. Available online at http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org, checked on 8/13/2019.

OECD (2019): OECD.Stat. Paris. Available online at https://stats.oecd.org/.

Sachs, J.; Schmidt-Traub, G.; Kroll, C.; Lafortune, G.; Fuller, G. (2019): Sustainable Development Report 2019. Transformations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Edited by Bertelsmann Stiftung, Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). New York. Available online at https://sustainabledevelopment.report.

Schraad-Tischler, Daniel; Schiller, Christof; Hellmann, Thorsten; Lopes, Elisabeth Faria (2018): Policy Performance and Governance Capacities in the OECD and EU. Sustainable Governance Indicators 2018. Edited by Bertelsmann Stiftung. Gütersloh. Available online at https://www.sgi-network.org/docs/2018/basics/SGI2018_Overview.pdf, checked on 8/2/2019.

Volkens, Andrea; Krause, Werner; Lehmann, Pola; Matthieß, Theres; Merz, Nicolas; Regel, Sven; Weßels, Bernhard (2019): The Manifesto Data Collection. Manifesto Project (MRG/CMP/MARPOR). Edited by Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB). Berlin. Available online at https://manifesto-project.wzb.eu, checked on 8/13/2019.

Wendling, Z. A.; Emerson, J. W.; Esty, D. C.; Levy, M. A.; Sherbinin, A. de; et al. (2018): 2018 Environmental Performance Index. Edited by Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. New Haven. Available online at https://epi.yale.edu.

World Bank (2019): World Bank Open Data. Free and open access to global development data. Available online at https://data.worldbank.org/.

Participatory and collaborative environmental governance – just symbolic exercises to sustain unsustainability?

By Jens Newig

No matter if it’s about siting new landlines, declaring protected areas or developing water management plans: Citizen panels, stakeholder roundtables and deliberative decision-making have become commonplace in Western democracies. While great hopes have been placed in such participatory and collaborative forms of governance to advance environmental sustainability, the debate is now more nuanced and partly skeptical as concerns both their democratic and their sustainability-oriented benefits. Ingolfur Blühdorn and Michael Deflorian from WU Vienna add an interesting facet to this debate, building strongly on Ingolfur Blühdorn’s earlier work on simulative politics and democracy. Their thought-provoking article entitled “The Collaborative Management of Sustained Unsustainability: On the Performance of Participatory Forms of Environmental Governance” was published just two weeks ago in Sustainability.

What makes this an interesting read is its broader sociological perspective. Rather than asking how governance does or should function to achieve normative goals, the article investigates why participatory and collaborative forms of governance are proliferating and which societal functions are served through these. The authors start out by arguing that collaborative and participatory forms of governance are neither (1) particularly democratic nor (2) likely to be effective in the sense of their transformative potential towards sustainability. This, they argue is because (1) collaborative and participatory forms of governance are typically coopting citizens or selectively empowering only some actors who do not have a clear democratic mandate, and (2) because “their proliferation has, as yet, not taken modern consumer societies much closer to the great socio-ecological transformation”. This, the authors speculate, is “perhaps because the prevailing forms of decentralized and collaborative governance are explicitly designed not to disrupt the established order and are, therefore, structurally unable to deliver the kind of change that scientists and environmental movements demand.” If this is so, then why are collaborative and participatory decision-making processes becoming so prevalent?

The key to understanding this apparent puzzle, the authors argue, lies in the performative aspect of governance. Referring to the title of our 2018 paper on conceptualizing the “performance of participatory and collaborative governance”, the authors re-interpret the notion of ‘performance’. In a nutshell, they distinguish

  • performance as delivery of outputs – both in a “democratic” and in a substantive (“systemic”) sense – from
  • performance as theatrical display, enactment or illusion in the sense of symbolic or simulative politics.

It is this second perspective that the article focuses on, proposing “that these new modes of environmental governance have become so prominent because they actually correspond very closely to the particular dilemmas, preferences, and needs of contemporary consumer societies—notably the desire to sustain particular lifestyles and understandings of freedom and self-realization, which are known to be socially and ecologically destructive (unsustainable)”. Hence, new modes of environmental governance, “if assessed from the perspective of these contemporary dilemmas, preferences, and needs, they do actually perform exceptionally well. More specifically, they provide contemporary consumer societies with a practical policy mechanism that helps them to reconcile the widely perceived seriousness and urgency of socio-environmental problems with their ever more visible inability and unwillingness to deviate from their established societal order, patterns of self-realization and logic of development.” Put simply, while we cannot achieve sustainability and at the same time continue the established logic of consumption, participatory governance helps us to at least symbolically resolve this apparent contradiction. ‘Symbolic’ stems from the Greek term symballein, meaning to ‘throw together’ – here otherwise irreconcilable aims (I’ve written earlier about symbolic politics and legislation, as it happens in a special issue edited by Ingolfur Blühdorn). Hence, ‘performing’ collaborative governance gives us the feeling of teaming up for sustainability, while at the same time we do not give up on our unsustainable lifestyles. As a consequence, these collaborative practices contribute to stabilizing (rather than transforming) current systems of unsustainability – thus the argument of the authors.

While I find these lines of arguments illuminating, my main point of criticism concerns the lacking empirical grounding. The authors illustrate their points by three empirical cases, but these of course cannot be representative. We should be aware, therefore, that the performative functions identified here may apply to some cases of participatory and collaborative governance, but not to others.

Assuming we do strive for environmental sustainability, and assuming further that governance (by whatever mode) can play a vital, if not indispensable role in this – what insights do we gain from this article? In terms of normative guidance, this paper may leave us with a fatalistic impression that not much can actually be done, because – and so long as – societies embrace the “notions of freedom, self-determination, self-realization”, which are “firmly based on the principle of sustained unsustainability”. Having said that, I see three productive lessons we may take from the article:

  • First, the paper is enlightening for all those of us who either adhere to rationalist and instrumentalist models of decision-making, or who see decision-making through the lens of power-play (in which big business tends to ‘win’). Having read this paper, one can no longer claim not to have heard of the potential dangers of participatory and collaborative governance – not just because it may be ineffective but also because in a subtle, hidden, yet striking way it may serve to obscure its symbolic functions which result in sustaining unsustainability.
  • Second, these insights by no means imply an empirically grounded verdict! Despite its three examples, this is not an empirical paper. In fact, the jury is still out on how participatory and collaborative environmental governance actually delivers (to avoid the term ‘performs’) in both a democratic and a sustainability-oriented sense. What is required, more than ever, is solid empirical evidence of which modes of governance ‘deliver’ und under what circumstances.
  • Third, from a governance perspective, it is one thing to be aware about the potential deficiencies and misleading hopes of participation; it is another to ask: What is the alternative? Should we go “back” to strong state-based decision-making? Is there just too much governance and too little government? Arguably, we not only don’t know enough about the delivery of participatory and collaborative governance, but also we lack robust evidence on the role of expert-led decisions, the role of administrative capacities and of elite-networks in shaping decisions for environmental sustainability.

All in all, I highly recommend this enlightening article – not least for use in teaching sustainability governance courses, confronting students with sobering insights on the functions of participatory and collaborative governance, and triggering discussions about ways to effectively govern towards sustainability – including or not collaborative forms.