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What effects does a participatory process have on the citizens? The case of the first Euregio citizens’ council

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What effects does a participatory process have on the citizens?  The case of the first Euregio citizens’ council
Brennero/Brenner - © Anna/Unsplash Anna

In recent years, participatory and deliberative democracy have received increased attention around the world. Numerous political theorists suggest that the involvement of citizens in the stages of policymaking can serve as an antidote to declining voter turnouts, increasing distrust in democracy and in politicians and declining levels of citizen participation.

How can citizens participate in the political agenda?

Since the 1990s, innovative forms of citizen participation have proliferated worldwide on national, regional, and local level: they are very popular in Latin America especially in Brazil and Nicaragua, as well as in Ireland, Iceland, Germany, France, Austria and Italy. Citizens’ councils – hereafter "CC" – are deliberative participatory mechanisms and are usually composed of a group of randomly selected citizens of about 12-15 individuals who belong to a particular city or region and, supported by moderators, work together for one and a half days with the aim of elaborating solutions for common problems and challenges. CC enable citizens to discuss current political issues and present the results to high-ranking politicians.

The first cross-border Euregio citizens’ council

The first cross-border citizens’ council of the Euregio Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino took place in October 2022 in Arco and was composed of 30 participants from three Euregio municipalities: Arco in Trentino, Bressanone/Brixen in South Tyrol and Hall in Tirol in Tyrol.

The Euroregion Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino, established in June 2011 as a European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGCT) has undergone fundamental institutional reform ten years after its foundation. The new statutes include provisions for citizen participation, intended to make the Euregio more democratic and closer to its citizens. In fact, as far as citizens' councils are concerned, the Euregio-Vorstand (Euregio’s Executive Board) may, by resolution, set up CC: the participants may then submit proposals for concrete measures or recommendations on a specific topic, which, however, are in no way binding (have merely consultative character).

Duration of the CC procedures varies considerably among the case studies, in the case of the first Euregio citizens’ council we observed the following main phases:

  • The enrollment process (spring 2022): local promotional events were organized in the three municipalities with the aim of convincing as many people as possible to participate.
  • Composition of the council (June 2022): 30 people were selected (10 for each municipality) through a random algorithm that considered demographic characteristics such as gender, area, age and language, so that the CC could be representative of Euregio diversity.
  • Citizens’ council: the Euregio CC took place on 1 and 2 October 2022 in the municipality of Arco, Trentino. Participants were divided into two working groups, which were led by two moderators (participatory processes experts). In each group interpreters were present to allow participants to employ their own languages. Participants discussed how they could make the Euregio more tangible and wrote down their proposals. On the second day, the two working groups met in plenary – surprisingly, the proposals of both groups were very similar.
  • Presentation of results: On 23 January 2023, four delegates of the Euregio citizens’ council presented the most interesting proposals to the Euregio-Vorstand in the Waaghaus in Bolzano/Bozen.

Effects of the first Euregio citizens’ council

As mentioned before, participatory processes have been found to produce positive effects on the participants. Three of these effects were analyzed in my master’s thesis Deliberative democracy in the Euregio Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino: The case of the first cross-border Euregio citizens’ council: the informative, the democracy-promoting and trust building and the empowerment effect.

According to the informative effect, the participants are usually enriched by the different opinions, perspectives and ideas and thus benefit from the CC, gaining new information on the institution (in this case on the Euregio). Regarding second effect, the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes also strengthens trust in the political system. With reference to the empowerment function, if positive participation processes have been carried out, an activation effect that can lead to further civic engagement, (re)-vitalizing democracy is possible.

The questionnaire

To assess these three effects, a questionnaire was submitted to the participants of the first Euregio CC, which they filled out anonymously at the end of April 2023. Considering the informative effect, 60% of the respondents said they already knew what a CC was even before participating in the Euregio CC; and 70% said they also knew what an Euroregion was before taking part in the CC.

Following this, all respondents (100%) stated that they had already heard of the Euregio Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino before participating in the pilot project. However, when asked whether they were familiar with the activities carried out by the Euregio as an institution, 65% answered with partly, while 30% answered negatively; and only 5% percent answered that they knew the activities carried out by the Euregio.

Regarding the level of information after the citizens’ council, 90% of the respondents answered that they had gained new knowledge and information about the Euregio Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino during this participatory experience. When asked the question: After this experience, how much has your knowledge of the Euregio increased?, none of the participants stated that it had stayed the same. In fact, on a scale of 0 to 5, where a 5 stood for it having significantly increased and a 0 indicating it had remained unchanged, 30% responded with a 3, 30% stated 4 and 25% stated that it had significantly increased giving the number 5 as their value.

Questionnaire on the Euregio citizens' council: informative effect© Nicole Zambanini

Similarly, when asked the question How informed do you feel about the Euregio Tirol-South Tyrol-Trentino after attending the first Euregio Citizens’ Council, on a scale of 0 to 5, none of the respondents indicated 0, or 1. In fact, we notice that as many as 40% indicated 3, while 30% chose number 4 and 20% consider themselves very informed, indicating number 5.

Questionnaire on the Euregio citizens' council: informative effect© Nicole Zambanini

Thus, although the participants in the first Euregio CC had begun with a good level of knowledge, both concerning the Euregio itself as well as the process of the citizens' council in general, we can observe that their level of knowledge increased following the process, confirming the informative effect.

Forms of participatory democracy are often promoted by political representatives themselves to increase citizens’ trust in political systems. The respondents were therefore asked, what their level of trust in the political system on a scale of 0 to 5 was, 0 corresponding to very low and 5 corresponding to very high. We can see 45% of respondents stated that they had a low level of trust in the political system (2), and 35% stating that they had a high level of trust (4); in between we find 20% indicating 3.

Questionnaire on the Euregio citizens' council: democracy-promoting and trust-building effect© Nicole Zambanini

It is worth noting that with the question “How do you rate your trust in the political representatives of the Euregio?” the results change. In fact, 35% of the respondents described their level of trust as high indicating a 4, 30% chose 3 and 10% described it as very high. We can observe that this question, which although referring to trust in politics, is much more specific than the previous one, makes it clear that the trust of the respondents in the political representatives of the Euregio is higher than it is in the political system in general. We can see how the trust effect has been strengthened by the deliberative process of the Euregio CC.

Questionnaire on the Euregio citizens' council: democracy-promoting and trust-building effect© Nicole Zambanini

Regarding the questions on the empowerment effect, 70% of the respondents stated that they would participate in participatory processes such as in a citizens' council again (yes, definitely), while the remaining 30% responded with most likely. The other two options – very unlikely and no, definitely not – were not selected by anyone.

Questionnaire on the Euregio citizens' council: empowerment effect© Nicole Zambanini

Moreover, 100% of respondents would recommend participation. We can observe a strong level of empowerment, as a result of the participatory process.

Questionnaire on the Euregio citizens' council: empowerment effect© Nicole Zambanini

Conclusions and outlooks

Did this first Euregio CC inform its participants? Do participants have more confidence in the political institutions and in the Euregio and did they experience an empowerment effect, on other words, and are they more willing to participate in political activities and share this positive attitude with other people?

Looking at the questionnaire results, some patterns can be observed: the level of information and knowledge of the respondents has increased after participating in this project. At the same time, the trust of the respondents in the political representatives of the Euregio is much higher than trust in politics in general, demonstrating that the CC had a trust building effect with regard to the Euregio institution. The empowerment effect has also proven to be strong with very positive answers from the respondents. All in all, the results are promising.

Indeed, this questionnaire was submitted after the proposals’ presentation and before any of the proposals were actually implemented. As of January 2024, the proposals of the Euregio CC, as well as the practicability of their implementation are being evaluated by the administrations of Trentino, South Tyrol, and Tyrol. Whether or not there will be a positive outcome regarding the implementation of the proposals is a matter of time. Nevertheless, there is hope that the Euregio-Vorstand will consider implementing some of the suggestions proposed by the participants of the Euregio CC, otherwise the promising and positive effects measured in the survey could rapidly turn into political delusion and distrust. Indeed, the Euregio Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino has the potential to be a formidable place for the development of innovative forms of deliberative democracy and the first CC has proved that by involving citizens in the decision-making process the population can be more active, trustful, and conscious of political and, in this case, euroregional matters.

Indeed, the Euregio Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino has the potential to be a formidable place for the development of innovative forms of deliberative democracy and the first CC has proved that by involving citizens in the decision-making process the population can be more active, trustful, and conscious of political and, in this case, euroregional matters.

Nicole Zambanini
Nicole Zambanini

Nicole Zambanini

With her master’s thesis “Deliberative Democracy in the Euregio Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino: the case of the first Euregio citizens’ council” she completed her master’s degree in European and International Politics at the University of Innsbruck. Also in Innsbruck, she earned two bachelor's degrees in Translation Studies (languages: German, Italian, English and Russian). During her studies, she completed a semester in Nizhny Novgorod, Russian Federation. Nicole has been working for a year for the Tyrolean government in the foreign relations office with focus on the Euregio and now she is involved in the organization of cross-border events and projects. In addition, she is part of the council of a youth association in Trento; she loves travelling and wine-tasting.

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Citation

https://doi.org/10.57708/br6hlc9a3qji-kwy_srxi5w
Nicole Zambanini. What effects does a participatory process have on the citizens? The case of the first Euregio citizens’ council. https://doi.org/10.57708/BR6HLC9A3QJI-KWY_SRXI5W

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