Citizen’s Council

Vorarlberg (Austria)


Photo (c) Martin RauschThe Vorarlberg Citizens’ Council is a participatory tool/approach that allows citizens to collaborate with the Federal state, regional or city administration on decision-making processes. The Citizen’s Council is a permanent process regulated by a guide and a constitutional amendment. A random selected sample of approximately 20 people, representative of the population, participates in the Citizen’s Council at each level. The approach uses three different instruments in three different steps of the process: dynamic facilitation, citizen’s café and the responder group. The recommendations advanced by the participants are not binding, but they are sorted according to priority, importance, and usefulness for different contexts. Even though not all recommendations can be implemented, the public representatives never had their recommendation rejected. The government found that Citizen Council’s results are easier to implement, and the experience led to calls for more participatory processes and more cost-effective methods than planning cells or citizen’s assemblies.  

The Citizens’ Council is governed by a guide and a constitutional amendment that includes participatory democracy in the Constitution. There has been a government guide for the past decade that outlines how to implement a Citizens’ Council model. Notably, the Citizens’ Council can be established at the municipal, regional, and federal state levels.

The journey to establish the Council was initiated in 2004 when the decision was made to make Vorarlberg the most child-friendly province in Austria. During that time, the provincial government organised a one-week planning cellA planning cell is a structured forum where a diverse group of citizens come together to discuss, deliberate, and make informed decisions on specific policy issues or community matters. It aims to ensure inclusive and well-informed decision-making by involving ordinary people in the process, fostering open dialogue, considering various perspectives, and ultimately shaping more representative and thoughtful outcomes for governance and public policy. involving 80 citizens, despite some scepticism, and lack of trust towards the government. A similar question was posed to a group of experts, and the results from both sources were highly congruent, with almost 95% of the results matching. The citizens’ outcomes were found to be more practical and easier to implement. This experience prompted calls for more participatory processes and a more cost-effective alternative to the planning cell method.

Various methods were considered, leading to the adoption of Jim Rough’s wisdom council approach in 2006, along with his dynamic facilitation method. The implementation of citizens’ councils began at the local level in 2006 and has continued since. As of 2011, this approach has been extended to the state level. Essentially, this approach fosters a large group of individuals adopting a collaborative and creative thinking mindset on challenging issues.

Citizens began to perceive themselves as central participants in the decision-making process and developed trust in participation and deliberative democracy. However, there was significant tension between elected officials, especially at the local level, and citizens. Efforts were required to clarify the distinct roles of both groups and why consulting citizens was necessary.

Over time, politicians evolved in their perspective on direct citizen involvement in political decisions. Initially, there was a concern that involving citizens would lead to endless debates within the political process. However, the Citizens’ Council demonstrated the value of incorporating diverse viewpoints from individuals of various ages and from various areas of the municipality. This diversity enriched the decision-making process and contributed to the legitimacy of the decisions made. Even today, a key focus is on raising awareness about the importance of citizen engagement and facilitating meaningful dialogue between citizens and elected officials.

An annual budget of €35,000 is allocated for the implementation of Citizen Councils in Vorarlberg. This budget is typically divided with approximately €15,000 designated for statewide application, €10,000 for supporting regional or local councils, and another €10,000 allocated for website maintenance, communication, and organisational expenses (including rent and food costs). In addition to these allocations, investments are made in a digital platform known as “Vorarlberg Mitdenken“.

The primary objective of this digital platform is to empower communities, regions, and the nation as a whole to collectively shape the future. It functions as an open invitation for individuals to contribute their knowledge and perspectives, thereby facilitating a collaborative and participatory process. The platform serves as a means for citizens to actively engage in the decision-making and policy development of their regions and the broader community.

The recruitment of participants until 2022 involved a process of random selectionRandom selection is a form of sampling where a representative group of research participants is selected from a larger group by chance. based on specific criteria, including gender and three different age groups. An evaluation conducted by the Office for Voluntary Engagement and Participation, which focused on a Citizens’ Council addressing climate change, revealed that the group did not sufficiently reflect the desired heterogeneity.

Following this evaluation, an adjustment was made to ensure a more diverse group. A second stage of random selection was introduced, where participants are required to provide additional details during registration, such as income, education level, citizenship, and their area of work (e.g., self-employed or employed). This additional information contributed to the formation of a more varied and representative group. It’s important to note that participation in this selection process is entirely voluntary, involving one and a half days of commitment, in addition to a day for public presentation. Incentive models are also being considered to encourage participation.

Approximately 20 individuals are chosen to participate in the Citizens’ Council at each level. This number is intentionally limited, as exceeding it could hinder the effectiveness of the dynamic facilitation method employed in the council’s deliberations.

Various methods are employed in the Citizens’ Council process, with each serving a distinct purpose in different stages. These methods encompass the dynamic facilitation methodThe Dynamic Facilitation method is a way of facilitating a small group of people to face and solve difficult issues. It helps people face critical issues and then helps them to be creative in addressing them. Rather than asking participants to hold back their emotions, stay on the agenda, abide by guidelines, follow a step-by-step process and to generally be rational, the Dynamic Facilitation method encourages people to just speak., the citizens’ caféThe citizens’ café is the presentation of the results and the interactive process between the citizens’ council, politicians, administration, stakeholders and the public., and the responder groupWorkshops with stakeholders, members of government and administration. The suggestions of the citizens’ council are checked for concrete implementation and further measures are taken.. Depending on the specific theme of the Council, there may also be workshops organised in advance to prepare participants. The entire Citizens’ Council process spans one and a half days.

Dynamic facilitation is particularly valuable for managing the process across all its phases, including emotional moments and conflicts. The dialogue within this method adheres to four principles: problem statement, solutions/ideas, concerns (pertaining to both the solution and the problem statement), and the exchange of information/data. This structure fosters creativity and solution-oriented thinking, assisting groups in formulating a collective proposal and optimising the time spent in the process.

Photo (c) Land Vorarlberg

The selection of individuals is as pivotal as the recruitment of facilitators. A pool of 20 external facilitators in the area is maintained, and annual meetings are held to share experiences with them. These facilitators are compensated, and training courses on dynamic facilitation are provided.

The citizen café employs the world café methodThe World Café methodology is a simple, effective, and flexible format for hosting large group dialogue. It is a creative process for leading collaborative dialogue, sharing knowledge and creating possibilities for action in groups of all sizes. The technique builds on the notion of group intelligence. By organising several discussion rounds where people are invited to discuss a topic of mutual interest in small groups, the technique enables bringing together individual ideas into one comprehensive message. and serves as the public presentation of the Council’s findings. It constitutes the second stage, facilitating in-depth discussions about the results with a broader audience. This event is open to everyone and often draws between 50 and 300 participants. It also offers the opportunity to engage in discussions with political representatives.

The third tool, the responder group, is implemented at the conclusion of the Council’s deliberation process and typically consists of 15 to 20 experts. The selection of these experts is guided by a topic-specific analysis. The group is responsible for collecting and mapping recommendations, creating a roadmap that identifies actionable steps and potential projects. Their role is crucial for providing feedback to citizens. An interesting aspect is that members of the Citizens’ Council may voluntarily participate in the responder group.

Following the deliberations, not all recommendations can be put into practice. Therefore, a process of prioritisation is employed, where recommendations are sorted based on their priority, importance, and relevance in different contexts. This is vital to ensure that limited resources and capacities are allocated to the most impactful and feasible ideas. It is important to note that there is rarely a situation where all recommendations are outright rejected. Therefore, this process aims to extract valuable insights and ideas from citizen input. However, the sorting process is crucial, and clear communication is indispensable to convey the rationale behind these decisions. Providing clear motivations behind the decisions helps build understanding and trust in the process.

One aspect that did not go as planned and may have produced unintended results is the initial selection process of participants for the Citizens’ Council. Based on an evaluation of a Citizens’ Council focused on climate change and it was found that the group did not represent the desired heterogeneity. As a response to this, a second stage of random selection was introduced, which required participants to provide additional personal details, including income, education level, citizenship, and area of work. While the intention was to create a more diverse and representative group, this change may have produced opposite results, such as reduced inclusivity, additional barriers to entry, and complications.

While the intention was to improve diversity and representation within the Citizens’ Council, it’s important to consider the potential unintended consequences and whether the benefits of the new selection criteria outweigh any drawbacks. The selection process should aim to balance diversity with inclusivity and respect for individuals’ privacy and comfort levels.

One transferable element from this experience is the efficacy of learning from deliberative democracy, which significantly contributes to making better decisions. The various stages of random selection in the process represent an ongoing learning opportunity, even for an administration with substantial experience. The innovative approach has proven its value, as evidenced by its adoption in Austria, parts of southern Germany, and part of northern Italy.

The Vorarlberg Citizen’s Council process, despite initial tensions between representatives and citizens while clarifying the roles and the need for consultation, was crucial and it proved to be successful in promoting collaboration and citizen participation, although, there may be limitations to its effectiveness. For example, the recommendations produced by the Council are not binding, which may limit their impact on decision-making. Additionally, the process may be resource-intensive, requiring significant funding and investment from the government. Adding to this, while the Citizen’s Council has been successful in Vorarlberg, it may not mean that the implementation in other contexts or regions could be evaluated positively in the same way. Further research on this is warrant.

Based on an interview conducted with the Head of the Office for Voluntary Engagement and Participation Michael Lederer ( on 12 April 2023. 

An Austrian wide participation platform is Bürger:innenrat (Widsom Council) – Partizipation which includes some case studies of Citizens Council in Vorarlberg. 

Here is a case study video: The Civic Council Process (“Burgerrat”) in Austria: “How do we deal best with the influx of refugees” on Vimeo.