Study: Civil participation – Wanted in theory but neglected in reality

Relatively few German citizens actively participate in political decision-making processes, study finds. 

Even though most German citizens feel directly affected by infrastructure projects in their environment and follow decision processes closely, only a small minority actively participate in related political processes. This is the result of a joint study of the Hertie School and the Heidelberg Centre for Social Investment.

The study focused on three recent large infrastructure projects in Germany that were publicly protested: The installation of wind turbines in the Stuttgart area, the construction of a large furniture store in Kiel, and the construction of housing on parts of the former Tempelhof airport area in Berlin. In all three cases, the number of those who were directly affected by the projects and those who actively participated in protests and decision-making processes was compared. The result: On average only seven percent of those affected, were also politically active. In case of the Tempelhof airport, the number of active and affected citizens was below four percent.

To identify reasons for this wide non-participation, qualitative interviews were conducted with affected citizens. Often-named reasons for not becoming active included:

  • If there were already citizen action groups, responsibility for action was delegated to these.
  • Many people were overwhelmed by the complexity of projects and could not decide on a clear position.  
  • Many people claimed to feel powerless and believed they „couldn’t change anything“, even though many participation opportunities were available.
  • However, a majority of citizens felt it was their moral duty to get involved and found excuses for why it was impossible for them to actually participate.

“Civil participation is considered important, or even a moral duty, by almost all citizens”, explain the Hertie School’s Rabea Haß and CSI’s Dennis Klink and Hanna Hielscher. “This implies that most Germans have internalised a postdemocratic attitude: Civil influence on political decisions is clearly demanded by the majority. But when it comes to the actual realisation of civil participation, people are insecure about how to do that. Ultimately, the majority stays inactive.”

A summary of the study’s results (in German) as well as details about the research project are available for download here.