Using the unique, homegrown citizens' council method, Vorarlberg looked to its citizens in addressing the issue of refugee and asylum integration. The three-phase process gave officials valuable feedback regarding local participation in the resettlement process.
Problems and Purpose
In 2015, the State Government of Vorarlberg in Austria was faced with growing controversy and public questioning around the the pressing, sociopolitical issue of refugee asylum. The Government, recognizing it's position "in solidarity with Europe, [a]s a shareholder in the growing global society," agreed to accept its due quota of refugees. However, in order to do so, it was felt necessary to convene a Citizen Council* to answer, with members of the public, two main questions:
- How can the process of receiving refugees in Vorarlberg best be effectuated? What must be done?
- How can the interactions between refugees, citizens, experts, media outlets, government, and other institutions best be facilitated?
Vorarlberg has extensive experience with participatory policy-making processes such as the Citizen Council and were thus pre-disposed to apply such methodology to the issue of refugee acceptance. According the the government, the participatory process was likely to result in the following outcomes:
- Develop greater civic consciousness (self-efficacy and civic education) among participants
- Develop a model approach to asylum policy by raising the quality of the conversation and exploring a diverse viewpoint on the issue
- Generate ideas and concrete recommendations to inform policy
- Raise public awareness and empathy for refugees as the basis for developing an open and welcoming culture
Background History and Context
Vorarlberg is the Western-most state of Austria, sharing borders with Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Culturally, the people of Vorarlberg are closer to their neighbouring countries and the majority of the population is of Austrian-Germanic descent.
The State of Vorarlberg's Office of Future-Related Issues has a solid track record of convening participatory processes with positive outcomes for participants and government organizers. Before the Council on Refugee Asylum, the State had convened over 30 such processes. Recognizing the added utility of citizen-involvement -- such as the introduction of multiple points of view into the policy-making process -- policy-makers and administrators were pre-disposed to a similar course of action in the case of refugee asylum. The Office was commissioned by the State Government to organize a Citizen Council based on the Wisdom Councils of Jim Rough and known as "Bürgerrat" in German. According to the State, "These Councils operate as an important link between society and government."
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The process was commissioned by The State Government of Vorarlberg, the State Governor Mag. Markus Wallner, and the State Minister Ing. Erich Schwärzler.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participants were selected at random so the Council "represented a broad spectrum of opinions and diverse array of lifestyles." According to the final report, "six hundred and forty randomly selected citizens from the whole of Vorarlberg were invited to take part. Roughly one hundred people responded. Of these, some fifty [....] turned down the invitation. Twenty-three people accepted the invitation to participate in the Council [...] the youngest participant was eighteen years of age, the oldest participant seventy-five years of age; the council was made up of twelve men and eleven women."
Methods and Tools Used
The Bürgerrät format is based on the Wisdom Council methodology as designed by American Jim Rough. This model was chosen as it has a solid track record in Vorarlberg, having been used there 32 times as of May 2014. The combination of methods used in Vorarlberg -- a randomly-selected small group using Dynamic Facilitation, followed by a larger public meeting where everyone gets to explore the findings in small groups -- is consistent with Jim Rough's Wisdom Council model which, with some significant and valuable additions, has been further developed into Vorarlberg's "Bürgerrat" model.
The Bürgerrat process might be best described as one of "Creative Deliberation", where participants' perspectives are listened to in an empathy-based process that creates an environment of high psychological safety and trust. In that context, participants are better able to access their curiosity about different perspectives and their ability to engage in complex thinking.
While residents of the State did not have an influence as to whether Austria accepts refugees or not, they did have a say with regard to implementation; that is, into the kind of involvement that they, as community members, want in the process.
In Bürgerräte, participants are encouraged to arrive at a consensus of their own choosing. What is the message that they want to send to their fellow community members, as well as to policy-makers and administrators, with regard to this issue?
This consensus is not arrived at through voting, but paradoxically through listening deeply to each participant's concerns, and welcoming divergent perspectives. Once the participants have arrived at their outcomes, they share all of the outcomes they have agreed upon (as well as the story of their process of arriving at these outcomes) at the larger Citizen Café, where they are discussed in small groups by everyone who is attending this large public gathering.
These outcomes have the status of recommendations; the government has agreed beforehand that they will implement whatever outcomes they are able to do, but also they cannot sign a "blank check". Since the outcomes are not predetermined, the government then decides afterward, which of these outcomes they are able to implement.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The full Citizen Council process unfolded as follows:
"1. Citizen Council: 12/13 June – over the course of a day and a half, twenty-three randomly selected citizens of Vorarlberg work out a joint statement (not open to the public).
2. Citizen Cafés: 15 & 22 June – the findings of the Citizen Council are presented to the public and provide the basis to expand the deeper conversation.
3. Responder Team: 9 July – a team of professionals involved with the asylum issue at the institutional level review the ramifications of the Citizen Council's findings
4. Documentation & Next Steps: The documentation encompasses the findings of the three civic events and of the Responder Team, providing the informational groundwork for political conversation at both the state and municipal levels. Based on these explorations, in the fall of 2015 the Vorarlberg State Parliament shall issue a detailed review assessing the measures that have been taken and/or need to be taken."
At the beginning of the Council process, there was a great deal of anger voiced. After participants had received an initial briefing on the scope of the issue, many of them felt upset that this information had not been made available by the government earlier, and more broadly. Of course, this was not exactly an accident; this information had not been made available more broadly prior to this, given how sensitive the larger situation is.
Dynamic Facilitation was used with the participants during the initial small-group portion of the Citizen Council. Through a process of practical dialogue and creative deliberation, participants were able to voice their concerns, feel heard, and begin to take part in a co-creative process.
The participants also voiced the desire for more opportunities to participate actively in the creation of solutions. This common sentiments is summed up in one participant's statement: "well, the choice is clear; we can say there are no more lifeboats available, or, we can build more lifeboats. And we know how to build lifeboats!"
At the end of the small group deliberations, the following consensus points were documented:
- Prepare a model of coexistence whereby refugees and asylum seekers should "take control of their lives and stand on their own two feet as quickly as possible...be extended the opportunity to perform meaningful activity; be allowed quick access to the labor market; including rendering neighborly services...[and] be supplied contacts and opportunities to meet people"
- Actively seek to maintain direct contact and current information with the public to foster "mutual willingness, open-mindedness, tolerance, and respect"
- Pursue full transparency and ensure open channels of communication between all parties and seek to maintain consensus and agreement
- Be encouraging: "learn from the positive experiences drawn from history [and] deal responsibly with fears and concerns"
These outcomes were shared by the Citizen Council participants at two larger public meetings (Citizen Cafés) that followed the the World Café methodology. According to the final report, the Cafes mainly focused on a pair of points: the role of the communities with regards to the reception and supervision of refugees was a prime concern [and] the flow of information and the opportunity for encounters must be guaranteed at the community level." During thse meetings, a "Responder Team" was created to track the policy recommendations as they moved through the administrative system. This group included a volunteer from the Citizen Council, as well as representatives from the various government agencies and non-profits that need to be involved in implementing the Council's recommendations. Having heard from the public during the Council and Cafes, the Responder Team focussed its action on two key points:
- "Coordinat[ing] response among the state, communal, and institutional parties, as well as a subsequent need for these parties to realize practical cooperative possibilities down the line.
- "Establishing a central coordination hub for offers from and requests for volunteers, as well as the creation of new possibilities for volunteering."
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Several of the outcomes echoed earlier concerns: participants wanted more information to be made available to the public. This eventually led to some newsmagazines, a website, and a series of 22 public informational events throughout the State of Vorarlberg.
Through the three-phase process, a tremendous amount of energy and ideas were martialled with regard to how locals could participate and volunteer in the resettlement process. The main take-away points for officials were the need for government actors and local non-profit agencies to better coordinate their efforts and to support the coordination of a larger volunteer effort among the population.
This project later won two Austrian awards for a model participatory project.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
One of the lessons learned from this project, has to do with how much support was required afterward, by the government agencies and nonprofits involved, to coordinate their efforts in the process of implementing the recommendations that came out of the Citizen Council.
In the United States, the work involved in these kinds of coordinated efforts have been analyzed to some degree by the "Collective Impact" folks out of Stanford, who point out the kind of support that is needed for such collaborative efforts to be successful. (They call it 'backbone staff')
So it was of note that, while this project was very successful with regard to building public will, and catalyzing a new level of information and coordination on the part of the government and non-profit agencies, the effort that this took was unexpected and unplanned for. The Office of Future-Related Issues, who coordinated this Citizen Council, also stepped into this role of post-Council coordination.
 Citizen Council Report: Vorarlberg Asylum and Refugee Policies, June/July 2015 https://dk-media.s3.amazonaws.com/AA/AL/diapraxis/downloads/297775/Doku_...
 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Vorarlberg," The Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/place/Vorarlberg
Conversations with Manfred Hellrigl, former director of OFRI, and Martin Rausch, videographer for project.
All quotes are from an English-language version of the report produced by the Vorarlberg State Government on this Citizen Council, which is available here: https://tinyurl.com/CC-on-refugees
Video produced by Martin Rausch on this process: https://vimeo.com/135618811
*Citizen Councils are based on the Wisdom Council methodology developed by Jim Rough. They are otherwise known as "Bürgerrat" in German.