Participatory Planning Process: 'Region of Consciousness' Austria

Participatory Planning Process: 'Region of Consciousness' Austria


Problems and Purpose

The history of the Nazi regime still has a great effect on citizens living in the three neighbouring villages of Mauthausen, Gusen and St. Georgen in Austria. The historic legacy is manifest in buildings of the concentration camps in Mauthausen and Gusen and an armament factory of the Nazi regime in St. Georgen. While some of these facilities already function as memorials, it has not yet been decided what to do with others: tear them down, use them for other purposes or also convert them into memorial facilities. The plan of the federal government to put some buildings under monumental protection stirred controversies in the population. Among citizens living in the region, a gap prevails between those, who want to forget and want to live a “normal” life and those who want to investigate and preserve the past. This problem also shows in a generational gap between the older generation closer to the past with some of their parents directly linked to the crimes of the Nazi regime and a new generation that feels more detached from – and sometimes more critical about – the past. Conflicts are also evident between locals and visitors. Memorial tourism often clashes with the need for privacy of locals. Tourists sometimes perceive locals to be directly associated with the horrendous crimes of the past. Sometimes pictures of locals are taken in private settings, rare incidents of hostility towards locals occur.

The purpose of the project "Region of Consciousness" was to develop new future prospects for the region, involving local citizens and local civil society. From the discussion of the problems described above, new projects for improving the lives of locals and the positive interaction with memorial tourists were to be developed.


To develop new perspectives for the region, a participatory process was designed by the project managers from the Institute for the Study of Conflicts. Two participatory instruments were employed: focus groups with experts, effected people and NGOs and so called Citizens’ Councils (originally Wisdom Councils), which are made up of twelve randomly selected local citizens who deliberate for one and a half days.

From January to March 2013 six focus groups were organized with experts from: 1) science, art and culture, 2) regional development, 3) economy, 4) emigrants from the region, 5) memorial initiatives and 6) an open focus group.

In February and March three Civic Councils were organized, one in each village: Mauthausen, Gusen and St. Georgen.

In March a “Marked place of ideas” was organized, in which the ideas collected in the three citizens’ councils were presented, discussed, merged and further specified with an open public.

In April the steps of the project and the collected ideas were presented in a public event in front of a large audience.

Originating Entities and Funding

Project leader:  

  • Alfred Zauner

Project execution:

  • Alfred Zauner
  • Brigitte Halbmayr
  • Paul Mahringer
  • Peter Menasse
  • Michael Patak

Participant Recruitment and Selection

For the focus groups experts were chosen and invited by the project managers.

For the Civic Councils, participants were randomly selected among the local population. A gender quota of 50% was aspired (in two of the three citizens’ councils six men and six women participated, while the remaining one consisted of five men and seven women). No other quotas were in place, however age and occupation appeared mixed in all councils.

The “Marked place of ideas” and the final presentation was open to the public.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

In the Civic Councils twelve participants deliberated the future prospects of the region. In this setting a special form of moderation was applied: Dynamic Facilitation, a method developed by Jim Rough (USA) in the early 2000s. He called the original version of Civic Councils, Wisdom Councils. The deliberative process is conceptualized as open, inclusive and dynamic conversation. In the beginning the moderator asks openly, “Considering future prospects of the region, what topic do you find most important, what does your gut tell you is most urgent?” After having collected several topics and decided, what is most important for the group to talk about, the moderator addresses one person at the time and listens. Whatever statement is made the moderator asks open questions in order to deepen the understanding of what has been said. Any idea or sentiment is given space. One person can be speaking for several minutes. The moderator documents everything that is said on four flip charts visible to everyone: Problems, Solutions, Concerns and Facts. Then he or she turns to the next person who wants to speak. This creates an open and inclusive atmosphere. Although all participants hold a conversation with each other, they almost never directly talk to each other, but to the moderator. This way aggression can be ventilated, without directly attacking other participants. Moderators never censor what is said by participants. Even if it is off topic. Dynamic Facilitation means going with the energy of the group. Whatever appears important enough to be said, is welcome. Everything is documented on the flip charts, without exception. As moderators are very curious and eager to listen, this attitude is reflected by other participants. Mostly participants are eager and happy to get a say, but also listen to each other carefully.

While in the first few hours mostly problems are addressed later solutions are discussed. Periodically, the moderator summarizes the discussion so they can be further developed in the following discussions. While most of the time who speaks, depends on who wants to speak and signals this to the moderator, occasionally the word is passed around the circle, so everybody gets to speak. In the end, participants draft a collective statement, in which they gather the ideas they have agreed on. As mentioned earlier, these statements were then presented to the public and discussed with other local citizens and politicians.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The project organizers wrote an extensive report summarizing the results from the focus groups and the Civic Councils. The main topics were: Extending memorial; learning from regional history; future use of remaining buildings and spaces; encounter, dialogue and communication; confident region; networking and new structures.

The three regions founded an association to execute the ideas developed in the project. In the autumn of 2013 a three year plan was developed.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

The participatory process described above has strengths and weaknesses.

Its strengths lie in the dynamic integration of expert knowledge and citizens’ engagement. This way, the knowledge produced through academic specialization and social knowledge through every day experience of the ones directly effected are combined. This doesn’t only enhance the legitimacy of political decisions, but also their quality as multiple sources of knowledge are integrated. The great advantage of civic councils in comparison with deliberative polls, consensus conferences and many formats of citizens’ assemblies lies in the temporary separation of expert knowledge and every day knowledge in the first stage and their integration in the second stage. Other deliberative formats give priority to expert knowledge over citizens direct experience. While in deliberative polls, for example, citizens only deliberate with each other after having been exposed to expert inputs, in civic councils experts do not usually directly influence what participants think or deliberate about. Experts’ knowledge is integrated in the macro process of the project and has an effect on its results, but the ideas of citizen participants aren’t influenced or altered in civic councils.

Civic Councils’ strengths lie in its integrative and inclusive effects. Participants feel free to utter grievances and concerns, while Dynamic Facilitation protects from direct attack. The atmosphere resulting from this method is creative, productive and inclusive. Minority opinions are heard and minority groups are treated with equal respect. The textually open procedure reveals citizens’ true concerns. In the case discussed here, this method enabled a civil and creative discussion every participant enjoyed although a potentially controversial and politically charged topic like the Nazi-past of the own region was discussed. Although many diverging and controversial opinions were uttered the overall civility and cordiality was maintained.

Criticism of the process described above can be uttered concerning the effectiveness of the decisions made and the lacking concreteness of the decisions in the first place. While some very specific projects were defined, others appeared more like blurry ideas or wishes. In the specific case described above, local office holders appear serious and eager to realize many projects developed in the participatory process. The actual effectiveness, however, strongly depends on the officials’ willingness to act as Civic Councils’ outcomes aren’t binding but of merely advisory character.

Moreover, the selection process appears to have some weaknesses. First, why should only twelve participants, who are not elected by the populace, produce political decisions for the whole community? The lot as a tool appears arbitrary and produces a lack of legitimacy. This is especially the case when these twelve represent a large citizenry as Civic Councils can be employed on state level as well. Here it would be advisable (and this is mostly the practice) that several Civic Councils are held. This is also necessary since the deliberative process highly depends on group dynamic. As experience has shown, different Civic Councils concerning the same issue held in the same time period, produce partly diverging (and partly overlapping) results.

Furthermore, the civic councils discussed here proved biased as they showed a large effect of self selection. While invitations were sent out randomly, only around 10% of the invited followed the invitation. This self-selection bias means that usually more educated, verbally eloquent and politically active citizens participate, since there is no obligation to participate as in jury duty. This compromises representativeness.

Summarizing lessons learnt for the future:

  • Separating participatory processes for expert knowledge and every day experience appears of high value. This way both sources of knowledge are treated equally and valuable insights from the every day perspective aren’t lost.
  • Civic Councils prove highly effective when it comes to inclusion and creativity, as well as to dealing with highly contentious issues.
  • The lacking legitimacy through participants’ selection by lot and the bias resulting from the specific group dynamics in each council can be countered by organizing several cvic councils concerning the same topic in proportion to the size of the population.
  • Legitimacy of citizen selection and representativeness could further be enhanced by introducing a participatory duty.


External Links (original page of the project, German language)

English-language initial translation of the above document at (page of the Institute for the Study of Conflicts, German language) (page about the method dynamic facilitation, English language) (magazine article, English language)





Mauthausen, Gusen, St. Georgen


Dienstag, November 20, 2012
Freitag, April 26, 2013
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Andere: Rekrutierungsmethode: 
Experts were invited
50% gender quota on random selection


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Wer hat das Projekt oder die Initiative bezahlt?: 
Future Fund of the Republic of Austria (Zukunftsfonds der Republik Österreich) National fund of the Republic of Austria (Nationalfonds der Repbulik Österreich) The State of Upper Austria (Land Oberösterreich) Federal Ministry of Education, Art and Cultrue
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Wer hat die Initiative noch unterstützt?: 
Austrian Society for Environment and Technology
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