The Breakthrough of Wisdom Councils in Austria and the example of Mauthausen

The Breakthrough of Wisdom Councils in Austria and the example of Mauthausen


Wisdom Councils Breakthrough in Austria and the Experience in Mauthausen


Brief Description  

·       Every 12 months with great fanfare- one or two dozen people are chosen at random from the population of either a village, municipality or city to form a wisdom council.

·       Austrian wisdom councils such as Mauthausen require either 1,000 signatures in a petition from its citizens or they require parliament to call them

·       The premises of a wisdom council are that they are a forum for debate as a small group of people gather to undertake personal accounts of lives and problems usually within their local community and their views on issues.

·       With a facilitator present who makes sure there is a flow in conversation and everyone’s views are held.

·       Notes are made and eventually a flipchart and consensus statement are made usually after 2 days

·       There are various examples of Austrian wisdom councils, in which the focus will be on Mauthausen Wisdom Councils at large.


Problems and Purpose

·       It was brought in to create a wider and more representative political process by bringing in a random set of citizens- which means they are likely to be representative of society

·       Can help prevent the minorities of the participatory political process from being ignored. If a political party holds power for many years then surely this inhibits many people’s struggles from being heard

·       Its fundamental role is to promote the public good of a voice that is not heard enough and to invite the political party and political system to respond to them. (Hellrigl, The Wisdom Council In Austria with Manfred Hellrigl, 2016)

·       Helping difficult scenarios that the citizens specifically can help with.

·       Austrian citizens want to see an end to boring political statements- and bringing common sense back to politics for the common good

·       Social problems- is a method in which you deal with social problems and their complexity and it is therefore a type of civic education

·       In addition to this, to boost ordinary citizen’s involvement and grasp of the meaning of democracy

·       Another purpose is that Wisdom councils are choice creating entities.



Background and History  


·       People are annoyed by the conflict occurring between the political parties in Austria and the divisiveness and were ready for a new process to occur

·       In Austria the people believed politics needed to go back to basics and it had moved away from what it was truly meant to be, which is the voice of the people.

·       Political parties have stopped serving the people and instead political parties have taken their focus to pleasing certain people and institutions they are no longer representing the people (Hellrigl, Austrian Wisdom Councils, 2014)

·       Newspapers and journalists have also identified this that they were so sick of ordinary political statements and were happy that somebody was bringing politics to life with authentic political statements from the people and common sense to ordinary life

·       All about bringing different people together has been a very popular initiative

·       One of the reasons why some Austrian areas have brought in wisdom councils was because of conflict between older generations and younger generation over the history of Nazism in Austria. This has in points led to outbreaks in violence, as the younger generations have wanted to engage with the ex Nazi influence by developing a critical response, as some Austrian regions have been marred by these social problems. The idea of the Wisdom council was that it can provide a forum for discussion over sensitive issues and meetings were held to address this point in particular. (Asenbaum, 2016)

·       2013 Wisdom Councils were beginning to become more widely used in places in Austria such as Mauthausen a small village of under 5,000 people

·       They have become both state wide and locally based


Organising, supporting and funding entities


·       Parliament puts forward the second wisdom council while government initiates the second this is what tends to happen at state wide Wisdom Councils such as Vorarlberg and this has been enshrined into their constitution

·       Meanwhile the process tends to take place in Spring and Autumn months

·       At areas such as Mauthausen they have to rely on the goodwill of local governance

·       Role of leaders in wisdom councils (facilitators) - create a space where the people can convene and deliver good questions to wisdom council at state level and regional level


Participant Recruitment and selection

·       between 1 dozen and 2 dozen people are given publicity and a voice

·       not limited to a certain age group of society but instead the selection process ensures that all groups are represented

·       Demographics are important to be representative with, as not only the richest in society opinions should be taken but everyone needs to be identified and visa versa. It is one of the most important conditions on the wisdom council meetings, because if this does not occur then the experiment will not be representative and therefore fair.

·       Mauthausen had a 50/50 gender split



How were they recruited?


·       Age, gender, location all taken into account in order to obtain a representative cross section of the population

·       Each citizen speaks on their own behalf.

·       Random process of recruitment other than the criteria stated.



Methods and tools used? Overarching participatory processes such as citizen juries, deliberative polling? What tools used to implement the strategy?


·       Dynamic facilitation was the main method used and is a process which relies on group energy and aims to try and create an environment where people feel safe to talk. Moreover, the dynamic facilitator in a process such as this would make sure the group avoids black holes of conversation and helps people feel understood and valued.

·       However, the responsibility of the facilitator falls short of being able to direct the group and establish norms or to take responsibility for the groups progress.

·       This technique is used during wisdom councils, as it allows the discussion to flow and energies of the participants to feed off of each other.

·       Firstly, they speak about public issues in their area and strategies on how they might go about improving the problems.

·       “Dynamic facilitation focuses on what people want to talk about no matter how controversial.” (Breeson, n.d.)

·       Records taken and published publicly of what is spoke about.


Process and Feedback


·       “wisdom councils are most powerful when they are done periodically, as a function of ongoing community dialogue” (Rough, 1999)

·       However, at times Mauthausen has brought in wisdom councils to deal with piecemeal issues, as some issues need public debate and public opinion immediately and therefore it can be argued wisdom councils do not always follow periodically. (Asenbaum, 2016)

·       presentation of final day of all findings and reported to public – gathering of public feedback- asked questions on how their lives are going and facilitator ensures that everyone is heard.

·       However, having said this even though Austrian Wisdom councils have had an even split of 50/50 men to women problems arise that men dominated speaking time from 60% to 40% dominating proceedings. (Asenbaum, 2016)


Deliberation, decisions and public interaction?


·       The process is conducted face to face and there were not a large number of voices that could be heard, as the numbers were kept relatively small.

·       This method of having a small sample size to reflect a wide area of the population has key effects

·       One being that it means that although people of different regions and backgrounds are represented- it also means it is impossible to represent everyone in these wisdom councils.

·       The interaction with the public is a unique policy that is not usually seen so directly in the 21st century.



Roles of participants, how were agreements reached and how smoothly did the process run?


·       Process designed for consolatory purposes to help consult governmental decisions and give the citizens a greater feeling of political participation. All opinions are gathered and put into a presentation on the final day. However, it is only a consolatory role the government of the day carry out actions.

·       Yes, the process is yielded towards a consensus being reached, it is purely advisory, however, the format means consensus statements on public issues will be reached.

·       Moreover, by involving dynamic facilitators the likelihood of agreement and a consensus statement is greater because areas of disagreement are quickly moved on from.

·       Any sticky areas dynamic facilitators would be able to move conversation on. The fact vague statements are reached in end is one of the most controversial issues of wisdom councils in Austria. (Rough, 1999)


Influence, outcomes and effects of Wisdom Councils?


·       Mauthausen prime example of intended results. After previous problems, where the youth were not happy over the lack of critique over previous historical Nazi influences tensions cooled. The intergenerational conflict between the youth and elderly appeared to be curbed slightly by Wisdom councils as some like this one in Mauthausen was set up to stop the conflict and had great success doing so.

·       The conflict had rose out of how to deal with the remains of a Nazi concentration camp in the area. While, wisdom councils have been constructed to be used on a periodical basis. This evidence shows how effective they can be on an issue by issue basis as well.



Any influence on the following?


·       Public policy – policy is put into place dependent on the recommendations of the council

·       Before being put into public policy findings must be digested and modified by the community in widespread dialogue before those findings qualify as useable collective wisdom (Gewessler, 2012)

·       “To help create developing and implementing solutions to tricky issues” (Rough, 1999). This is evidence of its effect on public policy

·       Social fabric of the community- community feels more involved with politics and it is known to improve the esteem of citizens with political control taken away from political elites.


Were there any results that were not intended?


·       Purely on a consultation means so results would largely not have to be enforced anyway

·       Mauthausen had a strong set of results and feedback following their wisdom councils.


Influence of initiative on other initiatives?


·       Austrian example has resulted in others wanting to follow suit- e.g. local government in North Carolina and spreading across local government in Austria



Analysis and lessons learned?  (500 words)


Wisdom councils according to this piece seem to have their merits, however to what extent are they actually having an impact on the lives of people in Austria and there are a wide variety of limits that can be identified. One of the limits, is can it really be argued as civic education if so few people are involved in each round of Wisdom council talks, to what extent can this argument be made and also the relative impact on public participation is somewhat minimised.


 Another negative element of wisdom councils is the fact what is discussed is not binding it is purely consolatory so their impact can be argued as somewhat limited, as governance do not have take action on what is discussed, as government has all control on implementation.


One of the fundamental negatives of Austrian wisdom councils is that there is a direct trade off for the way in which wisdom councils are conducted through heavy consensus’ and facilitation. The result of the trade off is that there is a lack of specificity involved (Asenbaum, 2016) , as the idea is that with a lack of suppression over the individuals involved results in a vague result. This piece talks about flows and energies of local wisdom councils in Austria but as the evidence has suggested these flows and energies come at a cost and that may be specificity.


Furthermore, what also doesn’t work well very well in this piece is the narrative that followed the selection process in Austrian wisdom councils, as there are various shortcomings. For instance, the fact it is not mentioned that only in the best case scenario that a ‘mini public’ is created, as for a truly representative wisdom council in Austria to arise then those selected would have to be exactly representative and wisdom councils fail to notice this (Asenbaum, 2016). Moreover, in the case of Mauthausen wisdom councils which I have touched upon prior to this, have had 90% of people reject invitations to the Wisdom councils. It is not just the rejection that is concerning in terms of representation but the knock on effect of this. The consequence being that it means only the most educated in society are likely to partake meaning that advisory feedback will be geared towards the smallest percentage of society a problem with the wisdom council described in this piece (Smith, 2013) .


However, this piece has not all negatives in terms of its investigation of Wisdom councils as there are some positive outcomes. Wisdom councils do have a unique selling point of hearing the thoughts of people and their accounts and “promoting the common good” (Rough, 1999) ,which has been explained a few times in this piece. Furthermore, they have a facilitating approach that can have a chance to bring consensus in an environment of political battle which is also unique.





Asenbaum, H. (2016). Facilitating Inclusion: Austrian Wisdom Councils as Democratic Innovation between Consensus and Diversity. Journal of Public Deliberation, 3.


Breeson, T. (n.d.). Dynamic Facilitation for Group Transformation. Retrieved from The Co Intelligence Institute:


Gewessler, A. (2012). The Wisdom of Dynamic Facilitation.


Hellrigl, M. (2016, April 20). The Wisdom Council In Austria with Manfred Hellrigl. (C. G. University, Interviewer) YouTube.


Rough, J. (1999, Decemeber). Wisdom Council. Retrieved from The Co- Intelligence Institute :


Smith, G. (2013). The policy effects of participation: Cherry- picking among local policy proposals? In ECPR General Confrence 2013. 1-26.




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