05 September 2023
DT: What is the idea behind the School of Participation?
Matthias Berg: We believe that participation is a craft that you can learn. There is a certain skill set you need to master if you’re going to succeed at it – but it’s one that can be learned quickly and efficiently, as long as you approach it via hands-on training. And that’s the key idea behind our school.
The school is part of a living network, with constant exchanges between students, teachers, and partner organisations and institutes. Our network members will help shape the learning process, with a constant interplay between what students do in practice and what they learn in theory.
The school is modeled on the Hamburg School of Ideas, which I’ve been running for around 15 years now. It is a participatory school, where students help to shape the content of the courses and bring their experience with them to the classes. We wanted to apply that same logic to a school for democratic participation, to make it a genuinely participatory school.
Ruth Beilharz: We are all really enthusiastic about the basic idea behind the School of Ideas in Hamburg. It’s a full-time dual track education, with a vocation and a theoretical component. The people who study at our school will be active in the area of participation, in the broadest sense. They will take a one year course that combines theory with practice.
The teachers at the school will be leading practitioners from the realm of participation. This is important, as there are a lot of participation theorists who think they know how to run a real participation process, but who have no real experience. We believe that participation is about much more than just moderating discussions. By bringing together students with institutions involved in participation, and teachers with real practical experience, we ensure a good balance between theory and practice.
DT: What skills do students learn at the school?
Beilharz: There are four key competencies we want to teach. First is the technical side. Students need to know what formats and methods are available. Second, we develop their procedural competencies. How can I translate this theoretical knowledge into concrete participation designs? Third, we teach communication skills – and that is something that we practise, practise, practise. How can I best communicate with others, how should I deal with conflict, or overcome resistance? How should I approach dealing with large groups? And finally, we cultivate their democratic values.
Berg: This is very important. The foundation of the course lies in coming to an understanding about certain values and attitudes connected to our democracy, and to the liberal democratic order. Our core aim is to improve democracy.
DT: What will the practical training look like?
Beilharz: Students will begin by analysing the situation on the ground to really understand what is happening there, and what their needs are. Next, they will organise actual participation processes. They will then lead and accompany the processes to the end. Finally, and crucially, they will work on institutionalising these participation processes, establishing them as permanent.
They will have to tackle a lot of practical issues along the way. How should I approach working within an administration? Administrations don’t just shout “hurrah” whenever participation happens. A lot of them think: “Citizens are difficult enough already, and now we’re expected to do this as well!” So there’s a lot of scope to support our students there. How should they cope with these situations? How can they integrate participation into pre-existing structures?
Berg: One of the key features of our course is that students will get the chance to gain experience within different types of organisations. The organisations they work in may be local administrations, but also businesses or NGOs. We haven’t imposed any limits. The working methods and the way they define their tasks vary greatly from sector to sector. And sometimes, a method applied in one branch might turn out to work really well in a different kind of organisation. The idea is to build a participation community characterised by lively exchanges, with our school at its centre.
DT: Who is the school for?
Beilharz: We hope to attract a wide range of different applications. There are people working in administrations who already have an education, but who would benefit from support in the specialist area of participation. Increasingly, a lot of local governments have citizen participation officers, who would also benefit immensely from learning from a broader network of practitioners. Likewise, we are open to representatives of corporations and other organisations. We firmly believe that businesses are interested in becoming more democratic, in order to make themselves more attractive to young people on the job market.
Aside from professionals already working in participation in one way or another, we also welcome students who have finished a bachelors programme and see participatory processes as a key tool for the future. They will learn skills they can apply in government contexts, but also in the corporate world, or even in family life.
Berg: The course could be treated as a Master’s degree, for someone who studied sociology, political science. Or perhaps someone who has studied business administration, and has noticed that transformations in businesses and in industry are more successful when people are given a say. When everyone can get involved. That’s what you will learn to do at our school.
DT: Are there differences between digital and analogue participation, in terms of the skills needed?
Beilharz: First of all, it’s crucial to know what kind of offers are available in the digital realm. But I also need to know what formats and methods there are that I can use to drive transformation processes and participation processes.
Nonetheless, we have come to the conclusion that in digital processes, you rely heavily on the same social communicative abilities that you need for analogue processes. You could say you need them even more, since you don’t have any direct contact with the participants. Of course, you also need to know how to use the technology. But otherwise, I don’t see a big difference between the abilities you need whether you’re working in the digital or analogue world.
Berg: Formats change over time, in every field. The way they are used and their functionalities change. But the core idea stays the same. The content doesn’t change. It’s the same in the world of communications. A great story is always a great story. A great story in a TV ad remains a great story on social media. There are some principles that never change.