20 February 2024

Democracy Technologies: How did the cooperation between the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Ministry of the Interior come about?

Dominik Hierlemann: At the Bertelsmann Stiftung, we’ve been working in citizen participation for 20 years, and have seen that citizen participation is good and essential. But one of the key questions is: what happens with the result? We like to cooperate with political institutions, because there needs to be an addressee for the results of a citizen participation project. This is why we approached the German Ministry of the Interior to work on this project with us. Additionally, we are working with the Stiftung Mercator and the Michael Otto Foundation for Sustainability. The whole project is also supported by the news portal T-Online. 

DT: The project combines digital participation with an in-person citizen’s assembly. Can you tell us about this design and why it was chosen?

Dominik Hierlemann: We believe citizen assemblies are an important innovation in today’s democracies. However, when we analyse citizen assemblies, we often find that even though they are spreading all over Europe, they rarely instigate a broad public debate. Mini-publics are important, but we also need to involve the broader public, let’s say the maxi-public.

Everyone who wants to participate in political processes must have an opportunity to do so. By combining online and citizen’s parties, online participation, and citizen’s assemblies, we can involve more participants and build up more political pressure. That helps the results of such a process to be taken seriously.

DT: I assume that this consideration of reaching as many people as possible went into the decision of the digital platform. Can you tell us a little bit about which platform you chose and why?

Dominik Hierlemann: We thoroughly analysed various platforms that can be used at this stage and ended up choosing make.org. They offer several interesting advantages for our case. 

First, the threshold for participation is very low. No participant initially has to share their email address or name to comment or vote on what other participants are saying. That low threshold is crucial for us to reach specific numbers. Second, people can develop ideas if they want to be more involved. For that, they need to share minor data, which does not necessarily even need to be personal but at least an email address. Third, there is an interesting algorithm to ensure that the process is fair. Every proposal has the same chance to be seen and considered. The algorithm highlights especially contentious proposals so that people can make decisions on those. These assets offer a unique opportunity to combine the results of that process with the citizens’ assembly. 

So, back to how we actually combine the two formats: The process works like a zipper. First, we start with a broad online consultation to investigate what is close to people’s hearts and minds. That is our starting point. We already have more than 550,000 votes on our platform, which is a massive number, as we are now just three weeks into the process. Then, we analyse the results of this first phase and feed them into the citizen’s assembly.

When the 120 randomly chosen people come together in the citizen’s assembly, they will first see what other people in Germany think about the topic. The citizen’s assembly will deliberate and come up with ideas. These results get fed back to the online community, and the online community can give feedback on the ideas of the citizen’s assembly. Finally, the citizens’ assembly decides on the outcome. At the very end of the process, the online community has a chance to look at and vote on the results again which determines the final ranking of the results. That shows us which recommendations of the citizens’ assembly get the most significant share of votes and which are perhaps less popular in the online community.

Overall, there is a constant back and forth that is not only interesting for the participants on both sides but also for the media and the broader community on social media who are following the process. This is crucial because we want more public attention for these processes. Citizens’ assemblies shouldn’t happen in a vacuum.

DT: Some recent citizens assemblies have been criticised because they ended up making recommendations that their addressee was powerless to act on. How do you ensure that the recommendations are something that the ministry can really implement?

Dominik Hierlemann: Since we are cooperating with the German Ministry of the Interior, we are in touch with our colleagues there. They closely and consistently follow what is happening on the platform and are very interested in all the results. 

This process also comes at the right time because, in the coming months, the government is developing the Germany-wide strategy for countering disinformation. So, various policy departments in Berlin will come together and think about this strategy. Of course, it is too soon to say whether some of our citizens’ assembly ideas will be implemented, that depends on the results.

Neither the online community nor the citizens’ assembly can determine something in our representative democracy. It is still up to the politicians to make political decisions. That being said, I think it is an immense asset that the German Ministry of the Interior has been part of this process from the start. This is not one of those situations where the assembly develops something that they then hand over to decision-makers on a silver platter: Here are our recommendations, and we implement them. This process does go hand-in-hand with the ministry’s activities. 

DT: Why do you think fake news or disinformation are a particularly good topic for a citizen’s assembly?

Dominik Hierlemann: Actually, when we came up with the idea more than a year ago, not many people were convinced that disinformation was a good topic. Many told us it was very academic and complex and questioned whether it was as relevant to decision-makers as other topics. 

However, disinformation has quickly become very relevant because people struggle to determine when to trust what they see online or when watching television, especially now with recent AI developments. There is also a broader concern beyond how to handle disinformation about how those who want to harm our democracy can weaponise disinformation to do so. Because of that, finding ways to handle disinformation is critical for safeguarding our democracies.

DT: What kind of positions can you see in the online participation so far?

Dominik Hierlemann: We haven’t conducted a thorough analysis yet, so I merely have impressions. One topic is public broadcasting. Broadly, here people concern themselves with the independence of the media. How independent is it? What will good journalism look like in the future? How can we safeguard and ensure good journalism? 

Another aspect is education and competence in dealing with news and various media formats. People discuss questions such as: where do we start with media education? What kind of place should it take in school curricula and beyond? 

Then, of course, fundamental political-philosophical questions also come up. How do we safeguard our liberal societies? How do we ensure freedom of expression? But also, how do we guarantee that hate speech doesn’t happen? Where is the limit between freedom of expression and protecting each other?

At times, I believe we are talking less about regulation and more about ourselves as a society and how we discuss things with each other. That is a final theme: how do we deal with discourses in polarised societies? Colloquially, we often say that everyone lives in their bubble. But as a democracy, we need to come together for public debate. How do we ensure that we can still discuss with each other and respect each other’s opinions based on solid and shared democratic values?

DT: As a researcher, I’m sure you’ve defined benchmarks for success before the process started. What kind of outcomes or results of this would you consider a success or failure? 

Dominik Hierlemann: Of course, we are always afraid that our process might fail. But with the massive turnout on the platform so far, I am already very optimistic. We need to generate a public debate on the topic and help people participate in a process in which they usually do not participate.

Reaching big numbers is vital so that we engage people who are typically not engaged. We want to see if and how combining online and offline participation works and how the back-and-forth changes the debate. Does that make the discussion broader and deeper at the same time? Do we reach more people and still have a profound discourse on a specific topic? These are all criteria for us. So, when is it a success? It is a good sign if participants are satisfied with the process. Also, if German politicians take on ideas the assembly came up with. And if the method itself is considered exciting and could be deepened and further developed in the future.

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