This month, the United States news media began fretting publicly over “fake news”. Stanford university published a study revealing that middle school students did not distinguish between “sponsored content” and real news.

If you are laughing as you read this, I can’t fault you.  In the United States a dozen billionaires own nearly all media companies. All real news is sponsored.

The sponsored phenomenon is pervasive.  In the recent United States election, billionaire candidate, Donald Trump, made use of click farms to elevate his message in social media.

Is it possible to hold a discussion that is not sponsored?

Some local governments are experimenting with ways to overcome sponsored content.

One of Austria’s towns, Vorarlberg, resurrected an ancient Greek form of raw democracy. Randomly selected citizens form a Civic Council to deliberate issues of local importance. Civic Councils have been instrumental in allaying fears and developing rational responses to sponsored content.

Extracted from:

The “Wisdom Council” is a method developed by Jim Rough (Seattle, USA) which enables groups to explore and find solutions to issues which are important to the group.*

In the Wisdom Council meets a group of randomly selected participants from a community (or a region, a neighbourhood or a company, etc.)  The random selection of participants from the population registry or the electoral roll is decisive. This guarantees that the group is made up of constituents and not representatives of particular interest groups or organisations. The participants, in this respect, represent a microcosm of the community.

The participants of the wisdom council are encouraged to discuss the topics and concerns of their own choice. Therefore, the participants usually meet each other over two consecutive days. On the first day, the moderator helps the council decide which topic is the most important for the group. The participants are given the opportunity to “sleep on it”, and on the second day, the ideas and thoughts are exchanged. The core element of a wisdom council is the drafted collective statement. The statement should be presented at a public event and, therefore, open the discussion to a wider audience.

In the ideal case, the wisdom council instigates dialogue. The council is especially effective when it meets on a regular, periodic schedule, such as 2 – 3 times a year. A variety of people can take part and can improve on the results and statements and/or develop new suitable solutions.

The self-concept of a wisdom council creates a symbolic meaning. It is not about electing statistical representatives and filtering out constituents’ opinions. The wisdom council is much more a symbol for openness in the sense of giving voice to the citizens. It is also about involvement and not just about input.

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What’s important to note here, is that what we see in the above video is not an unusual case. The State of Vorarlberg has hosted over 35 of these ad-hoc Civic Councils to date, on different topics, using the same powerful combination of processes. Each time, the Council has consisted of an entirely different group — yet one chosen to ensure diversity of perspectives. And each time, there has been a powerful experience of collective meaning-making among the participants.

syrian refuges photo

In the case of Vorarlberg, the format they have used repeatedly with good results could be described as an unusual variant of a “citizen’s jury”. A randomly-selected microcosm of the public participates in creative deliberation for 1.5 days. They are supported with an empathy-based process for collaborative meaning-making within highly diverse groups. This process goes by the name of Dynamic Facilitation, yet is significantly different from conventional facilitation approaches. This is followed by a Civic Cafe, hosted using a World Cafe format.

Of course, this does not, in and of itself, solve all of our problems. The evidence that with the right support, any small, highly diverse group can reliably arrive together at powerful shared insights, is only a small step toward addressing the many global issues we are facing. However, we know from past experience that the work of a small microcosm can influence our larger society, especially when we are able to share the story widely.

Extracted from:

At the request of the State Government of Vorarlberg, in June, 2015, a Civic Council was convened to consider asylum and refugee issues. In Vorarlberg such Civic Councils operate as an important link between society and government. To ensure that the Civic Council represented a broad spectrum of opinions and diverse array of lifestyles, participants were chosen at random.

Given the anticipated developments in Europe and the world, it is clear that Austria must take on a growing number of asylum seekers. The seventh statewide Civic Council concerned itself with the questions: ”What do we need in order to effectively cope with world developments and the growing number of asylum seekers – to do here in Vorarlberg? What can we expect from the asylum seekers?”

The latter question was purposely formulated in a resource-orientated fashion, and is directed towards both parties: those on the “receiving end” and those on the “incoming end.” The Civic Council is so constituted that roughly 20% originate from immigration and/or refugee backgrounds.

The Civic Council process is divided into four stages.

The documentation at hand presents the results of stages 1 – 3.

  1. Civic 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).
  1. Civic Cafés: 15 & 22 June – the findings of the Civic Council are presented to the public and provide the basis to expand the deeper conversation.
  1. Responder Team: 9 July – a team of professionals involved with the asylum issue at the institutional level review the ramifications of the Civic Council’s findings (okay.zusammenleben, Caritas, State Office for Home Affairs & Security, State Office for Commerce & Society, State Office for Future-Related Affairs).
  1. 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.

Twenty-three citizens, one weekend, a controversial topic, four facilitators, two groups, a joint statement – so much for the facts. On the other side: large numbers of refugees arriving in Austria daily. The media are full of reports, rumors circulate, fears are aggravated – the unclear future breeds insecurity. Towards the beginning of the first Civic Council meeting one participant put it in a nutshell: ”In me the theme triggers primarily fear – that’s what dominates.” As the discussion unfolds a few initial ideas spring out, possible starting points:

the simplification of German course formalities, the development of neighborhood models, and the need for more information. Another participant told of his own experiences, and of the contact that he and his wife had struck up with five refugees.

As the discussion progressed the atmosphere in the room began to noticeably change. The initial skepticism and officiousness gave way to a positive attitude, a palpable feeling of “we want to honestly sort out this issue.”

Especially the role of the media was discussed critically: ”The media have massively contributed to the heightened fears. Seldom is there any truthful reporting.” What would a report from the media that calms fears and explores the situation in all its relativity look like? Thinking in the long-term context brought up another challenge: how are we to deal with a population that is more and more mixed? How shall we cope in a society that is increasingly diverse?

Also of special emphasis: the flow of information and the opportunity for encounters must be guaranteed at the community level. Such is a prerequisite in order to handle the current state of affairs and to alleviate prejudices and fears. The Civic Council itself was an expression of the willingness of the population at large to become involved and to offer support. In this respect, communities have the task (with the aid of the state, Caritas, and other institutional partners) to identify the possibilities of how each individual can become involved (e.g. mentor system, voluntary network, cultural gatherings, etc.).

It all boils down to a question of attitude when facing these challenging sociopolitical developments. Participants at the Civic Cafés formulated it this way: “It’s a question of character. Do we say, ‘the boat is full’; or do we say, ‘we can accomplish this together.’ It’s all about attitude and the willingness to help, of finding a way to deal with the developments that reduces fear.”

Photo by CAFOD Photo Library

Photo by Lars Tinner

3 Comments Democracy Series: Vorarlberg Civic Councils

  1. AvatarRosa Zubizarreta

    Hi Nathan! Thanks so much for the great article on a topic of mutual interest! I am just finding this now, following one of Tom Atlee’s links…. would love to be in touch.

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