Prof. Dr.-Ing. Heidi Sinning
Professor of Planning und Communication
Erfurt University of Applied Sciences
99085 Erfurt

Citizen orientation is part of a social reform process. This article presents the current discussions about a citizen-oriented local government within the context of change in municipal models and a new political understanding. Strategies and approaches for action for citizen orientation are described. This includes modules which were developed by the German CIVITAS-Network of the Bertelsmann Foundation – reaching from the model ‘Citizen-oriented Local Government’ to the local democracy review as a tool of self-evaluation. To operationalize this, an overview of different instruments and methods of participation is given. A summary and outlook focus on the main task to promote a citizen-oriented local government.


1. Citizen orientation as part of a social reform process


The topic of democracy and civil society is very important in the context of new public management and good urban governance. Social reform and citizen orientation are especially important at the municipal level, because this is where the immediate living connections of the individual are shaped. In addition, cities, towns and villages offer the biggest possibilities to integrate citizens into political decision-making processes.


The main aim of the Bertelsmann Foundation project ‘Citizen-oriented Local Government and Ways to Strengthen Democracy’ (Pröhl et al. 2002) was to promote civil society and local democracy. The highly interesting results, concepts and best practices generated by this project form the basis of this article.


A national competition was held to launch the CIVITAS project, and 83 communities of different sizes took part by presenting their projects and strategies for more citizen participation. The jury nominated 11 communities and awarded prizes to Nürtingen, Leipzig and Bremen. These communities were brought together to form the CIVITAS Network. This national network has taken on the task of advocating new strategies and practical approaches toward citizen orientation, and also to make these available to other communities.


This process of change went hand in hand with the change toward the new public management (Fig. 1). These phases are described in more detail in the following. First, the old public order authority changed to the customer-oriented local government, and then there was a shift from a customer-oriented local government to a citizen-oriented local government.


Up to 20 years ago the thinking and acting in German local governments was characterized by the idea of a ‘government authority’. A local government that follows the model ‘government authority’ saw its task as keeping law and order. Fulfilling this task was supposed to become clearer, more predictable, and more controllable.


Fig. 1. Sequence of municipal models (after Banner 1998).



However, the neglect of economic thinking in policy and administration became an increasingly greater problem of this model. Further, the model also came under more and more pressure from the citizens’ perspective with regard to attractiveness and acceptance. The solution was sought in the principles of the private sector, since during the process of modernization the local governments had recognized that it was not sufficient to reform local government in this way. Why was this the case?


The line of sight of the customer-oriented local government is the market, or rather the citizen in his or her capacity as a customer of local government services. However, it is precisely the concept of the customer over which theory and practice have clashed for some years now. As a customer, the citizen is not seen in the entire breadth of their facets. A customer is passive – just a consumer. A city or a municipality should not exist first and foremost for the state, for laws, or for its own economic renewal, but rather for the citizenry, for the people who live and work there and feel connected to it.


The second challenge that some cities and municipalities are already facing is therefore the model of the citizens’ local government. The requirement profile of the customer-oriented local government can now be called ‘state of the art’. However, the citizens’ local government is still broadening in its impact. In this respect, citizen orientation means not so much the quality of service of the cities and municipalities, but rather the efforts of local government and politics to achieve a consistent and ongoing cooperation in partnership with the citizenry. (Of course, the economy as a private partner should not be forgotten either.)


A customer-oriented local government and a citizens’ local government are not opposites. On the contrary, the customer-oriented local government is a prerequirement for a citizens’ local government. The latter builds upon the former. In this model the citizen in the citizens’ local government takes on more roles besides that of customer. The local government integrates citizens directly in a cooperative partnership as active citizens.


In a citizens’ local government or a citizens’ city, local government and politics must also accept that they cannot have exclusive responsibility. In the new political understanding the government is only one actor among many (Fig. 2). The government is not the superior, sovereign conductor, but rather a team member in a network of actors. It is also necessary to reduce hierarchical control. The government’s role should rather be as a guarantor. It includes the citizen at an early stage – and wholly – so that he or she also feels animated to participate in implementation at a later stage.


Fig. 2. New political understanding.




This self-conception of modern governance has entered academic discourse under the name ‘good governance’. It reflects the collaboration and participation of different actors in a community of responsibility (see Sinning 2001).


2. Strategies and approaches for action for citizen-oriented local governments


What is a citizens’ local government? In the CIVITAS Network, this question provided a basis to develop a model of citizen-oriented local governments as a standard of quality. In the following, the concept of a citizens’ local government is defined.


a. The model Citizen-Oriented Local Government


At a Future Search Conference, the model ‘Citizen-oriented Local Government’ was created in consensus with representatives from politics, local government, the citizenry, and outside specialist institutions. It includes 10 principles. In this article, the first four important principles are presented (the full version can be found in Pröhl et al. 2002). With the help of a basic political consensus, citizen cooperation should receive a high rating. The advantages of citizen involvement and citizen orientation are obvious: the community, the quality, efficiency, and legitimation of the decision-making processes are very much strengthened. The basic requirement for this is the partnership and a respectful relationship between politics, local government and citizens. Citizen orientation means not only participation in cities and towns; it even integrates citizens at preliminary stages and during the implementation of projects and development processes.


Principles derived from the CIVITAS model ‘Citizen-oriented Local Governments’ were developed and discussed with the participating local governments, the main municipal associations, such as the Association of Cities and Towns, and also the Study Commission on the ‘Future of Civic Activities’ of the German Bundestag.


Fig. 3. Examplary principles of the ‘Citizen-oriented Local Government’ model.



The next step is for the advocates of ‘citizen-oriented local government’ to seek a dialogue with local government, politics and citizenry about this issue and to anchor it as a common basis.


The local democracy review is introduced next as a further module of quality management. In addition, the concept of the local democracy review has been adopted from Scandinavia and Germany as a tool of evaluation (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2003).


In the preamble to the model, it is stated: ‘The realization of a living democracy is a constant challenge.’ It is not enough simply to formulate principles and goals in a political resolution for more citizen orientation and to put numerous best practices of citizen orientation into practice. It is also necessary to use a tool that assesses the degree of citizen orientation that cities and municipalities have achieved, and that serves as a mirror for local governments. Thus, they are put into position to see where they stand, what level of quality they have reached, and where there is need for action. Strengths and weaknesses become visible and can be strategically approached.


How does a typical local democracy review proceed? The 10 steps to a local democracy review illustrated in Fig. 4 clarify the method. Of these, two main steps should be explained further:

  • A central module of the local democracy review is the official governmental inquiry, in which all governmental units and municipal institutions evaluate themselves with respect to their citizen orientation.

  • A second central module of the local democracy review is the citizen interview.

Fig. 4. Local democracy in 10 steps.



Parallel to the official inquiry, citizens are asked for their opinions about local democracy, the perception of their own possibilities to influence, possible improvements, and their own willingness to become involved. The interview results showing the possibilities for coordination and involvement and their actual use are then made public in a status report. This should already contain initial suggestions for improvement and recommendations for projects. The democracy review is not an end in itself but rather an aid to self-evaluation.


Five CIVITAS local governments carried out a local democracy review: Heidelberg, Leipzig, Solingen, Viernheim, and Weyarn. As an example, the following describes how 1500 citizens of Viernheim evaluated the democratic possibilities for participation in their city in 2002. With the help of a participation climate index, the results were measured and classified on a scale. The participation climate index consists of seven individual indices. Three of these are essential aspects: the ‘impression that a lot of people in the city are involved in volunteer or honorary work’, the ‘involvement of citizens is encouraged, promoted, and recognized by politics and the local government’, and ‘sufficient possibilities for participating in planning and decision-making processes’. The participation climate in Viernheim is positively evaluated, primarily because of the involvement of associations and citizens: 64% of those interviewed perceived lively citizen involvement. Further, 50% were of the opinion that being active in associations can accomplish something. In addition, there is potentially a large group of people who consider undertaking volunteer work, i.e. in addition to those citizens who are already involved; approximately 30% of all citizens would like to be volunteers. There were similar results from Heidelberg and from a national volunteer survey conducted by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs in 2000 and 2004.


In addition, several local governments have started inquiries into information and involvement interest. For example, in Viernheim the return of 485 (out of about 1.500) was very high and directly reflects the added value. Here, direct offers can already be made very concretely to those interested in becoming involved, and the latter can be integrated in groups and initiatives. However, c.60% of those interviewed considered that they have too little influence on the events in the city and their neighborhood. The data indicate a discrepancy. There is considerable volunteer involvement, but the actual political influence of the citizens is very small; this is what the interviewees criticized. Furthermore, 48% of those interviewed felt they were only partially informed about important matters by the city local government, yet the citizens expect to be kept very well-informed. This also concerns the design and preparation of municipal information. Following these results, the mayor of Viernheim implemented a considerable number of measures to improve the situation.


b. Culture of recognition and participation


What can be done for a culture of recognition and participation is known from many examples in local governments. Only where citizen involvement and citizen participation find sincere recognition, mutual recognition and participation will be lasting. Recognition is not limited only to medals and decorations: it also includes the certification of volunteer workers, appropriate individual benefits, and small material inducements, but above all the opportunity for volunteers to qualify further individually. The city of Nürtingen in Baden-Württemberg, for example, has a brilliant bonus and inducement system for involved citizens, consistently recognizes volunteer work in community service, and at the same time offers volunteers the opportunity to gain further qualifications in their area of commitment. Nürtingen also serves as a very good example of how the culture of recognition implies changing the political culture as a whole. Single projects cannot really change the situations; the political culture as a whole has to be changed. In Nürtingen, for example, politicians and inhabitants meet every six weeks, when the politicians listen to the citizens’ speeches and questions. Normally, it is the other way round (Langfeld et al. 2001).


c. Interfaces between politics and local government and citizen participation


Interfaces between politics and local government and citizen participation describe, for example, places that can be used as meeting points, and direct dialogue between the mayor and town councilors, on the one hand, and citizens’ groups on the other. Citizen participation and involvement need institutional anchoring in the sense of an effective infrastructure of participation. Similar to the efforts in creating a new service culture, the creation of a citizens’ local government that welcomes participation and coordination also needs a clearly defined interface between local government and the citizenry. It has already been rightly emphasized in the discussion about the creation of a customer-oriented local government that citizens can now less than ever be expected to accept non-transparency in administrative machinery. Those who want to be involved as citizens or who would like to participate in planning and decision-making processes must be able to find a clearly defined interface, in the sense of one-stop-shopping for citizen involvement and citizen participation. As an example, under a program in Bremen called ‘Living in Neighborhoods’ citizens decide jointly with politicians and administrative representatives on the distribution of neighborhood-related financial means. This is a very far-reaching approach to participation in decision-making processes.


d. Citizen-oriented neighborhood development


A further best practice is citizen-oriented neighborhood development. In simple practical terms, it is necessary that involved citizens have access to spatial premises. In this respect, leisure, youth, and neighborhood centers, and also school premises play a central role. The efficient use of large municipal investments such as new school buildings often fails because of perplexing realities such as unreasonable schedules for building superintendents or supposed scruples with regard to questions of insurance.


Moreover, there is little in the way of opposition to opening up meeting rooms in city halls and government buildings that have not yet been used much for meetings about citizen initiatives. In addition, as a moderator between traditionally citizen-oriented groups, such as shooting clubs and volunteer fire departments, who have rooms, local government and politicians can mediate new citizen initiatives, thus creating the space for a local citizens’ society. Involved citizens, however, also need spatial crystallization in a second respect. It is rare nowadays, especially in large cities, to find people who identify beyond their own concrete neighborhood or district to the point where they will become actively involved. Thus it is necessary not only to establish decentralized citizen agencies as service centers, but at the same time they should also be developed into citizen offices and thus into crystallization points for citizen participation and citizen involvement. Examples of the promotion of the citizen-oriented neighborhood development include neighborhood forums, conferences, meeting points, and citizen offices.


There are numerous best practices from which experience can be drawn upon: in CIVITAS Volume Three there are c.70 listed, and this number may well have increased.


3. Overview of the instruments and methods of participation


In this section the tools and methods of participation will be described in more detail. In the design of communicative processes of urban development, several tools and methods of information, participation and cooperation are used. Thus, the integration of various stakeholders is enabled and a broad public discourse can be conducted. At the same time, it should be considered that the specific instruments for the successful design of a process must be arranged in an appropriate strategy of communication. Within this strategy, the aims with regard to information, participation and cooperation are defined. The selection of the tools and methods must be oriented towards these objectives because in each case they fulfill different functions, depending upon the objective.


In the following, an overview of existing tools and methods of participation and cooperation is given, systematised according to their primary function (see Bischoff et al. 2005):


I.         Information


a.         Investigation of interests and opinions


These tools are used in order to obtain knowledge and information about the behaviour of the involved stakeholders. They contribute to the regional surveys as well as to identifying and evaluating problems at the beginning of a process.


Exemplary tools are:

  • Written questions

  • Interview

  • Activating inquiry

  • Complaint management

  • E-information

b.         Information and opinion-forming


These tools and methods primarily are made for information and opinion-forming. There is a difference between media (e.g. placards) and events (e.g. open council, question time for citizens).

Exemplary tools are:

  • Placard, circular

  • Exhibition

  • Local media

  • Campaign

  • Open council

  • Question time for citizens

  • Presentations and discussions

  • Excursion

  • On-site inspection

Stakeholders are informed by media; reactions are not acquired, though information and opinions are shared during the events. The stakeholders inform and bring their own suggestions and comments.


II.        Participation


a.         Formally defined instruments of participation


Regarding active participation in planning and development processes, reference is being made to tools and methods of involvement, or rather participation. The involvement differs in formally defined and informal tools and methods. The first above-mentioned are legally defined and administratively fixed.


Exemplary tools are:

  • Public display

  • Hearing and debate

  • Petition and citizen request

  • Ombudsman

  • Advisory board and committee

  • Petition of a referendum and public decision


b.         Informal instruments of participation


Exemplary tools:

  • Citizen-near consultation

  • Working group

  • Citizen appraisal, citizen juries

  • Planning for real

  • Future search

  • Perspective workshop

  • Future search conference

  • Real time strategic change

  • Community organizing

  • Participatory rapid appraisal

  • Participation of target groups

  • E-participation

Informal tools and methods are called informal instruments of participation. Their application is at the discretion of the respective decision-makers. Here, a great potential for a sustainable-oriented planning and development does exist.


III.      Cooperation


Aforementioned tools and methods are characterized by a clear distribution of roles: the administration experts determine contents and organization; citizens are involved in the process of the administration in different ways. This role ascription is different to the tools and methods of cooperation. This can be clarified best by taking the round table as an example. The notion that all people are sitting equally at a table focuses on the objective of with the people involved solving current tasks together.


Exemplary tools are:

  • (Mediating) Planning by lawyers

  • Workshop

  • Forum

  • Round table

  • Mediation

  • Open space

  • Intermediate organizations

  • Local partnerships

The presented systematisation and overview of the tools and methods of information, participation and cooperation should be understood as an orientation; that classification is not selective. For example, tools and methods of information and opinion-forming (e.g. exhibition) may include participatory elements (e.g. offer for expression of opinion).


In practice, the individual tools and methods are closely interlinked. Many are used in parallel or sequentially (e.g. open council – working group – on-site inspection). Only linking facilitates effective communication. Individual participation activities can also initiate further commitment. For instance, presentation and discussion might initiate the forming of opinion on action on sustainability.


Consequently, an initiative might be shaped, e.g. a field-trip being arranged in order to gain ideas from a specific practical example or to profit from the experiences from other people. All tools and methods mentioned can be applied to sustainable planning and development. An overall communication strategy will set the objectives and proceeding of the communication process.


4. Conclusion and outlook


Finally, three essential aspects to promote a citizen-oriented local government are addressed:


a. Advocation of an all-inclusive strategy


Advocating an all-inclusive strategy means that the different municipal activities are managed so that they are connected. Activities such as citizen participation, local agenda 21, city marketing, and neighborhood development all deal with citizens. Hence it is important to connect these activities to an all-inclusive strategy.


b. Lasting promotion of involvement


Lasting promotion of involvement means that citizen involvement and citizen participation are neither transient nor trends. The point is rather to anchor a culture of participation and involvement firmly and with standards of quality. Participation and promotion of citizen involvement should take place in all phases, from an original idea all the way to its implementation.


c. Achieving a broad impact


Finally, the main point is to publicize citizen involvement and citizen participation widely. There are various strategies for this: an evaluation tool such as the local democracy review is an important module. In addition, it is necessary to develop qualification offers for citizen orientation in local governments. This involves various models, including coaching and consulting offers, continuing traditional education, and planning game models that qualify many for work on a concrete project, rather than just a few. The question of citizen participation via the Internet is currently widely discussed. This discussion concerns the integration of new media for citizen orientation, whereby the additional Internet offer is integrated in an all-inclusive strategy. The challenge is thus not only technical, but also integration in real processes. From my point of view there is great need for action for a citizen-oriented local government. It is necessary to publicize and to move forward with the positive efforts that can already be found at municipal and state levels.


5. Literature


Banner, Gerhard (1998): Von der Ordnungskommune zur Dienstleistungs- und Bürgerkommune. In: Der Bürger im Staat, H. 4, S. 179–186.


Bertelsmann Stiftung (Hg.) (2003): Lokale Demokratiebilanz. Kommunale Zukunft gemeinsam gestalten, Broschüre, Gütersloh.


Bischoff, Ariane; Selle, Klaus; Sinning, Heidi (2005): Informieren, Beteiligen, Kooperieren.Kommunikation in Planungsprozessen. Eine Übersicht zu Formen, Verfahren und Methoden, 4. völlig überarbeitete und ergänzte Auflage, Dortmund.


Langfeld, Gabriele; Wezel, Hannes; Wolf, Guido (Hg.), Bürgergesellschaft konkret, Verlag Bertelsmann Stiftung, Gütersloh.


Pröhl, Marga; Sinning, Heidi; Nährlich, Stefan (Hg.) (2002): Bürgerorientierte Kommunen in Deutschland. Anforderungen und Qualitätsbausteine, Bd. 3, Gütersloh.


Sinning, Heidi (2001): Verwaltungsmodernisierung und Planungskommunikation. Qualitätsmanagement für bürgerorientierte Kommunen. In: RaumPlanung, H. 97, S. 181–186.




Professor Heidi Sinning

Planning and Communication

Erfurt University of Applied Sciences

Altonaer Straße 25

DE-99085 Erfurt


Tel. +49 (0)361-6700-375

Fax +49 (0)361-6700-528





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