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Interview with Hannes Wezel in Nürtingen

Participants | Interview | Literature

There is no other local council in Germany which has as high a level of citizen engagement as Nürtingen in South-West Germany (population 40,000). According to the latest citizen survey in May 2009, 47.3% of local citizens undertake some kind of regular volunteering activity - way above the German national average of 36% and well above even the average of 42% in the state of Baden-Württemberg, which has the highest score in all Germany.

Indeed, Nürtingen won first prize in 1999 in a nation-wide competition run by the Bertelsmann Foundation and the German Active Citizens Association for its achievements in "Citizen Engagement to Strengthen Local Democracy". Since then, Nürtingen has become a Mecca for citizen-oriented local authorities in Germany.


Elke Loeffler interviewed Hannes Wezel (Head of the Unit for Citizen Engagement) on 1 September 2009 to find out how Nürtingen became a national leader in citizen engagement

Participants


Hannes Wezel
Head of the Unit

for Citizen Engagement


Elke Loeffler
Governance International


Hannes Wezel has been the head of the Citizens Forum in the City of Nürtingen since 1991 and head of the Unit for Citizen Engagement since 1997. Currently, he has been seconded to the Local Government Association of Baden-Württemberg for the national project "Volunteering for all generations".

Hannes studied social work at Reutlingen Polytechnic and then education science and applied cultural studies at the University of Tübingen. Herr Wezel also lectures at the College for Social Work in Esslingen and works as a free-lance trainer and consultant to support the effective organisation of voluntary work.


Interview

 

Elke Loeffler: Many councils will wonder how you have achieved such a high rate of citizen engagement?

Hannes Wezel: We certainly didn't achieve it over night - it has been the result of 18 years work on citizen engagement. Clearly, along the way, there have been lots of disappointments and projects which did not work. But what was decisive was that we didn't just talk about citizen engagement - we convinced citizens to join us by our actions.


Elke Loeffler: What other success factors contributed to the Nürtingen model?

Hannes Wezel: In Nürtingen developing a culture of appreciation has been important. This has included three key elements: first, a commitment towards 'enabling' among elected members and officials; second, basic logistical factors such as free rooms for meetings; and, thirdly, incentives which provide rewards for engagement.

To illustrate this 'culture of appreciation', the council and the local school authority introduced a 'What-Have-I-Been-Up-To-Diary' for pupils, to document their voluntary work. At the end of each school term, the students with an up-to-date diary get a volunteering certificate, which is recognised by local businesses in Nürtingen as a factor in recruiting employees and trainees. Since we started this, the Education Department in the state of Baden-Württemberg has introduced this approach in all secondary schools, asking each pupil to carry out 40 hours of voluntary work during a school year.

Even the enlargement of the town hall building in the early 1990s was taken as a major opportunity to transform what had been an administrative headquarters into a transparent citizen- oriented organisation. At the same time, we transformed the Forum for Senior Citizens, which had been a rather low profile local initiative up to then, into a meeting point for people of all ages - the Citizens Forum. This Forum has provided the arena and opportunity for a wide variety of experiments and projects in citizen engagement. In fact, ever since the foundation of our Unit for Citizen Engagement in 1997, there has been political backing for the idea of citizen comprehensive engagement in Nürtingen.



Elke Loeffler: During two recent study trips of Governance International to Nürtingen, British public officials have been very impressed about the support of local business and local press for citizen engagement. How does CSR work in Nürtingen?

Hannes Wezel: Nürtingen does not have major sponsors for specific citizen-led projects and, in any case, we wouldn't necessarily want them. However, the whole local economy is linked with citizen-led projects in a variety of ways. For example, local businesses accept the 'volunteers passport' issued by the council to all volunteers, whether they act as individuals or through clubs - this provides volunteers with a wide variety of little 'treats' as recognition of their voluntary efforts. Furthermore, the local newspaper in Nürtingen plays an exemplary role in marketing citizen engagement. For example, the newspaper set up a volunteer journal, called BINGO, which gives extensive information three times a year about all volunteer work taking place in the local area. This is much more effective than having each association print its own flyers and leaflets. Moreover, it seconds a journalist for 3-4 days to support the 'volunteer journalists' in producing every issue of this journal in a professional way. A marketing company produces the layout for free and the costs of production are financed by a page of advertising, drummed up by the newspaper. BINGO has a print run of 12,000 copies and Nürtingen citizens appreciate the paper very much. It's also great that the Nürtinger Zeitung delivers a set of free newspaper copies to a local charity shop every day - citizen engagement also requires well informed citizens.



Elke Loeffler: Will Nürtingen be able to afford citizen engagement even during the current financial crisis ?

Hannes Wezel: The Unit for Citizen Engagement has a budget of 150,000 Euros for the budget year 2009/10 - this is only 0.14% of the overall council's budget (76.6 million Euros). But we have to expect a budget cut in the next budget year, like all other council departments. Nevertheless, we have been able to develop citizen engagement further, as many projects have now become self-sustaining. For example, since 2004 we have trained more than 70 citizens as 'citizen mentors' and they now support me and other staff by facilitating citizens fora and other citizen-led projects. Citizen engagement need not cost much - but it does need the professional support of the council.



Elke Loeffler: Another question related to budget issues: Have you managed to save money by involving citizens in co-design and co-delivery of public services in Nürtingen?

Hannes Wezel: For me savings are just a side-effect of citizen engagement. The key goal of citizen engagement is to bring citizens' knowledge, experience and know-how into the design of public services. For example, we now have a group of citizen mentors for almost each department, advising staff as a kind of user group. One of the 13 service user fora focuses on public safety. It means that citizens co-operate with the head of the public safety department to improve public safety. For instance, we managed to make the bus terminal safer where citizens did not feel safe anymore because of the presence of youth gangs. In particular, we set up so-called Kelly islands in the town centre. These 40 contact centres have been created by a partnership between the police, local business, schools and Kindergarden - they provide children with a place and a network of people they can address to when they feel unsafe. So, we are continuing to strengthen the co-operation between professionals and citizen mentors. Indeed, we have just recruited two new staff with a citizen mentor certificate for the local council. The user fora are now well-established in most areas of the local council.



Elke Loeffler: Will Nürtingen be able to afford citizen engagement even during the current financial crisis?

Hannes Wezel: The Unit for Citizen Engagement has a budget of 150,000 Euros for the budget year 2009/10 - this is only 0.14% of the overall council's budget (76.6 million Euros). But we have to expect a budget cut in the next budget year, like all other council departments. Nevertheless, we have been able to develop citizen engagement further, as many projects have now become self-sustaining. For example, since 2004 we have trained more than 70 citizens as 'citizen mentors' and they now support me and other staff by facilitating citizens fora and other citizen-led projects. Citizen engagement need not cost much - but it does need the professional support of the council.



Elke Loeffler: Another question related to budget issues: Have you managed to save money by involving citizens in co-design and co-delivery of public services in Nürtingen?

Hannes Wezel: For me savings are just a side-effect of citizen engagement. The key goal of citizen engagement is to bring citizens' knowledge, experience and know-how into the design of public services. For example, we now have a group of citizen mentors for almost each department, advising staff as a kind of user group. One of the 13 service user fora focuses on public safety. It means that citizens co-operate with the head of the public safety department to improve public safety. For instance, we managed to make the bus terminal safer where citizens did not feel safe anymore because of the presence of youth gangs. In particular, we set up so-called Kelly islands in the town centre. These 40 contact centres have been created by a partnership between the police, local business, schools and Kindergarden - they provide children with a place and a network of people they can address to when they feel unsafe. So, we are continuing to strengthen the co-operation between professionals and citizen mentors. Indeed, we have just recruited two new staff with a citizen mentor certificate for the local council. The user fora are now well-established in most areas of the local council.

 

Governance International is grateful to Hannes Wezel for this interview


Literature

Read a recent study trip report from Governance International to learn more about co-design and co-delivery of public services in Nürtingen and Stuttgart: pdf-download

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