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Many of today’s democracies are in crisis, when considering the decreasing levels of voter turnout, party membership, and trust in established political institutions and actors (Blokland 2011, 1ff; Dalton et al. 2004, 124). Political democracy, however, does not exist in isolation. Civil society and the private sector are an integral part of the democratic fabric in any society. By zooming in on the recruitment process for a deliberative workshop on gender equality in Germany, this blog seeks to illustrate the difficulties of engaging civil society organisations and companies to play their envisioned role in strengthening democracy. This provides some insight in the difficulty of reaching especially those people who have withdrawn from political processes and/or community structures. The introduction will briefly touch upon the importance of political participation, the background to the project, as well as the disappointing recruitment outcome of a deliberative event we organized in Berlin. This will be followed by discussing the rationale and typical responses of some actors, after which some concluding remarks will be offered.
Political and civic participation
The ability to influence public decision-making processes is traditionally concentrated with a few organised and exclusive interest groups and is highly correlated with financial capital. Average citizens, especially those with a weaker socioeconomic or minority background, tend to be excluded from typical spheres of influence. This is problematic, as there is an incentive for policy makers to be primarily responsive to the loudest (or best represented) voices. Furthermore, policy makers are at times simply not aware of or understand what is needed by underrepresented groups in society, and are thus unable to be responsive even if the will and resources are at hand. As a consequence, unequal opportunities to voice interests, set agendas, and shape solutions, tends to create situations in which policy and resource allocation are biased against the interests of those people that are most in need of a protective or supportive government.
Social Science Works (SSW) is organising 10 roundtables throughout the country to discuss the current state and future of gender equality in Germany. For every event we try to recruit about 30 participants. All the participants together should be able to express the thoughts and feelings living in German society regarding gender equality. By deliberating about, amongst others, legal developments, labour market policies, and distribution of domestic work, participants are invited to share their experiences and ideas on gender equality. These findings will be consolidated into comprehensive needs-based recommendations to the Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend, which has made the project possible.
In order to recruit a somewhat representative group of people for the first workshop in Berlin, SSW reached out to over 80 civil society organisations and companies. We informed them in writing about the project and the event, and we talked to them personally or on the phone to provide more information and to ask for their support. These actors were approached to act as intermediaries to access their respective members, employees, and/or target groups. This strategy assumes that individuals are grouped together according to certain characteristics, such as employment (e.g. companies, labour unions), social activities (e.g. sport clubs, community centres, migrant networks), and special needs (e.g. counselling services, disability employers, family planning centres), and that individuals can thus be reached through respective actors with a certain function or service. Individuals join participative initiatives as the ones we are organizing for different reasons; to learn, to meet other people, to shape a public discourse, out of civic responsibility, or simply to have good food. Unfortunately, we were faced with a disappointing turnout which forced us to cancel the workshop last minute. Even most of the people that had assured they would participate, did not find their way to the roundtable. So, what happened and why?
Before delving into the specific challenges with the different actors, a few factors should be highlighted that may indicate possible shortcomings on SSW’s behalf. First, the workshop was scheduled to take place on a Saturday and Sunday, which does indeed require a significant time investment from people, especially when they are working full-time and have children to care for. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Berlin does have a relatively high percentage of single households (52% in 2017) and people working part-time (33% in 2018). Besides, one may argue that investing two days is reasonable when considering the overall objective of supporting (or calling upon) the government to take substantial steps to enhance gender equality and strengthen participative democracy. Second, the topic of gender equality is often half-jokingly and mistakenly said to be irrelevant for 50% of the population, and may even trigger some resistance by those who perceive the public discourse to be too polarized by identity politics. In that sense, our communication strategy (i.e. flyer, title of the workshop) may have been perceived as not inclusive, attractive or open enough.
Recruiting through Companies
Recruiting people through companies enhances the likelihood of including a diverse range of political opinions and experiences with the topic of gender equality, as employment brings people from across the political spectrum together. Thus, recruiting through companies allows us to reach people who do not necessarily think about gender equality on a daily basis, but are nevertheless affected by its structures. To capitalize on this potential, SSW offered companies to implement the workshop as a Weiterbildung for its employees, and to accommodate their preferences regarding the date, time and location of the workshop.
However, the theme of gender equality triggered, compared to other actors, a high degree of reluctance or even suspicion in initial conversations across the companies contacted. Indeed, it seemed like it was not so much the format of the workshop, but rather the topic of gender equality that was perceived negatively. Do they sense that a conversation about gender equality is likely to lead to a conversation about how labour is organised? Might they fear that a certain empowerment on the topic among their employees could challenge the status quo?
Another typical response of contact persons (especially those working in the press division) was to quickly explain that gender is not an issue in their company. This was often justified by pointing out the 50/50 division or even overrepresentation of women in their respective department. There was little space to discuss why this observation may not be a good enough reason to stop talking about gender equality in the work place.
Finally, when appealing to their corporate responsibility and their unique access to a diverse group of people, they often presented themselves as value neutral and as unwilling to encourage their employees to join societal discussions. While it is to some degree understandable that a company “protects” its employees, it is remarkable that many understand corporate social responsibility as something external. Namely, companies were quick to refer to their CSR policies and projects, as a welcome excuse of why they cannot engage in local or spontaneous initiatives. More generally, corporate social responsibility is often merely understood as social responsibility of giant corporations (Wells, 2002, 80), and tends to ignore the valuable role especially small or medium sized companies could play in their communities.
Recruiting through Unions
Unions have a large organised network of people and have a clear political interest, which make them attractive potential partners to recruit participants. SSW usually reached out to divisions tasked to lobby women’s issues within the union’s overall goals, as these divisions share significant interests with that of the workshop. Such groups or focal persons can then internally spread the invitation to other departments in the respective labour union.
Considering that unions are at the interface between employees and the government institutions, they are well informed about the specific channels and recipients that make democratic initiatives relevant to their particular objectives. In their response to SSW, it was at times reflected that the suggested format was perceived as not actionable enough. A deliberation on fundamental structures affecting gender equality in German society, while also providing space to people for whom it may be a first opportunity to take part in such discussions, may have been perceived by union members as too vague or slow.
Do the (perceived) different levels of experience with political participation, as well as with the topic of gender equality, then make those with assumed professionalism less willing to engage? What does this tell us about the readiness of organised civil society actors to share their expertise and provide space for learning and participation for laypersons? Does this risk a misunderstood conception about those who know (and should speak up) and those who do not (and are free to stay silent)?
It should be mentioned that the union membership in Germany has been declining sharply, from 11 million members in 1990 to less than 6 million in 2019. Needless to say, that this impacts union’s work, and forces them to take more rigorous decisions as to where they can focus their limited capacities and time. This declining union coverage, which is true for most OECD countries, and subsequent decline in worker’s bargaining power vis a vis governments and employers is especially worrying in the light of increasing economic equality (OECD, 2015).
Nevertheless, the topic of gender equality may actually open a door for a more fundamental discussion on how work is organised in contemporary German society. As a discussion on gender equality almost inevitably leads to questions on the compatibility of work and family (which many put forward as argument why they cannot join a participatory democratic initiative), and on the broader meaning and implications of labour. Taking time to deliberate fundamental structures and values in our society could thus actually be a chance for unions to increase their relevance among a wider public.
Recruiting through Neighbourhood Organisations
SSW also reached out to a diverse range of smaller local organisations, such as community centres and sport clubs. Such organisations tend to enjoy a significant level of familiarity and trust in their communities, which enables them to communicate and mobilize people on a more personal basis. Next to this, by reaching out to actors near the event location, one takes away participation costs related to distance and accessibility. This idea of physical proximity also motivated hanging posters in various cafes, restaurants, and supermarkets near the workshop location. Similarly, the workshop invitation was shared through online (Facebook) platforms, which are popular for Kiez events and updates. The latter strategies allowed for the possibility of self-selection with location as only implicit criteria.
However, given the low turnout from these recruitment channels, one can question whether SSW was able to penetrate these community structures from the outside. Indeed, as these local networks are often based on trust and sustainable relationships, it requires a significant time investment to build up credibility as an “outsider” organisation. One may also question the reach and interaction within communities of some of these local organisations.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that many of these local organisations are largely run by volunteers, and often struggle to secure sustainable funding. The latter poses a constant challenge to their existence and prevents them from building in trusted relationships and from planning strategically. They thus may simply lack the manpower to mobilize their target groups for additional activities, especially if it is not entirely in their thematic or functional field.
Recruitment Women’s Organisations
SSW contacted a variety of organisations that define their cores mission as improving women’s position in society, which they seek to achieve by providing for example legal counselling, training opportunities, or advocacy services. Given the obvious overlap in objectives, SSW assumed such organisations would be willing to mobilize their members and/or clients to participate and speak up at the workshop. Note, SSW was initially careful to reach out to too many organisations that have gender equality in their core mission, especially because they hold views that are well documented already (and SSW sought to reach especially those people who are more “off the radar”).
The low actual response rate from women’s organisations may partly be explained by exactly this overlap in objectives. Indeed, it is well documented that the protection of turf among organisations or entities with similar mandates often results in the opposite of cooperation (Busuioc 2015, Wilson 1989, etc.). Given the high supply of events and workshops in Berlin, some organisations may be careful to share invitations from other actors with their target audience, as it may lead to a competition for their target group’s attention.
Next to this, the low turnout can also be explained by the fact that especially these people working or being supported by women’s organisations are likely to be affected by the structural barriers that the workshop aims to address. Namely, as working women (on a voluntary basis or not) they often indicated that they cannot invest their scarce free time by attending workshops outside of their work hours, as “they carry the main responsibility for their children and household duties” (conversation with women’s group representative).
SSW additionally reached out to a variety of traditional news newspapers to write about the whole participatory democracy initiative and/or to publish the invitation to the workshop in Berlin. SSW reached out to both reporters who could have a thematic interest, and reporters covering local news. A certain interest was assumed considering both the pressure of reporters to provide ample content in todays rapid news cycles, as well as the current popularity of topics related to the limits of democracy and (perceived) changing gender norms. Besides, publishing in traditional media outlets would reinforce the credibility and relevance of the project, as well as to allow a certain degree of self-selection for interested individuals. Next to this, the information was also shared in several Facebook groups, which were selected based on thematic or geographic relevance. Finally, as the workshop date approached, the invitation was also shared in several popular Berlin Slack channels (messaging platforms increasingly used by organisations, companies and private persons) with several thousand members.
Unfortunately, neither the traditional (e.g. Tagesspiegel) nor the new media proved useful to recruit participants. Although some of these Facebook posts did trigger online discussions (“das Thema is doch längst durch [..] Hier noch von einer Kluft zwischen Frauen und Männern zu sprechen, ist absurd. Die sehe ich eher in den Endphasen von Beziehungen, wenn die Emotionen lodern.”) and subsequent personal follow up with discussants to share their thoughts during the workshop, it did not result in additional participants. There seems to be a strong preference to be vocal (and anonymous) in online platforms, as opposed to deliberating in person (which is in line to previous experiences in populist environments).
A Lack of Capacity or Interest?
Next to the actors highlighted above, SSW also reached out to several organisations not falling within the mentioned categories. However, here it was evident that it is even more difficult to mobilize their respective target groups if they do see the topic as directly relevant. For example, CSOs focussed on addressing racism or barriers for people with physical disabilities could often not convince their colleagues or clients that participation could be important for their specific situation as well, indicating a sometimes limited perception of their wider societal responsibility.
The interactions with the respective actors also showed that it is of crucial importance to have a focal point who sees an added value in participative democracy or in discussing gender equality. Without someone carrying the idea forward, it is impossible to lobby within organisations or companies that participating in such a workshop is valuable. This shows that much of the work is based on building trust with individuals, and strengthening one’s existing network. However, the standard project timeline and budgets tend to ignore the time and resources it takes to build trust and sustainable relationships. The general importance of personal ties and trust may also motivate future recruitment to focus on the remaining (or new) community structures, such as sport clubs (for team sport, not individual fitness) or voluntary fire brigades. Especially as the salience of the Church and unions as platforms for social cohesion and debate is decreasing.
As mentioned earlier, the high supply of activities combined with a sense of anonymity that is prevalent in most big cities, is a general challenge for many organisations (often a reoccurring theme in our conversations). Namely, the high no-show rate (i.e. people who confirm attendance but do not show up) indicates that there is an attitude of non-commitment and a transformation of citizens into mere consumers of social activities.
In general, most actors (except for companies) referred to a lack of internal capacity to mobilize their employees, members or target group to spend two days deliberating gender equality. They mentioned a lack of resources (a large part of the civil society is relying on volunteers) and a lack of time (combining work and private life is already challenging for many people which prevents them from doing something “extra”). This may also be related to another consistent challenge during the recruitment, namely the lack of internal coordination and communication. A lot of time was spent on repeating the objective and operationalization of the workshop to multiple people within one organisation or company.
Finally, one should keep in mind that the people SSW is especially interested in involving in these workshops are characterized by their lack of interest and/or capacity to engage in political processes, and are not necessarily motivated by (perceived) abstract discussions on gender equality. Although these people are hard to reach, as discussed earlier, they are exactly the people who would benefit most from a responsive and inclusive Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend. Indeed, the significant challenges in reaching specific groups in society, and in cooperating with both civil society actors and companies, actually highlights the importance of initiatives like this one. If we continue to be blind to what large parts of the German society are faced with or expect when it comes to gender equality, we cannot shape inclusive and needs based policies.
As SSW does want to include perspectives from the capital for this country-wide initiative, we are – after a comprehensive reflection – taking a second chance in Berlin. As such, we contacted most actors that had previously showed a minimal degree of interest (and some who did not but should). This time, however, we were more explicit in appealing to our shared responsibility in strengthening the democratic fabric in our societies, and in ensuring that a plurality of voices are heard on such fundamental topics. Although it may be too early to say, it seems like the moral appeal did deepen the interest of some (while it may have also scared away others). Additionally, the times for the planned workshop will be adjusted, to make it more accessible for people who are working full-time. Finally, we are continuously offering the opportunity to organise the workshop as a Weiterbildung for organisation’s or companies’ employees or members, on a date that suits them best.
SSW is working more closely together with a single local partner in the other Bundesländer, such as local centers for political education or “Volkshochschule”. SSW is jointly organizing workshops in Hessen (8-9 January), Rheinland-Pfalz (13-14 March), Baden-Württemberg (17-18 February), and Sachsen-Anhalt (22-23 February). With several local partners we are also planning events in Schleswig – Holstein, Brandenburg, Bayern, Niedersachsen and Hamburg.
Although the low turnout has been a big disappointment for many who have been involved in the organisation of the first workshop in Berlin, it cannot be entirely rejected as a failure. Especially when considering what the Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend has commissioned us to do. Namely, the aim is to develop a needs-based and inclusive communications strategy on topics related to gender equality. In that sense, it has provided us valuable lessons on what actors and platforms cannot be built on when reaching certain groups in society, and why. Indeed, it is precisely this experience in Berlin that shows the difficulty of engaging a somewhat representative group of people in a discussion on gender equality, and hear what problems they are facing, how they envision a more equal future, and what they expect from the German government.
Blokland, H.T. (2011) Pluralism, Democracy and Political Knowledge. Burlington (VT), Ashgate.
Amt für Statistik Berlin-Brandenburg www.statistik-berlin-brandenburg.de
Busuioc, E. (2015). “Friend or Foe? Inter‐agency Cooperation, Organizational Reputation, and Turf”. Public Administration.
Dalton, R. J., Scarrow, S. and Cain, B. E. (2004). “Advanced Democracies and the New Politics.” Journal of Democracy 15 (1): 124–38.
Deutschlandfunk (2019). “Die Gewerkschaften müssen sich neu erfinden” https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/neuer-ver-di-chef-alte-probleme-die-gewerkschaften-muessen.1005.de.html?dram:article_id=459409
OECD (2015). “In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All”. OECD Publishing, Paris.
Wells, H. (2002). “The Cycles of Corporate Social Responsibility: An Historical Retrospective for the Twenty-first Century”
Wilson, J.Q. (1989) Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. New York: Basic Books, Chapter 10: ‘Turf’.
 E.g. DM, MBN Bau, Securitas, Rolls Roys, and several moving and cleaning companies.
 E.g. IG Bau, IG Metall, Verdi, DGB, GGBO
 Neue Nachbarschaft, Freiwillige Feuerwehr Wedding, Integritude Bürgerplattform, Über den Tellerrand, Berliner Tafel
 E.g. Kobra, Inpäd, Xochicuicat, Hinbun, Frauen aufs Podium.