Youth participation, everything but youth councils

An English transcript of a presentation at a seminar of the umbrella organization of youth councils in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. On Friday 7th of October at a preparatory seminar for a study trip to Armenia. As all of the participants were members of a youth council, there knowledge about them was thorough, but it was still necessary to give some information about other issues of this topic.


Participation can be defined as:

„Political participation, (…) refers to the political sphere in the narrower sense and involves influencing decision-making processes in different spheres of action of the political system.

These activities can assume a continuous character within the frame of organizations, especially political parties, or simply the character of occasional short-term commitment with respect to specific goals.

Political support may evolve from these activities but need not do so necessarily — it is not a specific purpose of participation.

So we can define it narrowly, as any activity that tries to influence the local, national or otherwise public decision making process, regardless of this is activity takes place in a individual or collective frame, continuously or is singular event. However it should be noted, that today we live in a society that is deeply interconnected and formerly mundane or banal activities, such as shopping can become suddenly political. E.g. buying oranges from Israel, not gassing your car at shell because of pollution concerns or wearing a hoodie.

Participation can take many forms, such as participating in the youth wing of a organization or party, a youth center, school, kindergarten, through a hearing, through internet forms, a petition, collecting signatures, walking around your quarter of town with officials and telling them were the problems are, and many many more.

Reasons for participation

There are many reasons given why youth should be able to participate (more). The main motives are pedagogical, political, ethical and as a statutory duty, if there is a law or regulation mandating it.3 In Germany the Education Ministers Conference of the German states, the body that is charged with coordinating education policy, as this is a domain of the states not the federal level, sees participation as giving students: Self, social, subject and methodological competencies“4. Other authors claim that it helps young people growing into their responsibility as citizens through trying out their powers, it prepares them to be responsible citizen, they learn democracy, it creates meaning in our present non traditional plural society. They help people form their own identity and enable youth to get involved in society.

However they note, participation projects are not always initiated without a hidden agenda.

Politicians and other political actors give another set of reasons for setting up youth participation projects:

» It helps them to deliver better public policy. For example if you plan together with the users of a specific institution the users will keep it cleaner, not vandalize it or hold it in general higher esteem. You might also change the role of them from consumers to co-producers of a public service, thus helping to keep costs down.
» It produces enhanced legitimacy for your political system and its decisions. Either on the input side (more people are heard), the process side (a fair process) or the output side even if you are not content with the decision.
» Political parties and the system in general may recruit new people.
» For small communities it provides an incentive for youth to stay in their community and seek job training, education or employment locally and not move away.
» The state trains and educates the citizen it wants to have. “ (Knauer/Sturzenhecker 2005, S. 64)
» it makes them fit into the existing ruling system and thus keeps them from revolutionising it.


In Germany the Social Law Book Number 8 demands youth to be involved in decision concerning them. All though this deals mainly with decisions concerning individual wealthfare pprovisions it concerns aspects of public youth aid, such as youth centers, playgrounds and other institutions as well.5

The basic law of the federal republic of Germany grants the rights to freedom of opinion, assembly, access to justice and be heard by authorities and the right to petition.

The local council act of Baden-Württemberg calls for youth participation in paragraph number 41a, but it also provides space to involve youth not as citizen but inhabitants of towns. Even though may not have the right to vote, all people in a community have the right to be informed by the municipality, ask questions at the citizens questioning time of the city council (GemO BW 33 Abs. 4), can be heard in committees and full council, can be asked to help with the deliberations of these and may be appointed as advising members in committees. Classically most cities appoint some youth to be advising members of the youth aid committee. They may also ask questions and speak at citizen assemblies.6

On the European level the EU has little competencies or make its own youth policy however the treaty of Lisbon calls for: (Article 165) “Union action … shall be aimed at encouraging the participation of young people in democratic life in Europe”.

In the EU Youth Strategy, a “Renewed framework for European cooperation in the youth field (2010-2018)“ the Union calls for:

» „Develop mechanisms for dialogue with youth and youth participation on national youth policies.
» Encourage the development or use of already existing guidelines on youth participation, information and consultation in order to ensure the quality of these activities.
» Support politically and financially youth organizations, as well as local and national youth councils and promote recognition of their important role in democracy.
» Promote the participation of more and a greater diversity of young people in representative democracy, in youth organizations and other civil-society organizations
» Make effective use of information and communication technologies to broaden and deepen participation of young people.
» Support various forms of “learning to participate” from an early age through formal education and non-formal learning.
» Further develop opportunities for debate between public institutions and young people.“

We can find many grand and positive statements in this EU documents, what the actual policy is, seems to be more difficult to find out and not even clear to EU institutions at some point. Besides this the EU tries to be involved in a „structured dialog“ with youth groups and youths at the individual level.

Through its youth in Action program the Union pays for a range of cross border activities such as exchanges, study trips and so on. Here the Union uses its institutional power to promote its idea of a cross border european identity.

Another issues is the call for an „Evidence based youth policy“8. Actors shall base their youth policy on statistics and hard facts, including indicators provided by Eurostat.

Another rights guarantee can be found at Article 24 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union: “children … may express their views freely. Such views shall be taken into consideration on matters which concern them in accordance with their age and maturity”.

This year the Convention on the Rights of the Child celebrates its 30th birthday. Among other rights it guarantees in Article 12:

„1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

2. For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.“

These conventions have a status of a federal law in Germany, however their application is not simple.

Models of participation

Scientists have tried to conceptualized the basis and developments towards participation with a variety of model.

The German Bertelsmann Foundation conceptualizes the emergence of participation out of personal circumstances, the feeling of self efficacy and the participation intensity experienced at school.

A variety of scientist and professionals have tried to develop models to measure participation. It remains questionable if these models are helpful, we may be able to say they are not under all circumstances, but they can provide us with a way to approximate what kind of participation takes place and “good” it is.

These models are always produced under normative ideological assumptions of the authors, that are not always made transparent and certainly depend on their definition of “good democracy”.


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