Sociology Professor Peter C. Dienel: “A Gulf Stream of Sensible Ideas“

Westdeutsche Zeitung 22.4.2004

Many turn away from politics with horror. But a professor from Wuppertal shows a way for co-determination and against the discontent of the citizens.

Wuppertal. His analysis of our community sounds devastating: “An apparatus of professionals rules, solves problems, regulates irrelevance in the most precise way and leaves important things lying around. But Peter C. Dienel can also dream of what it might one day be like: “A Gulf Stream of sensible ideas will correct wave after wave of misguided policies that are putting a massive strain on our system and its future today.”

The two go together. Because Dienel is neither frustrated nor an immature moron. The latter does not fit in with his age and his life’s work of an almost ingenious invention: 80-year-old Dienel is professor emeritus of sociology at Wuppertal University. And he invented the planning cell.

The word sounds boring as a yawn, but it’s a wonderful alternative in times of political disenchantment, when some people even lose faith in democracy: the Federal Chancellor disregards parliament by delegating decisions to unelected expert commissions.

There, elected members of parliament allow themselves to be repeatedly involved in factional discipline instead of following their conscience and the mandate they have been given by the voters, because otherwise they have to fear the end of their career. In this case, the speakers of the parties speak every week on TV talk shows with a similar cast and give the viewer the deceptive impression of being there.

In principle, there are only two alternatives left for the citizen: either to withdraw apathetically in this spectator democracy and hope that “those up there” will do everything right by virtue of their expertise. Or he goes to the barricades.

Even if this does not always mean throwing stones or even revolution, but can also be a powerful-voiced but peace-loving citizens’ initiative. The disadvantage of this kind of political participation: Whoever participates is automatically a one-sided lobbyist, puts pressure on their own cause, and this does not automatically serve the common good.

Example: The underground car park may not suit the outraged residents because of the building nuisance, but it can certainly be in the public interest.

The first thing that comes to mind for anyone who doesn’t just want to check the ballot paper every few years is the plebiscite, the referendum. But this procedure also has its hooks. Not only is there the danger of demagogy.

Also, complicated questions cannot be simplified in such a way that they can be answered with a yes or no: Should the protection against dismissal be relaxed? Do we need more immigration? Who wanted to answer with an undifferentiated yes or no?

This is where Dienel’s planning cells come into play, which he conceived back in the 1970s and which have since been implemented more than 300 times in Germany and abroad. In summary, it works like this: 25 people at a time are informed by experts and those directly affected by the problem for four days about the question to be decided and then submit their expert opinion.

As a recommendation to politicians or even to a company such as municipal transport companies. Those who have commissioned this citizen’s report will find it difficult to ignore the proposal that these political advisers have drawn up from the people. “Citizens’ expertises produce legitimacy”, says Dienel, “and that especially for unloved but necessary measures”.

The participants so far have been around 8000 lay assessors, each of whom is drawn at random from the files of the residents’ registration offices. This random selection is important because it must be ensured that there are no lay planners who deliberately push themselves into the circle because they have a vested interest in the question submitted.

These should be uninvolved people of different ages, social groups and professions who can concentrate entirely on the common interest in the circle. In this “adventure holiday planning cell”, as Dienel calls it, they can discuss without being banned from thinking and thus arrive at their vote. Be it for the redesign of a pedestrian zone, for an improvement in the coexistence between Germans and foreigners or even sometimes, on behalf of Stiftung Warentest, about new or changed test criteria.

But what is the catch? If it really is that ingenious, it should have become more widely accepted by now. Dienel sees one of the causes in politics. “The procedure is causing fears among all those working in the political-administrative apparatus. “Their brains see problems of ownership.”

But the professor keeps on drilling. He won’t be satisfied that the politicians have awarded him the Order of Merit. He and his comrades-in-arms continue to fight for the dissemination of his idea and will carry it to political Berlin at the end of May.

At a congress, where politicians will also take part. Perhaps a small step towards the goal of seeing the expertise of citizens as an opportunity and not as a threat to their own profile.

Info: University of Wuppertal, Research Centre for Citizen Participation, Postf. 100127, 42097 Wuppertal

Book recommendation: Peter C. Dienel: “The Planning Cell”, Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen

more reviews:

“The planning cell is an amazingly successful model for citizen participation in planning decisions. The idea: Randomly selected citizens reach consensus decisions on controversial projects faster than the often cumbersome public administration, which has to take political guidelines and lobby interests into account. Appropriate decisions are guaranteed by thorough information of the citizens, so that a citizen’s opinion is the result”

(DER SPIEGEL, 20/1995).

“… one can predict a great future in the democracies of the 21st century for Dienel’s planning cell, which is as simple as it is ingenious.”

(Juristen Zeitung, 1/1996)

“Through the co-decision-making authority planning cell/citizen’s expert opinion, planning and implementation costs can be significantly reduced”

(from: Politische Studien Nr. 361, München, 10/1998)

In Memoriam Peter Dienel, 1923-2006

Berlin, 20 May 2007, Antoine Vergne

I will show you something, Professor Dr. Peter C. Dienel said and took a flyer from the inside pocket of his jacket. On it was written: “If you want to live a happy life, connect it with a goal. Albert Einstein. You see, he went on, Albert Einstein was right. This was in April 2005 during an interview with Peter Dienel. At 82 years of age, he seemed satisfied and balanced, pursuing his goal of making the planning cell he had invented a regular tool of politics. Peter Dienel was born on 28 October 1923 in Berlin-Steglitz, into a pious family. He spent the Second World War in the East, not without trying to stay in Berlin. At the end of the war he reports to the Americans and is taken prisoner. But soon he returns to Berlin. There he studies theology again at the Humboldt University. From 1952 he is active in the social sector, in the Steglitz Youth Home for young people from the Zone, which he co-founded. In 1961 and after a successful study of sociology, he received his doctorate under Helmut Schelsky on the voluntary church. Sociology was without doubt the discipline of Peter Dienel. He described it as a very healthy science. His argument for it was that it disillusioned the world and allowed us to come closer to reality. The sociologist meets the missionary From 1961 Peter Dienel worked at the Protestant Academy Loccum as a conference leader. In 1968 he becomes a member of the planning staff of the State Chancellery of North Rhine-Westphalia. During this time, the usual political and bureaucratic decision-making processes oppress him: They are not oriented towards the urgent long-term issues, but rather focus again and again on the problems that can be solved in the short term. Moreover, the participation of – laypersons is almost impossible. Everything is decided behind closed doors. In response to this deficit, Dienel has been developing the concept of the Planning Cell (PZ) since 1970. This makes him one of the first to open the way for participatory democracy in Germany. Dienel defined the planning cell as a group of 25 citizens selected at random, who are informed and assisted first-hand by two process facilitators to work out solutions to a problem they are confronted with and which is considered difficult to solve. These random jurors are released from their workday duties for four days and are remunerated for this time. Several such planning cells work according to the same pattern, their results are merged and published as citizen’s reports.

In 1978, after a 7-year test phase of the procedure, the book Die Planungszelle (The Planning Cell) was published, which presents the procedure. Dienel starts a long work with it: He has to convince the political functionaries. The sociologist becomes the missionary of a new form of democracy. And religion is a motivation for this: I was religiously motivated, he said, and added: “This was a very personal and unobtrusive, but convincing way […] for others to do it. Democracy is sparkling again. But the idea is spreading slowly. Peter Dienel was ahead of his time with the concept of the planning cell. Today it is still considered an unconventional tool. But Dienel believed in its future; he was hardly interested in the past: “I did not attach importance to self-documentation. He thought about tomorrow: When tens of thousands of planning cells will take place each year and millions of people will participate. In the course of time he probably came a little closer to his dream. The concept of the planning cell has been and is being used successfully: Since 1978, far more than 300 planning cells have been organized, in which more than 8000 random jurors have participated, mostly for 4 days.   The planning cell enables participants to exercise their role as citizens, a function which is normally performed today by professional politicians, professional citizens. For Dienel, it follows from taking the sovereignty of the sovereign seriously that democracy is sparkling again. The model was exported. Amongst others to England, Austria, Spain or Australia and recently to Japan. The year before his death, Peter Dienel travelled to Novosibirsk to present the model to the Association of Russian Mayors. When asked whether he saw himself as a pioneer of participatory democracy, he answered modestly: I don’t care. What was important to him was that people discovered and used this model. However, Dienel never spoke about the weaknesses of the model. Family The fact that the idea had found him and he had found the idea also affected his family: “But I spent a lot of time on the project […] My children hardly saw their father at all. His life’s work was the planning cell, which he developed and worked out at the expense of his private life. In 1957 he married Dorothea Mallau, with whom he has two sons and a daughter. His retirement in 1988 did not change the course of his mission. He continued to travel with his briefcase to Bonn, Berlin or Munich: to present the model, to meet people, to look at current planning cells and also to initiate new projects.

Dienel’s Utopia A conversation with Professor Dienel was enough to answer the question of whether Dienel’s utopia was feasible: whether it was possible? Yes, why not? he answered me. Then he went on: democracy is a very daring attempt, […] and what we are doing is a piece of the realisation of democracy. A big piece even. And the 82-year-old did not ask himself the question of succession: “I did not have the time to look for a successor. But Dienel was not worried about his project: “People will take it up. And people actually do it. Peter Dienel has inspired a whole range of students, elected officials, civil servants and journalists with his idea. People who will not let his work disappear into oblivion. The way in which he looked at the world and his work, the determined actionism, made Dienel a purely empirical sociologist. His main preoccupation was to try out. “Is it better to have groups of five or a plenary session for a fruitful discussion? How do you get citizens to participate? What role does financial compensation play?” He only asked himself that question to improve the model. What emerged is an incomparable database of experimental sociology. Each planning cell is a laboratory of group dynamics, of deliberation, of sociological interactions. All that is missing are the studies that Peter Dienel did not want to conduct. Creative disorder? In early February I visited his grave in Steglitz. Sadly and quietly, I searched for the exact location. When I finally found it, I had to smile again. It looked like a construction site: because of the unstable ground the grave had to be fortified with wood. The crowns lay on the sand, the gravestone on the side. The grave, like the human being, had a somewhat chaotic appearance and at the same time an impressive and lively attraction.
(published in: Soziologie, 2007, Jg. 36, H. 3, S. 328-330, ISSN 0340-918X)