Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Does Informality Matter in German Local Policy Making?

Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Does Informality Matter in German Local Policy Making?

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

Policy making at the local level differs from policy making at the federal or state level in two main aspects: First, from a legal perspective, the local level is not an independent policy area. As the lowest level of public administration in Germany, the municipalities are under the direct jurisdiction of the state level (German Lander) (Article 83 Basic Law). However, the system of local self-government (Kommunale Selbstverwaltung) allows the municipalities to run their administrative affairs on their own. This system of self-government is constitutionally guaranteed (Basic Law, Article 28 No. 2). Second, close proximity is a typical characteristic of local level politics. The distance between citizens and policy makers is much shorter than at the federal or state level. Citizens are directly affected by political issues (Andersen 1998: 17) and communication often takes place in a personal way between the actors.

But who are the policy makers at the local level, and how do they interact with each other? There are three main groups: the staff of the local public administration, the elected officials, and the actors from civil society. The members of the municipal council and the actors from the local public administration are the established policy makers. While the elected officials make decisions about concrete issues at the municipal council, the staff of the local public administration leads the whole process of policy making by preparing and implementing the policies. Also, according to Bogumil (2002), citizens are not only the addressees of local politics. In addition to these established positions, citizens and civil society organizations perform an active role as policy makers as well.

The "political potential of civil society" for local politics has been systematically analyzed by German local politics researchers since the early 1990s (Heinelt and Mayer 2003: 43). Because of reforms for increased participatory opportunities since the 1970s, the involvement of civil society has become more relevant (Vetter 2008: 11). Research about procedures of citizens' participation as an instrument for strengthening local democracy has been very popular since the 2000s (e.g. participatory budgeting or e-democracy) (Kersting 2008).

By investigating local policy making as a governance process (Benz, 2007b), characterized by the interaction of actors from the local public administration, the municipal council, and organized civil society, and by understanding this interaction as kind of (political) communication, questions arise regarding the role of informality within these processes: Does informality play any role in the everyday business of the policy makers? Furthermore, what is the meaning of informal local political communication? To what extent are those concerned involved in the informal parts of the processes? To answer these questions, an analysis of the so-called "proscenium" or "backstage" area is in order.

The interaction of informal and formal political communication, which includes the role of informality in processes of policy making at the local level, has not yet been explored in political science, not even in local politics research. Studies on informal political communication from a political science perspective mostly address the mechanisms of the federal or state government (Florack and Grunden 2011). This article argues that the phenomenon of informality at the local level can be made visible by the approach of local governance as well as that informality has a special meaning in processes of local policy making. In particular, this article specifies the role of informal local political communication, focusing specifically on the relationship between actors from the local public administration, the municipal council, and organized civil society from both theoretical and empirical perspectives. However, to confirm this thesis, this article focuses on these main questions:

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