Does informality matter in German local policy making?

Author:Walter, Andrea

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:

  1. What is the importance of informality in processes of policy making at the local level?

  2. To what extent can elements of local informal communication between actors from local public administrations, local politics (municipal councils) and organized civil society be identified in processes of policy making? This is linked to a wider question: How can informality be conceptualized and analyzed for the field of local politics and especially for processes of policy making?

Chapter 2 tries first to answer the second question by explaining why informality is a characteristic in processes of policy making and in political communication at the local level. Therefore, the mechanisms of local policy making are explained from a theoretical perspective (local governance as defined by Benz 2007) as well as from an empirical perspective. This article develops a working definition of policy making and identifies concrete forms of policy making in the field of local environmental policy. Furthermore, this chapter discusses the term "informality" and develops a valid framework for analysis.

Chapter 3 analyzes the patterns of interaction between actors from the local public administration, local politics, and organized civil society. The analysis shows that, in addition to elements of formal political communication, there are informal elements as well. The results are subsequently discussed from a theoretical and a practical perspective. This discussion focuses on reflecting informality as a conceptual design and on its meaning for local policy making. Finally, Chapter 4 draws a conclusion which confirms the argument that informal political communication is important in processes of policy making by providing a complementary role for any formal communication.

2 Informality as a Characteristic of Local Policy Making

This chapter explains the linkage between informality and policy making. Informality is first introduced as a process characteristic of policy making at the local level (according to the theoretical approach of local governance). Based on a document analysis for the selected policy field of local environmental policy, concrete forms of policy making are identified in the following Sub-Chapter 2.1. In the end, a working definition of informality in local level politics and a framework for analysis are developed.

From Local Governance as a Theoretical Approach to Concrete Forms of Policy Making at the Local Level

Governance is an established theoretical approach in political science used to analyze the process of policy making. Local politics research began in the 1990s with the aim of analyzing the "forms of societal coordination beyond the government through forms of governance" (Heinelt and Mayer 2003: 40). Step by step, governance has entered all disciplines of political science and has asserted itself at the local level--under the label "local governance". In particular, governance is an important approach for local level politics to investigate processes of citizen participation, which has spread since the 2000s.

But, the increasing cooperation by private actors and organized civil society at all political levels lets governance become a relevant approach not only for local politics, but for larger level politics as well. The approach should answer the following questions in global, national, regional, and local perspectives: Why do public and civil actors interact? How do they interact (what role do institutions play)? And, what are the effects of this interaction on the process of policy making? Because of this high theoretical demand, and the new perspective of policy making associated with governance (changing from steering to governance mechanisms), governance is often called a "magic word" (Schuppert 2006: 53), (Schwalb and Walk 2007: 7). Looking at it negatively, governance remains an undetermined term in political science (Blumenthal 2005). The criticism of the governance approach as well as the vivid debate about this approach in political science cannot be represented in all segments. The term "governance" is very broad, so a working definition of the term for the following analysis is quite necessary. According to the new Oxford American Dictionary, governance means "the action or manner of governing a state, organization, etc." (Stevenson 2011 n.p.). This definition highlights the process-dimension as well as the manner of interaction.

Actually, this approach assumes that the established actors (the elected officials as well as the staff of the local public administration) don't govern from a top down perspective, but that there is a (horizontal) interaction between public and civil actors. A characteristic of the governance concept is that it resigns hierarchy structures (Rhodes 1997). Benz refers to this understanding of governance, namely that it is a shift from government to governance, as a "narrow understanding of governance" (Benz 2004b: 17f.).

According to Benz, the analytic understanding of governance provides a framework which allows a description of the interaction. This framework for analyzing governance (governance mode) consists of forms and mechanisms (Benz 2007a: 19). Governance mechanisms explain the manner of interaction: For example, public and civil actors can interact in hierarchy structures (governance by government), networks (governance without government) or in hearings (governance with government). The governance mechanisms are determined by constitutive rules like informal canons and formal standards. Here, the close link to informality as a relevant characteristic in processes of policy making is obvious. Informal and formal elements exist in all governance mechanisms (Benz 2004a; Schwalb and Walk, 2007: 9). But, the term "informality" also remains broad. This article applies an empirical analysis in order to explain informality in concrete terms. The governance forms are used here to translate the theoretical approach into political practice. These...

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