Overline: Communication for Transformation
Headline: What Municipalities Need to Master Conflicts

Innovative forms of citizen participation – as seen here in the LOSLAND project – have been used frequently in Coesfeld.
Innovative forms of citizen participation – as seen here in the LOSLAND project – have been used frequently in Coesfeld. LOSLAND 2022

This year the German government outlined its proposals for an amendment of the Federal Climate Protection Act, setting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2030 and to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045. Many of the measures necessary to achieve these goals – especially when it comes to infrastructure – must be implemented at the municipal level. Bringing about change in towns and communities presents significant challenges and projects frequently meet with opposition.  

Effective communication plays a crucial role in ensuring the success of transformations in towns and communities. Actors in local government need to be able to mediate between different interests, resolve conflicts, and foster understanding between parties affected by transformation projects in different ways. The necessary financial and human resources are often lacking however. And to make matters worse, decision-makers frequently underestimate the importance of communication competencies. The costs that are incurred when transformation projects are delayed – or indeed abandoned – can fuel public disenchantment with political processes in the future. However, public trust in the ability of authorities to shape transformations is vitally important in a democracy. 

Public debate and the contest of ideas are part and parcel of a society defined by democratic values. What is needed, then, is an agreement among all stakeholders to cooperate constructively to shape transformation processes by bringing their various competencies to the table. As part of this endeavour, we must learn to understand tensions and resistance as a productive mode of transformation.

The transformation towards sustainability will alter both access to resources and the relationships between the federal and state governments, state and local government authorities, and within municipalities themselves. This will inevitably lead to tensions which, if they cannot be resolved, will fuel opposition to transformation processes that will not succeed without broad public buy-in. In a climate of growing social inertia, local authorities are increasingly struggling to find solutions that are palatable to electorates. 

What are the implications when arguments no longer take centre-stage in public debates over transformation projects and emotions gain the upper hand? The challenges facing local authorities and communities will not be solved with scientific data alone. Change always triggers feelings and these can be harnessed for the common good if they are properly addressed. Emotions influence the way we process arguments and facts. They guide us as we walk the tightrope between "perceived truths" and scientific facts. Pressure to find solutions to the looming climate catastrophe is growing, and as a consequence we must begin to address emotions as well as arguments.

These dynamics complicate the work on the ground. After all, municipalities are the smallest unit of the state and the municipal space is the context in which citizens experience change in concrete terms and where society is constantly renegotiated. The fact that municipal employees are also citizens and members of the community adds another layer of complexity. This is further compounded by the frequent lack of resources to meet local needs for transparency, information, dialogue, and impartial conflict resolution. Recent studies and research projects such as LOKONET emphasize the importance of addressing emotions, especially in local planning processes for the development of wind farms, for example. Possible measures include training local decision-makers in how to address populist narratives or creating forums at municipal level to foster a culture of fair debate.

Ensuring that transformations at municipal level unfold in a constructive manner requires structures that can support local government and communities in developing and implementing flanking measures to sustain and guide processes. We also need to reappraise the role of communication competencies and process facilitation in ensuring the success of transformations. While the importance of both seems obvious, little has been done to promote and strengthen key communication competencies at municipal level or to encourage their use in support of transformation processes. This negligence extends across the fields of parliamentary politics, academia, and business. 

Case study: Coesfeld

The town of Coesfeld successfully ramped up its wind power capacity within a remarkably short space of time and now produces twice as much electricity as it consumes. Effective and credible community outreach, public consultation, and conflict management efforts were key factors in this success story. But this sea-change in government public relations was not driven by the wind farm alone. Coesfeld’s mayor, Eliza Diekmann, had previously made transparency and open communication a key part of her election campaign. Since 2020, Diekmann has more than fulfilled the minimum requirements for public participation, hosting a series of dialogue formats that reached different groups within the community by engaging with issues on a factual and emotional level. Under her aegis, local citizens have been able to share their views and ideas in web discussions and municipal dialogues and at public consultation hours and town hall meetings. These initiatives have enhanced transparency between citizens, public administration and political institutions in Coesfeld. 

Engaging in open dialogue requires greater transparency on the part of local authorities, which in turn can bring public scrutiny to bear on difficult issues of critical importance. Dialogue can bring often-ignored and smouldering conflicts into the open. Working through these conflicts and finding a solution that is acceptable to all parties requires special expertise that many authorities do not possess at present.

Our conclusion:

The role that constructive communication can play in supporting transformation processes has been widely underestimated.

Communication expertise could be embedded within transformation processes by establishing service providers that are easily accessible for municipal actors as well as a new awareness of communication, combined with structural and financial recognition of communication services. 

The state government of Baden-Württemberg has pioneered this approach in Germany by establishing and financing the Energy Dialogue Forum, which has supported numerous municipalities across the state as they sought to resolve conflicts relating to the development of wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal projects. This format is financed by the state and processes are facilitated by external consultants. This approach ensures impartiality, which is essential for conflict resolution. Municipalities can contact the forum or the external consultants carrying out the work without having to go through complicated tendering or application processes. Other states could adopt a similar approach in order to ease the burden on local authorities.

Enabling constructive communication is a key criterion for the success of transformations. Steps should also be taken to support individuals who wish to extend or deepen their communication skill set or otherwise apply their competencies. As long as we continue to undervalue these skills, we will be unable to benefit from their truly transformative effects. 

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