The NRW Research College Online Participation: A Review

The NRW Research College Online Participation is history. From 2014 to 2023, more than 20 doctoral students conducted research on the topic of online participation at the Research Training Group. Without the Kolleg, the DIID would not have been conceivable. A brief review:

The NRW Research College Online Participation was a research training group funded by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in which researchers from business administration, computer science, communication studies, political science, law, computational linguistics, and sociology worked together with partners from the field. The goal of the research collegium was to investigate the possibilities of the Internet for the participation of those affected in decisions relevant to them. The guiding question of the research college was:

“How and under what conditions can the potential of online participation at the municipal level be systematically developed, practically used and scientifically evaluated?”

The research college was organized by Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in cooperation with the University of Police and Administration NRW and funded by the Ministry of Culture and Science of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia (the webpage is only available in german)  as one of twelve projects within the framework of the Research Strategy Progress NRW with approximately 2.5 million euros. The research college ran in two funding phases, including a corona-related extension of the second phase from October 2014 to March 2023. In each phase, around a dozen doctoral students worked on answering the guiding question.

The participation of citizens in political and administrative decisions relevant to them represents a central challenge for a democracy. The conflicts over “Stuttgart 21” and the failure of the school reform in Hamburg in 2010 are two particularly well-known examples of citizens’ demands for greater participation. These prominent examples showed that democratic representation alone was not always sufficient for sustainable further development of our society and that those affected demand further and early participation. The Internet offers the possibility of realizing such participation in the form of online participation. Despite its considerable potential, this form of participation has only been used sporadically in practice. Moreover, where online participation has already been used in practice, it has so far only partially led to the hoped-for results. In the NRW Research College Online Participation, prospective and experienced scientists conducted research to better understand the characteristics of online participation and to develop its potential in a targeted manner.

The research college pursued three central goals:

  • The development of an interdisciplinary scientific foundation for online participation.
  • The training of young scientists in a structured manner so that they can scientifically analyze all relevant aspects of online participation in an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary team and implement and shape them in practice.
  • The gradual networking between practitioners of online participation projects, providers of online participation solutions and scientists.

Within the framework of the Kolleg, Kollegiat*innen have independently organized and carried out overarching research projects. In the first cohort, this involved a study that systematically surveyed the status of online participation offerings in NRW’s municipalities for the first time (DIIID Monitor). This study has since been transferred to the DIID and will be continued under the label “DIID Monitors Online-Participation NRW“.

The study, conducted by six Kollegiat*innen in October 2020 and supported by the coordination, with the guiding question “How did the Corona pandemic influence digitization?” focused on digitization in local government in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) in the context of the Corona pandemic. The data collected allows conclusions to be drawn about the status and development of administrative digitization before, during and after the Corona pandemic. The results show that the Corona pandemic has driven digitization processes in NRW’s local governments. The study was published (only available in german) in “VM Verwaltung und Management” by Nomos Verlag.

Other lighthouse projects that have emerged directly from the context of the Research College Online Participation are the project “Effects and Influencing Factors of Municipal Online Participation in Comparative Perspective” and the development of the dialog-based argumentation system “D-BAS“.

One of the greatest successes of the college, however, was the founding of the Düsseldorf Institute for Internet and Democracy (DIID). This foundation would not have been conceivable without the Forschungskolleg (from which numerous founding members were recruited). The proximity to the Kolleg is also evident from the DIID’s mission, namely to analyze and develop the potential of the Internet for democratic innovations in politics, administration, business, science and civil society in an inter- and transdisciplinary network. The NRW Research College Online Participation is history; the DIID continues. For questions about the Forschungskolleg, please contact former Kolleg coordinator and current DIID coordinator Dr. Dennis Frieß (the webgpage is onlay available in german). A PDF version of the review can be found here (only available in german).