response by Hannah Kowalski


Testing Decision-Making Procedures

Research format Testing in Performance, response by Hannah Kowalski

„I want to find out if the motivation to take part in collective decision-making increases when using different decision-making procedures. In order to do this, I would like to test different decision-making formats with all of you today. Therefore, I am dependent on your presence and participation, because you need a crowd of people to test collective decision-making procedures.”

This is how I addressed the participants in my lecture performance entscheiden spielen (playing deciding). To this lecture performance, I explicitly invited kids and grown-ups who had a lot of experience with collective decision-making. Using the format of a test enabled me to present my hypothesis, as well as to undertake research collectively. Since the format of testing is widely known, it seems a useful approach for a participatory research set-up.

In two artistic research projects at the FUNDUS THEATER/Theatre of Research, children, artists, architects and urban planners collaborated with me to find out how to improve collective decision-making procedures. The research also aimed at finding out what role performative factors play for the construction of voting processes and for their atmosphere.

The moment of collective decision-making is crucial for self-governing groups as it represents what generates the desire for self-governance in the first place: self-determination and collective action.

However, collective decision-making is time-consuming and often the atmosphere is tense.

How can voting processes be constructed so that they are perceived as motivating and effective?

For the first project, YES NO MAYBE, I developed five different decision-making procedures together with five artists and with children from one school class (8-9 years old):

voting by lights, voting by positioning oneself on different fields on the ground, voting with laser pointers, voting with gestures and voting on a ‘decision-level’ (Entscheidungsebene). The decision-level is a round wooden platform that works like a seesaw and has the words “yes”, “no”, and “maybe” written on it in different fields. Three to eight people can make decisions together by moving onto the different fields.

The YES NO MAYBE assembly was the first try-out of the developed procedures and was therefore very exciting.

The content of the decision-making process was an issue at stake, the use of the open areas of the Gängeviertel, a self-organised housing and culture project in Hamburg. The school class had developed several suggestions for making the open areas more attractive for children. These suggestions were presented and then voted on by children, activists from the Gängeviertel project and the architects and city planners in charge. A real decision-making process was chosen because the children’s participation was supposed to be equipped with the same power adults have during the planning process instead of simply being pseudo-participatory, which is sometimes the case when children are involved in architectural planning processes. The idea was that in order to examine decision-making, you need to have real and important decisions to make.

The evaluation of the different decision-making procedures was done on basis of the direct reactions of the participants, such as laughter, questions and comments. Not only the atmosphere during the voting process was important, but also the practicality of the procedures. Some of the procedures, such as the voting with laser pointers, were more thrilling and entertaining than others, while some of the voting procedures had to be repeated because there was a lack of clarity regarding the results, such as the vote using neon lights.

Especially when something did not work out smoothly, the experimental set-up became evident and the collective research brought new insights. This happened for example during the difficulties controlling the neon lights and interpreting them or the uncertainty about what the option ‘maybe’ meant and where it would lead to. The result of the vote on the proposal to build a treehouse was unclear, because two delegates voted ‘Yes’ and three voted ‘Maybe’. Obviously there had to be more discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of a treehouse in the Gängeviertel. A debate happened and everyone in the assembly was asked for an opinion. But the decision whether a treehouse should be constructed or not remained unclear. After the assembly my colleagues and professors gave me feedback and said that these moments of uncertainty, negotiation and reconsideration where extremely important and interesting moments of the assembly.

The second project playing decision-making ( entscheiden spielen) differs from the first project YES NO MAYBE insofar as the decisions were as-if decisions. Instead of doing a real-world experiment, the second project was a lecture performance that aimed at using the resources of the theatre for further research.

This shift in the set-up seemed necessary because in the first assembly, the content of the decisions was so important that the testing of the decision-making procedures did not have enough focus and clarity. The project YES NO MAYBE had different methodological approaches: It was an Intervention into the Real, an Improbable Assembly and a Testing in Performance. The knowledge produced was also diverse. The project playing decision-making aimed at understanding different decision-making tools. In order to achieve this, the approach was very direct and explicit. As quoted in the beginning of this text, I informed participants about my research, explicitly addressed them as experts and asked them to judge the presented procedures. Then, one procedure after the other was staged and tested.

Whereas for the first project, the immediate reactions and comments were analysed, in the second project a questionnaire was added, in which the participants were asked to evaluate the different procedures. The evaluation of the questionnaires showed similar findings as were produced in the first assembly: The debates and negotiations that were enabled by using the different tools were rated as the most important aspects of the procedures. The playful character of the tools made it possible to create an ‘Entscheidungsspielraum’ (space for decision-making).

One conclusion was that making collective decisions is not only about yes, no, or maybe, but about the in-betweens, discussions, negotiations and attempts of persuasion.

The evaluation of the interaction and the questionnaire from playing decision-making showed that different tools where linked to specific forms of decision-making. An important long-term decision needs a different procedure than an everyday decision. A transgenerational assembly needs different procedures than an adult assembly, and so on.

Both set-ups shared one difficulty: The institutional logic of the theatre and also that of the Gängeviertel made it difficult to repeat the set-up.

Since the try-outs where singular events it was not possible to find out if the procedures would have proved useful over a longer period of time.

After my PhD was completed in January and February 2020, I opened the Kinderwahlbüro KWB 2020 (children election office) in the FUNDUS THEATER/Theatre of Research. Together with children from one school class (ages 10-12), the office was designed and opened in the run-up to the Hamburg City Council election. The children election office was equipped with three procedures that had been developed in my PhD projects.

For nine days, the office was open to the public and during this time the different tools were widely used.

The subjects of the project were not the decision-making procedures themselves but the political issue of the children’s right to vote, and the platforms of the political parties in Hamburg. What happened was that under these circumstances, the tools worked even better than in the singular try-outs. “Better” in this case means that they increased the motivation for political discussion and collective decision-making between grown-ups and children. I assume this happened because the tools where used and not tested – therefore, the procedures themselves were not the focus of the research anymore.

Especially the decision-level was highly frequented and turned into a space for political discussions. Children would discuss with parents and teachers about environmental issues, the use of cars, airplanes, about school politics, the spending of public money, and many more issues. After two hours of usage, the “yes”, “no” and “maybe” written on the decision-level with chalk would have vanished and the people using it could hardly identify the different options: a nice moment – because making collective decisions consists of much more than yes, no and maybe.