Baraulina, T./Friedrich, L.: Promoting Migrant Integration: Municipalities as Political and Administrative Actor, 2009

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In the last 15 years municipalities have become important actors in the field of integration policy in Germany. This essay aims to describe this development. It analyses the central characteristics of current integration policies and politics at the local level.

Integration as an Issue of Local Politics

Until the end of the 1970s the integration of immigrants was not an issue of local politics, no matter which immigrant group was concerned: foreign workers, ethnic German immigrants or asylum seekers. Foreign workers were treated the same as German workers regarding their key labour rights and welfare entitlements. In the view of the municipal administrations this meant that they were provided with sufficient social security and did not need extra support. Furthermore, the residence of foreign workers was perceived as temporary. German municipalities regarded temporary migration as non-problematic. Ethnic German immigrants and officially recognized refugees were treated in the same manner as German citizens concerning their welfare rights. Specific programs at federal level supported their integration. Consequently, they did not appear as groups deserving special attention from the local authorities.

With the economic downturn of the 1970s and the ongoing settlement of foreign workers and their families, municipalities started to recognize that guest workers would become long-term residents and that they have their specific needs and problems. Unemployment, bad housing conditions and the disadvantaged position of migrant children in the school system were the first indicators of emerging problems. The local authorities feared ethnic segregation, downward social mobility of migrants and interethnic conflicts. However, at this time municipalities had not yet developed any comprehensive integration concepts (Filsinger 1982). Political support and financial resources for such concepts were lacking because it was generally considered that responsibility for migration issues lay exclusively with the federal authorities.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain migration numbers rose dramatically. Primarily ethnic Germans and asylum seekers came at this time. Municipalities were traditionally responsible for their temporary accommodation and for providing initial social security benefits in the period directly after their arrival. Those costs were not covered by the federal budget and imposed a substantial strain on the municipalities’ budgets (Bommes 1996). Municipalities reacted to this financial burden by politicizing the issue of migration and integration. They appealed for help to the federal authorities and to the administrations of their states. In the public debate they argued that immigration should be controlled more effectively and that new immigration legislation was needed. The local authorities held that the costs of immigration should be evenly distributed among the states and municipalities. Furthermore, they urged the Federation and the federal states (‘Länder’) to recognize the urgency of promoting the integration of immigrants at local level. From the beginning of the 1990s the issues of migration and integration thus gained political importance in the municipalities.

Changes to federal migration policies and the fundamental reforms of the German welfare state in the late 1990s essentially reduced the local costs of immigration. The so-called asylum compromise of 1993 restricted the immigration of political refugees and of ethnic Germans and introduced more even-handed distribution of these immigrant groups among the states and municipalities (Haberland 1994). In the following years migration control measures were introduced which concerned other groups of migrants, such as Jewish migrants from the former Soviet Union, foreign spouses of German citizens and people residing in Germany or children of foreign residents. Reforms of the German welfare state (the so-called Hartz reforms) eased the burden on municipalities by reducing the local costs of immigrants’ social security provisions.

Nevertheless, the issue of integration remained on the local political agenda. Among other explanations there is a hypothesis that policy networks established during the 1990s to deal with the urgent municipal migration problems evolved into networks promoting integration issues in local politics. Municipality units, often called ‘multi-‘ or ‘interethnic offices’, various welfare organisations, migrants’ organisations and other private actors participated in these policy networks. They managed to redefine the problem of integration as a key social problem of the cities. The main argument was that integration was no longer a short-term problem relating to specific groups of ‘foreigners’, but a central social problem pertaining to the city as a whole. This argument was supported by the observation that up to one third of the residents of German cities today had a migrant background. People with a migrant background thus made up an important proportion of the urban population and deserved special attention in policy-making (Häußermann/Kapphan 2008).

Not only local actors promoted the issue of integration. Other changes also focused local politics on migration and integration issues. The Immigration Act of 2005 (Zuwanderungsgesetz - ZuWG) assigned responsibility for promoting integration to the Ministry of the Interior, which charged the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees with the task of designing, implementing and financing the integration courses for the newly arrived immigrants and managing the National Integration Program by supporting diverse local state-of-the-art activities with a focus on the integration of migrants. In addition, several other federal governmental institutions, the federal states, private foundations and, increasingly, the European Union originated programs with a focus on integration issues, such as education, gender-specific integration problems, integration of young immigrants, etc. Over the last decade the number of different integration funds has thus grown considerably. This broadening scope of potential funding provides an important incentive to maintain the political emphasis on the issue of integration at local level and to expand municipal integration activities.

The Local Understanding of Integration: Key Concepts and Measures

Today, many German municipalities define integration as a task of their strategic policy. In their integration concepts municipalities declare to be following the so-called resources-oriented approach, the concept of diversity management as well as the concept of activation. In addition local authorities often define the disadvantaged neighbourhoods as the key target of their integration measures. The following chapter describes the key points of local integration policies in more detail.

Resources Orientation

During the 1970s and 1980s integration policies in Germany aimed at compensating for migrants’ shortcomings. It was assumed that migrants and their children possess considerable deficits with regard to their German language proficiency, occupational qualifications and social skills. Integration measures were intended to help immigrants overcome their deficits and gain qualifications and skills of value in the German labour market and society.

In the past decades scientists as well as practitioners have increasingly criticized this deficit-oriented approach. They argue that the opportunities for migrants to participate in society and the labour market are not dependent solely on migrants’ skills and qualifications. Institutional barriers and social prejudice also play an important role. The most controversial criticism was that the integration measures aimed exclusively at compensating for migrants’ deficits were shooting wide of the mark. In trying to align the excluded groups they merely attenuate their social marginalisation without providing them with real opportunities to participate in the core institutions of society (vgl. Thränhardt 1993; Baringhorst/Hunger/Schönwälder 2006).

In the late 1990s the deficit-oriented approach became extremely unpopular in the local debate on integration. Local integration policy turned to the resources-oriented approach (KGSt 2005). This operates on the assumption that immigrants do possess many skills and qualifications. The goal of the integration measures is to discover migrants’ potential and to render it valuable in diverse urban social environments. This concerns not only the formal qualifications which migrants have gained in their countries of origin, but also their soft skills, their potential for social innovation and their cultural traditions. The crucial characteristic of the integration projects adhering to the resources-oriented approach is that the projects themselves use resources and skills of immigrants by involving them in integration work as full-time employees or volunteers. In projects such as “Integration mediators” (“Integrationslotsen”) activists with a migrant background work with newly arrived immigrants, with the second and third immigrant generations or with immigrant groups to which it is difficult to gain access.

The Policy of Intercultural Openness

The deficit-oriented approach implied that integration efforts have to be undertaken primarily by the immigrants. The integration process was considered to be successful when migrants met the requirements of the host society. The resources-oriented approach considers integration rather as an interactive process between immigrants and the host society. According to this concept, not only migrants need to improve their skills and qualifications, but society also needs to become more open to diverse influences emanating from the immigrant population. Correspondingly, integration policy needs to address not only migrants themselves but also the key institutions of the host society.

From the end of the 1990s municipalities started to adopt the so-called policy of intercultural openness, which aims at encouraging institutions to overcome the discriminatory practices towards immigrants . Many municipalities launched initiatives focusing specifically on their own political and administrative bodies, for example, projects to recruit young people with migrant background for careers in the local administrations or projects in which high-profile and experienced employees give career advice to young employees with migrant background.

The Concept of Activation

In recent decades, the German welfare state has shifted from compensatory towards activating social policy instruments. In the extended welfare state for which Germany was traditionally a model the policy instruments were designed to offset the risks pertaining to unemployment, illness, age and to mitigate the consequences of social exclusion. The shrinking financial capacity of the German welfare state, which started to manifest itself at the end of the 1980s, was a main reason to abandon the extended welfare programs. The new postulate today centres on “helping people to help themselves” (“Fördern and Fordern”). This means that social policy instruments should not just offset the risks of exclusion but should primarily empower the disadvantaged groups to participate actively in society.

Municipalities are experimenting with activating policy instruments in the field of integration. Activating integration policy at local level pays special attention to the immigrant associations because they seem to be actors capable of obtaining grass-roots access to the immigrant communities and of encouraging “difficult” immigrant groups to participate more actively in society and to pursue educational projects or other self-help activities. In the field of preschool education, for example, there are projects aimed at reviving an interest among parents with migrant background in using public services and language courses by preparing their children for school. Another example is the project “Early Start” (“Frühstart”), in which language training for preschool children is combined with parent counseling on educational issues.

Disadvantaged Neighbourhoods as a Target

From the official point of view the Federation, the federal states and the municipalities deal with different aspects of integration in Germany. The national level and the states are mainly responsible for structural integration, for example integration into the education system or into the labour market. The local level is primarily responsible for social integration in the form of social cohesion and mutual recognition, access to social services and infrastructure and civic participation. To focus their efforts on migrant groups in real need of support, municipalities adopt the so-called spatial approach. The integration projects under municipal trusteeship are mostly concentrated in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods with bad infrastructural conditions, high unemployment rates and a high percentage of migrants. Projects aimed at improving living conditions and strengthening social cohesion in the neighbourhoods are very popular.

In recent years the spatial approach has become dominant in local integration policy (Nationaler Integrationsplan 2007). It should not be overestimated, however. The improvements in the living conditions and peaceful communal relations in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods cannot compensate for immigrants’ exclusion from the central institutions of society. Social integration measures can only be successful in combination with efforts initiating structural participation opportunities for disadvantaged migrant groups. Municipalities are aware of this problem. This is why local authorities are increasingly pursuing policies promoting not only the social but also the structural integration of migrants. One of their strategies is to motivate other policy actors to allocate projects promoting structural integration in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods. In addition to coordinating the activities of other actors, municipalities are also launching their own initiatives. For example several big cities, such as Hamburg, have started campaigns which are intended to prompt local businesses to recruit young people with low levels of education and with migrant backgrounds into their vocational training programs.

Organizational Shape of Local Integration Policies

During the 1990s many municipal administrations established special integration units. These were often called “multi-“ or “intercultural” offices. Their task was to develop municipal integration initiatives and to coordinate the rising number of integration projects carried out in their local authority districts by other policy actors. The organizational design of the integration offices differs from many other administrative units in the municipalities. Traditionally, local administrations have consisted of bureaucratic units implementing local political decisions, performing legal procedures or providing services for certain groups of clients. More recently, a new type of administrative body has established itself within the local administrations. These organizational units have been designed as so-called cross-sectional units, their remit focusing on detecting relevant social problems and performing problem-solving activities. Integration offices belong to this new type of administrative bodies. Their modus operandi centres on displaying initiative, achieving goals and cooperation, rather than operating “by the book” and bowing to the given hierarchy. The following chapter discusses the key principles defining the activities of the municipal integration offices.

Effects of Output-Oriented Funding

German integration policy aims to achieve positive results in the integration process for migrants with the help of diverse funding programs. In most cases these funds define merely the goal to be achieved, but not the means to this end. Involved actors are thus able to choose various strategies by which to achieve the set goals. Consequently, diversity and experimentalism are the distinguishing features of local integration activities today.

The municipal integration offices concentrated from the outset on initiating goal-oriented activities. These activities were rarely funded completely by the municipal budget. Their existence was therefore very much dependent on the federal funding programs, programs of the respective states and increasingly on the programs of the European Union. It is hard to imagine that local integration policy could exist today without this diverse funding environment.

Finding their bearings in the diverse and still evolving funding environment using the given funding opportunities in a strategic manner has become the main challenge for many municipalities. Municipalities that manage to navigate their way through the different funds obtain interesting opportunities for experimentation and develop projects which become state-of-the-art in the field of integration policy. On the other hand, municipalities that do not have enough experience or sufficient capacities for funding acquisition lag seriously behind in their integration efforts. Output-oriented funding could thus result in considerable differences in the quality of local integration activities.

Different public funds and funding programs of private foundations pursue different goals. At federal level, integration funding differs according to the portfolios of the involved ministries. The funding of the federal states is often interlinked with the programs of the European Union. Funding programs of the federal government and the states also have to accord due consideration to the allocation of responsibilities within the federation. Private foundations define their funding goals according to their political affiliations or public interests. In obtaining money for their projects, municipalities are ultimately required to consider heterogeneous interests and expectations of the funding institutions. In designing their projects, they face the additional problem of reconciling the needs pertaining to the given local problems, which often call for holistic solution strategies, with the particular interests and aims of the funding institutions. Aside from this, the duration of funding is usually limited. The sustainability of projects depends very much on the time limits and the possibilities of extending funding (Becker/Löhr 2003).

Municipal integration policies today have to deal with various challenges. Local problems have to be detected, solution strategies have to be identified, and the continuity of the problem-solving activities has to be guaranteed. At the same time municipalities have to meet the requirements of different funding institutions and deal with limited financial conditions. One of the widespread strategies pursued by municipalities in response to these challenges is to let the private actors, such as private welfare services or migrant associations, realize concrete integration projects. For their part, municipalities are becoming much more involved in coordinating various integration activities at the local level. They provide opportunities for cooperation and networking among the growing number of projects and involved actors, thereby guaranteeing the sustainability of local integration policy.


In many municipalities the number of private actors involved in integration policy is growing. The involvement of private actors in local social policy has a long tradition in Germany and is legitimated by the principle of subsidiarity. The role of private actors has increased due to the liberalization of the public sector resulting from the reforms of the German welfare state. Municipalities today face the task of coordinating and supervising the growing market of integration providers. They achieve this by promoting cooperation between the key public and private actors involved in local integration policy.

Cooperation does not constitute a new approach to integration policy at local level. Back in the 1980s and 1990s municipalities initiated so-called working groups, which dealt with acute integration problems or with certain migrant groups. Private actors also participated in these working groups. Back then, cooperation was an instrument for dealing with urgent integration problems and proved the exception rather than the rule. Since the end of the 1990s, however, cooperation has become a central characteristic of municipal integration activities. In many cities, cooperation networks have been institutionalized as officially supported and as long-term communication platforms. Today, cooperation platforms such as “The migration conference” in the city of Bielefeld or ‘The migration networks’ in the city of Bonn define key integration goals and offer solutions.

Virtually no research is available on the functions and effects of local integration policy networks. The organizational analysis suggests that the networks are very effective when it is necessary to maintain effective control of the limited resources. It would be impossible to distribute limited resources effectively without cooperation. But strong policy networks could produce some negative side effects. One possible consequence is that they may become “closed shops”. It is possible and likely that within strong networks the distribution of resources will tend to take place among the insiders only. It is plausible to assume that the less powerful and new actors involved in local integration policies will find it hard to compete with the well-positioned and established networks. As a result there is a risk of local integration policies becoming entrenched along established channels. As a result, concrete integration activities would be less inclined to identify integration problems and to look for new innovative ways of addressing them, and would be very much shaped by the given constellation of policy networks and their professional and political orientation.Another important side effect could occur when cooperation takes place under the pressure of competition. Local actors compete with each other for funds and for the best solutions. Negative coordination is one possible result of networking under such circumstances (Scharpf 1993). The notion of negative cooperation presupposes that actors cooperate as far as is necessary in order to stake their claims and to assure that the others do not meddle with their business. Positive cooperation, entailing the proposal of common projects or the development of shared concepts, would not take place in this environment.


The purpose of this essay has been to describe the main trends in the development of German local integration politics and policies. The essay has pointed out that immigrant integration did not become an important topic in local politics until the 1990s, when increased immigration rates imposed a strain on the municipalities’ budgets. The subsequent reforms of immigration law and the liberalisation of the German welfare state eased the municipalities’ financial situation. The problem of immigrants’ integration nevertheless remained an important issue on the political agenda. The essay has argued that municipal integration policies have undergone a paradigmatic shift from the deficit-oriented to the resources-oriented approach. The integration initiatives aimed at activating migrants’ skills and qualifications have become popular. Intercultural opening has emerged as another important integration concept at local level. Beyond this, municipalities have chosen the spatial approach in designing their integration activities.

The sustainability of integration initiatives at local level depends on the output-oriented and time- limited funds provided by diverse funding institutions. The number of integration projects and integration policy actors has grown considerably in recent years. Municipalities have faced the challenge of coordinating these diverse integration activities. Most municipalities have introduced special organizational units – multi- or intercultural offices – which are responsible for municipal integration initiatives but also for coordinating the integration policy networks. The establishment of local policy networks does not only have positive effects, however. Negative coordination or path-dependency are possible side effects that diminish the effectiveness of local integration policy. The effects of the local policy networks are worth analysing in further research.


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