Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Mai 2004

8.1. Intercultural Education
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Susanne Binder/Mikael Luciak (Vienna)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Intercultural Competence in Public Administration
Challenges in Politics and Education in Multicultural Environments

Annette Sprung (University of Graz/ Austria; Dep. of Education/ Continuing Education Centre)



Intercultural competence has become an often used term, be it in the spheres of politics, economy, culture, social work or in education - more and more employees are confronted with acquiring this key qualification. As education should always be considered in the social context it takes place in, I will include some comments on the social and political impact of the integration discourse in my paper.

From the view of Continuing Education, which has to meet the needs for new skills, I would like to reflect on a specific field of professional practice by discussing the contact between members of public administration and of ethnic minorities in multicultural cities. I will try to point out the complex conditions, which influence the success of non-discriminatory action and a so-called intercultural opening of institutions.

Education can be seen as one factor in opening processes, depending on diverse (mainly political) aspects. I will focus on some details of integration strategies in multicultural cities by referring to my recent studies that analysed the situation in Graz, the second largest city in Austria. In this, I will refer to international studies and practical examples of intercultural re-orientation, and to my own experiences as a trainer for intercultural topics with different target groups.


Challenges in Urban Environments

The majority of immigrants settle down in urban and highly populated areas. There are several reasons for this phenomenon, such as more chances for employment or the presence of ethnic community networks that have been developed over decades. These networks especially may be an important source of support for newcomers. 35% of all non-Austrian citizens live in the capital city of Vienna. In the other federal states we find a similar situation, most immigrants live in cities (i.e. 10% of the population in Graz are non-Austrian citizens) while only about 5% of the inhabitants in rural environments are non-Austrians (cf. Münz/ Zuser/ Kytir 2003, p. 44ff.).

Consequently, many of the measures dealing with integration in terms of structures and social and cultural aspects are centred within a communal context. Multiculturalism, with its diverse problems but also exciting aspects of plurality, is experienced in everyday life. However at the same time, cities are environments where immigrants are confronted with discrimination and racism.

Nevertheless, I would like to make clear at this point that the political responsibility for managing migration and integration, and for guaranteeing equal rights and participation in society is, to a great extent, the responsibility of the Austrian government and the legislative system. Many of the discriminatory structures that produce inequality in society do not originate in local politics, and therefore can not be solved in these contexts. The opportunities of political participation, the access to the labour market, the question of citizenship, etc., are just a few examples.

As mentioned before, we can identify several challenges for urban environments: A classic task in the social policy of local authorities consists of an equitable distribution of its resources to all its citizens. That implies that special attention should be paid to groups or social spheres who are affected or threatened by social exclusion (cf. Krummacher 2000, p. 37).

Immigrants can be seen as such minorities. The challenge to encourage their participation is mostly discussed by using the slogan "integration", which at the same time is an often criticized term. It suggests that there is a homogenous entirety where the "newcomer" has to fit in, ignoring that societies with an immigrant population are responsible for changing their structures to guarantee equal rights. Even though there is no unique definition of integration, I will use it in this paper as a comprehensive term for all activities that aim to build a society of equal chances and social justice.

In urban environments, we can identify different fields of integrative activities, which are connected to each other. To name a few (cf. Sprung/ Holzer 2002):


Access to and Limitations in Service

Beginning in the 1990s, experts in the German speaking world have been discussing concepts for the so called intercultural opening of organisations. Intercultural opening would not only involve administrative institutions but also educational and medical services in the field of social welfare.

A unit of public administration which wants to offer consumer-friendly services, has to review regularly whether its services meet the needs of all citizens, and allows everybody access to these services. Moreover, it has to determine if there are special problems concerning the communication between its employees and ethnic minorities. The aim of intercultural opening processes is to guarantee a just and equal access to all services and areas - for members of ethnic minorities as well as for all social groups belonging to the majority.

Results of research show that it is not sufficient, just to "not-exclude" immigrants. The viewpoint that "anybody who wants to, can come" does not make sure that everybody really feels free to do so. In fact, minorities are not reached by public administrative services to the same extent as members of the majority are, especially in the field of preventive measures (cf. Gaitanides 2001, p. 181).

It is probably not the question of needs - why should immigrants not have psychological, social or health problems or why should they not need qualification programs? Immigrants are even more burdened due to legal discrimination, poorly paid jobs, poverty, etc. International studies and my own research in Austria show some reasons why immigrants seldom take advantage of public services. Some of the hindrances to immigrant citizens profiting from public services are:

Many of these aspects seem to be individual adaptation deficits on the side of the immigrants, but we should not forget the institution's duty to inspire confidence, guarantee transparency and information, and to provide interpreters to ease communication.

An important step in intercultural opening processes is to identify the (sometimes hidden) barriers and to reduce them.


Conflicts in Communication with Authorities

Furthermore, there are points of contact with administrative units that cannot be avoided, like lodging diverse applications. Then the relevant question is not how to offer access to all citizens, but to think about how to guarantee consumer-friendly, non-discriminative communication.

The results of international studies (cf. Riehle 2001, Seifert 1996) and my own regional research in Austria on the communication process, show that there are conflict generating aspects on several levels: on the staff level (attitudes, prejudices of employees), on an institutional level (e.g. lack of communicational support), and on the level of basic legal and political conditions, that influence communication as well.

Communication in a bureaucratic context is very different to communication in everyday life. It is characterized for example, by "involuntary" contact, asymmetric relationship, definition by structure and tasks of the authorities, the bureaucratic norm of impersonality, time pressure, etc. (cf. Seifert 1996). Therefore, not all of the problems arising have an intercultural origin, but conflicts often result from the bureaucratic context, and are additionally mixed with intercultural misunderstandings or racist aspects in a specific way.


Employment of Immigrants

The third point concerning intercultural opening seems very important to me. It is high time to make special efforts to change the fact that people with immigrant background have more or less been excluded from jobs in Austrian public administration up to now. The reality of our multicultural society has to manifest itself in all its institutions. This would not only help to remove the barriers mentioned above, but is also of great importance on the level of representation and identities.


Aspects of Intercultural Opening in Public Administration

After having described some of the central problems, I would next like to specify some ideas for solutions to problems in multicultural environments.

Wolfgang Hinz-Rommel (1998, p. 38ff.) mentions the following elements for opening processes:

In discussions about intercultural opening, the primary goal is often seen as educating employees specifically ("intercultural competence"). From my point of view, education can only be part of an overall strategy that covers the dimensions of exclusion and inclusion in modern society.

If opening processes are to be implemented in a sustainable way, several measures have to be linked to each other, one of them is the sensitisation of employees to the problems involved. It is important that the organisational level is engaged in intercultural opening, but at the same time the opening has to be accepted on the administrative level. The identity, the self-image of an institution must be reflected, and reforms have to concern structures as well as guiding principles. Another aspect of review has to be the so-called culture of the organisation, which expresses itself in rules, values and its structures (cf. Handschuck/ Schröer 2001).

For the implementation, it is important to find acceptance in the institution. For that reason a sensitising of the management in the beginning, is of high relevance. A further step would be the embedding of intercultural innovations in quality management strategies. The Social Welfare Office in the city of Munich has implemented such a model successfully (cf. Handschuck/ Schröer 2001 ). It is not sufficient to come up with a good slogan in the guiding principles. The crucial point is to work out concrete goals and standards to make an evaluation possible.

Intercultural orientated staff development has to emphasise the acquirement of intercultural competence and the building up of multicultural teams. The training and recruitment of persons with immigrant background should be a priority. Such persons should be present on all levels of hierarchy. At present there are several programs to sensitise the members of the majority group, but very few efforts are made to integrate immigrants as professionals in all the organisations!


Intercultural Education

Intercultural education is sometimes seen as "learning about foreign cultures". My experience in public administration training courses showed that the participants' expectations are mainly to acquire knowledge of certain ethnic groups and their behaviour. This fact is not surprising, because we have to deal with the effects of a public discourse that is characterised by permanent construction of ethnic and racist stereotypes. The present discourse exaggerates the role of culture in the modern world, while social exclusion and other differences are frequently ignored as constitutive aspects for asymmetries in society.

Another problem is that there is usually a strong demand for "behavioural codes" in vocational training, participants want to gain "useful" knowledge in a short time. We can identify a certain inconsistency in the goals of intercultural education, since continuing education is defined as a reflexive, open process that needs time and is a permanent, never-ending task. In this aspect, intercultural training cannot be compared to something like a computer course, where a package of clearly defined skills can be acquired by the end.

The participants may be confused at the beginning, when they are not offered what they had expected. Being thrown off balance can be a creative moment in the intercultural learning process - if it is professionally managed so that it does not lead to strong psychological resistance. That, on the other hand, would block the open mind necessary for reflexive learning and recognising new perspectives (cf. Sprung 2002).

Intercultural skills, are first of all, social competences. Employees should be helped to understand their own patterns of perception and interpretation, influenced by their cultural backgrounds. The awareness of "differences" has to be accompanied by an understanding for the dimension of power distance and inequality between individuals in multicultural societies.

Therefore, relevant knowledge has to cover information about the actual living conditions of immigrants and aspects of intercultural communication, and not ethnological subjects or aspects that support the construction of cultural and ethnic stereotypes.



Intercultural competence in the field of administration and public services has to be created on several levels:

Competence depends not only on the individual professional qualification and on other skills of employees, but also on changing processes according to an overall concept and structures, as well as the respective "culture" of an organisation. Intercultural opening has to be both a top-down and bottom-up strategy.

Education can support the process, but it can not compensate for a lack of strategies to eliminate discriminative structures.

The training and employment of persons with immigrant background in public administration should be a priority goal.

To meet the challenges in a modern society, it is necessary for public administration to find strategies for dealing with heterogeneity in many aspects. Measures have to concern various minorities, not only ethnic, so that dealing with diversity becomes a high-quality-feature.

© Annette Sprung (University of Graz/ Austria; Dep. of Education/ Continuing Education Centre)


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Handschuck, Sabine/ Schröer, Hubertus: Interkulturelle Orientierung als Qualitätsstandard sozialer Arbeit. In: Auernheimer, Georg (Hrsg.): Migration als Herausforderung für pädagogische Institutionen. Opladen 2001, S. 147-180.

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Sprung, Annette: Interkulturalität - eine pädagogische Irritation? Pluralisierung und Differenz als Herausforderung für die Weiterbildung. Frankfurt a.M. 2002.

Sprung, Annette/ Holzer, Daniela: Kulturelle Vielfalt und Integration. Kommunale Handlungsperspektiven für ein friedliches Zusammenleben in Graz. Expertise im Auftrag der Stadt Graz. Graz 2002.

8.1. Intercultural Education

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For quotation purposes:
Annette Sprung (University of Graz/ Austria): Intercultural Competence in Public Administration. Challenges in Politics and Education in Multicultural Environments. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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