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How does civic tech promote representativeness?

  • Thursday, July 2, 2020

  • Blog cover image

    Through two fascinating and exhaustive dossiers, the Commission Nationale de l'informatique et des libertés (CNIL) explores the uses and points of tension raised by the advent of a digital democracy. Transparency, inclusion, equality, data protection... "What challenges will the future civic tech artisans have to face to build solutions that guarantee the democratic promise?". What could the citizen participation tools of tomorrow look like?

    This is the opportunity to explain the choices and the vision of Fluicity on some key points. The first one is at the heart of many concerns and questions: Representativeness.

    Quantity vs. quality: how to approach representativeness?

    Being able to connect everywhere, all the time. The argument is strong with elected officials, who rely on online participation tools to reach and raise awareness among a maximum number of citizens (young people, active people, people working in the city...).

    Thanks to digital technologies, civic tech actors can claim an ability to mobilize a larger population around projects, debates or consultations. A population that is a priori more representative of society.

    But what exactly do we mean by "representative"? To obtain a maximum number of participants? Or being able to guarantee diversity?

    Not all civic techs have the same approach to representativeness. Our positioning at Fluicity is not to make the mass, but to guarantee the quality of the participation.

    Julie de Pimodan, CEO and co-founder of Fluicity](https://www.linkedin.com/in/judepim/)

    Image of the civic tech fluicity representing the diversity of opinion](Capture-d_e_cran-2020-10-15-a_-12.04.51x452x235x.png)

    For Julie de Pimodan, CEO of Fluicity, the choice is clear.

    "At Fluicity, we especially want to provide the conditions necessary to restore the balance of representation and favor diversity of opinion.

    Indeed, the legitimate goal sought by politicians is to be able to adjust their actions according to the greatest number. But we should not confuse mass and representativeness. Some civic techs choose to simplify access to consultations as much as possible. Of course, participation will be greater, but we won't have any idea of the people behind it. At Fluicity, we seek to obtain information on citizens from the moment they register.

    Our positioning is not to make the mass at all costs but to guarantee a certain quality of participation, notably thanks to a more structured idea creation process**."

    Simplicity of access and representativeness: a difficult combination?

    As mentioned by Julie de Pimodan, registration is indeed a key element to address representativeness.

    This is one of the first subjects addressed by the CNIL in its file Should we remove or simplify as much as possible the registration form for the participation platform, to facilitate access for all? Or on the contrary, should we ask for more information, in order to be able to refine the analysis of profiles and contributions? The choice is complex, because these two elements directly influence the search for "diversity of opinion".

    In the case of simplifying registration, or even deleting the form altogether, there is a better chance that many citizens will register. Good news on the face of it! Except that it will be more difficult to know their profile and to guarantee their representativeness, as Julie de Pimodan pointed out. "Collecting too little data, it is risking the nucleus" completes the CNIL, that is to say the mobilization of actors all coming from the same nucleus (social, ideological, political...). This is what decision-makers fear.

    In the opposite case, asking for more information complicates the registration process and risks excluding or discouraging certain populations**. Especially those who are less used to expressing themselves and whom the actors of participation seek to include in the debate.

    How can we find the right balance?

    Nicolas de Briey's answer, co-founder of Fluicity

    "Will asking for more information at registration decrease participation? Maybe at first, but we're working every day to get to know our users and their habits (UX design approach) to counter that barrier."

    To promote accessibility, Fluicity also offers the possibility in Belgium to identify oneself with the secure service Itsme; a digital identity card available on mobile application, used by 1 million Belgians.

    For the moment, only the first and last names and emails of participants are required to register on Fluicity," adds Nicolas de Briey. Our approach is one of education. We want to make citizens feel that the more they complete their profile, the more their opinion will count, since the results will be more representative."

    Our approach is pedagogical. We want to make citizens feel that the more they complete their profile, the more their opinion will count, since the results will be more representative."_ Nicolas de Briey, co-founder of Fluicity

    What are the obstacles to representativeness?**

    However, expecting complete representativeness for each consultation is currently unrealistic. Several factors come into play: the digital divide and illiteracy (which affects 17% of the French population and 20% of the Belgian population), communication issues to publicize the initiatives and their scope, the still hesitant culture of participation for residents and institutions.... These are points for which civic tech cannot obviously vouch, but which it can compensate for or help to improve.

    "The more citizens understand why they are participating and have the certainty of being listened to, the more they will participate. It's a virtuous circle, based on mutual trust," says Julie de Pimodan.

    That's why Fluicity is particularly attentive to helping public actors in the framing of their consultations, their analysis, and the communication with citizens. Even if it means adapting!

    "We are still working on the complementarity between physical and online participation by allowing the reconciliation of results to produce reliable and complete analyses. We have to move with the times, and with the maturity of uses in the face of technology," concludes Nicolas de Briey with wisdom.

    As with other key topics in citizen participation, representativeness is probably still suffering from an inverted logic. Some elected officials wait until they have increased participation to take the results into consideration, judging them to be more significant. In reality, it is by taking these results into consideration as soon as possible that they will gain credibility in front of the citizens... and will multiply their chance to get everyone on board!

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