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Without a real culture of participation, digital technology could enslave democracy

  • Thursday, June 4, 2020

  • Blog cover image

    If you are interested in citizen participation, his name will be familiar to you.

    After a career in social entrepreneurship, Arnaud de Champsavin became consultant and referent for citizen consultation at the Interministerial Digital Directorate (DINUM /Etalab) and at the Interministerial Directorate of Public Transformation (DITP). He is at the origin of the community of practice "Participation Tuesdays" and of a deep work of acculturation in partnership with civic tech.

    "I try to understand through practice how the "next world" could work, especially from an economic and political point of view, by looking at the commons, participatory democracy or the contribution economy".

    His vision: that of an "emancipating digital world" that would allow everyone, citizens and administrations, to create tomorrow's democracy "by themselves, for themselves".

    Welcome to "The Voices of Democracy" by Fluicity; the interview series that explores the views and territorial issues of our democracy in motion.

    While they may have been the subject of some skepticism, digital tools are now proving indispensable to democratic continuity.** ** What do they really have to offer us in the long run?**

    Photo by Arnaud de Champsavin, referent in citizen participation at the DITP and DINUM

    Arnaud de Champsavin

    It's true that confinement has put the emphasis on remote work, and digital is used en masse to discuss, work, decide, play ... resuming uses already known. I find fascinating the ability of each person to reorganize to continue living, thanks to digital technology.

    The Citizen's Climate Convention for example, which continues its mission via Zoom, proving that digital can be a real tool for resilience, and ensure "continuity".

    But you're right to talk about "skepticism", which is always in order (look at StopCovid!). The dialogue between Etalab and civic tech has allowed us to take the measure of the "blues of civic tech". The initial enthusiasm for platforms has given way to some disaffection and distrust. First, for reasons related to the youth of these practices (accessibility, rather sketchy questionnaires, lack of representativeness and analysis...). But above all because decision-makers have not answered the key question: "what is it for?". The tool has somewhat turned against them.

    Without the culture of participation and these tools, there is a real risk that digital technology will enslave democracy - as Smart Cities rarely make cities smarter, only more automatic. For some, the ideal would be for everyone to express themselves on all subjects, all the time: a kind of democracy frictionless, as technological solutionism knows how to propose. Everyone could answer "for" or "against", with a push to the left or to the right, on all subjects. This way is a dead end. Jürgen Habermas taught us the importance of deliberation: the democratic process is at least as important as its outcome.

    For some, the ideal would be for everyone to express themselves on all subjects, all the time: a kind of frictionless democracy. This way is a dead end.

    The problem is that platforms have democratized participatory methods without accompanying the agents. They are (too) often asked to organize a participatory process in a hurry - sometimes pushed by the communication departments and the offices of mayors or ministers, and with all the slowness of the administration hanging on their heels.

    The project (now integrated into the Citizen Participation Center) consisted precisely in making their work easier, by referencing civic tech tools and by removing the brakes that still prevented them from dialoguing with citizens (lack of knowledge, fears, public purchasing problems, technical problems, etc).

    The objective was also to make people understand the complementarity between face-to-face and digital. Mini-publics with face-to-face deliberation and consensus building are particularly effective. For example, the DITP's Citizen Juries, deployed on the consultations on the Pension Reform in 2018 or more recently on the Universal Activity Income.

    We fully understand the interest of digital tools to complete the democratic "offer " and allow more inclusiveness. But digital tools must also allow people to do it themselves, to be emancipatory, beyond the purpose of participative democracy: open source, shared tools, collaborative online projects... I insist on the need for user-friendly tools (low-tech/no-tech): simple tools that agents in small municipalities can master once the consultants-experts have left. And above all, install them themselves!

    Digital technology must allow people to do it themselves, to be emancipated.

    What is missing for communities and administrations to "emancipate" and "do it themselves"?

    Image illustrating the series "Voices of Democracy" dedicated here to Arnaud de Champsavin, consultant in citizen participation

    The challenge is the massive diffusion of initiatives and skills to public agents, who have few resources but are in direct contact with citizens and projects.

    The success of the [Participation Tuesdays] community ( shows it: public officials need to exchange concretely on their practices of citizen participation, to learn, understand, share, and improve. How can this be done?

    • By disseminating and developing a culture of participation**, to learn to ask the right questions and to design virtuous approaches.

    It is this dialogue between peers that must be organized. Little by little, we will re-internalize key knowledge and skills: problematization, conception, facilitation, design, parameterization, maintenance, development, etc.

    It is sad to see the damage that silos do within the administration, and the obstacles they constitute to the dissemination of knowledge and tools. Especially between local and state governments. In addition to preventing the co-financing of shared resources (tools, platforms, databases, support teams) for those who have simple needs and few resources!

    Public agents need to exchange concretely on their practices of citizen participation, to learn, understand, share, improve.

    • By providing tools and methods**.

    On the tools side, some civic tech publishers have joined the partnership initiated by Etalab: state public officials have had easier access to their platforms since 2016 on a freemium model. To go further, we could finance the extension of the partnership to local authorities, on the Belgian BOSA model, or by co-funding the functionalities of a single digital commons as on the Barcelona model.

    In terms of method, let's focus primarily on the framing and design of approaches.

    • By facilitating experimentation**.

    For agents who want to buy services, the complexity is Ubuesque! The phrase that systematically comes up in the first 5 minutes of a project is: "what market are you drawing on? What has been initiated with is a step in the right direction to simplify the process: registration of civic tech with the UGAP, promotion of the Innovative Purchasing Procedure of the Directorate of Legal Affairs (DAJ) and the Directorate of State Purchasing (DAE)... But we need to go further and fluidify the purchasing process, while strengthening transparency (and therefore control) of the use of public money.

    • Finally, and most importantly, what is missing is the willingness to really want to engage citizens.

    Public servants evolve under a layer of frightened hierarchy, which asks them to innovate but without the right to make mistakes - whereas the structure of the administration is such that they need a hierarchical support. The support of interministerial structures can help convince decision-makers, who are still too often waiting for proof of the usefulness of participatory approaches, and experience them as a constraint.

    Communities: Visual showing an elected official to illustrate the series of articles "Voices of democracy" by Fluicity

    Read: "It is essential that communities have the means to act"

    Finally, I really like the DITP's slogan: "Liberate public energy". Today, the energy is on the side of citizens and collectives, not the administration. It would be in the administration's interest to learn to work with them**.** The Great Annotation has shown the way, with the collaborative analysis of the data from the Great National Debate. I think we can involve citizens at different stages of the process: organization, facilitation of workshops, synthesis, feeding of open databases... but also for the design of the devices and the follow-up of the results. In short, we can do participatory work with citizens.

    Today, the energy is on the side of the citizens and the collectives. It would be in the administration's interest to learn to work with them**.

    David Carmier, from the Ministry of Territorial Cohesion, told us: "The participation issue is essential for the final decision to be made by the greatest number and not the result of lobbying by minority groups. Is the "participation issue" the key element to solve?**

    I think I understand where he is coming from with this comment. On small local schemes, we see hyper-tight groups making a difference: voting en masse on a proposal, winning funding for a participatory garden for their neighborhood, etc. At the national level, the action of some lobbies make laws happen, while "the masses" might see the urgency elsewhere. It would be a bit of a race to see who is best organized, and this may discourage the public official who wants to involve more than just the regulars, and feels like recreating the failure of neighborhood councils.

    The risk in designating the "participation issue" as a "problem" is that it is seen by the political power as a way to give some legitimacy to its political word.

    However, there is a risk in talking about "participation issues". First of all, because people who want to participate do so: if people flee the ballot box, it is not because they are fed up with politics. The proof is that they are capable of holding traffic circles in the rain! When they are offered a framework, a means and an opportunity to really participate in public life, people are happy to contribute. The Great Debate included a significant proportion of people who had never participated in this type of event.

    Visual from the series Voices of Democracy, dedicated here to David Carmier from the Ministry of Local Government and Territorial Cohesion

    Read David Carmier's interview: "The State and local authorities must act as partners in the crisis"

    When I helped public officials set up consultation platforms, I often found that the sponsors wanted first of all "to have a lot of people participate" in a locked system, rather than to have "useful" participation. Most of the work at DINUM/DITP was precisely to understand why we were organizing these participatory processes, to help agents frame their participatory processes: why consult the citizen? What question should be submitted to them? What degree of impact on the final decision can we promise them?

    When we offer them a framework, a means and an opportunity to really participate in public life, people are happy to contribute.

    It is true that "minority" groups are more dynamic, more demanding and more motivated, especially at the local level, where mayors complain "to see always the same people". But it is essential to take them into account. Their motivations are the result of injustices to be repaired, degrading situations to be changed, a passion and concrete projects for which they are ready to work.

    Rather than opposing them, let's try to articulate the two tendencies: the ultra-dynamic groups, which have the energy of conviction, and a "mass" of citizens who, because they belong to the national community, have the right to co-decide. It is necessary to inscribe the action of each of them in a common work in the service of the general interest: it is the role of the public authorities to institutionalize it.

    We were talking about frictionless democracy at the beginning. Let's not run away from friction, from debate; let's rather try to organize it collectively, and to allow citizens to engage on the subjects they think are most important. We must create enough trust (by giving the possibility of delegation to trusted peers) for everyone to find legitimate a decision taken by others in their name. From there, we understand that collectives and associations have a real place to take in the citizen debate, as Patrick Bernasconi, president of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (EESC) recently reminded us.

    Let's not run away from the debate; let's rather try to organize it collectively.

    We have seen a strong mobilization of citizens during the crisis. How can we go further? How can we create a "society of commitment" to use the terms of the report submitted by the associative sector to the government in 2018?**

    The most topical question, in my opinion, is that of sustainability of engagement: sustainability of contributions to the general interest, and sustainability of participation in public debate.

    At a time when structural unemployment is taking hold, and when part of the workforce is disappearing, part of the value produced collectively is dispersed among activities that are not or not very well paid: volunteer work (retirees, paid with the "universal retirement income", who keep the associative network alive), free work (it is now you who do your shopping at the supermarket's automatic checkout, and your data make Google's wealth), and ultra-precarious work (Uber, Deliveroo, etc.), by task or by click.), by the task or by the click.

    A society of engagement would have managed the risk of always asking more from people who are less and less paid, or would be less and less paid besides that.

    The question is that of the redistribution of value, in particular with respect to activities outside of work that are in the general interest: raising one's children (the confinement helped to realize this!), training, doing marauding, distributing meals, being a firefighter, coding free software, imagining and carrying out a project for one's city, etc.

    We need to rethink the question of the nature of work, and its remuneration, especially the work done for the general interest, so that it can be sustainable, in the sense of "held over time". The phenomena of "burn out" are a sad reality of the associative world, especially in the social sector. Not to mention the professionals who are already working for the general interest and whose salary does not correspond to the common utility (like the nursing staff at present, or more generally the care workers, therefore mostly women, as Sandra Laugier underlines in a recent article).

    We need to rethink the question of the nature of work, and its remuneration, especially that done for the general interest.

    Should one be remunerated for one's participation in the democratic life of one's country (since this is our subject)? On the model of the juries, the participants in the DITP citizen workshops (pensions, RUA, ..) are paid. It is 86 euros per day for the Citizens' Climate Convention. The subject is not simple, and we must listen to the legitimate fear expressed by the associative movement in its report: the fear of the loss of the associative spirit, of the notion of donation, of generosity, etc. I experienced this clash when I worked at MakeSense: the traditional SSE criticized social entrepreneurship for "professionalizing" volunteers and making a profit out of them, thereby killing any motivation to contribute.

    For a true society of commitment, this is what we need to solve: Finding a sustainable economy for free contributions to the general interest. To do this, we need to explore everything that contributors can perceive as a "counter-gift": remuneration, but also self-realization, reputation, empowerment...

    Do you like "Voices of Democracy"? Discover all our interviews of the series!_

    About Arnaud de Champsavin ?

    I am 31 years old and I am a consultant in citizen participation and digital projects. I worked 4 years in social entrepreneurship, notably at MakeSense, then I set up the Forum Contributif, to prototype "the world after" with municipalities, like Loos-en-Gohelle, which hosted the first forum in 2015. I then joined OCTO Technology to learn how tech could be a tool for emancipation, and produce value for the general interest (OCTO consultants contribute directly to this via their missions for the DINUM State StartUps).

    I worked at DINUM at ETALAB as a "consultation platforms" referent, leading a partnership with civic tech to provide public agents with 5 consultation platforms, a methodological support and a community of practice. Then, I moved to the DITP to launch the "Participation Center" in November 2019 alongside Céline Pelletier and Typhanie Scognamiglio, and the platform became a resource center on all aspects of citizen participation for all state public agents. Initiated at Etalab, which carries a real culture of transparency and sharing within the State, the community of agents that I led has grown well, with more than 160 members, becoming the "Participation Tuesdays".

    Currently on assignment for the AFD and the World Organization for Animal Health, I think I'm trying to understand through practice how the "world after" could work, especially from an economic and political point of view, looking at the commons, participatory democracy or the contribution economy."