The increase and complexity of citizen participation processes in France and abroad raises the question of a legalized official status. Judith Ferrando and Antoine Vergne, Co-Directors of Missions Publiques, wrote this paper for the latest edition of DicoPart, the French critical and interdisciplinary dictionary of participation, democracy and citizenship. A fundamental basis for increasing quality citizen participation and on the scale of the challenges of modern democracy. Your views are welcome!
Article published on the DicoPart available here.
The question of the legal status of citizens participating in the life of the city is not new. It goes back as far as democracy itself. In ancient Greece, the solution found was that of the obolus, a coin given to every citizen (i.e. male over 30) to allow him to attend the assembly of the people for one day. More recently, the question has resurfaced in force when mini-public models have multiplied and the question of the status of the participants drawn by lot has become central: practitioners of deliberative democracy have realized that the rate of return to the invitations was low or very low. Analysis of the responses shows that many of the refusals are due to external circumstances, such as employers not allowing time off, or people not being able to cover childcare costs. The solution so far is either to put more effort into recruitment or to find financial or non-financial incentives. But it is precisely this “do-it-yourself” approach that leads to a more structural reflection on the time sacred to democracy.
The multiplication and complexity of the processes of citizen participation, and in particular the deployment on a national and European scale of deliberative mini-publics, give the question of the status of the participating citizen a new dimension. The 150 members of the Citizens’ Climate Convention in France, for example, invested eight weekends of their lives, plus at least 150 hours online, not counting local meetings. The participants of the citizen council of the German-speaking community of Belgium are asked to invest one year.
In the year 2022 alone, several reports, forums and projects mention, sometimes in a divergent way, the need to set up a status of citizen participant: Bernasconi report, democratic audit of France by Chatham House, Amiens appeal.
And this questioning goes beyond France: a bill introduced in March 2022 in the Belgian House of Representatives also deals with the status of citizen participant.
It is not a question of creating a “caste” of professional citizens representing other citizens, but rather of facilitating the involvement of everyone and the rotation of citizen participants, particularly for time-consuming processes. We are not addressing here the case of the recognition of voluntary associative commitment -even if resonances or tensions exist- but more that of people selected to take part in intense participative processes such as deliberative mini-publics.
It is a question of recognizing the value of this, by placing it within a legal framework, as is the case with the drawing of lots for jury members, where today each sponsor fiddles with it. The sponsors of mini-publics sometimes propose compensation based on that of jury trials (e.g. the citizens’ convention for the climate), or a flat-rate compensation, or even a simple reimbursement (this is the position of Nantes Métropole in its citizen dialogue policy). As a reminder, in France, jurors are chosen by lot from the electoral lists to sit on the court of assizes. They cannot refuse this temporary civic responsibility, except under very specific conditions, and in return they receive material support: session allowances (84.56 € in 2022), accommodation and travel, as well as the possibility of a short training course. However, today, as Camille Morio (Morio, 2020) reminds us, citing a ministerial reply (Rép. Min. n° 14100: JOAN, 6 mai 2008, p. 3846) indicating that participation in advisory committees is voluntary and does not give the right to receive allowances or vacation pay: free participation remains the rule for “ordinary citizens”. This is in contrast, for example, to citizens appointed by organized civil society, such as the members of CESER, including Camille Moro. The exercise of the functions of participation free of charge is also mirrored by the non-obligation to participate.
Today, nothing compels a citizen drawn by lot to participate. However, practice shows that those selected by lot do not have the same ease in 1/ obtaining from their employers to be released from their usual working hours to take part in the deliberative process 2/ agreeing to devote a potentially very important part of their days off to a citizen experience of this type. These difficulties reinforce the more symbolic difficulties that depend on the ability to feel legitimate and competent to take part in political discussion, referring to the notion of “hidden censorship” developed by Daniel Gaxie. The risk is to reproduce the same biases in participatory democracy as in representative democracy: a greater capacity to get involved among men, civil servants and professionals.
Several questions need to be asked in order to better understand the scope and challenges of the notion of citizen status: what are the objectives (we will see that they are many)? What are the inspiring existing mechanisms? Does the status only open up rights or also duties or counterparts?
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF A CITIZEN STATUS?
An equal opportunity to participate
A status for participating citizens would at least facilitate the inclusion of populations that are currently less inclined to participate because they cannot fit participation into their personal and professional obligations.
It would also level out the propensity to participate since it would allow those who are less flexible in their work to activate a legal right. Today, participation time is taken in the form of vacations or weekends, which greatly limits the range of participants. This status would therefore be part of a logic of extension of the right to participation, in the same way as the demands for the inclusion in the law (Constitution and code of relations between the public and the administration) of a principle of citizen participation in public decision-making, or of a firmer inclusion of the obligation of accountability.
The status could then become part of the general narrative of the investment of democracies in their own continuation. A democracy is based on committed citizens. We would then have a register of mobilization close to that of civic service. It is a question of moving from a theoretical right to participate to an effective, facilitated right, compensating for the unequal economic and social capacities to free up time to participate.
The status would however have some particularities: it would probably be centered on a “time budget” per year. Indeed, it is not about creating new political professionals but about liberating time for citizens to engage in politics before returning to their normal lives. The status should take into account not only the release from professional obligations but also from family and private obligations.
A recognition of civic engagement
But a status of the participating citizen can also aim at a second objective: a recognition of the acquired skills, an experience to be valued in a professional life, as a necessary and non-utilitarian contribution to the good functioning of society in the same way as the commitment of voluntary associations (validation of the acquired experience for example). Finally, it would allow for the recognition of the quality of the time devoted to general interest activities.
Without an official recognition system today, many citizens value their experience of deliberative mini-publics (in terms of knowledge acquired on the subject as well as experience of collective intelligence tools, teamwork, and oral fluency) in their job search, their activist activities, and even reinvest them in a political representation career. As an ad hoc approach, let’s note the seven open badges credited by the National Agency for Professional Training (AFPA) for the members of the Citizen’s Climate Convention, recognizing both the acquisition of knowledge on climate change, but also relational skills such as “Seeking agreement”. Innovative indeed, but for what scope given the still confidential nature of open badges.
Here again, this demand for specific recognition of deliberative experience is supported by various forums and reports: creation of a commitment pathway that values this in the employee’s career path (Appel d’Amiens), recognition of acquired experience (Chatham House, Bernasconi report) which could be connected to the citizen commitment account.
A status yes, but according to what model?
This status of citizen participant does not have to be created ex nihilo, it could be implemented by extending existing rights. Thus the Amiens Appeal calls for the recognition of a right to leave for involvement in a participatory process by amending article L3142-54-1 of the Labor Code, a little-known provision that could already be activated for many systems. This is the meaning of the bill introduced by the Belgian ecologists in the House of Representatives, which aims to extend the right to continued remuneration for days of absence related to civic obligations – currently limited to assessors and jurors – to participants in a joint commission organized by the House of Representatives or a Parliament of the federated entities.
In keeping with the spirit of the law – to guarantee sufficient civic availability – it could be relevant to open up leave rights to occasional citizen participants, as exists for union delegates and representatives and elected officials (for example, a municipal councillor in a city of less than 3,500 inhabitants is entitled to 18 days of training during his or her mandate, to authorized absences and a credit for time off of 10.5 hours per quarter)
A citizen status with or without compensation?
Already today, the participating citizen commits themselves, within the framework of a charter, internal regulations, to an ad hoc agreement between the organizer of the process and the participants. The most frequent commitments are attendance, confidentiality of exchanges during the process, respect for a certain discussion ethic (at least the rules set by the law, and a posture of listening and arguing). If tomorrow a status becomes law, we may associate duties or commitments with it: as well as the right to indemnities, the right to prior training, the right to absence from work imposed on the employer, the right to protection similar to that of jurors and assessors with respect to their employer, the right to validation of the experience acquired and, on the other hand, – in return – commitments of discretion, assiduity, courtesy, probity and integrity.
Should we go further and make participation compulsory in case of a draw? Is this desirable in order to overcome the presumption of political incompetence internalized by a part of the population or, on the contrary, is there a risk of a façade of participation without real individual involvement?
"It is the question of moving from a theoretical right to participate to an effective, facilitated right, compensating for the unequal economic and social capacities to get spare time to participate.
Judith Ferrando & Antoine Vergne
Co-directors of the Missions Publiques
If democracy is a good thing, more democracy should be a better thing, said Benjamin Barber. In the same vein, the concept of citizen status seems to have no intrinsic limits. If it is closely linked to the extension of the right to participate, it raises many questions that remain open.
Some questions are related to the practical scope of this status: what should be the time allocated to each citizen for his/her civic duties? Should this time be ritualized, along the lines of an annual Deliberation Day promoted by political scientists Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin, or should it be mobilized only when the hand of chance (the drawing of lots) points to an individual? What to do with the unused days each year? How much money should be allocated to compensate for participation? What about minors and in what cases could they be released from the obligation? What is the minimum amount of “civic time” required to activate this status?
Other questions refer to the very definition of participatory democracy in our society, today mainly organized by the public authorities as an institutional offer of participation: thus who could activate this status: the public authorities only or also civil society and companies? Does the status mean that it would not be possible to refuse participation as in the case of juries?
Finally, how can we verify that this status serves to reinforce the capacity of each person to take part in specific participatory mechanisms without simply equipping the professional participants who populate neighborhood councils and other classic participatory bodies? In other words, the status of citizen participant, depending on the way it is implemented, can be an artifice of equality that is very useful for a deliberative democracy, as well as a tool that runs the risk of making the deliberative exercise more flexible and conforming to the rules, or even of making it almost professional.