Citizen participation and digital? Yes, but one step at a time

Clément Mabi is a lecturer in Information and Communication Science at the UTC in Compiègne. For this researcher (1), who is interested in the mutations of our democratic activities, digital participative tools must embody values. The technical choices embody our ideals, values and principles that guide our actions. His theory? Starting from citizens and actors, from “doers” to build tools and put them at the service of citizen participation.

Missions Publiques. We are gradually returning to the idea that technology is a tool for a more open democracy. What is your analysis?

Clément Mabi. Digital is used a lot today but the result is not up to the democratic challenge.  For the time being, the overall results are disappointing. To go back to the origins of the enthusiasm for digital participation, we have to go back to the early 2010s with “Open Government” (2) and then to the euphoria of civic tech (change.org, Cap collectif, etc.). Barack Obama, elected in 2009 with a call for digital technologies to mobilize citizens, is a first example of the citizen appeal for technologies. In France, the consultation “Law for a Digital Republic in 2016” was an important turning point by gathering more than 20,000 participants. In Spain, the deployment of the Decidim platform in the same year encouraged the establishment of digital commons accompanied by institutions.

But in order to get by financially, these civic techs have gradually begun to respond to public contracts and become service providers. This dynamic has gradually limited the critical scope of these actors, who have been forced to massify participation in order to meet the expectations of elected officials. This massification has political consequences: participation is then conceived less as a tool for confronting the point of view of citizens and more as a means of gathering opinions, which can be collected in large masses of data, as was the case during the great national debate. Digital participation platforms work a lot on “popularity” (the number of times an idea will be seen). This “popularity” is an academic legacy, online contributions are managed like publications: if a content is seen a lot, it is considered the best.

 

Missions Publiques. What are the consequences of this massification of online participation? Has the pandemic changed the way communities approach citizen participation with a more systematic use of digital consultation?

Clément Mabi. The consequences are multiple: we are not interested in the subjects but in the priority of the productions that will result from them. And with this mass, we must not try (is it only possible?) to make syntheses, but to make “trees of knowledge” which do not really account for the nuance or the smoothness of the exchanges. Finally, we cannot measure representativeness because we do not know who is participating. For example, the French newspaper, Le Monde, team of decoders highlighted that 40% of the online contributions to the French “Grand Débat National” were copy and pasted. The platforms, when it comes to sensitive subjects, can also be taken over by lobbies. And finally, the data is often lost and/or never analysed.

As in many sectors, the pandemic has widely popularized remote communication tools, giving the impression that citizen participation through digital means is very accessible. However, the political stakes remain and reality will gradually take over. Organising participatory democracy is not easy, nor is choosing the right tools.

"For digital participation and face-to-face deliberation to complement each other, it is necessary to co-design the processes together upstream and not separately, which is too often the case today.

Clément MABI

Lecturer in Information and Communication Science at the UTC in Compiègne

Missions Publiques. However, technology can be used to complement a face-to-face participatory process. How can digital devices and deliberation be better articulated? And in which cases is this complementarity optimal?

Clément Mabi. Using technology in participative processes can be interesting at several levels: first of all in terms of traceability; then, it contributes to giving scope to a certain form of activism and active citizenship and to maintaining the visibility of subjects: we have seen this in particular through the online petition “L’Affaire du Siècle” in France (3) which collected two million signatures in one month. Finally, it can be very useful downstream of a deliberation process to feed the restitution and organize the right to follow up with the elected officials.

 

For digital participation and face-to-face deliberation to complement each other, it is necessary to co-design the processes together upstream and not separately, which is too often the case today. In public procurement, the lots are designed separately. This articulation must serve the needs of the client and the success of the process. Another issue is the training of institutions and administrations in digital technology. IT departments are those that have seen the biggest budget cuts. These departments do not have enough staff and cannot train to keep up with the digital world in the public service. Digital technology is not widely used in institutions, and if it were, local authorities might have a better understanding of the benefits of these tools (beyond setting up consultation platforms to “make numbers”).

When the raw material is of high quality, such as the results of the work of the mini-publics, for example, the best thing that technology can do is to enrich it. When technology is also used for targeted purposes, to moderate or feed the intelligent discussion, as in a face-to-face setting, it serves the whole process. Today, we value certain visions of technology over others, but we must accept that some tools are not conducive to deliberation. Technology in citizen participation, yes, but in small steps and thought out in advance. You have to choose your accelerations!

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