Deliberation citizen convention for the climate
all rights reserved
Arrow to the leftArrow to the right

Ampifying deliberative processes for citizen participation

The Citizens' Climate Convention was as much a source of enthusiasm as it was of disappointment. However, it clearly marked a turning point in the practice of citizen participation by revealing the interest of deliberative processes based on mini-publics(1).
It was the result of a deep social crisis and appeared to be a novel device - number of participants, type of sponsor and announced output, media intensity - and made it possible to renew the forms of public participation, by putting at the heart of the French public debate the question of the direct involvement of citizens in the definition of public action, at the legislative and regulatory level.
Since then, and in spite of the criticisms formulated not with regard to the mechanism and its results but rather with regard to the response to the latter, deliberation processes have been implemented almost everywhere on the territory with an unprecedented scale: Citizens' conventions at the territorial level, citizens' assemblies, citizens' juries, citizens' committees, ... All of them, based on the same principle of a panel of participants drawn by lot, are intended to produce a report in response to a given question, thus taking up the canons of citizens' conferences, themselves derived from the experience of consensus conferences.

In the theory of communicative action developed by Habermas, which took concrete form in the 1980s in deliberative polls or consensus conferences, deliberation refers to a method of dialogue in which participants constituting a panel illustrating the diversity of the population (the " mini-public "), debate on the basis of common information, reflect together and influence each other in order to formulate informed collective opinions. These opinions can lead to consensus and/or clarify dissensus.

These deliberative processes have enriched more traditional methods of consultation. Open participation processes are consultation approaches that seek to bring together a large number of volunteers who mobilize according to their own interests to discuss a subject, in a less restrictive framework (" maxi-publics "). Nevertheless, it must be noted that the number of people who participate in these mechanisms is often less than expected.

However, the increasingly frequent recourse to deliberative approaches of mini-publics deserves to be questioned. This proliferation represents a real enrichment of public dialogue methods, but it also questions usual practices. As large-scale systems are about to be launched on a national scale, how can their relevance and robustness be further strengthened?

Strengths and weaknesses of deliberative and open processes

Since its creation in 2004, Res publica has been contributing to the practice of democracy on a daily basis. We set up an engineering that aims to make debates useful and efficient by guaranteeing a clear and easy to understand debate on (often complex) subjects, by deploying various modalities of animation (including deliberation as much as possible) and by ensuring access to debates to as many people as possible: deployment of communication and mobilization tools, use of our participative platform Jenparle

We are nevertheless aware that open consultation processes with a very large audience have their limits, among which are the following:

Deliberative approaches are proposed to avoid these pitfalls. By facilitating the dialogue of panels made up of people drawn by lot, they guarantee the participation of people from diverse backgrounds, who are usually not well represented in traditional consultation mechanisms. They thus encourage the consideration of the collective interest. The time spent in in-depth training/information reinforces the understanding of the subjects and their stakes and, with fairly long dialogue times (often four to five times longer than in open processes), facilitates the production of informed opinions.

But is the deliberative approach of mini-publics sufficient? Its implementation raises other questions. What is the legitimacy of randomly selected participants alongside established groups interested in the same subject, such as associations? How can we ensure that all voices will be taken into account and not drowned out by a soft consensus? How can we guarantee the quality and neutrality of the information provided to participants? Beyond political support, what guarantee do participants have that their work will be followed up or, at the very least, that accountability will ensure that the sponsor takes the process seriously?

We are convinced that open participation processes and deliberative mechanisms should not be opposed to each other, but rather can mutually enrich each other through hybrid mechanisms.

What are the possible hybridizations of the devices?

Hybridization consists of combining deliberative and open approaches in the same dialogue device in order to overcome the inherent limitations of each approach and ultimately improve the output of the process and its impact.

This combination of deliberative and participatory approaches can take many forms. Depending on the system, hybridization can vary in terms of temporality, subjects, objectives, participant recruitment methods and governance.

By crossing our experience with the analysis proposed by the CNDP in its note on citizens' assemblies and the possible articulations between mini public (thought of as deliberative) and maxi public (thought of as open participative), we can distinguish three main types of hybridization:

The forms as well as the objectives of hybridization are therefore likely to vary widely from one project to another. Does it work? In what ways does the combination of open participatory and deliberative mechanisms make it possible to overcome their respective limitations?

A recent example of dialogue conducted by Res publica shows the interest of hybridization. With the agriparc project in MontpellierThe local authority organized a voluntary preliminary consultation process, at the stage of the competitive dialogue, at a time when the options were still open.

Insofar as the issues at stake in the park go beyond its direct urban bangs, the aim was to design a participatory process that would broaden the debate beyond the issues of the local area by addressing all the inhabitants of the city. The approach articulated a phase of broad participation at the diagnostic stage and a second deliberative phase. Open to the general public, the first phase consisted of a day of workshops and site walks, supplemented by an online collection of citizens' contributions. With some 300 contributions, this phase of consultation enabled a shared diagnosis of the desired ambitions and expectations for the future agriparc.

A group of 32 metropolitan citizens chosen at random from among the volunteers was then charged with refining this diagnosis. After additional information provided by trainers and work with representatives of local associations and neighborhood authorities, the panel was invited to formulate the desired ambition for the agriparc and deliberate on collective orientations and proposals. The debates were lively and the subjects of dissensus numerous, reflecting divergent visions of the relationship with nature and its uses. However, the deliberative approach made it possible to avoid sterile oppositional postures and to arrive at a common vision; this is its great interest.

In this example, hybridization brought four benefits:

The hybridization of open and deliberative participatory processes makes it possible to multiply and diversify the audiences, but also to articulate their contributions in an in-depth dialogue, in order to ultimately produce an informed and substantiated opinion, made up of collective judgments and not a succession of opinions. It also gives more weight to the proposals with political decision-makers because it gives more visibility to the citizen's opinion.

Its success depends on several factors: the quality of the prior framing of the objectives and themes addressed, the intensity and coherence of the articulation between open participation and deliberative mechanisms, the relevance of the overall consultation mechanism, the implementation of a broader governance, etc.

Hybrid systems provide complementary means for participatory democracy. However, they reach a level of sophistication that requires the training of sponsors who are very attracted by these deliberative processes but still novices in the practice of citizen participation in this form. Professionalism is a guarantee of success that will enable the implementation of effective systems that are recognized as such by all the stakeholders. This is what can already be seen in the few examples cited here.

(1) Numerous experiments with mini-publics, which received much less media attention, had been tried out since the beginning of the 2000s.

Gilles-Laurent RAYSSAC, Tania DESFOSSEZ and Camille BOURDIER
Res publica logoArrow to the left