Concertation Res publica
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As part of Public Innovation Month, and Res publica organized a collaborative workshop on November 25 at the EESC headquarters, focusing on the complementarity of digital and face-to-face.

Consultations, consultations, conventions... How can we boost citizen participation by combining digital and face-to-face technologies? As part of Public Innovation Month, organized by the French Interministerial Directorate for Public Transformation (DITP), Respublica and, two civic tech companies that have been working on democratic and social issues for several years, organized a collaborative workshop on November 25 at the Palais d'Iéna, headquarters of the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE), to share best practices in various participatory schemes combining digital and face-to-face technologies. Their shared conviction was that "to be on a par with the issues at stake, participatory democracy needs to involve the population as a whole, by exploring all existing methods".

Introducing the workshop, Arnaud Magnier, adviser to the EESC president, said that his institution, whose "general philosophy is to create a hybrid between organised civil society and citizens", was "convinced that the digitalisation of part of the citizen's voice can have extremely useful effects". However, he points out, it is essential that "the question is extremely well posed, in a context that leaves no doubt as to the possible instrumentalisation of this work". And that "we are perfectly clear on what we are doing with the final result, and on the way we are organising the reporting back to the citizens in the longer term".

Concertation Res publica co-founder and CEO Alicia Combaz recalls the question posed to workshop participants: "Civic tech and grassroots citizen participation : the winning tandem ?". A "tandem" that is concretely illustrated in's approach: "Our company was created five years ago around the mission of massively engaging civil society in the positive transformation of society. In this mission, there are two stakes : engagement, which involves massive digital citizen consultations, and the transformation of society, which involves implementing actions resulting from these participative processes and monitoring their impact. So, from the outset, face-to-face meetings have been part of our very tech equation, because at the end of our digital consultations, we gather in collective intelligence workshops to roll out actions in the field."

Concertation Res publica

Sophie Guillain, Managing Director of Respublica, explains that at a certain point, her firm, which specializes in consultation and collaborative dialogue, needed digital technology to amplify and massify its face-to-face processes, thanks in particular to its Jenparle tool. " How do you get people to contribute who wouldn't come to a face-to-face meeting ? How do you structure and frame online debates, so that people exchange ideas in a serene, productive and useful way ? How can we ensure that the discussion is part of a concertation process in which other things are happening, not just digital for digital's sake, but offering bricks that fit together ?" These are the questions that workshop participants (local councillors, association leaders, entrepreneurs, consultants...) are invited to answer in small groups, this Thursday evening, in the Salon Eiffel of the Palais d'Iéna.

Concertation Res publica

In the first stage, each table is invited to choose the system it wishes to analyze: participatory budget, citizens' convention, consultation for a local development project, national consultation such as the Grand Débat, or regional or metropolitan public policy.

Concertation Res publica

Advantages and disadvantages

We quickly get to the heart of the matter. The first stumbling block: whether face-to-face or distance learning, "there will always be audiences we don't reach". Generational divide, digital divide... Extracts from the discussions: "Digital technology and social networks enable us to reach out to audiences we don't usually see at public meetings, such as young people. Remote access also enables people who don't dare speak in public, or who censor themselves, to express themselves. And thanks to digital resources, participants can get informed and improve their skills. But on the other hand, we also need to reach out to people who can't participate online. And in the physical debate, there's a solemnity, a non-verbal communication, the reactions of the interlocutor that help modulate the discourse." Another view of the equation: "When you're on digital, your credibility to mobilize is very difficult. Conversely, when you have local roots, the ability to scale up is difficult." The discussion progresses towards the need for complementarity between the two systems...

Concertation Res publica


However, there are a number of points on which we disagree. First of all, costs. On the one hand, "digital technology makes it possible to save on the costs of organizing a physical debate and renting a room", but on the other hand, "the management and exploitation of data collected digitally also represent a budget". Another point of contention: anonymity. "Behind their screens, people will say anything and everything !", says one participant. " When you're talking politics, you don't necessarily want to give your name," retorts another. The question of moderation is also controversial: does a person spontaneously moderate his or her comments more when speaking face-to-face, or when writing remotely? Are moderators needed more to reframe a physical debate that is in danger of getting out of hand, or to check the conformity of comments made online? Finally, is it essential to ask the speaker "where he or she is talking from" ? In face-to-face meetings, people are generally asked to introduce themselves. On digital platforms, this is not an obligation. Sophie Guillain points out that on Jenparle, Respublica, for example, has chosen to leave the choice up to the participants.

Concertation Res publica

Areas for improvement

So how can the complementary nature of face-to-face and distance learning systems be turned into the famous "winning tandem"? Several avenues are being explored.

Concertation Res publica

In conclusion, Sophie Guillain points out that "we probably wouldn't have had the same debates before Covid". "Digital technology, which came to the fore before the crisis, also proved a powerful palliative for the links we could no longer have. Today, remote animation has joined digital and face-to-face, reinforcing the winning tandem !"

Gilles-Laurent RAYSSAC, Camille BOURDIER and Pétronille CAMPHUIS
November 2021
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