As part of Public Innovation Month, Make.org and Res publica organised a collaborative workshop on 25 November at the EESC headquarters on the complementarity of digital and face-to-face technologies.
Consultations, concertations, conventions... How to increase citizen participation by combining digital and face-to-face ? As part of Public Innovation Month organised by the Interministerial Directorate for Public Transformation (DITP), Res publica and Make.org, two civic tech companies that have been working on democratic and social issues for several years, organised a collaborative workshop on 25 November at the Palais d'Iéna, the headquarters of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (EESC), to share best practices in the various participatory mechanisms that combine digital and face-to-face participation. They shared a common conviction : "to be on the scale of the issues at stake, participatory democracy must involve the population to a very large extent 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".
The co-founder and CEO of Make.org, Alicia Combaz, recalls the question posed to the participants in this workshop : "Civic tech and grassroots citizen participation the winning tandem ?". A "tandem" that is concretely illustrated in Make.org's approach : "Our company was created five years ago around this mission to massively engage civil society in the positive transformation of society. In this mission, there are two issues In this mission, there are two issues: engagement, which is achieved through massive digital citizen consultations, and the transformation of society, which is achieved through the implementation of actions resulting from these participatory processes and the monitoring of their impact. So from the outset, the face-to-face approach was part of our very tech equation, because at the end of our digital consultations, we gather in collective intelligence workshops to go all the way to the deployment of actions on the ground."
Sophie Guillain, Managing Director of Res publica, explains that at a certain point, her firm, which specialises in consultation and collaborative dialogue, needed to use digital technology to amplify and massify its face-to-face processes, in particular thanks to its tool Jenparle. "How do you get people to contribute who wouldn't come to a face-to-face meeting ? How can we structure and frame online debates so that people exchange ideas in a calm, productive and useful way? ? How can we ensure that the discussion is part of a consultation process in which other things are happening, not just digital for digital's sake, and propose building blocks that fit together ?" These are the questions to which the workshop participants (local elected officials, association leaders, entrepreneurs, consultants, etc.) are invited to respond in small groups, this Thursday evening, in the Eiffel Room of the Palais d'Iéna.
First step, each table is invited to choose the mechanism it wishes to analyze : participatory budget, citizen convention, consultation for a local development project, national consultation such as the Great Debate, or regional or metropolitan public policy.
Advantages and disadvantages
We quickly get to the heart of the matter. First pitfall : in face-to-face and distance learning alike, "there will always be audiences that we won't reach". Generational divide, digital divide... Extracts from the discussions : "Digital technology and social networks make it possible to reach audiences that we don't usually see in public meetings, such as young people. The remote setting also allows people who do not dare to speak in public or who censor themselves to express themselves. And thanks to the digital resources, participants can learn and develop their skills. But on the other hand, we also need to reach out to people who cannot participate online. And in the physical debate, there is a solemnity, a non-verbal communication, the reactions of the interlocutor that allow to modulate the speech." Another view of the equation: "When you're on digital, your credibility to mobilise is very difficult. Conversely, when you have a local base, it is difficult to scale up. The discussion progressed towards the need for complementarity between the two systems...
However, there are some points of disagreement. First of all, the costs. On the one hand, "digital technology saves on the costs of organising a physical debate and renting a room", but on the other hand, "the management and use of data collected digitally also represents a budget". Another point of contention is anonymity. "Behind their screens, people say anything and everything says one participant. " When you talk about politics, you don't necessarily want to give your name," retorted another. The question of moderation is also controversial : does a person spontaneously moderate his or her words more when speaking face-to-face, or in 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 necessary to ask the speaker "where they are speaking from" ? In a face-to-face setting, people are usually asked to introduce themselves. On the digital platform, this is not an obligation. Sophie Guillain said that on Jenparle, Res publica, for example, has chosen to leave the choice to the participants.
Areas for improvement
So how can the complementarity of face-to-face and distance learning systems be made into the famous "winning tandem" ? Several avenues are mentioned.
request more precise information on the profile of digital participants in order to better exploit the data.
to make the questions consistent between face-to-face and distance learning to facilitate the use of the data.
adjust the "granularity" between digital and face-to-face formats : "If the digital format asks a broad, open question, it can be complemented with more specific face-to-face round tables. Or vice versa".
use of drawing lots ("the foundation of democracy since antiquity") for face-to-face discussions, in order to form diverse groups.
create a "status of citizen participant" for face-to-face approaches, possibly remunerated for their action. " Whether you are an elected official or a citizen, the time you spend not doing your job and contributing to a participatory process must be compensated," argues Fanny Bénard, deputy mayor of the 18th arrondissement of Paris in charge of citizen participation, consultation on development projects and implementation of the participatory budget.
Finally, the last area for improvement that seems to be the subject of consensus : the question of "accountability" by representatives, whether elected or citizens. "Whatever the mechanism, before consulting, before consulting, we must know what we will do with the results of the process and the time people have spent on it. You have to take the risk that this result will change what you had planned to do at the start," says Fanny Bénard. This is the only way to restore confidence in our ailing democracies. Another participant agrees : "Any initiative that is not followed up on is more demotivating to the citizen than anything else.
In conclusion, Sophie Guillain emphasised that "we would probably not have had the same debates before Covid". "Digital technology, which came to the fore before the crisis, has also proved to be a powerful palliative for the links we could no longer have. Today, remote animation has been invited in addition to digital and face-to-face, reinforcing the winning tandem !"