Very few areas have remained unchanged by the digital revolution. Politics is no exception. In recent years, various initiatives have emerged to harness the possibilities offered by digital technology in order to improve or renew democracy. Amidst the crisis of our Western democracies, undermined by a growing gap between citizens and their representatives, by abstention and by the rise of extremism, civic technology revives the democratic process by improving information, enabling greater citizen participation and empowerment, ultimately improving government transparency.

Despite a sudden surge of visibility, it would be a mistake to believe that civic technology is a recent phenomenon. “During the two last years, civic technology was the new buzzword. But many organizations such as mySociety, OKFN or Regards Citoyens existed long before the term was coined. Using digital technology to improve democratic participation isn’t a new idea, even if there has been an explosion of initiatives,” says Benjamin Ooghe-Tabanou, one of the joint administrators of the Regards Citoyens collective.

Thierry Vedel, a researcher at Sciences Po, even recalls that it is the “revival of a movement that started in the early days of the Internet, in the late 1990s. At that time, it was called electronic democracy or digital democracy: a set of ideas, experiments and practices around the use of the Internet for political purposes, including the improvement of democratic systems.”

Three significant features differentiate the two waves of this movement: a large part of the population is now connected to the Internet, social networks exist and many of these projects have an entrepreneurial dimension.

Initially, “civic technology” was a very broad term that encompassed open government, political and institutional transparency… anything that allowed the organization of collectives. According to Valentin Chaput, co-founder of Open Source Politics, AirBnB or Uber defined the first forms of civic technology that emerged in the United States. Digital tools revived the issue of sharing and ultimately, of collaborative economy. Today, the definition narrowed down to platforms that relate to politics and democracy.

To organize the multitude of forms of civil technology, Chaput designed a circular diagram that circles through the various purposes of civic technology: improving information, mobilizing citizens, assessing and controlling the action of politicians, which brings back to the first ambition: improving information.

Improving citizen information
In this area, many things can be done, from small infographics or a YouTube video about an important political challenge, to platforms such as Regards Citoyens, as reported by Valentin Chaput. “Regards Citoyens is one of the oldest French associations in the field of civic technology. It developed across several sites, including La Fabrique de la loi (“The Law Factory”) which allows to follow the step-by-step development of legislation (chronology of the so-called parliamentary shuttle; comparison of all amendments; follow-up on debates, etc.). Many other forms of civic technology can be classified in this category, for instance Voxe.org compares political agendas in some twenty countries. “Since a year and a half, we have also been developing new formats of information to educate people about issues regarding public affairs,” according to Leonora de Roquefeuil, its president.

Another interesting initiative in this field, the newspaper Le Drenche offers two conflicting expert views on a hot topic to help citizens form an educated and informed opinion of their own. This civic startup distributes a printed version of the newspaper in some universities and is currently creating an app to “gather topics that have been already discussed, allow people to add arguments that were not raised by experts and vote for the arguments they find most relevant,” according to the president and co-founder, Florent Guignard.

Mobilizing citizens

“Once citizens are informed, we can mobilize them. Mass petition platforms such as Change.org or Avaaz, or micro-survey platforms such as GOV, as well as campaign tools used by candidates: integrated solutions for managing fundraisings, mailing campaigns, SMS sending, etc. Everything falls into this category” as explained by Valentin Chaput.

Therefore, a distinction needs to be made between tools exclusively tailored for citizens and those used by their representatives, like the electoral strategy start-up Liegey Muller Pons. This categorization is not without consequences on the economic model, as discussed in the second article of this series.

As for mobilizing citizens, petition platforms are the undisputed champions of civic technology. Most of them account for millions of users around the world – over 150 million in Change.org – and sometimes allow citizens to make a real impact on public life.

“Petitions serve as a quick means of commitment, adapted to a generation that is used to giving their opinion on what they read, see and do,” as pointed out by Elisa Lewis and Romain Slitine in their book “Le coup d’État citoyen” (The Citizen Coup). However, the authors consider that “if online petitions play a role of necessary counter-powers in democracy, they are far from being a panacea. These tools complement other traditional drivers, such as social movements, to help citizens break into the public debate.”

They can be used both for self-assessment and to gauge the sensitivity of public opinion regarding a theme or topic. This applies both to highly specialized subjects and platforms that allow communities of activists to join forces (animal rights activists, for example), or to broader fields where platforms capture and exhibit popular emotions.

However the representativeness of these platforms is not entirely reliable, as a petition can be signed multiple times. But the overall volumes (“over one million signatures”) and the rate of diffusion are valuable indicators that could serve as red flags for policy-makers.

From an activist perspective, platforms are also a potential tool to unify citizens: all signatories can receive further information to strengthen their commitment. But there is still a long way from these volatile forms of civic participation to a genuine movement, and petition websites know it only too well. In contrast with generalist platforms such as Change.org that allow a formalized, yet punctual, contact between citizens and a cause, proprietary platforms offer a more structured form of commitment, where those willing to share their information are closer to a participatory process. For these platform leaders, the problem is to offer a personalized experience, depending on very different levels of commitment (and of acceptance of these requests).

Hence, a scale of mobilization emerges, from the simple, one-time petitioner to the true activist, with a background of long-term and structured commitment. But between these two figures, platforms also offer a new feature that can be described as interactive, opening the door to activist commitment rather than political participation.

Increasing participation
“Once citizens are mobilized, they want to interact with their representatives,” according to Valentin Chaput. This category includes all downward platforms such as Parlement & Citoyens where consultation is carried out by a central actor (MP, Minister, etc.), who sets a framework in which citizens can ask direct questions to their representatives.” The platform Parlement & Citoyens allows citizens to take part in the development of legislation. For example, it was used in 2013 for a bill promoted by the Green Party senator Joël Labbé, aimed at banning the use of pesticides by communities and prohibiting their sale to private individuals.

During the consultation, “a citizen noticed that communities could hire a private company and thus escape the law,” as recalled by Cyril Lage, creator of Parlement & Citoyens. The bill was subsequently redrafted. However, it should be noted that politicians elected by universal suffrage remain in control of the final decision. “Maybe they will reject the most voted proposal and integrate the one that received only three votes but they will also assume and explain their choice, because it will be transparent” according to Cyril Lage. Nevertheless, one should note the distance between a somewhat radical and activist approach and a more consensual parliamentary practice – more concerned about reconciling divergent interests in the formulation of what will stand, ultimately, as the expression of the general will.

As recalled by the work of Pierre Rosanvallon, professor at the Collège de France, the issue of political representation is never completely resolved, neither in theory nor in practice. This very issue stands at the heart of civic technology innovations in two different ways. First, it facilitates the transmission of formalized elements of public opinion, or at least of a fraction of the public opinion, to representatives. Second, as a further complication, it serves as a measure of the difference between citizen views – more biased, more radical, more naive – and parliamentary practices, necessarily under the sign of compromise.

An illusion of participation?
This begs the question of the actual scope of these tools. Are these consultation mechanisms simply designed to provide a seal of “participatory democracy” to different texts and proposals? Those who promote greater citizen participation in the development of standards and laws could very well be disappointed or even deceived. “The risk is that these devices could become asymmetrical.  In the co-construction of laws, for example, there is a strong control of the agenda by parliamentarians,” as noted by Clément Mabi, researcher at the UTC of Compiègne and vice-president of the Démocratie ouverte collective. According to this researcher, “institutionalized participatory democracy has disappointed citizens for many years because it forces them into a form of acceptability whereby participation ends up being equivalent to validation.” On the contrary, citizens need to “conquer their own place.”

The question arises differently depending on the geographical scale. It is no accident that at the local level, the offer to strengthen participatory democracy is bloated: for example, the tools developed by the Czech mathematician and activist Karel Janecek and used by the City of New York for their participatory budget, or TellMyCity, Fluicity, Civocracy and Neocity.

Local democracy is certainly an ideal space for the implementation of these technologies, offering participatory tools to citizens. According to the founder of Fluicity, Julie de Pimodan, “we offer a new space for dialogue between elected representatives and citizens with three features: a local network, a focus on action, transparency.” Their application was launched nearly a year ago in two towns (Vernon and the town hall of the 9th arrondissement of Paris) and will be implemented in six additional French cities. “We need to recreate dialogue because it is the only way to increase confidence and take better decisions together. Citizenship is a scary word for our generation. We want to make it easy, accessible and fun.”

Since a number of years, some cities have also been developing their own tools to involve residents in city management. New York, Lisbon, Madrid, Grenoble, Paris… hundreds of cities all around the world have launched participatory budgets, the oldest of which dates back to 1989 (Porto Alegre).

In the French capital, “participatory budgeting offers Parisians a budget of €500 million euros across the term of office, which converts Paris into the largest participatory budget in the world” as explained by Clémence Pene, responsible for internal innovation at the Paris city hall. According to her, the challenge is to “move as far away as possible from the model of a suggestion box, where citizens just throw ideas at the city hall, and push the collective spirit and involvement of Parisians in the implementation of projects.” To achieve this goal and to prevent the budget from being seized by the best organized minorities, the mayor of Paris focused on the training of project leaders.

Tools aimed at increasing citizen participation fall into two categories. According to Clément Mabi, the first includes tools that “are intended to integrate democracy and improve it. They are therefore in a logic of support of public services and make enhanced participatory democracy.”

The second group is formed by those who want to “hack” the system, that is to say, integrate it in order to change it from within. “These include citizen primaries, such as MaVoix or LaPrimaire.org, which will rely on the system to change the objectives,” as explained by the researcher. In this second group, civic technology is used to question the selection of candidates and try to circumvent political parties. The collective MaVoix wishes to promote the election of “voluntary citizens, trained and selected at random and who will vote during five years all their laws according to the decisions of the voters.” On LaPrimaire.org, Charlotte Merchandise-Franquet was elected at the end of a process stretching over several months and involving some 130,000 citizens, with the remit of bringing a civic candidate to the French presidential elections of 2017.

LaPrimaire.org was based on blockchain technology. By ensuring the safety and reliability of electronic voting, this technology supports the creation of innovative democratic solutions. For example, liquid democracy is a system in which citizens can vote themselves, or delegate their vote, on a topic they don’t feel competent enough to make a decision by themselves. This form of synthesis between direct and representative democracy is being experimented by the Pirate Party in Germany.

Assess and control the action of politicians
“Once the decisions have been made, we then proceed to assessing their implementation. This is what governments and counter-powers do in terms of open data, for instance Transparency International or Regards Citoyens. These tools are used to monitor and assess political action and create, in turn, new information that recharges the system,” as explained by Valentin Chaput.

Read on Paris Innovation Review: A brief history of open data.

In France, the collective “Regards Citoyens” has accomplished a great deal for the development of open data. Opening data means “removing any obstacle for their reuse, whether financial, legal and technical barriers,” according to Benjamin Ooghe-Tabanou. Open data must be free, reusable under free license and readily accessible, without technical constraints.

Open data is a “tremendous transfer of power to citizens who can now check that public actors remain in the service of the general interest,” according to Romain Slitine and Elisa Lewis. Journalists, citizen collectives and civic technology can enter this data and make them intelligible in order to control political action. This was the purpose of two of the sites created by Regards Citoyens in France, Nos députés and Nos sénateurs, both of which were designed as citizen observatories of parliamentary activity. The association successfully mobilized thousands of volunteers to present the declarations of interest of parliamentarians in the form of scans of exploitable open data.

The United States were the pioneers of open data. They launched the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in 2011, including 70 member countries, with France holding the presidency until September 2017. After the last summit of the OGP, held in early December in Paris, an open government toolbox (OGPtoolbox) was launched. “It is a collaborative platform where one can find all the digital tools necessary for open government. For example, there are open data platforms, others for consultations and others to launch a participatory budget, tools to conduct projects in a collaborative and open manner,” as listed by Forteza Paula, who works at Etalab, the French mission for open data.

“Many tools have been developed around the world in open source and can be reused. The idea of the toolbox is to give visibility to this abundant ecosystem of civic technology,” says Paula Forteza. Different actors can publish their own tools on OGPtoolbox, explain how they are used and how to integrate them. France wishes to continue improving this platform by the end of its presidency of the OGP, including the ambition to implement basic tools for all those who lack technical resources.

After this initial evaluation of civic technology, one thing is clear: this movement has been enriched in recent years with a number of tools and initiatives. The proliferation of civic technology, some of which have an entrepreneurial focus, brings up the question of their economic model. This will be the subject of the second article in this series while the third and final article will focus on the challenges and limitations faced by civic technology.

To be continued here: In search of a business model.

More on paris innovation review

By the author

  • Civic technology – 1 – Saving democracy?on March 8th, 2017
  • Civic technology – 2 – In search of a business modelon March 8th, 2017
  • Civic technology – 3 – Mission: impossible?on March 8th, 2017

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