Is democracy just another market? Can we build a sustainable economic model with the help of digital tools whose purpose is to put citizens at the center of the democratic game? If yes, how? Must these structures be associative by nature or can they embrace a commercial scale while remaining true to their goals? Should they opt for an open source or proprietary logic? This expanding ecosystem raises a number of questions about their financing and business model.

Is democracy just another market? Can we build a sustainable economic model with the help of digital tools whose purpose is to put citizens at the center of the democratic game? If yes, how? Must these structures be associative by nature or can they embrace a commercial scale while remaining true to their goals? Should they opt for an open source or proprietary logic? This expanding ecosystem raises a number of questions about their financing and business model.

Two major economic models can be distinguished: an associative model and an entrepreneurial model. In France, Regards Citoyens is a good example of the former. “We are all volunteers,” says Benjamin Ooghe-Tabanou, one of the directors of this collective. Founded in 2010, Regards Citoyens includes approximately forty members who participate in activities and a dozen of administrators. “We operate in a participatory and collaborative way, both open and horizontal, which means that everything we do is public and accessible,” says Benjamin Ooghe-Tabanou. The association has no employees and operates with minimal costs, mainly covered by donations.

The issue of funding is more difficult for organizations with employees in addition to volunteers. “We operate with private donations, grants, competitions,” according to Leonora de Roquefeuil, president of Voxe.org, a website for comparing political programs. Last year, we were the winners of a competition by the Google Foundation, which supported us to redesign the website for comparing political programs.” Originally developed through a crowdfunding campaign, Voxe.org continues to receive money every month from private individuals. But the model is still precarious and the association, which employs a dozen people, is currently exploring other funding options.

In the US, some foundations, such as the Knight Foundation, work to finance democratic innovation. But it isn’t the case everywhere. Thus, “in the French landscape, there are no large foundations specializing in democratic issues” lamented Clément Mabi, a researcher at the UTC of Compiègne and vice-president of Démocratie ouverte. The collective just launched an incubator dedicated to civic technology in Paris to find solutions to this lack of funding. Relying on patronage reveals an obstacle: businesses are sometimes cautious regarding these issues and prefer to keep as far away as possible from the political world.

Given the difficulty in finding funds, some choose to create a business. For example, the Cap Collectif was formed one year after the launch of Parlement & Citoyens “to make this technology available to organizations who wanted to experience this collaborative approach of decision writing,” says Cyril Lage, one of the co-founders. “We realized that despite the success of Parlement & Citoyens, it would be very difficult to sustain the lack of funding and grants allocated to this type of projects.” Cap Collectif is the owner of the technology that has been used in nearly 200 participatory projects by forty clients (government officials, local politicians, businesses, associations, etc.). For example, it was used for the co-construction of the law on the digital republic.

Being a company allows “to generate an immediate turnover and adopt an economic logic that puts everyone into motion,” according to Julie de Pimodan, founder and director of Fluicity. It’s also easier to convince investors, usually cautious when it comes to politics.” As emphasized by Thierry Vedel, a researcher at Cevipof, this entrepreneurial dimension is really new compared to the first wave of “electronic democracy” that appeared during the early days of the Internet. “This new generation wants to mobilize and use the Internet for democratic purposes but it also has an entrepreneurial approach. For some, commercial concerns are of critical importance and political concerns, secondary. For others, the two are really mixed,” as noted by the researcher.

“We started the company based on an urge to put citizens at the heart of militant practices and also make them the focus of political parties. However, our customers are political parties or candidates, whose purpose is to win elections or, at the very least, improve their campaigns,” explains Fabrice River, product manager at Liegey Muller Pons. This start-up of electoral strategy was created a few months after the 2012 presidential campaign, during which the three founders worked for Francois Hollande’s door-to-door campaign. Based on a very large database of polls, the company identifies areas with a high proportion of volatile voters, so that parties can deploy door-to-door campaign volunteers. Fabrice Rivière clarified their position: “We strongly believe that this type of action revives the direct contact with voters at the very core of political practices and thereby restores confidence in elected officials.”

It is certainly legitimate to question the independence and neutrality of civic technology that work for a local authority or a political party. “To what extent does this not limit their critical capacity? The provider is hired by community that doesn’t necessarily want the algorithm to raise only negative things,” according to Clément Mabi. Some assume the fact that they address a specific customer, such as Liegey Muller Pons, while others try to avoid endangering their own neutrality. “We are a deliberately neutral and independent platform, which plays the role of a trusted third party between elected officials and citizens, according to Julie de Pimodan. A number of mechanisms show that we are not the town hall’s application.” Even more explicitly, the founder of Fluicity said “she would put (her) clients at the gym”: “It’s like people who subscribe to the gym and complain when they have to go. It’s the same with our cities, they have to play the game of openness, transparency and decentralization in decision making.”

Free software vs. proprietary software
The issue of the business model is closely tied to the choice between free vs. proprietary software. “If you design an open source software, you agree that other people can potentially recover your work and use it without any financial compension to the work you’ve done” according to Cyril Lage, one of the co-founders of Cap Collective, who made the choice of proprietary software.

Those who opt instead for free software only charge their services. For example, this is what Open Source Politics did with the city of Nanterre by adapting the open-source software DemocracyOS, co-founded by Pia Mancini, an Argentinian. “We are trying to develop the logic of the commons,” says Valentin Chaput, co-founder of Open Source Politics, noting that some features developed for Nanterre were then re-used by the Argentinian founders of the platform.

This debate on open source vs. proprietary takes a particular significance regarding civic technology. “When you give private organizations the power to play a recognized role in democracy, it is essential to audit them,” said Benjamin Ooghe-Tabanou, from Regards Citoyens. Otherwise, there is a risk that the government won’t know how a substantial part of decision-making works.” “If citizens don’t have access to the source code, there is a real problem in terms of transparency” adds Caroline Corbal, president of DemocracyOS France. But for Cyril Lage, “transparency is achieved by the publication of data, not by that of source code. You can always modify an open source code, install it on a server to which no one will have access and give the link to the original version on GitHub, as a guarantee of transparency. The contractor claims he has already refused to modify a software because he considered the requested changes were “incompatible” with the principles and values of Cap Collectif.

In an opinion piece published by La Tribune, Maxime Forest, researcher at Sciences Po, urges us to move beyond the “usual debate of proprietary vs free solutions” and “replace it by another: once on the market, what does (civic technology) sell and to whom? The arrival of the former head of Deezer and former member of Publicis (Axel Dauchez) in the small world of civic technology reflects this change.”

The arrival of Make.org has caused quite an upheaval in the French civic technology sector. The website has already raised 1.6 million euros and is presented as a “lobbying platform for citizens that transforms citizen proposals into concrete transformative actions.” The aim of this platform is to quickly reach a large number of users. Their data will be aggregated and stored anonymously and “may have great value to (pollsters) as they can be used to determine trends from the base and not from leading questions,” as explained by Axel Dauchez from Les Échos.

Other players of civic technology, such as micro-survey platforms or petition platforms, have also decided to base their business model on the monetization of large volumes of data. Their strategy is to capture many users as quickly as possible to monetize data from pollsters, or even serve as an alternative to pollsters.

This type of business model is particularly sensitive for civic technology, at a time when citizens are increasingly aware of the misuse of their data. “How can we preserve these emerging solutions from instant commodification and oversee the development of big data in order to offer it a chance to contribute to the reinvention of our democracies?,” asks Maxime Forest, noting that, for now, “the safeguards to use big data are still very weak.” This risk was also identified by Loïc Blondiaux, professor of Political Science at Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne: “We can expect a victory of the most instrumental models of civic technology, those that will have an impact in quantitative terms, allowing to influence citizens or to consult them, but in a somewhat primitive way.”

To be continued here: Mission: impossible?

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