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Civic technology - 3 - Mission: impossible?

While civic technology undeniably offers promising solutions to the democratic crisis, it also suffers from serious limitations. Even if it reaches millions of people, its primary objective, achieving greater involvement of citizens in democratic life, is far from being reached. Based on an idealized vision of citizenship, civic technology is still struggling to expand beyond its natural public. Lastly, it defends goals of openness, transparency and collaboration that face a fragmentation of information, on social networks and the Internet, dangerous both for our societies and democracies.

March 2017
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Executive Summary

Does civic technology successfully increase the participation of citizens in public and democratic life? In part, yes. Petition platforms account for millions of users worldwide., the comparison website, accounts for over 3.7 million users in over 15 countries. But in other cases, the picture is more mixed. Approximately 130,000 citizens took part in the citizen primary in France: although a significant figure, it is far less than the number of voters in the primaries organized by political parties ahead of the 2017 presidential elections. In Paris, while the number of voters in the participatory budget has made encouraging progress over the years (45,000 in 2014; 77,000 in 2015 and over 150,000 in 2016), it remains well below the Parisian population (2.2 million) and therefore, it raises the question of the legitimacy of decisions, or their capture by organized interests. An equally crucial issue is that of the population that, despite the proliferation of tools, does not participate in public life.

A question of legitimacy

Who are the excluded segments of civic technology? First, citizens who don’t have access to the Internet. The so-called digital gap affects not only those who are not connected to the Internet (50% of the world population and some 15% of the population in developed countries) but also those who are not equipped, not tech-friendly enough or simply not comfortable when handling these technologies. “Owning a smartphone or a computer gives no indication whatsoever on the ability to use these applications” as pointed out by Loïc Blondiaux, professor of political science at Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne. Most of these applications are making efforts to simplify their interface, but we are still far from imagining the distance that separates part of the population with this universe.”

Secondly, those who don’t fit in the idealized vision of citizenship conveyed by civic technology are also excluded. “This paradigm of the enlightened citizen stems both from the Enlightenment and the Athenian agora” as noted by Thierry Vedel, researcher at the Cevipof. “A citizen who dedicates time to gathering information and forming an opinion about current discussions, advising at both local and national level and is ready to respond to consultations more often than once every five years. But is it really what people want? Is it really how they want to live as citizens? Some people just want to vote and nothing more. Does it mean they are bad citizens?”

This idealized vision of citizens determines the natural audience of civic technology, and also explains its difficulties to expand. “The ideal citizen only appeals to a small and highly-educated segment of the population, with more free time, more politicized also,” says Thierry Vedel. “All those interested in democratic innovation, regardless of the Internet, find that people who are involved in such processes have more or less the same profile: intellectual professions such as teachers, seniors and representatives of associations.” Civic tech must be careful not to remain confined to its first public. It needs to expand beyond its natural environment and reach those who wouldn’t be interested at first. Given its objectives, the same goes for its legitimacy.

There is diversity and diversity

Faced with this criticism, some entrepreneurs of civic technology invite us to look at where we come from rather than the road that lies ahead. “Can we be satisfied by the fact that only 21,000 citizens participate in the development of the legislation in a country with 45 million voters?” asks Cyril Lage, co-founder of Collectif Cap about the law for a digital Republic. Perhaps not, but for the first time, 21,000 citizens gave their opinion on a piece of legislation before its adoption by the cabinet and all the lobbies who usually participate in private were forced to do so on the platform.” According to him, “we urgently need to rethink the way we take decisions using two levers: inclusion and transparency” i.e. allowing all those who want to express themselves to do so and disclosing their positions to everyone.

“If anything, digital technology promotes the inclusion of arguments rather than people” adds Clément Mabi, researcher at the UTC of Compiègne. The participation of everyone is a difficult goal to achieve and it seems important to him “that the variety of arguments should be represented in debates.”

The participation of millions of people is therefore less important than having enough participants to represent the entire diversity of society. To achieve this, the best solution is to resort to physical relays.

Hence, in Paris, €30 million out of the €100 million in the third year of participatory budgeting have been assigned to underrepresented working-class areas. “We relied on heavy physical presence by launching door-to-door devices i.e. targeting technologies used during election campaigns in order to promote projects designed by residents of working-class neighborhoods” as explained by Clémence Pène, head of internal innovation at the Paris town hall. Similarly, 10 million euros have been directed to schools. “By increasing participation in all neighborhoods and areas, we believe we have reached our goals,” according to her.

At Nanterre also, physical support has played a very important role. “We organized many meetings in neighborhoods and maintained a close communication with people to provide them with access to online tools and regular feedback,” as reported by Caroline Corbal, president of DemocracyOS France. “It doesn’t work if we’re only active online. The physical world and the digital tools need to cooperate.”

As stated by the OECD in its 2003 report, Promise and Problems of E-Democracy, “the obstacles to broader citizen participation in decision making are cultural, organizational and constitutional, certainly not technological.” Therefore, we must refrain from what researcher Evgeny Morozov called “technological solutionism,” the illusion that technology alone can solve everything.

Fluicity, for example, uses “ambassadors” to promote the application among their communities. “We’ve found some kinds of local heroes, that have allowed us to reach a representative sample,” as explained by Julie Pimodan, founder and director of Fluicity. “We are still dealing with a population between 18 and 45, rather active. And we totally assume that fact because at the moment, the most represented age group in local communities is over 55, i.e. people who have enough time on their hands to attend public meetings, neighborhood councils and respond to paper questionnaires.”

Fluicity wishes to correct some democratic biases of the preexisting local participatory democracy. Indeed, “the audience of civic technology is not the same as that of traditional participation strategies,” as summarized by Clément Mabi. “We need to broaden our base, even if we still keep terrible blind spots. Democracy doesn’t work with tools that take precedence over others: the only way to combat issues of inclusion is to diversify the toolbox because each audience has its own preferred tools.”

A sick democracy

Participatory democracy should never be reduced to a matter of tools. While focusing too much on form, we might forget the bottom line. “A democratic procedure can only be embodied by tools. By nature, it is based on the discussion between citizens mobilized to respond to a problematic situation, on the richness of interactions that cannot be reduced to information flowing through mobile applications,” according to Clément Mabi, who doesn’t think we should renounce to use digital tools in politics.

Similarly, in an article published by the Huffington Post, one of the assistants of the mayor of Paris, Emmanuel Grégoire, urges us “to avoid thinking digital transformation of public policy as a substitute for the political crisis: the best technology, the best designed tool can end up hiding the emptiness of political discourse. In other words, form will never replace substance.”

Others are more distrustful of technology and denounce its impact on our societies. “Broadly speaking, on a global scale, since the 18th century, the strengthening of technology led systematically to the increase of inequality,” according to Dominique Bourg, philosopher and professor at the University of Lausanne. “There are notable exceptions, especially when technology is guided by a framework,” admits the researcher, who calls for “reaffirming the values of society against excessive technification.” According to him, the “catastrophic” state of our democracies is partly due to the disappearance of a common reference, caused by the fragmentation of the information landscape on the Internet. Social networks have allowed a wide dissemination of “fake news” and locked users in information bubbles that reinforce their views.

This is what worries the famous jurist Lawrence Lessig from Harvard. “We have gone from unified platforms to increasingly fragmented platforms, which produce a world in which everyone lives in their own bubble. But in this world, the idea of political action oriented towards general interest is almost impossible,” warns Lessing in an interview published by Libération. “In cyberspace, it is becoming increasingly easier to effectively segregate people, to confine them into their own universe. This efficiency is a problem for freedom. It is a devastating development that destroys the basics of democratic commitment.”

This is perhaps the greatest impending challenge for civic technology: it shares the same world and uses the same tools, but with radically different objectives, including that of strengthening democratic engagement. “For the moment, civic technology is not armed to fight against massive disinformation,” admits Valentin Chaput, co-founder of Open Source Politics. But he adds with optimism: “This doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t be able to make it happen, in the near future.” Lawrence Lessig is much more pessimistic. “Democracies choose to destroy themselves... like an autoimmune disease. The only way to fight authoritarianism is to build and practice a truly representative democracy. This is what is at stake, today. But I’m not sure we will be able to rise to the challenge.”