Massol: Participative democracy: a job for professionals

Nicolas Massol writes in Liberation.

Participative democracy: a job for professionals

The growth of citizen participation initiatives, such as the Climate Convention, has been made possible thanks to a lot of organizational work by specialized businesses.

Participative democracy is not a business for amateurs. To be convinced of that, it is enough to have a look at the sophisticated organization of the Climate Convention. All this beautiful engineering was designed and put together by professionals of citizen participation. For them this unprecedented experience is going to usher in a profession of a future. It is a future which has been in the making for 20 years in which, from participative budgeting to a Grand national debate, initiatives for directly involving citizens in political decision-making have been growing, with the support of the authorities. “Municipalities account for 80% of the initiatives”, estimates Alice Mazeaud, co-author of “The market of participative democracy” (2018). The Convention, on the other hand, was financed directly by the Prime Minister’s office, to the tune of over 4 million Euros. Not enough to speak of a real “participation business”, but still enough to create a small ecosystem.

And so, the organization of the Convention was handed to a consortium of businesses: The Harris Interactive polling institute carried out the allotment, Eurogroup Consulting set up the database available to the citizens, and for moderating the discussions, Res Publica and Missions publiques – two consulting firms for participative democracy – were hired. “My profession is to make sure the collective discussion advances”, says Gilles-Laurent Rayssac, the president of the first of those. A technical role, according to Judith Ferrando, the co-director of the second one: “Our moderation techniques promote the success of deliberation, but we stay in the wings, a little like in the theater.”

Activists or professionals?

The professionals do not come from a background of social sciences. “We recruit from business schools as well, people with an HR background and people with background in geo-informatics (people who analyze geographic data, -ed)”, says the Res Publica president. Armel Le Coz has studied industrial design: “I use diagrams and maps rather than speech in order to make politics accessible”. He is also the co-founder of Democratie ouverte (Open Democracy), an organization represented at the Convention governance committee and which originated with the Gilet citoyens, “an umbrella organization which coordinates an ecosystem of citizens and professionals who are active in the domain of democratic innovation”, as she defines it. That is, she helps activist organizations and startups to join the great open terrain of participative democracy.

Judith Aynès was helped a bit by this structure. She first worked in the management of a big business, having studied literature and business: “What interested me was the goal of reaching collective advantage”. But since her managers did not seem to share the meaning that she had in this work, Aynès resigned and decided to “create a structure for adding value to citizen engagement at the community level”. With a friend she founded in June 2019 the Solucracy organization. She was assisted by Open Democracy, which connected them, through an incubator, with a consultancy and helped her take advantage of their network of elected officials. A year after the creation of her organization, the young woman, 28, says her dream is to be able to make a living off of this activity. For now, she is doing it as a volunteer.

Activists or professionals? It is not always easy to classify the actor of participative democracy. “The borders are sometimes porous, between academics, professionals and activists”, admits Alice Mazeayd. “We do not engage in this profession without some sort of an idea of what social life should be.” Clara Boudehen, from Open Democracy, rejects the distinction: “We are engaged citizens who end up creating our start-up or our organization”. Her motto? “Open government”, which she summarizes in three points: “Transparency of public action, citizen participation, and collaboration with all concerned parties. We solve problems together.”

“A glass ceiling”

In fact, for the professionals of participation, separating form from content is not always possible. How to organize deliberation without being concerned whether it will result in concrete measures? “The difficulty is to show to the participants that they have not come for idle talk”, says Judith Ferrando. At the end of the day, the head of Missions publiques recognizes, the viability of her activity depends on “the glass ceiling of the application of the proposals as public policy”. This remains dependent on the good will of the elected… And the good will of Macron in the case of the Climate Convention.

Loïc Blondiaux wants to stay optimistic about the fate of the conclusions of the citizen body. “For deliberation to have political impact, the quality of the democratic procedure is a necessary but insufficient condition”, he says. “However, participation creates a dynamic of force sufficiently powerful for the politicians to feel it necessary to act.” Reassuring. The academics have little to lose in this adventure. If the exercise fails to deliver, they could always publish studies explaining the failure.

One Response

  1. What if any relationship exists between the UK’s equally well resourced Citizens’ Climate Assembly


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