The French presidential elections are looming. The debate is raging on and dividing opinion, but there’s one thing everyone agrees on – French citizens are becoming less and less engaged in the country’s political life. A glance at the record abstention rates observed in recent years at local and national elections shows this only too clearly. Not to mention the disillusionment French people feel towards the political class and the current campaign.
What’s the solution to this widespread disengagement? Some people think that technology is the answer. It’s what’s known as Civic Tech – technology designed with citizens and democracy in mind. In practical terms, it involves participatory, open and transparent platforms and activities. Here’s what you need to know about Civic Tech in 2017.
What is Civic Tech?
There isn’t an official definition of Civic Tech. The term refers to a number of trends and stakeholders whose aim is to put citizens back at the heart of democracy. It’s a way of helping citizens to reclaim an active role in political life by using technology to transform politics. Civic Tech stakeholders (charities, startups and citizen movements) work to make democracy more open and more transparent, helping people to be more involved.
Civic Tech – helping citizens to reclaim an active role in political life through technology and open innovation”. This transformation of politics and democracy through technology is taking place at three levels:
- Information: providing citizens with transparent and easy-to-understand data to help them make their political choices
- Expression: allowing citizens to express and defend their opinions
- Representation/reclaiming power: enabling citizens to take ownership of the process of creating laws and to be truly represented by those they elect.
Information: open and transparent public data
Civic Tech’s primary aim is to simplify access to information. But not just any information – it has to be clear and put into context. That’s what creates an open and transparent democracy.
A range of online platforms and websites have been created that allow voters to view and compare manifestos from the French presidential candidates. Voxe.org has created an online comparison site for web users. Simply select several candidates, choose a theme (tackling unemployment, international relations, etc.) and compare what each candidate says on the topic.
Other platforms help users to interpret information and explain candidates’ arguments and perspectives. One example is the online video channel Accropolis, which aims to “give the public additional information that helps them to understand political issues, institutions and stakeholders“. Its programmes cover themes linked to public and political topics, and viewers can take part and react live using a chat module.
Public Civic Tech initiatives
There are also public initiatives designed to help improve access to public data – with one example from the French National Assembly. On their website, users can search to find their representative in the Assembly, for example. You can also find out a whole host of information about your member of parliament, including:
- The political party they are affiliated to;
- Their other positions and the commissions they sit on;
- Their attendance rate at the Assembly;
- Laws they have voted in favour of (as well as those they voted against or abstained on);
- Questions they have asked the government;
- Draft bills they have authored or co-signed;
- Reports they have written.
It’s a good way of forming your opinion about your representative, helping you decide whether to re-elect them (or not).
Finally, the French government publishes “public data produced or received during its public service work: taxes, budgets, subsidies, expenditure, regional development, unemployment, housing renovation, air quality measurements, addresses of public services, delinquency and crime rates, electoral results, Social Security costs, numbers of civil servants [and] air pollution emissions from industrial facilities” – to name just a few.
Expression: debate, discuss, contribute
Allowing everyone to express opinions and rebuttals, propose legislation and even highlight misuse of power – expression is the second step towards a participatory democracy in which citizens are at the heart of the political action.
Technology helps to create a space where everyone can make a contribution to politics through open and public debates. Platforms have been created to facilitate the discussion and collaboration process while addressing the need for transparency.
DemocracyOS, invented in Argentina in 2012 before being exported across the entire world, works to “support civic movements, institutions, startups, associations and any type of organization that is ready to embrace online participatory democracy by using a free, simple and powerful tool.” Essentially, it’s an open-source platform where anyone can put forward topics for debate, set out their arguments, and come to a collective decision after careful consideration of the issue in a transparent and democratic way.
Other tools exist, including Nova-Ideo, which aims to “transform ideas into implementable proposals” through a note-taking and collaborative working system.
Finally, there are also online petition websites such as Change.org. And a similar idea is popular among the French presidential candidates. At least half of them have said they would support the creation of referendums on citizens’ initiatives. These would allow citizens to propose draft bills, which would then be discussed in Parliament if they received enough signatures.
This is the ultimate stage in citizen open innovation. People who no longer feel that they are represented by elected politicians, whether locally or nationally, can reclaim power through technology.
Let’s imagine that official public platforms, similar to those described above, had been created. The most popular proposals would then be scrutinized by Parliament. This would return the creation of laws in part to the people – and not just to members of parliament and the government, giving the people a greater say.
Some movements go even further. For example, #MAVOIX (‘My Voice’) is planning to stand candidates for the 2017 French general election. These candidates will be “trained volunteers chosen at random who [would relay] their electors’ decisions for a five-year period”. The idea is to combat broken promises, pressure from lobby groups and political parties, careerism and political cronyism.
Essentially, whenever a draft bill or proposal is scrutinized by Parliament, a discussion would be held on the #MAVOIX forum, where everyone would be free to set out their arguments and encourage others to see their side. Following the debate, a vote would be organized, and depending on the results, #MAVOIX politicians would vote in favour of or against the law in the National Assembly. The aim is to collectively decide how members of parliament vote. In short, it’s what democracy is all about in the purest sense of the word.
Starting small, beginning at the local level
Other Civic Tech stakeholders have launched local initiatives on a smaller scale. Startups such as Vooter and Neocity give town halls the opportunity to use apps to consult their residents on specific proposals.
Vooter allows town and city mayors to consult their citizens’ views on a regular basis, using their demographics, location and areas of interest. The data is then collected and analysed, making it easy to find out whether a majority is for or against a measure the town hall has proposed and putting citizens back at the heart of democracy. Technology means that direct consultation is possible, resulting in a fully transparent decision.
Politics following in the footsteps of business
Civic Tech is part of a collaborative movement that began in the business world. In recent years, businesses have begun to use open and participatory innovation to identify talented people and reveal innovative projects. Through hackathons and open innovation challenges, they call upon people’s collective intelligence.
The worlds of politics and civics are starting out along the same path. And this will bring a paradox to an end – digital transformation and digital technologies as a whole are playing a major role in this presidential election, and yet if there’s one field that’s lagging behind in this area, it’s politics and public action.