Civic tech: a democratic revolution?
Is an application enough to demonstrate “general opinion”? That is the ambition of Stig , a social network for political ideas launched in May 2016 by Jérémie Paret and Germain Lecourtois. Currently undergoing beta testing, Stig is one of the latest developments under the civic tech umbrella. On Stig, people can propose ideas, submit amendments and vote in favour or against proposals, both locally and nationally. Some examples: holding a referendum on TAFTA (Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement); opening up the green permit to all communes in France; or popularising the anonymous CV. On their end, elected officials can also register (they have to pay, unlike other users) to test their proposals and “adapt their actions to daily life." “The aim is to focus on a more direct democracy by using our smartphones” summarises Jérémie Paret. Just a dream for naive thinkers? Perhaps, but the least that we can say is that the dream of a total transformation of politics through digital is alive and well, and the two founders of Stig are not the only ones who share it!
Campaign platform comparisons (Voxe.org ), citizen primaries (La Primaire.org ), one-off mobilisation sites (Fullmobs): all these players in the civic tech market offer new ways of getting information, occupying public spaces or mobilising. To unite these initiatives, collectives like Démocratie Ouverte and spaces like Liberté Living Lab in Paris have been created to experiment with specific alternative solutions. Civic tech is thus a collection of tools created to reinvigorate the existing system and identify alternative possibilities. Highly fashionable and newsworthy in this period of political gloom and perhaps somewhat invigorated by the approaching French presidential elections, is civic tech just a flash in the pan or is it a real opportunity to rework democracy?
Civic tech and the search for a definition
“Civic tech is a movement which aims to revitalise and transform our social institutions," explains investor Marc Andreessen, “but different definitions offer differing interpretations.” This linguistic instability is the inevitable consequence of the diverse initiatives which it covers. From social movements like Nuit debout (at least their digital elements) to debate and voting applications like DemocracyOS and sites like Parol, which enable real-time monitoring of laws being drafted during debates, civic technologies cover a wide range of tools and positions which are difficult to summarise.
Some, like the Knight Foundation in the United States, have a very broad vision and include all projects with a broadly citizen-based approach under the umbrella of “civic technologies," including collaborative consumption, crowdfunding and open data. Particularly in France, there are more groups which, according to entrepreneur Valentin Chaput, encourage “a stricter definition of civic tech," which “covers all public, community or private initiatives which aim to reinforce citizen commitment, democratic participation and government transparency." Civic tech is therefore distinguished from “pol tech” (tools used by political parties and movements to improve their campaigns) and “gov tech” (institutional platforms).
Gov tech and pol tech bite the dust: what’s left?
What remains once gov tech and pol tech are removed from the equation? A huge range of initiatives which try new methods in their own way to act on the political playing field. For example tools creating dialogue between citizens and their elected officials - on a more local level than Stig. Former journalist Julie de Pimodan founded Fluicity to “strengthen” these links at a municipal or district level. When the mayor of Vernon in Normandy tried her platform, he informed his citizens of cultural programs or urban projects, received their opinions or ideas and responded to them directly. City2Gether , Neocity and Communecter were designed in the same vein.
Civic tech leaders aim to create spaces for debate and collective decision-making. Examples include DemocracyOS , an open source discussion and voting platform developed in Argentina; Baztille , an application to debate a new question each week; or Brigade , the “Tinder of politics," which allows people to express their opinion (agree, disagree, unsure) on short and divisive questions. An opinion which can also be formed through new sources of information such as Accropolis, a YouTube channel which sheds light on parliamentary news and directly comments on National Assembly meetings, or the many YouTubers who produce active content, such as Osons Causer or Usul. To round off this overview, we can add tools and movements which encourage and facilitate movements and mobilisation - petition sites for citizen movements like Alternatiba, Colibris or Nuit Debout - and those which allow citizens to control or at least learn about parliamentary activity, such as Parol or Regards Citoyens.
But rather than looking to classify, rank or oppose them, the constitutionalist Marie-Anne Cohendet invites us to look at these experiences and the way that they can be combined with others - Stig made use of the YouTube channel Accropolis to discuss the highest ranked proposals, whereas Nuit Debout uses Loomio to formulate collective proposals and Stig to put them to a vote. From one end of the spectrum to the other, these tools “are based on a series of shared values and a coalition approach, with the feeling that we will move forward together," explains Loïc Blondiaux. The goal, a collective one in this case, is to experiment with new, more horizontal methods of making decisions, where contributing is in itself evidence of legitimacy, voluntarily moving away from traditional political practices.
Searching for democracy in the internet age
“We are citizens of the 21st century, doing our best to interact with 19th century institutions which are based on 15th century information technology. (...) It is time to ask ourselves: what is democracy in the internet age? " This observation made by Pia Mancini, founder of DemocracyOS, is shared by all civic tech players. For them, if existing systems like voting (dominated by abstainers) and political parties and unions (controlled by activists) no longer work well, it is not because citizens are apathetic and disinterested. On the contrary.
The emergence of collaborative consumption is, in the eyes of many civic tech players, the sign of a desire to get involved. Elisa Lewis of the Démocratie Ouverte collective agrees. In the same way, Nuit Debout is, according to political scientist Capucine Truong, “an outlet of citizens' deep desire to reappropriate politics, to make themselves heard more often and beyond voting." The verdict of a survey conducted in May 2016 by the Viavoice institute: “Political desire is looking for new methods of expression." “The French prefer to sign an online petition (66%) than protest (43%), take part in citizen consultations (43%) than strike (39%), join new movements (...) like Nuit Debout (21%) than join a traditional party (19%)," summarises Viavoice in the newspaper La Croix.
Civic tech is a complex movement, which responds to this desire to act and for a different type of politics by taking advantage of the opportunities offered by digital. Thanks to the internet, crowdfunding and civic tools, citizen collectives even run their own candidates for presidential and legislative elections (MaVoix) to “break the monopoly ofthe political parties." The advent of social media has allowed wide-scale mobilisation in a short period of time, explains Benjamin Knight, co-founder of Loomio, “but we lack the tools to translate this energy into a sustainable collective action: this is the gap which we are looking to bridge." Whether looking to modify the system by improving representative democracy itself or by offering other ways of doing things, civic tech experiments with a variety of democratic methods - individual, direct, decisive, collaborative or even “liquid," to borrow the concept popularised by the German Pirate Party in the 2000s. All of these initiatives mould and question our democracies, but they do not all tend the same way.
An exciting but small-scale movement despite the buzz?
It is difficult to determine whether civic tech really has the power to radically change our political system in the future. Numerous political scientists who have studied them claim that their effect will likely be limited. “The potential for transformation is there, it is real. But users are currently only in their thousands," says Loïc Blondiaux. Only petition sites currently mobilise people on a large scale. An application like Baztille has 350 participants, and of the three main citizen primaries, one has stopped and another, La primaire des français, remains very vague. Only Primaire.org seems to be looking forward towards 2017, with over 68,000 participants. Their success is therefore relative. Many develop well at a local level, often with few participants but great success. Bastien François, a political sociologist and environmental activist, regrets that there have been “barely any topics which have arisen locally to establish new rules," and asks: “This boom is very exciting, but is it enough? "
For the time being, this new boom can only be questioned. The question of accessibility has reared its head again, like the idea - always contradictory but always present - that technology alone would be enough to revolutionise politics. The example of political debate spaces is revealing: not only are the participants not new to the world of commitment, but the debates are generally low-quality and not constructive. Neither technology nor moderation is enough to guarantee well-argued or insightful discussions; however it is based on this that these spaces hope to attract more people. Applications like Loomio which can be used to organise private or public group discussions in a practical manner could overcome these hurdles.
“Investing in solutions does not always help to address problems” (Francis Chateauraynaud)
Beyond the enthusiasm for or even the hype surrounding the potential afforded to civic tech - but also its limits, which seem quite clear - what is political meaning of this movement? What does it tell us about how citizens are changing in our democracies? Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher and director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, notes a risk rarely mentioned by players in this complex movement: “I think that we are blindly working towards a different way of developing civic relations between individuals and governments. (…) we need to understand that this autonomy destroys our collective and institutional ways of working." The danger is perhaps the emergence or at least confirmation of the figure of an individual citizen, ever-ready to promote his own interests and point of view, something which Stéphanie Wojcik, doctor in political sciences, finds very common in these initiatives. An idea considered by Thierry Vedel, a researcher at CEVIPOF (Sciences Po Centre for Political Research), who compares public administrative platforms (“Mon service public”) with business sites to illustrate this slide. The citizen-client, in his opinion, wants to promote their rights... as a consumer. Julie de Pimodan, the creator of Fluicity, uses a metaphor: “The idea of a mayor as a CEO can be misunderstood, but that doesn't worry me. Like a good manager, an elected official must understand the realities in the field."
Conversely, Ethan Zuckerman continues, “if we can find a way to take advantage of these internet-based commitment methods, we could revitalise political participation." Loïc Blondiaux also invites us to consider the future where civic technologies “would be frequently used on a wide scale. There is no doubt that our political world would be significantly affected. In this sort of world, the distance between elected officials and citizens would be considerably reduced and the possibilities for dialogue, cooperation, mobilisation and citizen participation in decision-making processes, at all levels, would increased dramatically.” It is impossible to say where this civic tech movement is taking us, but let's continue to ask the question... On Stig, perhaps?