The French are precious about French. It’s fair enough. Gotta watch that creeping Anglicisation. Courriel, for example, is the officially designated French translation for email.
So I’d imagined that they wouldn’t go in for ‘civic tech’ so much. But they love it! People instantly knew what I was on about — even folks not in the tech or civic sector. Vive la France.
And there’s a lot of civic tech going on. Paris’ civic tech scene is thriving — and represents only some of what is going on across France. Here’s what I learned, between scoffing baguettes and incredibly good fromage, and pottering around the Canal St Martin.
Démocratie Ouverte creates its own projects, such as Parliament & Citizens, described below, but I think what’s exciting is that they’ve gone meta and positioned themselves as an umbrella membership organisation for every civic tech project happening in France.
So rather than focus on more projects or products, Démocratie Ouverte now want to focus on helping others to create projects through a new foundation. They’ve identified that same problem we think we see in the UK — that traditional funders don’t know what to make of tech, and certainly can’t judge good projects from bad — and are trying to solve it by taking the role on, being the middle man for civic tech grant-funding in France. With the expertise they’ve gained over the last five years, nobody will be better placed than them to help determine the worthwhile projects from the less so.
At Democracy Club we’ve talked a bit about this as “Democracy Club: Labs”, where we would adopt or assist prototype civic tech projects that pursue similar goals, but where the founders don’t have time or money to work on them fully. It’s feasible that Democracy Club could become the place where there’s a pot of money, even an incubator-like space and structure, to help people with good ideas to put things into practice. There could be a dedicated team of a user researcher, coder and a designer who can apply themselves to whichever new project sounds most viable/useful. Over time, that core team would build deep expertise and experience, which they could pass on to each new project that comes through the door.
It’s definitely worth following how Démocratie Ouverte get on with this idea. They admit that they will have to work carefully with the other people in the sector – they don’t want to position themselves as ‘manager’ or owner of the whole civic project.
Many people insisted I spoke to Voxe.org — perhaps the closest to Democracy Club in their mission ‘to inform voters’. Voxe started out with a compare-the-candidates tool in 2012. They’ve had four million users across a range of elections since then, and are planning for another million for France’s presidential election in 2017.
I think the comparison tool comes in at the right level – of course it’s not going to reach those switched off from politics completely, but it’ll give people who only pay scant attention, perhaps the day before the polls, a chance to quickly contrast candidates. The trickier thing is that it’s powered directly from candidates’ statements — which is the only way to keep it fair and neutral, but this relies on candidates to be truthful and understandable.
Voxe are also going beyond candidates and elections, to provide an ‘explainer’ service called WhatTheVoxe?! Run by a former RadioFrance journalist, this aims to break down democratic issues and processes in a digital-friendly way. Mayara from Voxe suggested that this is necessary, over and above what French media already does, because the well-known media houses can be seen as biased along the line of their comment or editorial.
There’s also a member of the Voxe team doing schools-based democracy education work. So it’s a kind of mix of Democracy Club, Full Fact, Simple Politics, the Politics Project and Bite the Ballot, all under one roof and brand. No voter-advice-application though: apparently the French are not keen on these, which I find curious.
They’re mainly funded by their success in the Google Impact Challenge 2015, which was terrific news for civic tech in France and beyond: Voxe have rolled out their comparison tool to several different countries. It’s available to anyone who wants to use it. Should Democracy Club look at using this for the local elections in 2017? Or perhaps the Greater Mancs mayoral election?
Et en plus…
Etalab are a French government team, based in the Prime Minister’s Office, whose remit is to get more open data published and to encourage its use. In many ways, they’re supporting the civic tech movement from within. Etalab are involved in the organising this year’s Open Government Partnership Summit, and as part of that are collating an open government ‘toolbox‘ that could be useful to civic technologists across the world.
From Etalab, I met with Paula Forteza and Emmanuel Raviart, who are doing a great job of ‘being the change’ — including heading down to the Nuit Debout protests (a little like Occupy) to chat with folks to see how technology could help them organise. I like this a lot. I don’t remember the Cabinet Office heading down to Occupy London to do user-testing. Separately, interestingly, I heard that the Nuit Debout folks tried Loomio.org — the online consensus decision-making tool — as an organising platform, but it didn’t quite work for them. You can see some of Nuit Debout collective thinking on digital tools here.
Paula, Emmanuel and I compared notes on the state of open democracy data (results, polling stations etc) in France and the UK, and there was much mutual commiserating… Except that France is beating the UK on polling district and station data, which is coming out soon, so France can have a nationwide polling station finder. Good work. On the downside, they only get candidate data after the elections…
An honourable mention also to Regards Citoyens (one of the more established groups of civic techies in France) for their remarkable project to show how laws evolve over time: La Fabrique de la Loi. It might only be of use to scholars and historians, but hopefully that in turn leads to better informed politicians and journalists, and eventually the people who aren’t politics geeks. The visualisations they produce look a little like this one from Germany, which was part of their inspiration:
One other fun thing worth highlighting is the civic attempts to hack the 2017 presidential and assembly elections. LaPrimaire is an open primary to choose a candidate for president; they’ve 58,000 supporters, 200 people have put themselves forward and 16 have more than 500 supporters (enough to ‘qualify’ in LaPrimaire’s system). MaVoix is taking a slightly different approach — one actually tried in the UK at myStroudMP — they want to elect politicians who will vote on bills as instructed by their constituents. That is, they’re hacking the system to try to deliver a direct democracy. Not sure this is terribly helpful, but it’s all fun experimentation. And they’ve a lovely launch video.
So, why is Paris winning at civic tech?
Resources, and pals in high places
Funding definitely helps: winning the Google Impact Challenge has meant Voxe can do far more than they could before. That $200k funding win means they can have a permanent team, backed with interns* and in a nice work space (sidenote: the workspace was only open to digital companies or organisations founded by women).
*And here’s the other amazing bit: the French government pay for the interns. By taking part in Service Civique, someone from 16-25 can intern in the public interest for 6-12 months and be paid by the state, albeit at a small rate of €500/month, topped up by the benefitting organisation. Interns can study or work at the same time. The net effect of this to charities in France must be vast, particularly to small charities, typical in civic tech, where having another one or two staff could make such a difference. Something like 50,000 young people have been through the service civique process. It’s like the UK’s National Citizen Service on steroids.
The French also have a deputy minister for digital: Axelle Lemaire, who has 130,000 followers on Twitter. Is there UK equivalent to this position? Lemaire does not have her own ministry, but does work out of the French PM’s office, so presumably is taken seriously. A large part of her remit is
to tempt UK start-ups to move to Paris post-Brexit to build a thriving start-up scene in Paris, and if you follow her twitter, you can see that there’s plenty of that going on. However, she’s also a massive boon for the civic tech world, being shadowed for a week by Voxe’s journalist as part of an ‘Open Cabinet’ programme — and taking questions from Voxe’s social media followers. Lemaire is able to give civic tech a voice at a high level of French government.
The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hildago, also seems pretty keen on civic tech, announcing a couple of months ago that Paris will be getting its own version of Civic Hall, the NYC physical space for civic co-working and events. It seems likely this will be combined with the inspiring SuperPublic: a co-working, incubator space for public sector startups.
Related to this, or inspired by this, I just get a sense that the French are more willing to understand that some of these start-up like projects in the civic space won’t find magic business models and will have to be funded by the state. I’m not sure the UK is there yet — I think in the UK we might still be languishing under the illusion that the magic ‘big society’ will solve all. (See Tom Steinberg’s related essay on civic tech + business models.)
Paris’ civic tech products look good. To me at least, they look better than the average civic tech project. In the UK, we’ve noticed that civic projects can attract developers, but less so the designers. And this matters, because civic tech projects are meant to make civic engagement more appealing or easier. So we should worry if a citizen’s first impressions of a product aren’t great — because we may have lost our chance; they’ll immediately switch off. It’s not obvious why design should be better in France — though I have the impression that much of their public design is also good quality (I love the logo for France, for example). Voxe in particular have an advantage in that one of their co-founders is a designer, which has led to a consistent look-and-feel across their applications. But other platforms like Parliament & Citoyens also have a clean, user-friendly feel.
Domain knowledge, and connections
I also think it’s important that Démocratie Ouverte’s founder was a lobbyist with good connections across the political scene. He knows what makes politicians tick, and thus how to get them to take civic tech seriously. I think the most remarkable example of this is Parlement & Citoyens (Parliament & Citizens), which is the sort of Let’s-Involve-Citizens-In-The-Legislative-Process idea that crops up often — why can’t citizens comment on legislation, propose amendments, etc — except that this one is different because it’s actually generated significant engagement. And not just from citizens, but parliamentarians have taken it seriously — to the point where they’re making law from it. Is there anyone in the UK who has skipped out of a lobbying firm to help make democracy better in this way? I’d love to hear about them if so.
On the afternoon that I met Ronan and Martine from Démocratie Ouverte, they’d already spoken to Le Monde that day, an example of another benefit of that central coordination, and of well-connected folks in civic tech: journalists who have 15 minutes to prepare a story know where to go and who to talk to about this stuff.
Timing might have also favoured the French. Their last presidential election took place in 2012 — perhaps late enough that understanding and ideas of civic tech were common enough to be popular, raise money and be taken seriously. In contrast, perhaps the UK’s 2010 General Election was slightly before ‘digital’ was seen as vital or common by media, politicians, funders and citizens themselves.
And if 2012 was the kick off point, where techies across France realised they could be useful, they’ve been thinking about 2017 ever since. All the groups I met were planning for May 2017 already — a good ten months away. That kind of timeline gives you space to collaborate, organise and fundraise. The French presidential election might be the most interesting civic tech-powered election yet.
Lastly, and importantly, Paris is the only place where I met an equal number of women to men working on civic tech. Everywhere else, included the UK, the scene seems to be mainly men. It has this in common with the broader tech sector, but we’ve got to work hard at ending this imbalance.
The next tour stop…
Onwards. Well done Paris. See you at the OGP Summit in December.
Then it was back to Brussels and onto Cologne and Bonn, where I was inspired by the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, or Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education. On this, a lot more to come, hopefully. (Spoiler: I think the UK needs one of these.)
Right now, I’m in Switzerland, writing this on a laptop perched on a picnic table overlooking the Alps. It’s a great place for an office. (Google Earth view here.)
Switzerland is an amazing place to think about governance, federalism and direct democracy, but alas I’ve not actually managed to find anyone who’s working in civic tech to chat to. Happily though, my Swiss pal leant me the book below…which I’ve managed to read, er, the introduction of..
As with the USA, the constitutional design was all about balancing the freedom of the Cantons (the equivalent to States) while having enough federal power to be able to function as a nation-state. And the Swiss get the extra fun of dealing with multiple languages and identities.
After a spot of randonnées en montagne, and a bit of cycling where none should cycle, it’s back on the civic tech trail — to Hamburg, then Berlin. If there’s anywhere that might beat Paris to the civic tech crown, it’s Berlin.