Make local democracy great again

I was riding my bike in Strasbourg, on a cold day in May, when I saw that unusual street poster. Local democracy? Only the strongest survive! – What a provocative saying! Who displays such a poster? … The city of Strasbourg?! WHAAT?!

« Local democracy? Only the strongest survive » – Poster displayed by the city of Strasbourg

I did not want to be eaten up by the lion. So I decided to find out what the city of Strasbourg had in mind… and I had the chance to get involved in a very stimulating project of participatory democracy.

This article is about power, moaners, a ladder and lions.

1 – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité … Democracy?

Democracy has become an issue in France. It is hard to believe for the country of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen – but the fact remains: French democracy is facing a crisis of trust. French citizens find it more and more difficult to trust their representatives. This translates into an increased refusal to vote as well as a systematic questioning of governmental decisions.

Two trends can be observed. On the one hand, more and more citizens choose to express their disappointment and their anger by voting “against the system” and by giving their vote to extreme parties. At the same time, more and more citizens, are willing to become part of the system to change it. They are convinced that decision making can no longer remain in simply going to vote but that citizens should be actively involved in the construction of the world they live in. This is called participatory democracy. And participatory democracy starts at local level.

2 – Local democracy à la Strasbourgeoise

The city of Strasbourg recently decided to experiment with a large project of participatory democracy, with the objective to come up with the new pact for local democracy in Strasbourg. 

Strasbourg la démocrate
« Strasbourg the Democrat » by Laurent Salles

From May to October 2017, citizens were invited to participate in different workshops, co-hosted by both employees of the city of Strasbourg as well as voluntary citizens. Citizens worked together to develop propositions, related to 13 democratic issues, such as participatory budgeting, citizen petitions, online democracy, values of democracy etc.

Workshop about Collaborative management of public space and equipment

The outcome of the various workshops were presented on October 14th 2017 at the Council of Europe, in front of the municipal representatives as well as the citizens.

Citizen Summit at the Council of Europe – October 14th 2017

Strasbourg citizens had then two weeks to attribute points to the different propositions – via an online survey – in order to prioritize which one should be implemented first. Finally, all propositions are going to be gathered into a democratic pact. The city of Strasbourg has committed itself to examining all propositions and implementing all of them, according to their priority, in collaboration with the citizens.

Strasbourg citizens have two weeks to vote for their favorite propositions

I had the chance to get involved in the project at different stages. I took part in the various information meetings organized by the city of Strasbourg, as well as training sessions to learn how to facilitate group discussion. I co-facilitated various workshops, related to the topics Collaborative management of public space and equipment, as well as Getting in touch with the citizens. I also participated in the workshops about the thematic Living together as citizens.

Drawing from this experience, I would like to share some take-away lessons with you. 

3 – Participatory democracy is not self-evident for citizens.

French people are well-known moaners: they are not used to sitting together around a table discussing issues. Talk about participation, workshops, co-construction, and they will gaze wide-eyed at you. Many people I have met are blasés : they have seen the failures of the current democratic system and remain passive towards it since whatever they do, things are never going to change. Other people just do not find the time to get involved – already struggling to find time for themselves in an only 24-hour lasting day. And many people (not to be forgotten) just do not know about participatory democracy at all because they do not understand the political system, they do not have access to information, or they do not master the French language .

Consequently, one of the most difficult parts of the project was to motivate people to get involved. Many citizens attended the first information meeting and registered for the various workshops, however, much fewer people than expected actually came to participate. In the workshops I co-hosted, 60 to 80 people were expected to come to the first session… but only 20-25 were present.

Another issue was to create a long-term dynamic. It was difficult to plan the workshops in accordance with all participants’ schedule. The timing of the project itself came out to be an issue since many workshops had to be planned during the summer holidays – when many citizens were on vacation. As time went by fewer and fewer people came to the workshops. By early September, only 10-15 people were left.

How can we make people want to get involved? How can we motivate them for the long-term? How can we make them understand that they are the key to democracy? This is where the role of political representatives should be questioned…

4 – Participatory democracy is not self-evident either for political representatives.

The exercise of democracy is always a question of balance: how should decision power be split between citizens and their representatives? Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation is an enlightening representation of this issue – which is not new, since Arnstein’s work dates back to the late sixties (almost 50 years ago!).

From symbolic participation…

« I participate; you participate; he participates; we participate; you participate… They profit. »- French Student Poster (May 1968)

Most French political representatives are familiar with three common forms of citizen participation:

  • In accordance with the French law, citizens should be informed of their rights, responsibilities and options. This is called informing. Nevertheless, too frequently, information only goes from officials to citizens, with no place for feedback or negotiation.
  • Citizens should also be regularly consulted through opinion surveys, neighbourhood meetings and public hearings. However, this offers no assurance that citizens’ concerns and ideas will be taken into account: the final decision remains in the hands of the political representatives.
  • Citizens can also have the opportunity to join the boards of public bodies. At this level, citizens begin to have some degree of influence, but the traditional power elite usually holds the majority of the seats, so that citizens can be easily outvoted and outfoxed. In this regard, citizens are – what Arnstein calls – placated.

When participation is restricted to these levels, it often remains a symbolic participation (called tokenism): citizens may have a chance to be heard but the representatives retain the right to decide.

… to citizen empowerment …

Talk about citizen power, most elective representatives will gaze wide-eyed at you and take to their heels, calling you a Revolutionary or – even worst – a Communist. Giving power to the citizens usually scares elective representatives because it involves sharing their decision power. Some representatives simply do not want to lose power: if I was elected, that means I am the one who makes the decisions. Others do not want to change their habits: they do not like alternative forms of decision-making which, according to them, are time-consuming and not efficient. Others do not trust the ability of citizens to make good decisions: what does the average citizen know about urban development, transport planning and school management? Finally, some representatives find the idea appealing but they do not know where to start…

Arnstein describes three forms of citizen power:

  • In case of partnership, power is redistributed through negotiations between citizens and powerholders who agree to share planning and decision-making responsibilities. This can be effective when there is an organized power-base in the community and when the citizens group has the financial resources to pay its leaders, technicians, lawyers etc.
  • One step further on the ladder leads to delegated power: after negotiations between citizens and public officials, representatives accept to transfer their decision power to citizens over a particular plan or program.
  • The top rung of the ladder is citizen control: citizens have a degree of power (or control) that guarantees that they can govern a program or an institution in all policy and managerial aspects.

These three forms of citizen empowerment offer some rather broad ideas to think about: Should decision power be shared or delegated? Which participation strategy fits the best to a project? How to provide citizens with the right tools and knowledge? How to make sure that the process does not fall back to tokenism?

… Sharing power is never easy!

Like many French cities, Strasbourg has several structures dedicated to local democracy: conseils de quartiers (neighbourhood councils), conseil des résidents étrangers (council of foreign residents), conseils citoyens (citizen’s commitees) and conseil des jeunes (youth council). However, both members of the neighbourhood councils as well as representatives of various municipalities note that few citizens are actually involved in those councils. The fact remains: there are few participants and they are always the same. In this regard, Mrs Chantal Cutajar, the municipal deputy in charge of local democracy in Strasbourg, decided to give a new impetus to local democracy by launching the project of a new pact for local democracy in Strasbourg.

Chantal Cutajar a ouvert la voie du sommet citoyen
« Chantal Cutajar paved the way for Citizen Summit » by Laurent Salles

Mrs Cutajar received support from Mr Roland Ries, the mayor of Strasbourg, however her municipal colleagues did not seem to share her enthusiasm about the project. Mrs Cutajar was actually the only municipal representative I met throughout the various project stages. Where were the others?

The fact is that municipal representatives did not take part in the workshops. The argument was that citizens should feel free to talk and that the presence of municipal representatives may have restrained them. Therefore, representatives met together in a separate workshop, in which citizens were not allowed to participate. I can understand the argument and also the risk of potential conflicts arising between citizens and representatives, brought together in the same workshop. However, looking back on the project, I do believe now that the presence of representatives would have been a strong symbol, proving both their interest for the project and their will to contribute to greater citizen participation. Citizens would have had the opportunity to meet representatives out of their glass tower and to see that constructive discussion with politicians is possible. On the other hand, representatives would have had the opportunity to realize that Mr or Mrs Average can also have very interesting ideas and that sharing decision power does not mean losing political stature.

I would be interested to know why representatives did not want to take part in the citizen workshops. Ego? Fear? Busy? Blasé? … Who knows?

5 – Constructive discussion is not self-evident.

The last take-away lesson I would like to share with you is about lions. If you want people to discuss a matter together, you cannot just sit around a table and throw a discussion topic in the middle. People will start acting like lions and tear each other apart. I do believe now that efficient co-working plays a central role in the process of participatory democracy. In this regard, the city of Strasbourg came up with two very interesting ideas.

First, workshops had to be co-hosted by at least a municipal agent and a voluntary citizen. I found this approach particularly relevant because it broke the traditional codes. I was no longer passive but actively involved in the process, working along with the team of municipal experts in charge of promoting participatory democracy in Strasbourg. It was a real chance for me to learn from their experience and to get to know how a municipality works. In participatory democracy, representatives have a key role to play, but they also need a solid team of experts on which they can rely on.

Second, the city of Strasbourg financed two training sessions for the future hosts, both municipal experts and voluntary citizens, so that they could learn how to facilitate group discussions. What is facilitation? It is actually a French word that means: making things easier. This is exactly what a facilitator does: creating an environment where every participant can collaborate, innovate and excel. The facilitator should remain neutral during the meeting – like a midwife, he just helps deliver the baby.

Being a good facilitator is not easy but it is not reserved for gifted speakers or big mouths. Facilitation is a discipline that requires training, appropriate tools and practise. The training sessions made me completely rethink my perception of what a fruitful workshop could be like. Very simple things can make a great difference: divide the audience into small groups, opt for a room structuration that favours interaction, agree on interaction guidelines etc. With a little practise, meetings can turn into unique experiences, using original techniques, such as the six thinking hats, snowball brainstorming, idyllic VS worst case scenario etc.

Yes, there will be some moaners, there will be some lions. But the facilitator is here to let them moan and roar at the right time. Good facilitation aims at fostering constructive discussion, not consensus. In a way, a good facilitator accepts to lose parts of its traditional host power and responsibilities, to share it with its audience. And it works, amazingly.

6 – So what?

The workshops are now over. Citizens came up with 30 propositions. We all meet at the Council of Europe. But what comes next?

First, it is important to understand what went right and what went wrong. I personally see the project as a great human experience that gave me the opportunity to meet and work with people from various neighbourhoods and backgrounds: this is the first thing I retain from the adventure. Nevertheless, many things did not work as expected. One of the key questions to be answered is: why did so few people actually come to the workshops? In this regard, the city of Strasbourg decided to build an evaluation committee, including workshop hosts and municipal experts, in order to assess the project so far. I am part of that committee and eager to see which lessons we will be able to draw.

Second, I believe it is important to realize that October 14th 2017 is actually the start of the project. The hard work begins today. How are the various propositions going to be implemented? Where? When? By who, with who, for who? And the unavoidable question: How much will it cost? Representatives, municipal experts and citizens will all need to come to action and encourage more and more citizens to join the project and make the new pact for local democracy in Strasbourg a success, so much so that it is not filed and forgotten.

With this, good night and good luck!

* * *

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