'Global policy-making can greatly benefit from the expertise of regular citizens'

Antoine VergneCIVICUS speaks to Antoine Vergne, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Missions Publiques, an impact-driven organisation that seeks to improve policy-making at the local, national and global levels by bringing the voices of citizens into policy discussion and negotiations. Missions Publiques is guided by the conviction that collective intelligence will emerge from constructive, non-partisan forums when winner/loser mentalities are put aside and everyone is given the chance to access balanced information on a topic, speak out and share their perspectives with fellow citizens to form an opinion.

When was Missions Publiques founded, and what does it do?

Missions Publiques was founded 20 years ago, and it was initially targeted at supporting public transport operators to understand what their end-users really wanted. Its driving idea was a simple one – to ask users what kind of service they needed, and to feed their input into service delivery. While working on that, Missions Publiques soon broadened its understanding of the issues at stake and started viewing people as citizens and not just as users of public services – that is, as people capable of having a role in public debate and shaping public policy. That meant not just surveying users’ needs – it meant involving citizens in the complexities of public policy and having them work within the constraints of policy-making, including for instance the need to make trade-offs. We progressively designed processes for citizen participation and deliberation to help citizens shape policy. In this second phase we gained a lot of experience in citizen participation at the local level – not just in France, where we started, but around the world. And on phase three, about five years ago, we started thinking about how to scale this up. We faced two questions in this regard: how to go up from the local to the regional, European, and global levels; and how to improve the quality of the process, and specifically to increase its impact on policy-making.

Would you say that, as a result of moving from seeing people as users to citizens, and from the local to global level, your work has become more political over time?

I think it was always political. What shifted in our perspective was that citizen participation became a political objective in itself. It became something that should be achieved independently of the goodwill of the public authority, and something that all stakeholders have to take into account. That is what we push for in our work. So we designed processes that produce input that other actors cannot just ignore – we want them to see the value of the results for their strategy and action.

How have you ensured informed citizen participation, in a context of increasing manipulation through disinformation?

Deliberation is at the heart of our process. We take a diverse sample of the population, including gender and various other elements of diversity depending on the country. What we get is a diverse group of 20, 50, or 100 people. These people meet face to face and they enter a dialogue with others who have perspectives and opinions that may be very different from their own. In a way, we push them to listen to diverse opinions, to enter a conversation and try to understand and work through the differences to find common ground and issue policy recommendations. Face-to-face interaction is very important – this is a conversation among people rather than a battle of ideas.

In this process, the provision of information is key. We want people to form their opinions on the basis of facts. For example, on climate change, people need to become familiar with data about impacts, emissions, mitigating measures and so on. We provide them with background documents and educational videos. Also, before the debate we interview experts and people in the street and find very different opinions on the topic, and we put those up to debate, so participants are aware of the wide range of positions that the expert community and other citizens may have on the issue and take them into consideration. That way, we also give them room to defend positions that may not be mainstream or the most politically correct ones. Of course, we have red lines that cannot be crossed, such as racism, but we encourage citizens to share and confront views.

In the case of very controversial topics, we are careful to have experts in the room at all times, so people can refer to them and ask further questions. We did this, for instance, when dealing with the issue of atomic waste in France. After clarifying the terms of the debate, we ask participants to hold a discussion to determine priorities and policy choices. And the group dynamics allows for corrections – so if opinions are expressed at the table that go against the facts, they will be rectified by other people.

In sum, I would say there are three key elements to the process: random selection, face-to-face interaction and information quality. All of this allows for the formulation and exchange of strong reasons. This is quite different from the kind of interactions that you would find on social media or the kind of results produced by opinion polls.

Can you tell us more about your experience scaling up your methodology to the global level, specifically on climate issues ahead of the COP 21 Climate Change Summit?

The idea of scaling to the global level began around 2012 or 2013, when we were working with the French government on energy transition. Climate issues need to be dealt at the global level, and they should not be addressed only by governments, bureaucrats and private companies, because they concern all citizens. Citizens’ views should be heard at the global level and any agreement on climate change should integrate input from citizens.

To provide a platform for citizens to be heard, Missions Publiques worked on a project called World Wide Views on Climate and Energy, alongside three other organisations –the Danish Board of Technology Foundation, the Secretariat of the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and France’s National Commission for Public Debate (CNDP). Through this project, 97 debates were held in 76 countries – 30 in Africa, 15 in the Americas, 18 in Asia and Oceania and 13 in Europe. Overall, they involved 10,000 citizens around the world. We were particularly careful to hold debates in several island countries that are already suffering the effects of global warming. This was the largest-ever global citizens’ consultation, and it was done on the road to the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, COP 21.

In each of the selected countries, a sample of 100 citizens representing the larger population in key aspects, such as gender, age and socio-professional category, attended a day-long event on 6 June 2015. They received information and discussed in small groups five main controversies surrounding COP 21. Throughout the day they answered questions that were aggregated at national and global levels.

The report with the aggregated results of these consultations was a call of action for our leaders, and was presented and defended before the policy-makers involved in the UNFCCC’s negotiations in the six months prior to COP 21 and during the Paris Summit, in late November and early December 2015. As it turned out, 78 per cent of the citizens who participated in the debates said they were very concerned about climate change, 71 per cent considered that climate negotiations so far had not yielded enough results, and 63 per cent concluded that the Paris Agreement should contain a commitment to keep global warming below 2˚C. The consultations provided insights regarding the preferred tools to fight climate change, including a carbon tax, and about how to distribute efforts fairly among countries. An overwhelming majority considered that the Paris Agreement should contain binding goals and that all countries should publish annual reports on their emissions and progress made. It was also interesting to see that citizens did not care so much about historical emissions, and thought that states should focus on solving the problem rather than blaming one another for something that was already done.

What did you learn from this experience? Did you make any adjustments as a result?

First and foremost, we confirmed that this was a valuable process to feed into global discussions. The protocol that was applied, in which participants from very different countries follow the same steps and rules, and discuss the same issues in a similar setting, does work. As well as participating with enthusiasm, the citizens who took part in the consultations, who had been randomly selected and therefore could be considered ‘average’ in many ways, did so with a remarkable degree of sophistication. This confirmed that regular citizens have a lot to offer when it comes to policy-making – the expertise of non-experts is something that policy-makers can greatly benefit from if they take it into account.

We also learned that decentralisation works. For this project we were based in Berlin, Copenhagen and Paris, and worked as coordinators of a network of national partners. We did capacity-building and training, provided the protocol and all the discussion materials, and gave subgrants so our partners could hold the debates in their own countries. This is very efficient and allows us to scale our activities to as many countries as required.

But the main thing that we learned that forced us to make some adjustments was that it is not enough for us to be convinced that the process is good and its results are valuable – it is also necessary to gain trust and ownership by stakeholders. We are now working, also on a global scale, on the future of the internet and on autonomous mobility (driverless vehicles), and we are also preparing another round of consultations on climate. But now we start by putting together a coalition of global players that have a stake in the topic. On the internet issue, for instance, we have been working for over a year with a group including the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the European Commission, the German and Swiss governments, the Wikimedia Foundation, Mozilla and Google – that is, organisations and agencies that have the question of internet governance on their agendas – and together we are discussing what kinds of topics to present and what questions to ask the citizens of the world. The outcomes of our work have a stronger impact now that all stakeholders are involved throughout the process. It is more likely that they will react to them, and even use them as a point of reference when dealing with the issues. That is why we are also putting a lot more resources into disseminating our results and findings.

How do you make sure that the outcomes of these debates are in fact taken into account in policy-making?

It is all about integrating the policy ecosystem. Key stakeholders are aware that the process is taking place, because they have played a role in designing it, and once the results have been systematised we send them back to them so that they know what citizens’ positions are on the issues. We deliberately choose not to have a strong advocacy voice, because our advocacy is about the value of the process and whatever comes out of it rather than about a specific policy position that might or might not emerge from the process. In theory, if people say that climate change is not an issue for them, we would come back to stakeholders and let them know that is what citizens think. But of course, that was not the case, and it turned out that citizens really cared about this issue and were aware of its seriousness and urgency. But it was proving to policy-makers that the citizen debate process was useful that allowed us to move a step further. As a result, the follow-up consultation to the Grand Débat in France will move beyond the day-long citizen debate model and towards the citizens’ assembly model, an iterative process that puts 150 citizens to work on a topic over the course of six months.

The Grand Débat was launched by the French government in response to the recent protests, to offer a forum for people to have an open dialogue with their government. It allowed people to organise debates for a neighbourhood, town, or region, with the support of the CNDP, which provided kits and presentations to help organisers lead conversations. To help inform the questions posed during the Grand Débat, the government previously asked citizens to lodge complaints about whatever they wanted with their local mayors. A dedicated website was also provided for those who wanted to participate online.

Do you see these processes as having the potential for improving the quality of democracy?

These processes can improve the quality not only of democratic policy-making but also of policy-making or governance more generally. For instance, the Chinese government has put together many deliberative processes to get a feedback loop from the population and improve service delivery, without legalising organised political opposition. This is an interesting development, as it shows that you don’t even need to have democracy as a goal to see the value of these processes. In fact, lots of traditional processes in various cultures around the world rely on discussions similar to the ones we hold, based on the idea that issues need to be examined from different points of view and various arguments need to be reviewed before reaching a decision. Twenty-first century governance may have a lot more to learn from older, traditional processes than from the model of representative democracy. Delegating all decision-making power on all issues on someone for four or five years is obviously not working for us. So most certainly, if one takes the normative point of view of broadening democracy, these processes do have the potential to improve democratic quality by providing citizens with the tools for informed deliberation.

What can civil society learn from your model of citizen engagement and incubation of debate?

As we were preparing the debate on climate, we were surprised to experience strong reactions against it from some civil society actors. Some specialised organisations claimed to know what people actually wanted on these issues, or seemed to believe that they represented people’s best interests and there was no need to ask. This is one of the shortcomings that organised civil society still sometimes faces and needs to fight against. Civil society organisations do not always look for feedback from the people whose interests, perspectives and rights they claim to represent. This is understandable because when acting in UN forums and taking up the seats for civil society in international spaces you may get to think of yourself as a representative with delegated authority. But civil society is not representative in that way, so it does need this feedback loop to not get out of touch with citizens. Fortunately, this is changing. Year after year we have found more interest in these structured processes on the part of civil society and many organisations are beginning to use them to overcome what they now perceive as a limitation and even a legitimacy gap in their work.

Get in touch with Missions Publiques through its website and LinkedIn page, or follow @MPubliques and @AVAntoineVergne on Twitter.