The paradoxical distancing of res publica

In Pew Research Center’s global annual report for 2007 [1], the majority of Europeans (70% of the Germans and Italians, 52% of the French and Spanish, but only 42% of the British, 33% of the Swiss – and the Americans) feel that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” And more than 60% of them believe that «the state controls too much of our daily lives». In a January 2007 survey conducted by CSA and Le Parisien on the place where they would be ready to get involved in finding solutions to the problems faced in their country, 71% of French chose charitable organizations, 13% a political party, and 11% a trade union [2].

These are but a few of the many signs that citizens are growing increasingly distant from their democratic institutions. It’s a paradoxical distancing, one to be rued, but one that is proved by several different phenomena: the ability of the French people to collectively mobilize when it comes to specific hot-topic issues, in the face of natural disasters, or in order to influence a local proposal, the French population’s participation record in the 2007 election, in which the two candidates had rehabilitated a kind of political voluntarism, or, looked at from another angle, the tendency to hold elected figures legally responsible for the consequences of both their actions and their lack thereof.

“Citizen” networks

Citizens’ daily politics are increasingly being constructed around networks, often with the aid of the Internet and mobile phones. Text messaging changed the result of elections in the Philippines in 2001 and in Spain in 2004. In the face of the failure of their institutions when confronted with the consequences of Hurricane Katrina, the Americans turned towards the Internet to swap news and share initiatives. Blogs are keeping democratic protest alive in China, despite the fact that theyare monitored by the government. Elsewhere, blogs are the sources of alternative information, and political videos banned from TV appear on Youtube. And everywhere, elected leaders are confronted with often informal, but network-informed and organized groups who oppose their plans. Networks have become the support system of new kinds of mobilisation and new counter-powers. But they have not replaced the traditional powers (or media) in existence. And they are yet to become the sites of political construction, stakeholders in the governance of an increasingly complex world.

Getting a Grasp on the Future

It’s what modern politics is all about: opening the way to the future, creating and using tools for action to change things about our complex society, which involves a great many actors, where information circulates between more educated opinions, where the local influences the global and vice versa, where the national is still important to citizens, even while its sphere of action gets smaller. And managing all that with its citizens. The acceptance of such a challenge necessitates a “new contract” between democratic institutions and networked citizens, and, doubtless, a new relationship to ones geographic territory.

A “new contract” between democratic institutions and networked citizens

The institutions have to take the first step and make the information they have, the models they use, the ways they make their decisions, their criteria, and their evaluation methods visible and accessible. It is no longer a matter of commissions and experts, but of inventing “open governance interfaces” that are open to networked citizens.

  • Provide access to the information and tools the institutions use to decide and evaluate their actions.
  • Implicate citizens and their networks before (and after) making a decision; both in institutionally created spaces and by recognizing the forums for debate that are outside the institutions and do not necessarily abide by the same rules.
  • Integrate the richness and complexity of network practices: valorise the diversity of opinion without necessarily requiring majority-approved ideas: get personally involved in the exchange, analyse the debate in question in a regular way, dare to expose the unfinished steps of your thought process.
  • Create “mediation» positions to facilitate dialogue and establish mutual trust between institutions and networks.

Legitimize citizen networks

To become actors in collective decision-making, citizen networks have to acquire certain legitimizing characteristics. Networks are not the only place of citizen intervention, nor do they represent all citizens, nor are they immune to manipulation, or more or less visible power grabbing by lobbies and “professional citizens.” Debate within them can be sterile. How do we make actors out of these networks, without taking away their informal and unorganized side and thereby institutionalizing them? A few suggestions follow:

  • Inform citizens, from a very young age, thus helping them better understand the factors weighing in on the decision and be more efficient stakeholders in this network exchange.
  • Capitalise on the “best practices” of internal network governance, starting with the experience of major citizen networks such as Wikipedia. A “Creative Democracy” label has been proposed.
  • Invent the tools of analysis that will allow us to spot manipulation, disinformation, and masked intervention on the part of lobbies. Think of how political groups’ trying to change Wikipedia articles has been revealed.
  • Design development, research and training tools that will allow us to extract the common themes, major ideas and blips on the horizon, moments of shared and of differing opinion, etc.

«United Networks»: encouraging the emergence of a global agora of “citizen networks

The scale of the stakes of governance and the future is most often a continental or global one. Networks can open up borders, but then will run into problems relating to language, cultural difference, and control – problems that nation states have learned to manage to their advantage. In order for networks to be integrated into global governance, their infrastructures must allow them to operate more simply at this level. If they cannot manage this alone, there are institutions that could help them:

  • Develop translation software and services
  • Help create “mixed» forums for debate, bringing together the physical and the virtual.
  • Develop the tools and software mentioned above in a multilingual context.