Dialogue conjures up solutions

1 June 2021

How do local authorities ensure people’s participation nowadays? While most people still feel uncertain and excluded from public decisions, many show their desire to participate more actively through protests or other forms of civic expression. While people have lost faith in voting as the only way to contribute to our democratic societies, they have become more interested in a ‘hands-on’ approach. From local authorities’ point of view, user expertise is becoming more and more important: promoting common sense and everyday experience, but also affirming a more sensitive and often offbeat citizen point of view.

Against this complex backdrop, Nantes has worked on improving public decision making using the concept of the ‘commons’. Initially applied to civil society initiatives that promoted joint management and governance of resources by a community to share, defend, preserve or improve these resources, the concept is increasingly catching on with local authorities. Local institutions are seeking to develop forms of public/communal partnership as a way of revitalising the democratic exercise and as a mode of public action: a new management mode, neither public nor private, which redefines the contours of public action and the modes of intervention of the administration.

Bassem Asseh, Deputy Mayor in charge of participatory democracy in Nantes has given us a preview of Nantes’ approach. To know more register to the upcoming city dialogue on the Commons as new paths for public action in the city.

Citizen participation and engagement has become a hot topic as many cities develop their own ways of involving their residents, what’s specific about Nantes approach?

In Nantes, we call it Citizen Dialogue, and it consists in a dialogue between citizens, elected officials, and civil servants. All three equally participate in the dialogue, meaning that the topics and issues that we are discussing and trying to solve can be identified either by the civil servants, the elected officials, or by the citizens themselves.

This approach has two main objectives: to make sure that our public policies are more efficient, simply because they are answering the needs of the citizens in a more clear manner; and to consolidate social cohesion, because through dialogue, through solving issues people care for together, they get to talk to people they wouldn’t have talked to otherwise.

How did Nantes start this approach?

The approach is not new, we started experimenting with it in small parts of projects from the early 2000s. At the time it was not something very official. Since my previous mandate, in 2014, when I became in charge of citizen dialogue, we have been deploying this approach in many domains. It doesn’t mean that we have been doing all our projects following this method, there are still some limitations.

It’s important that the project allows us to implement the citizens’ dialogue approach. Basically, the blanker the page, the better it is for citizens’ dialogue because we manage expectations compared to what we are able to do. If we want citizens to participate, and continue to do so, they need to feel that what they have participated with has had an impact and it was not just a waste of time.

How does it work? What does the process look like?

The ideal situation, which does not apply every time in its entirety, depends on the conditions of the project. There might be technical limitations or legal ones getting in the way. Ideally, the process starts with either us, as elected officials, civil servants or residents identifying a problem. The approach is mainly about problem solving. Once the problem is identified, the municipality gives a mandate to a group of residents to discuss how to solve it.

The mandate consists of one or more questions, and the idea for the group of residents is to be able, either on its own, if the topic is simple, or with the help of some expert, if the topic is more complex, to answer the questions. The group takes the necessary time to analyse the problem and to identify their solution to the mandate that we have given them.

Then a civil servant analyses the residents’ proposal and evaluates what’s feasible, what isn’t, in legal terms, technically and financially. The municipality’s response to the residents’ proposal is then made public so that the residents’ time and contribution is valued. We usually end up with a project developed based on the groups’ proposal, at least to a certain extent.

What’s a concrete example where this approach was used successfully?

For example, a project could be a health centre. In Nantes we have the need for a health centre in a vulnerable neighbourhood. We will not decide on our own what kind of features this health centre is supposed to include. We will instead ask the health professionals and the people who live in the area and would be the users of the centre. They will work together with experts during the design phase of the project to meet their needs and identify the features that the health centre should have.

Only after that will we do the technical design of the health centre, based on their input, build it, then open it to the professionals and patients. That’s the main idea. What we ask citizens to do is to work on the design phase in order to design as closely as possible to what the citizens would be expecting as users.

Another example is the complete reconfiguration of a public space in the city centre of Nantes, the Place de la Petite Hollande, which currently is an open space parking. We want to change the space, but we don’t want to decide what to do with it without taking into account what the citizens want and feel it’s needed instead.

So, we recruited a panel of 30 citizens, half randomly chosen, and half volunteers. We also made sure the people came from different areas of the city and not only from the area directly around the square. This means that the decisions are made not only by those who are immediately impacted, but we are taking into account also the impact to people living in Nantes and the wider metropolitan area, including their needs and values.

There’s more of course, but these examples give you an idea. Some projects are about building, some about redesigning, sometimes they are smaller too. These projects take years to put together, but we have projects that can be done in a few months. And in some cases, residents want to be involved in the implementation of the project too. For example, in the case of abandoned green spaces in between buildings, if some citizens want to take care of it, we provide them with the legal and technical guidelines and the materials to do so and empower them to realise the project. This also creates social cohesion and it’s important to us.

What are common barriers that you encounter within the citizens’ dialogues?

I’m very enthusiastic about the citizen dialogue approach, because I’m 100% sure that our decisions are much better when taken with the citizens. But I also know that there are limitations to this way of doing things.

For example, when we have limited margin for action. When you know from the start that, for technical or legal reasons, you won’t be able to consult with residents, it’s better to not do it and be clear about it. Otherwise you’ll create expectations that will be disappointed, and won’t come back next time. We don’t want that, we want to keep a virtuous circle going.

Another challenge is to keep the input diverse. We don’t want to involve only the people who have time to participate, because we would limit ourselves to a certain category of the sociology of the city. That’s why we use the random selection. We ‘voluntell’ people based on those who are registered to the water services, which means we involve all people who live in the city, whatever their citizenship and nationality.

For the same reason we try to tackle a variety of topics, because based on the topic you’ll attract different groups of people. Typically, when you talk about a health centre, you’ll attract a different group compared to the one who would be interested in redesigning the public plaza in the centre of Nantes.

Another risk is to reach out to the same group of people asking them too much time and energy. At some stage they will stop coming, and that’s not what we want either. So, pluralism is very important. It’s not a lobbying exercise, so we need it to be as democratic as possible, and for that we need to have a variety of points of view. To make sure to collect a variety of voices, we also have to make participants comfortable. Most people feel more empowered if the group remains small, for example. We have found that 30 people is a good group, more than that is difficult.

Based on your experience in Nantes, what motivates municipalities to integrate such an approach in their way of working?

You need elected officials to be sponsoring this way of doing things. If they are not sponsoring it, embracing it and taking it to the top, it will not work. We are lucky because here in Nantes, when Johanna Rolland became mayor for the first time in 2014, her whole campaign was built around this way of doing things. So, the impulse came from the mayor herself and then trickled down to all the deputies and elected officials. If that weren’t the case, we would have had a much more difficult job to reach our level of citizen participation.

One of Nantes innovations is to allocate a specific department to citizen dialogue. How does this department work?

We do have a specific department for citizen dialogue, but it is not doing everything related to citizen dialogue alone. The team works more like internal consultants for all the other departments of the city and the metropolitan area. They bring their knowledge and their skills, give guidelines, but it’s each department’s choice to take advantage of this resource.

So, the citizen dialogue department is mainly about supporting colleagues from other departments to apply the method to their specific case. If it were responsible for all things related to citizen dialogue it would become a bottleneck and we don’t want that. We want every department to use the method with its own expertise, because depending on if you are talking about public space or roads or water management or waste, the citizen dialogue method needs to be adapted to the particularities of the specific department.

You have mentioned experimentation as a guiding principle of the citizens engagement in your work, are there other principles to highlight? 

The most important principle when you start a process like this is that you need to inform all participants about what the rules are. Be clear about expectations to avoid disappointment. Basically, be open and transparent.

Openness and transparency also means that we are able to provide citizens with all the data that we have gathered. Depending on the size of the project we share the data and the content we have, to provide the citizens with as much information to make an educated response to the issue we asked them to discuss and come up with a solution for.

Openness can seem a bit naive to say, especially when you talk to people in politics, but we mean open collaboration between citizens, civil servants, and elected officials. My impression is that it allows everybody’s job to be done better.

Want to find out more about Nantes and their citizens’ participation strategy? Register to the city dialogue.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer