Bursting bubbles

In Vitry-sur-Seine, a municipality in the south of Paris, the new mayor has been voted in last September with just over 20% turnout. Similar results could be observed in most local and departmental elections throughout France, and these cannot just be brought back to the corona crisis. Citizens have lost interest in the affairs of the city, in politics. Considering that mayors represent the political level closest to people, examples like this are a worrying sign for democracy.

Super-citizens and forgotten drawers

“We had in front of us citizens that complained because they felt that their advice was never taken into consideration,” recounts Eric Coquelin, assistant manager of the Citizens’ Participation Service of Grand Paris Sud. “They felt that they worked based on the institution’s request, and then things were either already finalised by the administration services, and in that case they worked for nothing, or that elected representatives didn’t bother reading their reports.”

On the other hand, the administration observed that the citizens who got involved in traditional citizens’ consultation tools, such as the Development Councils, would generally be representative of a narrow slice of the city’s population and would end up working only between themselves, considering themselves as ‘super-citizens’ because of their engagement.

This phenomenon is intimately linked to the format that has shaped traditional consultation, mostly evening meetings, which tend to attract predominantly men and retirees, who have more time on their hands. Based on these observations, Grand Paris Sud started a reflection.

“It’s good to have these already engaged residents, they volunteer a lot of time during the year, and have valuable input,” explains Eric “but we’re missing so many voices. We have to reach out to other audiences – those who wouldn’t come to the institutions themselves – using different models and tools of consultation.”

The knowledge you need is outside

Two years ago, Grand Paris Sud, started experimenting with this idea in the framework of their Development Council. The Development Council is a legal obligation in France for inter-communal entities of more than 50,000 inhabitants – such as the urban area of Grand Paris Sud. At its simplest, it is a group of citizens that advise the elected representatives on either an issue the administration chooses, or an issue the group of citizens considers relevant.

At the same time as Grand Paris Sud was thinking about new ways to involve its citizens, the Development Council was working on a request from the administration on the issue of illegal dumps, and more specifically, the demand to map them. It was the perfect occasion to test new ways of working, to get out of the institutional system and mix audiences, get those people that would have never been involved before.

“We took some city maps, we put them in front of members of the police, elected representatives, inhabitants, technical services in charge of parks and gardens, and we asked them to show us where the illegal dumps were,” describes Eric “very quickly we had them mapped. Because we had called upon people who, either professionally, politically, or just because they had experience of the area, knew what they were talking about.”

The team organised working group meetings, meetings and visits with the elected representatives, and relevant actors, such as the waste department, and co-construction workshops animated by residents. In three months, they had mapped the whole Grand Paris Sud urban area and indicated around 600 illegal dumps. The maps have then been shared with the National Forests Office and the police to discuss solutions together.

Clean-up day at Cesson

“We wanted to show that by uniting, we could do things rapidly and efficiently,” explains Eric. The test phase was successful in showing that by opening up, involving multiple actors, working together, they could achieve quality results and create links between people.

How to get the job done

In September 2019, the president of the urban area, Michel Bisson, decided to make an even stronger commitment to citizens’ participation: the Citizens’ Participation Service was created. The service is run by four employees, manages a total budget of around €18,000 a year, and focuses on facilitating links between residents, businesses, elected official and the administration services around specific issues at the extent of the wider urban area.

With its resources, the service has found different ways to make the most of Grand Paris Sud’s resources. They are the first to put into practice the cooperation culture they preach, from members of the administration that contribute with their skills and time with organising workshops for example, to making the most of venues and tools.

While the coronavirus crisis slowed down the start of the service, it also transformed into an opportunity with the first ‘big’ request coming from the presidency to work on the impact of lockdown on residents, businesses, and more specifically young people. The team got to work and started reaching out to youth actors of the 23 municipalities under the slogan ‘Covid-ton sac’.

Covid-ton sac activity, adolescents exchange thoughts on the lockdown experience

They met youth services, district homes, youth political groups, and co-created and co-animated workshops and activities to engage with young people to collect their reactions to the lockdown. “We worked with them so that the formats and workshops, the tools we created to collect the words of youngsters, would be something interesting and useful for them too,” explains Eric.

In addition to reaching out to young people through youth actors, the team also went looking for them in their own environment: football fields, streets, summer camps… As much as Covid forced the team to move some activities online, they can’t stress enough the impact of going towards people and meeting them in person. “If you don’t create a direct contact with people, they will not come towards the institutions,” insists Eric “People want direct contact, and then they’re ready to stay an hour!”

Their efforts paid off and they reached 419 young people. They also collected a lot of material that they analysed and are ready to share with the participants to continue the process. The next steps will be to prioritise the issues that came out of the activities and identify action points, then create working groups with elected representatives, members of the relevant administrative service, and youth actors.

“What everyone asks for, be it residents, the council, or young people, they want to have some feedback,” says Eric. It is not enough to listen to their needs; it is also necessary to translate them into tangible actions. A process of participation without follow-up would put any future similar processes at risk because of a lack of credibility.

Covid-ton sac activity, youngsters interview each other

Connecting the dots

What the experience of the ‘Covid-ton sac’ reaffirmed to the team is that participative democracy has to be done by co-creating and making links, being transparent with the information, and giving feedback to participants on the concrete impacts of the process.

The first step is to realise that the people and all local actors are the heart of the territory, and to make them realise that too. Everyone will have something to offer and to contribute to. “We invite people to find their place,” explains Eric “they know a lot of people? We ask them if they would like to organise activities. They are skilled communicators? We suggest they help with managing those tools… there’s a lot of possible roles.”

When different actors are brought together, they can inspire each other and express new needs the administration had never thought of. For example, the youth actors taking part in the ‘Covid-ton sac’ experience realised that they should create a network that would cover the whole urban area and exchange experiences, good practices, solutions for common issues or even share spaces. The Citizens’ Participation Service, as facilitator, seized the opportunity to involve the relevant administrative services too.

They also realised that several youth actors had created videos around different themes, and that cinemas managed by Grand Paris Sud had difficulty attracting young people. So, an idea could be to screen the videos in the cinemas as an introduction to films. This would give the adolescents’ work visibility and value, and would entice them to discover inter-communal cinemas.

“There’s a common interest that we identify, and we are here to facilitate,” says Eric “so that people are connected and can work together.” People have good ideas, but often they don’t know how to bring them to life. They don’t know where to start to produce an action plan or even which service to contact, or how to find out if other residents have the same need and would support the idea – that’s where the Citizens’ Participation Service comes in.

Everyone has a voice, everything should leave a trace

When working with diverse groups, a common obstacle is to make sure everyone’s voice gets heard. So, the service’s team adapts the techniques it uses. If some audiences are at ease with the oral form, like taking part in a debate, others might prefer to write their thoughts, or use visual and plastic forms such as drawing, collage or Lego.

Covid-ton sac activity in Saint Germain

“We use different techniques and we adapt them, so that we can guarantee a framework where everyone can express themselves,” notes Eric “the final output must be collective, and include everything that was said.”

This flexibility is strategic in ensuring citizens’ participation. Everything is tailor-made, which also means taking the time to really know the territory and its actors, analyse the issue, and discuss together what would be the best tool to put in place for each specific case. Each phase – reflection, creation, prioritisation, action points or recommendations – each issue and each audience call for different techniques and tool.

“What’s the objective? Where are we in the request? What do we want from participants?” asks Eric, “and from there we make the ‘salad’, structuring the different phases of our work. It can take a day, or it can take months. We have to be able to adapt.”

Another essential part of the participation work is capitalising on each activity. “The danger is that you organise a great activity, and that it remains just a good memory,” warns Eric “always collect all material, oral or physical, to be able to use it for the next steps. Nothing should be lost.”

And if everything goes well “we will have some good practices, we will have lived an adventure together, we will have created relationships and networks,” says Eric “and next time, it will be easier.”

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer