10 thoughts: Commission on Public Debate conference, Paris

My “Slee blog” – ten instant personal reflections – on the Colloque CNDP, in Paris, an international (but largely French) conference on public participation.
1. Superficially, at least, the French and UK debates seemed fairly similar – same issues and similar questions being asked overall. But the French participants seemed to feel that their participation efforts were very top down – more than elsewhere (not sure how true that is)
2. The CNDP – a government funded supervisor and organiser of public debate – is an interesting structure, but one that needs to be brought up to date. It may need to broaden its remit, but the question is how and in which direction. There are multiple roles “in the middle” between public and government, and I’ll write a longer piece about the options for that shortly.
3. There are several organisations similar to Demsoc in France, but most seem to be working more like think tanks. We’ll be keeping up the conversation with a couple of them.
4. Politicians in France are just as confused by how to handle the demand for participation as politicians in the UK. They’re starting to understand the need, but still grasping for the method.
5. It’s strange to be in a conversation on participation and not know anyone in the room. It gave me a strong flashback to four years ago when Demsoc was just starting out. Not an unpleasant experience, but a reminder of how difficult it is to keep even half an eye on all the work that’s going on in the democracy sector.
6. I need to get better at speaking French if I’m going to be able to get into the conversation. More generally, democracy needs local language as well as local knowledge – but also needs to be joined up across linguistic and regional/national borders. One of the biggest problems, and machine translation won’t crack it.
7. The missing participant was Government (a strange thing to say, perhaps, when the entire event was run by a Government body). There were various of ministers and others giving their view, but there wasn’t a sense that proper participation demands different behaviours and attitudes in government, developed in parallel with citizen capacity.
8. Croissants in Starbucks in Paris (where someone wanted to meet me before the event) are the saddest thing in the world.
9. The format was rather staid – many people on stage talking, then questions at the end. There were a couple of side events (which unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to) that seemed a bit more open, but overall it was a bit “sage on the stage”. A participation conference should model the behaviour it wants to see.
10. Perhaps the difference I felt between British and French conversations on participation was the “republican-ness” of the French debate. There was a sense that participation was an essential civic act rather than something consumerist (as it can be in the UK) – but at the same time there was a feeling that the Republic therefore ought to be making the running. There was a lot of what the state should do, and not much about what we should do, in other words.

Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.