This interview is part of a series of 12 expert interviews on the future of digital democracy. You can download the full white paper with interviews here.

CitizenLab – “Where do you see Civic Tech in 5 years?”

Paula Forteza – “In five years, I think that Civic Techs will be firmly rooted in the political landscape – but only if they manage to solve three main challenges:

  1. First of all, they must be able to unlock institutional blockages, and open up spaces for citizen participation with real impact. The Gilets Jaunes movement has shown that citizens want to be heard by the government, and want to have official channels to participate in decision-making. The current democratic and institutional system does not provide that. Citizens are pleading for private petition platforms (, mesopinions, etc.) to fill this gap, but these tools are not yet powerful enough to truly impact public policy. In order to address this need for change, new regulation around citizen participation was passed at the National Assembly in 2019, allowing a more responsive right of petition. From now on, procedures will be automatically triggered when a critical threshold of signatures is reached.
  2. The second challenge is creating digital tools which can adapt to the different participation types and needs of our changing society. A more deliberative democracy is gradually developing alongside tools like citizens’ assemblies and initiatives such as the grand Débat National or the citizens’ convention for the climate. However, we’re still lacking the tools for these new forms of participation, whether we’re talking about engagement or about analysis. Democracy and politics are based on dialogue and deliberation. Today, meaningful dialogue with citizens cannot take place only on digital channels These digital tools must also adapt to the ways in which our youth interact, with their new language, and their new types of communication. Civic tech must be able to “gamify” the participation process to attract young people, give them the opportunity to engage and participate through images, gifs, videos, sound… The democracy of the 21st century must resemble the society of its time. 
  3. It is also necessary to create civic tech tools that are ethical and open. We cannot hand over the keys of our democracies to black boxes. It is therefore essential to base all these tools be based on free software. Civic tech tools raise fundamental questions about the exercise of democratic sovereignty in the digital age. They must precisely avoid repeating the mistakes made social networks, namely centralized models without any democratic control or transparency…. Today, only 40% of our citizens say they trust digital tools, and only 35% trust social networks. We need to rebuild the citizenship pact and rebuild trust by ensuring full transparency of the processes implemented and by ensuring democratic governance. We need to think of Civic Techs as common goods, rather than as a business model.  I am thinking for example of Decidim, the free software used by the city of Barcelona to allow online and face-to-face participation, which is open source, with democratic governance and institutional impact”. 

C – “What lessons can be drawn from the Grand Débat? How can this process be implemented in a more permanent way?”

PF – “The Grand Débat was launched by the President to rebuild dialogue with citizens, with the aim to reexamine our democracy and the ways in which citizens can be included in development of public policies. While the overall participation figures were encouraging – more than 1.9 million contributions, 10,134 meetings with more than 500,000 participants and more than 630 pages in the comment books placed in townalls over the country – demonstrating the importance of this type of exchange, we must nevertheless go further and invent tools with binding mechanisms, allowing a direct impact on decision-making. The existing mechanism has somewhat shown its limits. Taking into account so many contributions is extremely complex and difficult to scale. Analysing millions of contributions has been difficult both in terms of process and tools used. It is important to remember that today consultation is done through elections or polls, two methods which only allow for closed questions and answers and prevent new ideas from emerging. We must therefore find a third, freer, more open way to carry out citizen consultations.

I think that the ongoing Citizens’ Climate Convention [following ideas expressed during the Grand Débat, a citizen assembly on climate was launched in France in late 2019] is a good example of what can be achieved in terms of citizens implication and transparency: participants received training on the topic, a representative sample of people was selected, participants are looked after. I am convinced that we need to ask citizens about issues that will really have an impact on their daily lives, and climate is one of them. This is why I am today advocating for the creation of a citizens’ assembly on the place of new technologies in our society. This would be a unique opportunity to carry out a rigorous impact analysis on various topics such as facial recognition, digital identity, personal data…”

“To rebuild the bond of trust, change must come from within institutions”

Paula Forteza

C – “In a time of mistrust and legitimacy crisis, how is it possible to create trust in online spaces where citizens and governments interact?”

PF – “Civic technologies are playing a role in  modernizing our democracies. The tools we use to allow that type of dialogue must be trustworthy, and therefore transparent. The trust citizens place in these platforms will depend on the level of transparency and control we have over participation tools.

Going beyond the platform, the conversations must also lead to co-construction and not be an alibi for consultation. But  it’s important not to be naïve – digital will not be a magical solution. To rebuild the bond of trust between citizens and government, the impetus for change must come from the institutions, as part of a long-term commitment to openness and more regular collaboration with citizens. More participation in our decision-making bodies requires more time, more resources and therefore a real political will”.

C – “Despite the ‘open data by default’ law, there are still few examples of citizens seizing data sets published by the government and local authorities. How do we encourage innovative use of this data?”

PF – “The Law for a Digital Republic did indeed establish open data as a default principle more than 3 years ago. Its application is still rather partial: less than 8% of the local authorities directly concerned by the law have opened at least dataset. Not all of them, of course, are reused by citizens or companies for many reasons: lack of homogeneity, lack of visibility on their long-term availability, insufficient quality… The reuse of public information is a right, but not a duty. Datasets issued by the administration have generally been produced for specific business needs and are therefore not always adapted or easy to reuse.

Some instances of public service have gone a step further by publishing data outside of business logics, aimed solely at sharing information with citizens. Hackathons can encourage citizens to reuse certain datasets : I created the “datafin” hackathon in 2018 to explore the state’s financial data, and in 2019 we organised a hackathon to explore nearly 2 million contributions to the Great Debate. More broadly,  I believe it is important to enable citizens to develop the skills needed to use data, in particular by continuing to invest in digital education from an early age”.

C – “Between distrust and cooperation, where do you think the the relationship between governments and GAFAs will be in 5 years?”

PF – “The question is interesting, but in 2025 I think we’ll be looking at this differently. By then, the question won’t be whether we need to cooperate or to challenge – it’ll be knowing how much we want to shape our own tools, and how much citizens should be involved. We need to decide now whether we want to continue with a centralised, capital-intensive digital model, or whether we want to invest in a decentralised and greener Internet.

In the past few years, European politicians have failed to truly grasp the economic, technological and cultural power of large technology companies. It wasn’t until the latest major scandals involving the surveillance and malicious exploitation of personal data that public players finally reacted – but even then, regulations were too slow and inadequate. Because of a lack of political will and a lack of resources at their disposal, European states failed to counter the domination of the digital economy by American, Chinese or BATX companies.

“We need to decide now whether we want to continue with a centralised, capital-intensive digital model, or whether we want to invest in a decentralised and greener Internet.”

Paula Forteza

This series of scandals was a turning point. Since then, European States have taken the full measure of the dangers GAFA could represent for our economies and societies, and have been working on more appropriate measures to regulate them. The RGPD has been a great success – it has enabled an ambitious framework on a European scale which now serves as a reference on an international level. The EU did not have this kind of power 10 years ago – but the voluntarism of the administrations and regulators have led to recognition of new rights for citizens. Generally speaking, the States and the European Union are cooperating to better regulate the digital economy. The European Commission for instance recently worked with the national courts to combat the infringements of competition law by these Californian companies.

It is only with a clear framework and a long-term European-wide strategy that we’ll be able to cooperate with GAFAs on issues such as data processing, transparency of algorithms or the energy consumption of platforms. However, we can’t wait for these economic players to act. We must take this power on ourselves and define our own rules. Previous cases have shown that the absence of a strong framework gives tech giants to push their interests and define their own rules. However, as soon as public authorities get involved and define strong legislation, these same companies usually choose to comply and collaborate.

I am convinced that if regulators and public authorities get organised and show enlightened voluntarism, we will get out of the logic of the GAFA vs government duel and successfully use digital tools to transform our societies for good. I think another important point to mention here is the relationship that citizens have with the GAFAs: they, too, have to deal with these platforms in their daily life and have strong feelings about these tools. By 2025, I think and I hope that we will be involving citizens in digital and technological decision-making.”

Paula Forteza is a member of French parliament, representing the second constituency for french residents overseas (Latin America and the Caribbean). She is working towards a more efficient and technologically viable regulation, and towards a green and sustainable digital environment; developing the place of women in the digital world; demanding an ethical digital environment, concerned about the privacy of users; and reinventing democracy through civic techs. Her parliamentary activity has focused on implementing regulations to lay the foundations for an ethical, open and decentralized digital environment. Before entering politics, Paula Forteza worked for the government of the city of Buenos Aires, for Etalab (a government lab for innovation) and for the organization of the World Summit for Open Government. She is currently a candidate for the 19th arrondissement of Paris alongside Cédric Villani.

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