Yes, ‘govtech’ can change the way cities function
In recent years, Paris has distinguished itself as a leader in experimenting with digital tools for citizen participation — what have come to be known as “civic tech” or “govtech”. In 2014, the city went so far as to commit to bring together digital technologies and citizen participation in a new vision of how to build a city that will be both “smart” and “sustainable” by 2020.
Indeed, the Paris initiative has emerged as a key opportunity to see how city officials can involve all stakeholders and multiple methodologies to find innovative solutions to challenges of sustainable urban development. And although the impacts of these projects on citizens are often questioned, how they affect the municipality itself is rarely addressed.
Through a case study on urban crowdsourcing and citizen participation strategies and tools, we explored how Paris’s political commitment to support open innovation processes and the choice to develop digital citizen participation tools in-house have transformed the way the municipality works. As it turns out, those decisions have had deep impact in this regard.
In the past few years, Paris developed and launched several digital citizen-participation tools: Dans Ma Rue, a citizen-reporting app; Imaginons Paris Demain, a consultation platform on urban projects; Madame la Maire J’ai une Idée, a “digital suggestion box”. This list also includes Budget Participatif, which last year became the largest participatory budgeting initiative worldwide in number of voters, as almost 160,000 Parisians voted to allocate over EUR 100 million of the city’s investment budget.
Digital tools initially were chosen for their perceived capacity to facilitate, broaden and structure citizen participation, a central objective for Anne Hidalgo’s mayoral term. City officials were keen to use these tools not only to strengthen public engagement but also to simplify that engagement. In addition, digital tools would allow for the gathering of precise, timely data that could be automatically analyzed.
In retrospect it is clear that some of those hopes were overly idealistic. After a few years of experimentation, city representatives no longer see these tools as “magical instruments” that can automatically increase the number of participants or make it easier for citizens to contribute. Digital tools did not, by themselves, allow for an increase in the representation of disadvantaged communities or of citizens that did not traditionally participate.
Further, the use of digital tools for citizen participation demanded important changes in how city officials worked, including the need for new skills to understand and use the digital language and functionalities. The collection and processing of citizen input became more complex, as officials were asked to compile and draw on a larger number of individual contributions. And the use of digital tools created an injunction toward speed and simplicity.
However, experimentation with digital tools for citizen participation also served to demonstrate their potential to support the work of municipal officials, by renewing how citizens are involved in urban management and planning. Within the municipality, these experiments led to a stronger collaboration between operational and strategic divisions, while the initial dissemination of a “digital culture” reinforced the perception that public policies should be designed through a “user-centric” approach.
In addition, city officials were forced to rethink citizen engagement. It’s true that the tools themselves did not prove to be a revolution. But the role attributed to the citizen as a contributor of precise data and of innovative solutions to public policy problems underscored an understanding of citizens as holding a specific type of expertise — thus making them into associates rather than adversaries for the urban management and planning work of city officials.
Expanding the effort
In December, Paris renewed its commitment to using digital tools to draw on the city’s collective intelligence and improve management and planning, reinforcing its pledge to implement open government policies. As part of the global Open Government Partnership, Paris is one of 15 municipalities to develop an action plan to pilot open government objectives and methods at the local level.
“The most interesting result of these experiments has been much more discrete: These tools seem to have transformed how city officials perceive and address citizen expertise.”
Over the next 12 months, students and NGOs will be mobilized to better involve low-income communities in the development of projects for participatory budgeting. In addition, citizenship workshops will be organized to encourage the emergence of new ideas and their discussion with city officials. And citizen will be called upon to identify data sets that should be included on the city’s open-data platform to improve transparency and encourage the development of new urban services.
As the city seeks to move forward on this plan, however, it faces two major challenges. The first is related to data processing: Paris officials now sit on an enormous amount of data collected through different means, including sensors, citizen reporting tools, social media, online and offline consultations, private sector data and more. One of the main questions going forward will be how to combine these sources to better understand the city and analyze different types of data to support urban management.
This is especially relevant as city officials are still hesitant to open collected data for reuse, as they face both technical and political challenges (for instance, fear of evaluation or of privacy infringements). In addition, the new crowdsourcing and citizen participation tools were often developed in a compartmentalized manner, and the municipality is working on how to increase cooperation and share lessons learned between teams.
A second challenge relates to mobilizing broader citizen communities. Many efforts were made to link digital engagement to real-life experiences and events. City officials have developed on-the-ground projects to engage citizens at the community and city levels, while partnering with local NGOs to develop new mediation procedures to address inequalities in access to and use of digital tools. To include new communities in the participatory budgeting initiative in 2016, workshops were organized in associative or public social community centers, and mobile units allowing to vote via paper or the website toured the city, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
Municipal teams are still examining ways to improve citizens’ experience with digital participation. They are exploring how to improve the user experience through the digital tools themselves, using “gamification” (taking inspiration from videogames to make participation more fun) or diversifying contribution formats (using pictures and video, for instance).
However, one of the key lessons learned was the need to always provide feedback on citizen contributions, and then to explain how it was taken into account in the decision-making process. Project teams are therefore working on increasing the transparency of the tools and the visibility of citizens’ impact.
Moving forward, it will also be necessary to collect more-detailed data on who participates (or not), how and why. Doing so will enrich understanding of how to ensure broader representation and inclusion.
Paris’s experimentation with digital participation tools has transformed work processes, professions and the use of data within the municipality. Including citizens in urban planning required new tools for collective decision and new professionals to lead and support project teams. Crowdsourced data, from measures of air pollution to preferences regarding cycling infrastructure and ideas for new public spaces, is now a source of information to define priorities for urban planning or to validate and reinforce policy choices.
“In Paris, digital citizen participation tools have shown that they could deliver specific results.”
However, the most interesting result of these experiments has been much more discrete: These tools seem to have transformed how city officials perceive and address citizen expertise.
As project teams and managers come to define their expectations and objectives for citizen participation tools, they are now engaging citizens as stakeholders who can bring specific contributions to urban management and planning. This is especially interesting given that sustainable development challenges at the local level require the involvement of all stakeholders and methodologies to find innovative solutions.
In Paris, digital citizen participation tools also have shown that they could deliver specific results. They can allow for the crowdsourcing of new, more precise, geo-referenced and real-time data. The municipal division for environment used Dans Ma Rue to crowdsource potential locations for new green spaces before launching a revegetation campaign, which allowed citizens to apply for a revegetation permit and manage a new green area on their own (on a sidewalk for instance).
These tools also have shown that they can provide the means to enrich how information is presented, condensing complex issues in simple and dynamic visualizations, allowing for the highlighting of trade-offs underlying policy decisions. When asking for ideas on how to develop a new urban park in the north of Paris, the urbanism division chose an application inspired by videogames, allowing citizens to place different planning units on the field (an urban farm, say, or a sports field or flower garden). The user had to fulfill a revegetation objective and manage a budget to complete the park: Each unit had a different cost and a different impact on the share of green areas.
The Paris experience has shown that these tools also facilitate cooperation and the exchange of information between different stakeholders, as well as the emergence of new ideas and projects for the city. Refinements in the participatory-budget tools now allow citizens to identify projects based on their interests, work collectively to develop the project, and participate in co-construction workshops (online and offline) to exchange with city officials on the feasibility and costs of their proposal.
Finally, through their potential to bring together large numbers of citizens concerned by a specific issue, they can bring out clear expressions of citizens’ preferences and reinforce the legitimacy of specific public policies. When 150,000 people voted in 2016 on how to allocate a part of the city’s investment budget, it was a validation of their interest in this type of initiative. Likewise, when 7,000 citizens contributed to the city’s cycling plan in 2014, it validated both internally and externally that a broad community is concerned and willing to contribute to changing mobility patterns and policies.
Wise, wide crowdsourcing
Crowdsourcing is therefore becoming part of the municipality’s toolbox for developing local policies. In Paris, strategic and operational divisions are now implementing specific strategies to use citizen participation tools to support decision-making.
Two complementary approaches have emerged in the municipal team’s objectives. The first was for operational divisions to adopt a “wise” crowdsourcing approach to mobilize certain citizen communities identified as holding a specific set of skills or expertise, in order to collect new data and develop new solutions.
Using this approach, citizens can be called upon, for instance, to map and evaluate city spaces and infrastructure, or to follow the implementation of a specific policy. In this way, citizen communities can become discussion partners and be involved in longer-term cooperation with the city, making use of digital tools that also support collaboration between a large number of stakeholders.
Second, a “wide” crowdsourcing approach is still preferred when it comes to involving citizens in decisions pertaining to the future of the city and requiring a representative contribution — for instance, choosing investment projects for the municipality. As access to and use of digital tools (and participation mechanisms) are not yet widely distributed, ensuring wide participation implies additional efforts to reach out and engage citizens.
In the long run, digital tools could allow for the combining of wise and wide crowdsourcing, involving a larger number of citizens in decision-making processes. Although tensions remain between experimenting with new decision-making approaches and controlling who participates and how, the city of Paris is a great example of how experiments in urban crowdsourcing and digital participation can pave the way for a broader transformation toward open government.