How the French Parliament crowdsourced ideas for its reforms on an open source platform 🏛

The context

The new session of the French National Assembly, which started in June 2017, is tackling several reforms with 7 working groups that aim to renew the way the Parliament functions by the end of the term in 2022.

One of the issues addressed is “Digital democracy”, which is taken care of by a team of 10 MPs from various political backgrounds, led by the president Cécile Untermaier and the rapporteur Paula Forteza.

In addition to a number of auditions of civil society actors done at the National Assembly, members of the task force had the wish to broaden the range of contributors, which led to the choice of opening an online platform.

The method

From October 6th to November 8th, the website of the National Assembly hosted a consultation platform, using an open source tool called DemocracyOS. With basic features and a rather user-friendly experience, this platform allows citizens to suggest, discuss and vote on ideas.

Debates were sorted around 6 main categories:

citizen initiatives that can inspire the Parliament

early stage consultations about current bills

interactions with the legislative procedure

— participation to the evaluation of law implementation

— combination of online and offline participation

— other ideas

After a little more than a month of online debates, the civic tech company in charge of curating and maintaining the platform, called Open Source Politics (OSP), published a synthesis of the results.

You can read the full synthesis here or at the end of this post (in French). And below are some of the highlights, summed up in English.

Statistics and lessons learned

In total, 9.863 citizens produced about 17.300 votes, 1.700 contributions and 1.300 replies.

According to partial data from Google Analytics, almost half users (48.5%) were women, although proposals and comments were overwhelmingly written by men. All categories of age, social class and geographic location were represented despite slight over-representations of some (50–65 year-old pensioners, 30–49 year-old private sector employees, or Parisians living in the center rather than in the suburbs).

Engagement peaks (registrations, votes, comments) showed to be linked to lobbying activities led by civic tech startups or associations. As they guided their communities into the support of their own proposals, the algorithm played in their favor by highlighting the most favored ideas — which in turn attracted the most votes. In order to reduce this lobbying bias in the future, OSP decided to develop a random display option, which could be activated by default.

A few proposals that emerged

The synthesis picked the 15 most popular ideas, annotated with the vote results (“upvotes” minus “downvotes”), the author, the number of replies, and a few of the most upvoted comments that help grasp the aims, the limits and the relevant international comparisons for each of the propositions.

Here’s a sum-up of the 5 most popular ones.

1 — Enacting a right of petition to the National Assembly (votes: +3385, replies: 139). This idea was posted by the online petition platform Change.org, which raised discussions about the relevance of having a private entity handling such a process. Although the international example that has been highlighted is the UK, we can draw a parallel with Estonia and its rahvaalgatus.ee platform. Part of the discussion was dedicated to defining the number of signatures required for the Parliament to seize upon the proposal: 100K, 350K (0.5% of the French population) or even 500K seemed to be the most favored ones.

2 — Establishing a citizen-initiated referendum, out of the currently existing (but never used) referendum of “shared initiative” (+748 votes, 33 replies). The current threshold of 185 MPs (out of 925) + 4.57M citizens (10% of registered voters) has been described as “unreachable” in a comment. Hence the success of this proposal posted by Article 3, an association that lobbies for this initiative. Another user suggested a target of 500K signatures to automatically hold a referendum on the topic.

3 — Introducing a weekly “citizen question” to the government (+367 votes, 41 replies). Weekly “Questions to the government” in the Parliament, streamed live online and on TV, are one of the most visible processes of the French democracy, but the Constitution only allows MPs to ask such questions. This suggestion would open this right to citizens, with the most upvoted question being asked by an elected or drawn MP every week. A practice that exists in the Canadian city of Montréal. Among the concerns raised by other users, the role of private and “opaque” (i.e. not open source) platforms was discussed, referring to the author of the proposition, the founder of the civic tech startup Make.org. Others questioned the novelty of this tool, considering that MPs often ask questions that come from their constituents.

4 — Rendering bills more accessible online (+225 votes, 18 replies). By posting this idea, a citizen expressed his concern that bills were becoming increasingly inaccessible to average individuals. He suggested that a politically balanced department of the Parliament would be in charge of clarifying and illustrating every bill on a dedicated website, e.g. by using graphs or FAQs. Others replied that this was already partly done by a website called vie-publique.fr, however it is only shared once a law has come into effect, and lacks some data such as the bill writing process.

5 — Defining requirements for an official consultation platform (+189 votes, 15 replies). A citizen explained that he would like the National Assembly to have its own official and secured platform for citizen participation. Discussions started on the features, the security obligations and the developing process of such a tool. Several argued that it should be open source and run by an independent, not-for-profit organisation.

What next?

Now that the synthesis has been published, the next step is offline meetings at the National Assembly. Redactors of the most popular suggestions will be invited by the MPs of the task force in order to discuss their feasibility in a deeper way.

A public report will then be published by the “Digital Democracy” working group with recommendations addressed to the Board of the National Assembly, which is entitled to decide what proposals will be selected for future reforms. MPs are also invited to take the results into consideration for future amendments or bills.

Results of the first round of 6-month sessions of working groups, which started this fall, will also serve as discussion grounds for an upcoming constitutional reform planned in 2018.