At the centre of the debate

The recent 5 year appointment of Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH - an academic and a women, Head of UTC’s COSTECH Laboratory – to the position of Vice-President of the National Committee for Public Debate (CNDP in French), is almost a revolutionary event. We recall that the CNDP is an independent administrative authority, created by law in 1995.

At the centre of the debate

For over 10 years now, the CNDP has been focusing on participative ‘devices’ and new technologies used to help public debate. “In the early 2000s we participated in a European project about electronic voting procedures, then “on-line” participation and electronic democracy, using an international comparative method”, recalls Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH.
At the COSTECH Laboratory, the research team known as Research on Digital practice and Interaction (EPIN in French), to which I belong, is currently studying participative, on line and off line practice”.

COSTECH and Public Debate

This University Laboratory has close links with the CNDP, whose remit is to organise public debates of national interest, via experiments in debates on a River Seine public sewage water treatment site and plans for a new incinerator at Ivry. Internet blogs were created, as were forums, retransmissions of public debates and possibilities to ask questions “on line” were investigated and tested “live”.
These arrangements “opened up” the debates, bringing in other less expert profiles, from a distance and even in a deferred time mode. Often in public meetings the time for interventions is limited. Information and communication sciences indicate to us how actors can get involved in the ongoing debate using various tools. We investigate the links between the technologies to hand, whether they are lo-tech or hi-tech, the forms of expression and this was credited to the research team for the excellence of their analyses, both in theory and in the field”, underlines Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH.
The EPIN research team members supervise theses on a posteriori assessments of the public debate held in 2010 about offshore wind-turbines planned near Treport, in the English Channel, about e-consultation in European contexts, or about participative member mapping. “We really need to experiment and explore new protocols and develop new methodology over and above the standard lecture room and dais”, surmises Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH. This sort of approach is part of the project that Laurence would like to see conducted within CNDP, totally absent as the latter is for the moment from social networks!

Three challenges for the CNDP

The appointment as VP of the CNP has encouraged Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH to rethink about research into public debate matters. “We did have excellent ties with the CNDP in the early 2000s, but focus on possible research, shall we say, cooled off somewhat. My being appointed to a position usually ear-marked for professional politicians or high ranking civil servants is quite unique. It serves to demonstrate that the ministry in charge of the Environment would like to bring research back on stage here,” feels Laurence MONNOYER-SMITH.
She indeed is the first female academic to occupy the position and she wasn’t even a candidate for the job! The objective for the CNDP is federate in a sense then regional and local authorities, the think-tanks, the practitioners, etc., to think about the tools, and to share “best practice” protocols and finally to improve the image of public debates.
The CNDP here is faced with three challenges: 1° low or inexistent participation by the public in debates – this being largely the result of unchanged methods ; 2° to identify a better fit between representative and participative democracy, in close liaison with the elected representatives and 3° to see the needs for training of persons in charge of public debates and also to ensure that the CNDP met its objectives in line with its remit”.
We must now develop digital monitoring tools to identify better the actors in public debates. This would for example allow those who want to contact the right persons to do so easily and thereby enhance skills, know-how, knowledge where they exist.” This year, there will be major debates about offshore wind-farms and geological repositories for nuclear wastes.
I shall personally continue to oversee the upstream research about debates; in particular to see how we can encourage better citizen participation. I would like to see the CNDP use the thematic of pubic debate to introduce a major evolution of modern democracy and that it can become the bench-mark for such work and studies.