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Faces of Open Government – Lancelot Pecquet

Lancelot Pecquet|

How did you get involved in open government? What in your background inspired you to work in this field?

I started to work on what was not yet called “open government” in 2007. That year, France had a new president and a new government who were particularly concerned about security and defense. In addition, a few months ahead, France was about to take the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

In that context, I thought that it would be healthy if European citizens could develop some critical thinking about security and defense, in a broad sense. “Are video cameras and video surveillance systems a good thing for me, as a citizen? Are they efficient? What about civil liberties and privacy?”

I had some humble experience on those subjects, both through my professional background and through about 15 years of volunteer life with the Red Cross: an international CSO, both independent and a sometimes-partner of military firemen, emergency medical services, and police, when disaster strikes.

I suggested to a few CSOs that we could organize a series of “eurocitizen” meetings. We met regularly for three months and gathered a hundred participants from several European countries. We sent our report to the government as well as to members of the National and European Parliament. The French Prime Minister, a former French Prime Minister and Member of the Security and Defense Commission of the European Parliament, and the Head of the National Commission for Defense thanked us for our analysis and proposals, a “smart and innovative piece of work” which would “nurture the French presidency of the Council of the EU”. That was my first experience in open government.

In 2012, I gave a talk at the Paris Open World Forum after hearing about OGP and discovering what Barack Obama and his administration had been trying to develop since his first open government directive of December 2009. In 2013, République citoyenne was founded and I was invited to advise Etalab, the Prime Minister’s task force for Open Data and Open Government.

Who are the leaders in French civil society, and what kind of support do you get from the government and from citizens?

France has more than one million non-profit organizations (NPOs), who gather 13 million volunteers and 1.8 million employees (about 7-10% of the French workforce). Still, about 80% of these NPOs only have volunteers.

Financially speaking, national and local governments provide about half of the support for NPO budgets (€85 billion), as subsidies (€21 billion) and public procurement (€21 billion). French citizens give about €2.5 billion to non-profits, but they mainly give their time: more than 2 hours per week for 4 million regular volunteers (1 million full-time-equivalent).

Post-Brexit, what role can European civil society play in maintaining the European identity?

Europe is now facing many challenges and Brexit is one of them for many reasons. It is quite difficult to anticipate what is going to happen, in practice, at this stage. I hope that we will be able to continue to work with British civil society in good conditions.

How is French civil society organizing to respond to current events, such as the migrant crisis and the rise of populist politicians throughout Europe and beyond?

The migrant crisis is a human tragedy and very complex problem that several French CSOs are trying to manage, as much as they can, together with their peers from other countries and with (and sometimes against) governments.

It is true that populist politicians leverage this crisis, as well as other crises and fears, to increase their influence.

CSOs can have a positive contribution to democracy by informing citizens and explaining how simplistic solutions suggested by populists could actually make things worse.

That being said, there are also other reasons that explain the rise of populist politicians. For instance, governments who over-promise (in particular when organizing open government consultations), and under-deliver afterwards can also trigger disillusion and extremism. This phenomenon should not be underestimated.

In that respect, CSOs can also monitor the government (engagements, actions, consultations…) and provide public feedback to help it get “back on track.”

What are your hopes for the OGP summit – both on a personal and broader civil society level?

At civil society level, I hope that CSOs will enjoy meeting with their peers from all over the world, share experiences, design new partnerships and strengthen existing ones, to better tackle the major challenges that all countries are facing.

Personally, I will be happy to find again esteemed colleagues and friends I have met in other OGP summits in Dublin, New York or Mexico, and to discover the faces of people with whom I have had online discussions about open government and related topics.

What is your open government “pitch”? Why should people care about and support it?

To me, open government is a new type of collaboration between public actors and civil society to find, together, solutions to major issues democracies regularly face: human rights concerns, environmental degradation, poverty.

With République citoyenne, we try to develop citizens’ critical thinking about democratic issues. Implementing open government means great opportunities to improve our democracies (citizen participation, better transparency) but also some risks (new forms of lobbying, populism, political surveillance) that must be considered carefully and properly addressed.

Paris was the site of the COP21 agreement. How do you think civil society and government can work together to protect the environment?

The COP21 agreement and OGP processes have similarities and may benefit from a tighter integration. It may allow CSOs to consolidate their efforts when designing, implementing, monitoring and updating action plans.

France has had numerous terror attacks and anti-terror operations. How should the government balance the need for safety with the right to privacy? How can civil society help to protect these rights?

My first experience of open government was precisely about security and defense, and their relation to citizenship and fundamental rights. Thus, I appreciate the work of several CSOs, in France and in other countries, whose fight for fundamental rights also helps improve citizens’ safety.

Those CSOs explain, for instance, that weakening cryptography, as some politicians suggest to facilitate anti-criminal surveillance, is actually a very bad idea because criminals may also be able to leverage those weaknesses to steal information from individuals and corporations. Besides the fact that such weakening (ex: using backdoors) could mean mass surveillance and no privacy, it would also be counterproductive and lead to less security for people and businesses.

As some CSOs already do, I think it necessary to prove that causes we fight for are not theoretical hobbies for idealists but do matter to keep our democracies alive.

What does success at the summit look like to you, and to French civil society as a whole?

At least one positive measurable / tangible result on a subject that really matters to people (French citizens and many others hopefully), no disaster, and smiles on peoples’ faces.

 

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