Nantes and Collaborative Governance: ‘Participation? It’s in our DNA!’

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderIn this post Andrés Feandeiro, Steven Griggs and David Howarth  report the findings from a second round of research in Nantes, carried out as part of the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network.

When endeavouring to describe the style of governance in Nantes, it is commonplace to compare its form of collaboration to the passing game of the city’s famous football team. The team’s so-called ‘jeu à la Nantaise’, in which the ball moves quickly back and forth between players as they move up the field, seemingly fits for many of those key politicians and officials who aspire to encourage and embed citizen and community participation in the city. In the process of forging new urban development projects in Nantes, as one local senior policy planner typically informed us, ‘the ball circulates a lot between different actors, for a project that is a collective one.’ Or in the words of a policy officer, ‘participation: it’s in our DNA!’

In fact, the current Mayor, Johanna Rolland, has made the practices of co-construction and citizen dialogue one of the priorities for her first term in office. The city council has committed itself to renew participatory governance, which promises a ‘constant dialogue’ between local councillors and citizens. Framed in political terms, the commitments of the city council to co-production are best viewed as a response to the multiple crises facing Nantes and other cities in France, Europe and beyond. On the one hand, citizen dialogue is viewed as a means of countering the broader crisis of politics and social exclusion within communities. On the other hand, it is claimed that participation offers a better way of capturing the expertise of citizens as service-users, thus offsetting the deficiencies of traditional models of public service delivery.

But how are we to make sense of such participatory engagements? How does such political rhetoric translate into practice? Who participates, over what issues, and who decides? What, for example, is the representative legitimacy of civil society actors? And how, ultimately, are we to critically characterise the everyday practices of collaborative governance across Nantes? Though these are necessary and crucial questions, which go to the heart of current debates about urban governance and collaboration, especially during conditions of fiscal tightening, our research exhibits the difficulties of answering them. We thus begin by problematizing the complexities of the Nantes model.

Problematizing participation and collaboration

It is worth noting from the outset that such exercises in participatory governance are not without their tensions and contradictions. Nantes seems unable to escape the charges that have dogged attempts to engage citizens and communities across numerous cities, whether they take the form of labelling participation a new mode of incorporation, or as little more than top-down information giving, or ultimately as an exercise in failed representation. Commenting on the analogy of Nantes’ governance with the passing game of its football team, one of our respondents thus suggested that ‘the question asked is: who do you look for when building a team, and when [do] you pass the ball? […] You may pass the ball, but in the final instance you are obliged to follow […] because the project is too advanced.’

Such criticisms were mirrored in other assessments, which characterised neighbourhood forums as an ‘inconsistent [form of] democracy’, which ‘do not change fundamental decisions’, or which ‘too often… put [communities] in front of things’ that have already been decided. It was claimed, for example, that practices of engagement often remained far too concerned with information-giving, thus becoming little more than ‘pedagogy’, that is, ‘an attempt to explain the project.’ And perhaps more importantly, it was argued that such forums were said not to engage with those people most in need, challenging efforts to combat social exclusion; for ‘people who are truly in vulnerable positions are not in the know, or do not keep themselves in the know, or are not free, for these types of things… they do not go to these meetings…’

Indeed, questions were repeatedly asked about the legitimacy of civil society actors involved in participatory forums and their capacity to represent communities across Nantes. Civil society actors were charged with being ‘apolitical’, non-contestatory and deeply embedded in practices of ‘top-down’ urban governance. One neighbourhood officer commented that ‘we don’t invite organizations (such as unions) that we don’t know, but they don’t come knocking on the door either…. The associations involved in citizen’s dialogue are generally socio-cultural (ones) without an advocacy role… there are none which seize on these occasions to re-orientate urban policy.’

Criticisms, messiness and marginal voices

Yet counter-narratives are also evident and have been readily voiced in our encounters across Nantes. Criticisms of the inability of communities to exercise powers of decision-making were repeatedly countered by the value of keeping such powers in the hands of locally elected politicians. The Nantes model clearly embeds decision-making in the hands of locally elected representatives, while downplaying claims for participatory decision-making below those of representative democracy. In other words, councillor or politically-led decision-making is deemed to be no ‘bad thing’ as ‘it is their [local politicians] job after all.’ Indeed, the basis for judgements on the governance of the city quickly shifted ground, moving from input to output forms of legitimacy, validating practices of coproduction with the assertion that in any case ‘most people are happy with what has been done.’

Such judgements bring out the messiness of practices of participation, co-production and the politics of urban collaboration. They contrast the top-down governance of coproduction with the capacity of communities to challenge dominant policy framings and transform such arenas. It was repeatedly argued by key actors that there are no neat readings of such participatory initiatives in Nantes, for ‘each time that you put a debate into the public arena, there are always those people who seize it and manage to construct some counter-power.’ Forms of resistance were thus deemed to be part and parcel of the governance of participatory forums across the city.

But it is difficult to ignore that much of the resistance and challenge to socio-economic crisis and austerity within civil society tend to exist in parallel to the formal participatory apparatus of urban governance. Civil society actors who advance counter-hegemonic, anti-austerity projects have, on the whole, chosen not to engage in the formal structures of citizen dialogue across the city, especially in relation to the crisis of available and affordable housing in the city. Indeed, these actors see little strategic value in investing in such arenas: ‘Because we have a very militant position, they do not want to see us everywhere. There is … a roadblock… We always have this dialogue where they (the city council) do not want to hear certain things. So (the dialogue) becomes completely stuck in these meetings’. At the same time, their legitimacy and ‘political’ motives are questioned by elected representatives and urban policymakers. As one such policy actor explained: ‘you know the people… (and) unfortunately behind (them), there is often a political party or a political opinion or ideologies… So the guy says ‘I’m a citizen’, but in fact behind (him) there is also a political party that expresses itself…’

Characterizing governance in Nantes

What does this mean for the characterisation of the governance of Nantes? In many ways, our field research has encountered the ‘messy realities’, contradictory readings, and ill-fitting narratives that typically characterise urban regimes. Arguably, parallel forms of ‘dialogue’ appear to be one of the defining contradictions of the Nantes model of participation and these idiosyncrasies of urban governance ‘à la Nantaise’. As if to sum up such difficulties, one of our respondents argued resolutely that while community participation across Nantes could not be dismissed as ‘mere communication’ and ‘display’ – it was not ‘just illusion or propaganda!’ He was, however, quick to add that this did not mean that it had ‘the value of an exemplar, as it is often said.’ At least for this respondent, the truth, sat somewhere in the ‘messy’ middle.

Of course, countless interventions have grappled with the dangers of subsumption, or of forcing complex differences across cities into the constraining frameworks of national, city, or even neighbourhood regimes. Urban theory is replete with references to convergence and divergence, spaces of hybridisation and adaptation, and how local traditions mediate national programmes and broader forces. Do we thus conclude, rather simply, that collaborative governance is in a rather ‘messy’ state of flux? Although tempting, such judgements, like those that either summarily dismiss or endorse practices of governance in Nantes, do not get us very far. In fact, they beg a further set of questions. More precisely, our fieldwork has led us to recognise how collaborative governance under austerity requires a careful deconstruction that exposes the tensions and contradictions of the underlying assumptions of the dominant regime across cities, while enabling their critical evaluation and re-inscription.

Put differently, we need to understand the conditions that over time make possible specific hegemonic coalitions across cities like Nantes, as well as the forms of resistance to dominant coalitions and the potential for the construction of ‘counter-powers’. In so doing, we avoid the temptation to squeeze collaborative governance into pre-determined or over-simplistic categories, while foregrounding the situated judgements of researchers engaged in the field. In short, in claiming that collaborative governance in Nantes is ‘messy’ and in a state of flux, further questions have to be raised. Why does the ‘mess’ take this form? And what alternative spaces and prospects for ‘bottom-up’ change does such a ‘moving target’ offer? It is the answers to such questions that will ultimately shed further light on how ‘metropolitisation’, multi-level governance, and political instability in France impact on urban ‘participation’, citizen dialogue and co-production across Nantes.

Andrés Feandeiro is a research assistant on the Collaborative Governance under Austerity project at De Montfort University, Steven Griggs is Professor of Public Policy at De Montfort University and David Howarth is Professor in Social and Political Theory at the University of Essex.

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