Florent Joly, Civic Hacker
“In Helsinki a politician asked me, ‘Wait. You keep mentioning the Cloud. What is the Cloud?’ These are people who vote for extremely complex legal frameworks! European Parliament has a training schedule for members of Parliament – digital tools – but that’s Level Zero. EdTech is booming; we need some sort of EdTech for the public sector.”
Meet Florent Joly. Florent is a French national who has been a New Yorker since 2015. Describing himself as an “active citizen” in his LinkedIn profile, he’s been working at Google for the last five years in various capacities. Prior to NYC he worked out of Brussels where he helped lead Google’s efforts around the EU Elections (working across issues including voter engagement, disinformation, election interference and cyber-security). In 2016, Florent led the Emmanuel Macron presidential campaign for French expats on this side of the Atlantic. When not being a Googler, Florent enjoys writing, taking photographs, and hiking (he’s just back from solo backpacking in the Badlands). He also salsa dances and plays the drums. You can connect with Florent via LinkedIn or follow him via Twitter.
What Does He Do?
Florent’s is just back from Brussels where he helped coordinate Google’s efforts around the EU Elections. “Our priorities were to protect and support European Parliament elections, the second largest democratic elections in the world after India this year. We helped inform users, support campaigners and ensure the safety and integrity of the vote. See a short overview of Google’s efforts
When asked if there were any initial findings that he found surprising, Florent focuses on the need to make voting procedures and data about how voting works much more publicly available. “You wouldn’t believe how few countries make the full list of candidates available ahead of the vote. Of course, even if they do across our 28 member states, it’s completely inconsistent. Greece, for example, doesn’t release full candidate info until after the vote; there is no candidate registration deadline. While Sweden comes close, there is no one country that is perfect.” Check out the complexity of the EU vote here.
How Did He Get Into This Work?
Florent was born in the south of France, in Marseille, to a family of tomato farmers, reaching back to his great-grandfather. From his mother he derives his artistic side. His father seems to have passed on his entrepreneurial bent. While his father had to shutter the farm following the 2008 financial crisis, his self-reliance informs Florent to this day: “He built everything himself and never relied on others. He doesn’t even understand the concept of a manager; he’s never had a boss.” This perspective has informed how Florent manages others: “Sometimes I “hear” my father. It’s very easy to just forget the ultimate goal; what’s practical. I expect people who report to me to be completely autonomous and look at end results. How can I support you?”
It was the 2005 French referendum on a European Constitution which first drew Florent into EU politics and civic engagement. “The French people overwhelmingly said “no” (you could argue from that standpoint that Brexit is not entirely new.). In the lead up to the vote no citizen engagement was done and no one in the majority party bothered to really explain what the Constitution really was, and what it was for. As a result, the referendum turned into a vote of no confidence against Europe as a whole, and against the ruling party. I remember feeling very saddened by the outcome and have been civically engaged ever since.”
By 2016 Florent had relocated to NYC from London and he was looking for ways to reconcile his interest in tech with his passion for civic engagement, first volunteering to lead Macron’s party here, then two years later volunteering to go to Brussels to help with the EU vote.
“It’s tough when you’re interested in civic engagement. The projects can feel very long-term; the changes you can drive might seem small. The challenges are so huge.” That said, in 2016 he learned that even small changes could have measurable results and impact: “A bunch of French expats in the US came together, twenty of us. We started Allons Voter, a super simple platform website. You’re a French expat – there are two calls to actions: Are you registered? It was dumb and stupid, but it didn’t exist. By driving Facebook ads to French expats around the world we reached 500,000 expats – a quarter of those eligible! We can’t know who voted but, because of the scale, you can increase turnaround by about 1 point. That’s HUGE, even if it feels small…” Ultimately, Florent became US Lead for Emmanuel Macron’s party Republique En Marche.
What Project(s) Is He Working On?
“I’ve been very interested in a Tech for Campaigns model applied to EU politics. In my time in Brussels I met with many politicians and campaigners who are overwhelmed by the many digital platforms at their disposal and have very limited budget and resources to play with. To push certain priorities like climate change, I believe talented people working in tech have a responsibility to go and help those campaigns which need the most tech/marketing/design help. A Tech for Campaigns type platform could help connect the dots. If you’re interested in exploring this idea further in an EU context, please feel free to reach out.”
How Did He Come To Civic Hall?
“The U.S. is (still) at the forefront of many trends in tech (civic or not) and Civic Hall is the perfect illustration of that. Coming back from Brussels I’ve decided to make the most of my time here in NYC and become a member at Civic Hall. I have no regrets ;)”
What is He Reading/Watching/Listening To?
Florent has recently finished Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Politics of Resentment, “[Fukuyama] makes some pretty compelling points about how on one side, there are limits to “Diversity and inclusion” as a nation-building principle, and on the other side, the limits of nationalism (or other identity-led extremism). In both cases, politics have shifted to an increased focus on inherited characteristics such as skin color, sexual orientation, religion, country or place of origin. Such identity politics are not the way to build a community that transcends individual differences and Fukuyama traces it all back to Plato’s concept of ‘thymos.’
For those of use at Civic Hall who can read French, Florent describes how Fukuyama draws a direct link between this and the Yellow Vests movement.
What Is His Ask of Civic Hall?
“[Civic Hall is] still a space in its infancy – even though PDF is over ten years old. It really makes it all about people and what their interests are. These physical, and digital, spaces are needed. They help create something which wasn’t there before. Tech won’t solve civic issues unless it understands, puts itself in the shoes of politicians, activists, campaigners, or engaged citizens and vice versa.”
“There are things that Europe and the US can learn from each other in Civic Tech. In France, Grand Débat saw unprecedented levels of civic participation with innovative Web (and offline!) platforms put in place to gather, categorize and synthesize citizens’ ideas. The U.S. has a strong culture of volunteering which has led to the rise of community organizing platforms which Europe could take inspiration from. As we explore civic technology solutions, we should look to what our neighbors are doing and facilitate those meetings and interactions, so we can all get better.”
Florent and his team are currently preparing a post-mortem of the EU Elections. With any luck, they’ll come over to Civic Hall to host a Lunch and Learn.