Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

( cross-posted from techPresident)

In my frequent conversations about open government and citizen participation, the subject of elite capture (or “how representative it is”) is almost unavoidable. Some go as far as evaluating participatory initiatives on the grounds of an ideal notion of representativeness: participants should perfectly mirror the socio-demographic traits of the larger population from which they come.

But oddly enough, the same people who raise these concerns about participatory initiatives are much less inclined to apply the same reasoning and standards to traditional politics. In other words, few take the time to consider how representative and inclusive existing electoral democracy actually is. An article by Nicholas Carnes at the New York Times about political representation in the United States puts the issue into perspective:

If millionaires were a political party, that party would make up roughly 3 percent of American families, but it would have a super-majority in the Senate, a majority in the House, a majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans were a political party, that party would have made up more than half the country since the start of the 20th century. But legislators from that party (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before entering politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.

I’ve yet to see a participatory process that produces similar results. But the limits of representation do not stop there. African Americans and Latinos are still greatly under-represented in US politics. The gender issue is no different: with the House of Representatives only 17 percent women, the Inter Parliamentary Union ranks the US 82nd in female representation in politics, behind countries such as the Arab Emirates, Sudan, Mauritania and Kazakhstan.

Obviously, the US is by no means exceptional in exclusion. Those working in the field of political participation have long been aware of the excluding effect of representative systems. As put by political scientist Arend Lijphart, unequal participation remains as representative democracy’s “unresolved dilemma.” Even more unfortunately, underlines Lijphart, inequalities in representation and influence “are not randomly distributed, but systematically biased in favor of more privileged citizens (…) and against less advantaged citizens”.

And it is from this unresolved dilemma that the raison d’être of participatory innovations stems. But rather than a replacement for representative systems (as misunderstood by some), participatory innovations are complementary mechanisms to enable the participation of individuals who are systematically excluded from traditional politics, ultimately increasing the overall diversity of voices that influence government.

This observation leads to a fundamental issue when assessing citizen participation initiatives: beyond questioning demographic representativeness, one must also consider the extent to which initiatives succeed (or not) in promoting the participation of previously marginalized sectors of society (i.e. inclusiveness).

So how inclusive are these mechanisms?

To continue with the US example, let’s consider one of the most exciting open government events taking place at the local level in the US: the recent adoption of participatory budgeting in NYC. Unlike most overhyped #opengov experiences, a team of researchers carried out an evaluation of the experience looking at, among other things, the extent to which it promoted inclusiveness. Below are some excerpts from the report [PDF]:

  • Twenty percent of PB voters identified themselves as African American; 14 percent as Hispanic or Latino/a; 2 percent as Asian and 2 percent as “Other.”
  • A higher percentage of African Americans participated in neighborhood assemblies (38 percent), compared to the full population in the four districts (31 percent).
  • Twenty-one percent of budget delegates and 19 percent of PB voters were born outside of the United States.
  • Participants that identified themselves as Black/African American were the most likely to volunteer to be budget delegates.
  • Women represented 64 percent of neighborhood assembly participants, 65 percent of budget delegates and 62 percent of voters in the PB process.

But how these numbers compare with participation in traditional politics is probably one of the highlights of the evaluation (emphasis is mine):

One of the most striking findings about who participated in PB [participatory budgeting] is how the data compares to other types of civic engagement, particularly voting patterns in NYC elections. Across the districts, PB engaged communities that have traditionally been uninspired by politics. People of color, low-income people and some immigrant groups turned out at higher rates than in previous elections.

A few numbers worth noting:

Latino/as represented 39 percent of voters in the 2009 City Council elections. However, 50 percent of PB voters identified themselves as Latino/a (District 8 NYC).

Black or African Americans represented 79 percent of voters in 2009 City Council elections. However, 87 percent of the district’s PB voters identified themselves as Black or African American (District 45 NYC).

Twenty-two percent of PB voters had a household income of less than $10,000 compared to 4 percent of the district’s voters in the 2009 City Council election (District 8 NYC).

I have very little doubt, if any, that the contrast would be even starker if we compared the income of those who sit on the City Council and those who participated in the NYC participatory budgeting. In City Councils across the US, less than 10 percent of members come from a blue-collar background. Conversely, the numbers on income of participatory budgeting participants speak for themselves.

As citizen engagement gains traction in the open government agenda, inclusiveness should be one of the top priorities: both from normative and empirical standpoints, more inclusive initiatives are likely to produce better outcomes. The NYC experience provides valuable lessons for donors, policymakers, advocates, and enthusiasts alike. They can find more about it here and here.

Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation


When designing citizen engagement mechanisms I always consider sortition (or randomization) as a mechanism of participant selection. Nevertheless, and particularly in the #opengov space, my experience is that this idea does not resonate a lot: it sounds less sexy than crowdsourcing and more complicated than over-simplistic mechanisms of “civil society engagement”.

This is why it is always great to see someone like Lawrence Lessig putting forward a system of  “Citizen Conventions” for proposing amendments to the Constitution based upon sortition. In this video below, at a hearing at the U.S. Senate’s Commission of Justice, Lessig explains in a few seconds how such a system would work:

With his unique eloquence, Lessig also makes the best case for ordinary citizens to engage with the Constitution and reforms:

I think to the surprise of many people, you would see that ordinary people deliberating about what the Constitution needs and how the reforms should go forward, would far surpass ninety eight percent of what is commonly discussed in this particular context. And that’s because, frankly, politics is the one sport where the amateur is better for the nation than the professional.

Lessig’s remark on the amateur’s role in politics reminds me of something I read a while ago from the apologue of Protagoras. When charged with taking to humans the art of politics, Mercury asks Jupiter whether it should be distributed like the other arts, to the competent ones only. Jupiter replies that the art of politics should be distributed to all. Otherwise, says Jupiter, the city would not exist.

Can Informed Public Deliberation Overcome Clientelism? Experimental Evidence from Benin

picture by geezaweezer on flickr

Brilliant paper by Leonard Wantchekon

This paper provides experimental evidence on the effect of “informed” town hall meetings on electoral support for programmatic, non-clientelist platforms. The experiment takes place in Benin and involves real candidates running in the first round of the 2006 presidential elections. The treatment is a campaign strategy based exclusively on town hall meetings during which policy proposals made by candidates are “specific” and informed by empirical research. The control is the “standard” strategy based on campaign rallies followed by targeted or clientelist electoral promises. We find that the treatment has a positive effect on self-perceived knowledge about policies and candidates. The data also suggests a positive effect of the treatment on turnout and electoral support for the candidates participating in the experiment. The results suggest that new democracies may contain electoral clientelism by institutionalizing the use of both town hall meetings in electoral campaigns and policy expertise in the design of electoral platforms.

Read the full paper here [PDF]

Argentina: Does Electoral Accountability Make a Difference?

picture by Andrea Jara S on Flickr

Does Electoral Accountability Make a Difference? Direct Elections, Career Ambition, and Legislative Performance in the Argentine Senate

By Juan Pablo Micozzi

The Journal of Politics, Vol. 75, No. 1, January 2013

Studies analyzing the American Congress demonstrate that senators’ attention towards voters substantially increased after the 17 th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which replaced their indirect appointment with direct election. Even though this finding seems useful for theoretical generalizations, expectations become unclear as concerns about career perspectives differ. Should politicians with non-static ambition shift their attention towards voters if they do not expect reelection? Making use of a quasi-experimental setting, I analyze the impact of the shift from indirect to direct election to select the members of the Argentine Senate. I develop an argument for why, in spite of the lack of systematic pursuit of reelection, elected senators have incentives to be more oriented towards voters. Through the analysis of about 55,000 bills, I evaluate senatorial behavior under both sources of legitimacy. The findings support the idea that audience costs make a difference in behavior, regardless of short-term career expectations.

Read full paper here.