Civic Tech and Government Responsiveness

For those interested in tech-based citizen reporting tools (such as FixMyStreet, SeeClickFix), here’s a recent interview of mine with Jeffrey Peel (Citizen 2015) in which I discuss some of our recent research in the area.


Tiny post on Big Data

Behind much of the excitement with the data revolution is an assumption that decision-making follows a rational actor model. And that’s a huge problem.


Ask citizens where public money should go: the results might surprise you

picture by MyTudut on flickr

(NB: article originally published in Capital Finance International)

As citizen engagement gains traction in the development agenda, identifying the extent to which it produces tangible results is essential. Participatory budgeting, a process in which citizens decide upon and monitor budget allocation, offers promising results, including increased local government revenues and reduced infant mortality.

Promoting citizen engagement in the development community: a quest for evidence

In recent years there has been a growing interest in citizen engagement as a means to promote better development outcomes. The Open Government Partnership (OGP), for instance, is a multilateral platform where governments from 66 countries commit, among other things, to promote governments that are more open, participatory and accountable to their citizens. Similarly, Making all Voices Count is an international initiative supported by private donors and development agencies that provides funding to projects that promote “citizen engagement and open, responsive government.”

The rationale behind this renewed enthusiasm for civic engagement is seemingly simple: citizens know best what their needs are and how to address them. Or, as spelled out in the OGP declaration, public engagement “increases the effectiveness of governments, which benefit from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight.” Yet, the evidence on the benefits of citizen engagement often seems fuzzy, scattered and – sometimes – contradictory. However, a clearer picture emerges when we examine some particular practices that fall under the general “citizen engagement” umbrella, of which participatory budgeting is one. Originating from the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989, participatory budgeting (PB) can be broadly defined as the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of budget allocation and in the monitoring of public spending. Experts estimate that up to 2,500 local governments around the world have implemented PB, from major cities such as New York, Paris, Seville, and Lima, to small and medium cities in countries as diverse as Poland, South-Korea, India, Bangladesh, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Over the years, PB has attracted significant attention from scholars and development professionals. As it reaches over a quarter-century of existence, it is generating a substantial amount of evidence of the benefits of involving citizens in budgeting decisions. Here, we briefly examine some of this evidence.

Some argue – and there is growing evidence – that citizen participation increases government tax revenues

At the beginning of the 2000s, researchers studying participatory budgeting began to see an unexpected result, with some municipalities reporting substantive increases in their tax revenues. In 2004, for instance, a comparative study [PDF] of 25 municipalities in Latin America and Europe found a significant reduction in levels of tax delinquency after the adoption of participatory budgeting. But, in reality, how surprising were these findings?

Mostly unknown even among seasoned public engagement advocates, a growing body of evidence in the field of “tax morale” suggests a relationship between citizen participation and tax compliance. The argument, in an oversimplified manner, is as follows: citizens are more willing to pay taxes when they perceive that their preferences are properly taken into account by public institutions. This argument finds ever-growing empirical support. For instance, a number of studies in Switzerland – notably those by the economists Bruno Frey and Benno Torgler – show that Swiss cantons with higher levels of democratic participation present lower tax evasion rates, even when controlling for other factors. Suggesting that this is not simply a Swiss exception, a cross-national study by Friedrich Schneider and Désirée Teobaldelli found that “the effect of direct democratic institutions on the shadow economy is negative and quantitatively important.” These observational findings are increasingly supported by a growing number of controlled experiments across a variety of cultural settings. At odds with conventional economic reasoning, some evidence in the field of “tax morale” suggests that participation may be even more effective at curbing tax evasion than traditional and commonly adopted deterrence measures, such as fines and controls.

In the specific case of participatory budgeting, more robust data is also emerging. For example, a recent working paper by the Inter-American Development Bank presents similar effects of participatory budgeting on revenues in a randomized controlled trial in Russia. As noted by the authors, Diether Beuermann and Maria Amelina, these results are by no means negligible:

Implementing the planning cycle of participatory budgeting increased local revenues per capita by US$30.22 in regions without previous decentralized experience and by US$37.34 in regions with previous decentralized experience […] These are sizeable effects as they represent differences of around 70 percent with respect to the control group mean.

So participatory budgeting is good for tax revenues, but how good is it for citizens themselves?

Participatory budgeting promotes pro-poor spending, better access to services and may even reduce infant mortality

The available evidence suggests that participatory budgeting leads to significant shifts in priorities and policies, towards expenditures that directly benefit the poor. A 2008 World Bank report demonstrated that participatory budgeting has a statistically significant impact on a number of social indicators. Among others, the report highlights that PB is positively and strongly associated with improvements in poverty rates and access to water services.

Despite producing evidence of its effectiveness on a number of fronts over the years, only 25 years after its initial implementation in Brazil do we start to see systematic evidence of sound development outcomes. This is mainly due to two recently released, major studies of participatory budgeting in Brazil. The first, published by Sonia Gonçalves in World Development, finds that municipalities that adopted participatory budgeting in Brazil “favoured an allocation of public expenditures that closely matched the popular preferences and channeled a larger fraction of their total budget to key investments in sanitation and health services.” As a consequence, the author also finds that this change in the allocation of public expenditures “is associated with a pronounced reduction in the infant mortality rates for municipalities which adopted participatory budgeting.” Barely a year later, a study by Michael Touchton and Brian Wampler in Comparative Political Studies generated similar findings, demonstrating that the adoption of participatory budgeting in Brazil is strongly associated with increases in health care spending and decreases in infant mortality rates.

These studies also highlight another important takeaway for those working with development and public sector reform: the need to consider the fact that participatory institutions may take time to produce noticeable effects. As shown by Touchton and Wampler, for instance, the effects of PB adoption become significantly more visible after the fourth year of implementation.

As citizen engagement draws increasing interest in the development agenda, staying focused on which types of processes work and which do not will become particularly relevant. Participatory budgeting offers some promising evidence for policy reformers who want to see tangible impact on the ground, but it might take more than enthusiasm to get there. Determination, and a certain amount of patience, remain essential ingredients when it comes to delivering results.

Praising and Shaming in Civic Tech (or Reversed Nudging for Government Responsiveness) 

The other day during a talk with researcher Tanya Lokot I heard an interesting story from Russia. Disgusted with the state of their streets, activists started painting caricatures of government officials over potholes.


In the case of a central street in Saratov, the immediate response to one of these graffiti was this:  


Later on, following increased media attention – and some unexpected turnarounds – the pothole got fixed.

That reminded me of a recurrent theme in some conversations I have, which refers to whether praising and shaming matters to civic tech and, if so, to which extent. To stay with two classic examples, think of solutions such as FixMyStreet and SeeClickFix, through which citizens publically report problems to the authorities.

Considering government takes action, what prompts them to do so? At a very basic level, three hypothesis are possible:

1) Governments take action based on their access to distributed information about problems (which they supposedly are not aware of)

2) Governments take action due to the “naming and shaming” effect, avoiding to be publically perceived as unresponsive (and seeking praise for its actions)

3) Governments take action for both of the reasons above

Some could argue that hypothesis 3 is the most likely to be true, with some governments leaning more towards one reason to respond than others. Yet, the problem is that we know very little about these hypotheses, if anything. In other words – to my knowledge – we do not know whether making reports through these platforms public makes any difference whatsoever when it comes to governments’ responsiveness. Some might consider this as a useless academic exercise: as long as these tools work, who cares? But I would argue that the answer that questions matters a lot when it comes to the design of similar civic tech initiatives that aim to prompt government to action.


Let’s suppose that we find that all else equal governments are significantly more responsive to citizen reports when these are publically displayed. This would have importance both in terms of process and technological design. In terms of process, for instance, civic tech initiatives would probably be more successful if devoting part of their resources to amplify the visibility of government action and inaction (e.g. through local media). Conversely, from a technological standpoint, designers should devote substantive more effort on interfaces that maximizes praising and shaming of governments based on their performance (e.g. rankings, highlighting pending reports). Conversely, we might find that publicizing reports have very little effect in terms of responsiveness. In that case, more work would be needed to figure out which other factors – beyond will and capacity – play a role in government responsiveness (e.g. quality of reports).   

Most likely, praising and shaming would depend on a number of factors such as political competition, bureaucratic autonomy, and internal performance routines. But a finer understanding of that would not only bear an impact on the civic tech field, but across the whole accountability landscape. To date, we know very little about it. Yet, one of the untapped potential of civic technology is precisely that of conducting experiments at lowered costs. For instance, conducting randomized controlled trials on the effects on the publicization of government responsiveness should not be so complicated (e.g effects of rankings, amplifying visibility of unfixed problems). Add to that analysis of existing systems’ data from civic tech platforms, and some good qualitative work, and we might get a lot closer at figuring out what makes politicians and civil servants’ “tick”.

Until now, behavioral economics in public policy has been mainly about nudging citizens toward preferred choices. Yet it may be time to start also working in the opposite direction, nudging governments to be more responsive to citizens. Understanding whether praising and shaming works (and if so, how and to what extent) would be an important step in that direction.


Also re-posted on Civicist.

How democratic is the Greek referendum?

Picture by PowderPhotograpy on flickr.

Picture by PowderPhotograpy on flickr.

In a blog post in 2013, questioning whether there was a case against citizen engagement, Nathaniel Heller provoked: “Would TARP have worked had US policymakers taken the time to poll a million Americans via SMS to solicit their opinions on whether it was a good idea? I doubt it.”

Two years later and we are faced with a similar situation: in the light of current circumstances, how appropriate is the Greek referendum? Alexander Trechsel, a professor at the European University Institute and one of the major experts when the issue is direct democracy, recently published an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine giving four reasons as to why this referendum is a bad idea. With Alexander’s permission, I am re-posting the English version of his article:

It could hardly get any more dramatic in the negotiations between the EU and the Greek government. The clock is ticking and if no solution can be found during this very week a Southern European country, member of the Eurozone, will go bankrupt – with unforeseeable consequences for Greek citizens, but also the rest of Europe. This Tuesday at midnight, a first deadline has expired, with Greece not having paid its dues to the IMF. Clearly, things do not look well.

Until now, this “Greek drama” was staged involving institutions and their representatives: the European Commission, the IMF, ECB, the Greek government, Alexis Tsipras, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Jean-Claude Juncker, Christine Lagarde, Mario Draghi as well as a series of finance ministers and experts. The cast was complex, but it fit onto a list no longer than a few pages. With the Greek government’s surprising decision to put the final offer by the creditors – the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF – to a referendum vote, the very logic of the play has changed. It looks as if it will now be up to a majority of Greek citizens to decide on the fate of their country, presumably in a binary yes-no vote, on a question that has yet to be formulated and on an offer that might have expired by the time the vote takes place. At first sight this seems to be a dignified process for the country where, after all, democracy was invented. A more careful look, however, unveils a rather less glorious image. Indeed, there are at least four fundamental problems that the proposed “people’s verdict” may give rise to.

First, modern Greece totally lacks any referendum experience. The last time Greek voters were called upon expressing themselves at the polls other than in elections was over 40 years ago, in 1974, when the country transitioned to democracy and when a popular majority decided to give itself a Republic rather than a Monarchy for its future form of government. Since then, and unlike in most other countries in Europe, direct democracy at the national level remained inexistent. It was only with the economic crisis and the confrontation with creditors over the bailout in 2011 that then-Prime-minister George Papandreou took the referendum threat out of his hat. In his view, creditors would simply be obliged to respect the will of the Greek people. It did not come that far – Papandreou had to step down before any referendum was held. Today, this very referendum threat is once again made by Alexis Tsipras, more concretely, though, with a date fixed for this coming Sunday, July 5. In less than a week a citizenry that could not take any yes-no choice in over 40 years is now supposed to “decide” on the future of its country. In no other, modern direct democratic process are citizens given so little time to gather and process the necessary information about the proposal at stake, to debate about it and allow for an informed public opinion to emerge, let alone take a far-reaching decision. And these are necessary, though not sufficient, conditions for a referendum process to be truly democratic. Today, this very point was made in Strasbourg, by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

Second, Greek citizens are called upon voting in favor or against an offer by a set of external actors to keep the country solvable and to get its economy a financial boost through future investments. It is therefore not even an agreement between the Greek government and, say, another government or an international organization that is at stake, but simply a plan decided upon outside of and independently from Greece. This is very different from international treaty referendums, such as those existing in Switzerland, Ireland or Denmark, in which respective governments defend the negotiated agreements and campaign in favor of the latter. In the coming days, however, the main actors defending a “yes” in the Greek referendum process will be either foreign creditors or – maybe – the Greek opposition. This, in turn, will result in a “them” against “us” campaign, which will give nationalistic arguments the upper hand over a sober discussion of pros and cons of the proposed offer – hardly the ingredients for a mature, democratic decision at the polls.

Third, the referendum will mix up direct with representative democracy. Let us imagine a “yes” coming out of the ballot boxes. In such a scenario the government of Alexis Tsipras would possibly have to step down and new elections would have to be called upon. And what if Greek voters say “no”? In this case, not only will the country most likely go bankrupt, it will also lead to Greece’s exit from the Euro. The consequences for the Greek people would be devastating and the fate of a government having actively led the campaign towards this outcome might become rapidly sealed. In other words: whatever the choice of the voters, it will be a choice about policy as much as about government itself. And the process could well end up in an own-goal, similar to the “suicide by referendum” committed by Pinochet in Chile and de Gaulle in France. For voters, however, this does not make things easier, as they will be voting both on the plan to save Greece from insolvency and on Alexis Tsipras’ government.

Fourth, and this is possibly the worst aspect of the entire drama, calling this referendum is a desperate attempt of shifting governmental responsibility to the people as a whole. Here is a government that is unable to reach an agreement with creditors to save its country from chaos. Instead of going down in history as a political failure, this government now shifts the burden onto the citizens, hoping for them to chime into the “us” and “them” theme alongside its representatives. While the threat of a referendum may be a powerful tool during negotiations, once the cards are on the table it does hardly serve any other purpose than to let a government hide behind an alleged popular will, forged in no time and in a heated climate of nationalistic accusations. Not to be able to find an agreement in negotiations may be seen as a failure – however, to blame one’s own citizenry for the outcome, because it was its “choice” at the polls, may be seen as outright cowardice.

The only conclusion one can draw from these observations is that on July 5, Greek voters should not be called to the polls. Out of democratic respect for its citizens the government in Athens should cancel this sordid referendum process – the earlier the better.

Three New Papers (and a presentation) on Civic Tech


This blog has been slow lately, but as I mentioned before, it is for a good cause. With some great colleagues I’ve been working on a series of papers (and a book) on civic technology. The first three of these papers are out. There is much more to come, but in the meantime, you can find below the abstracts and link to each of the papers. I also add the link to a presentation which highlights some other issues that we are looking at.

  • Effects of the Internet on Participation: Study of a Public Policy Referendum in Brazil.

Does online voting mobilize citizens who otherwise would not participate? During the annual participatory budgeting vote in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil – the world’s largest – Internet voters were asked whether they would have participated had there not been an online voting option (i-voting). The study documents an 8.2 percent increase in total turnout with the introduction of i-voting. In support of the mobilization hypothesis, unique survey data show that i-voting is mainly used by new participants rather than just for convenience by those who were already mobilized. The study also finds that age, gender, income, education, and social media usage are significant predictors of being online-only voters. Technology appears more likely to engage people who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users.

Read more here.

  • The Effect of Government Responsiveness on Future Political Participation.

What effect does government responsiveness have on political participation? Since the 1940s political scientists have used attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy to explain participation. More recent work has focused on underlying genetic factors that condition citizen engagement. We develop a ‘Calculus of Participation’ that incorporates objective efficacy – the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact – and test the model against behavioral data from (n=399,364). We find that a successful first experience using (e.g. reporting a pothole and having it fixed) is associated with a 54 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report. We also show that the experience of government responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of government responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry, while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.

Read more here.

  • Do Mobile Phone Surveys Work in Poor Countries? 

In this project, we analyzed whether mobile phone-based surveys are a feasible and cost-effective approach for gathering statistically representative information in four low-income countries (Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe). Specifically, we focused on three primary research questions. First, can the mobile phone survey platform reach a nationally representative sample? Second, to what extent does linguistic fractionalization affect the ability to produce a representative sample? Third, how effectively does monetary compensation impact survey completion patterns? We find that samples from countries with higher mobile penetration rates more closely resembled the actual population. After weighting on demographic variables, sample imprecision was a challenge in the two lower feasibility countries (Ethiopia and Mozambique) with a sampling error of /- 5 to 7 percent, while Zimbabwe’s estimates were more precise (sampling error of /- 2.8 percent). Surveys performed reasonably well in reaching poor demographics, especially in Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. Rural women were consistently under-represented in the country samples, especially in Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Countries’ linguistic fractionalization may influence the ability to obtain nationally representative samples, although a material effect was difficult to discern through penetration rates and market composition. Although the experimentation design of the incentive compensation plan was compromised in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, it seems that offering compensation for survey completion mitigated attrition rates in several of the pilot countries while not reducing overall costs. These effects varied across countries and cultural settings.

Read more here.

  • The haves and the have nots: is civic tech impacting the people who need it most? (presentation) 

Read more here.

Unusual suspects? Effects of technology on citizen engagement

(Originally posted on the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Development blog)

What is the effect of technology on citizen engagement? On the one hand, enthusiasts praise the prospects offered by technology: from real-time beneficiary feedback to collaborative policymaking, the possibilities for listening at scale seem endless. Skeptics, on the other, fear that unequal access to technologies will do nothing but favor the “usual suspects”, empowering the already empowered and reinforcing existing inequalities. While the debate sometimes gets heated, a common feature unites both sides: there is limited evidence to support both views.

Providing evidence to better inform practice at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement is one of the core goals of the Bank’s Digital Engagement Evaluation Team (DEET). And, to contribute empirical data to the debate on the effects of technology on participatory processes, the team has been carrying out a number of studies, some of them covering as many as 132 countries.

The results of one of these studies have just been published, looking at the effects of Internet voting on the world’s largest participatory budgeting exercise, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Every year, over one million people participate in the state-wide process, where citizens can vote either online or offline for projects that are to be included in the public budget. In this study we present the results of a unique survey of over 22,000 Internet voters, focusing on three key research questions:

1) Does an opportunity to vote online increase participation?
2) If so, what is the socioeconomic profile of new voters?
3) And finally, what is the level of pre-existing engagement of these online voters?

Anticipating some of our results here, nearly two-thirds of respondents answer the first question affirmatively, saying they would not have taken part in the vote if online voting (i-voting) was not available. This evidence supports the view that technology increases participation among individuals who would not have voted otherwise. In parallel to this, our study shows that introducing i-voting does not lead to a substitution effect, meaning that for the most part, those who vote offline will continue to do so, despite the introduction of i-voting.

On the second question, a picture of the “usual suspects” of online engagement emerges: all else equal, i-voting seems more likely to engage individuals who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users. However, from a civic engagement perspective i-voting seems to engage rather unusual suspects, boosting inclusiveness and engaging individuals who were previously uninspired by traditional politics and community activities.

In short, i-voting increases participation among previously non-engaged strata of the population, promoting the inclusiveness of the process as a whole. However, these new participants – the online-only voters – are likely to be socio-economically more privileged: a compelling reason for combining multiple avenues (online and offline) for participation.

In the study we analyze these findings in light of the literature on convenience voting, participatory governance and collective intelligence. We conclude with the implications of the findings for future practice and research.

You can download the paper here