The Journal of Field Actions, together with Civicus, has just published a special issue “Stories of Innovative Democracy at the Local Level: Enhancing Participation, Activism and Social Change Across the World.” When put together, the 13 articles provide a lively illustration of the wealth of democratic innovations taking place around the world.
A little while ago I wrote about Jonathan Fox’s work on the evidence of social accountability initiatives. Initially in the format of a PDF slide presentation, it has now been turned into a magnificent paper, the first of the GPSA working paper series. Below is the abstract:
Policy discussion of social accountability initiatives has increasingly has increasingly focused on questions about their tangible development impacts. The empirical evidence is mixed. This meta-analysis rethinks some of the most influential evaluations through a new lens: the distinction between tactical and strategic approaches to the promotion of citizen voice to contribute to improved public sector performance. Field experiments tend to study bounded, tactical interventions that rely on optimistic assumptions about the power of information alone both to motivate collective action and to influence public sector performance. More promising results emerge from studies of multi-pronged strategies that encourage enabling environments for collective action and bolster state capacity to actually respond to citizen voice. This reinterpretation of the empirical evidence leads to a proposed new series of grounded propositions that focus on state-society synergy and sandwich strategies through which ‘voice’ and ‘teeth’ can become mutually empowering.
You can download the paper here: Social Accountability: What does the Evidence Really Say [PDF]. You can also read my take on the main lessons from Jonathan’s work here. Enjoy the reading.
PS: I have been away for a while doing field work, but hope to start posting (more or less) regularly soon.
A major argument for democratic governance is that more citizen participation leads to better outcomes through an improved alignment between citizens’ preferences and policies. But how does that play out in practice? Looking at the effects of the introduction of electronic voting (EV) in Brazil, a paper by Thomas Fujiwara (Princeton) sheds light on this question. Entitled “Voting Technology, Political Responsiveness, and Infant Health: Evidence from Brazil” (2013), it is one of the best papers I’ve read when it comes to bringing together the issues of technology, participation and development outcomes.
Below is an extract from the paper:
This paper provides evidence on how improving political participation can lead to better service outcomes. It estimates the effects of an electronic voting, or EV, technology in reducing a mundane, but nonetheless important, obstacle to political participation: difficulty in operating ballots. The results indicate that EV caused a large de facto enfranchisement of less educated voters, which lead to the election of more left-wing state legislators, increased public health care spending, utilization (prenatal visits), and infant health (birth weight).
While filling out a ballot may be a trivial task to educated citizens in developed countries, the same is not true in Brazil, where 23% of adults are “unable to read or write a simple note” and 42% did not complete the 4th grade. Moreover, before 1994 Brazilian paper ballots required voters to write a candidate’s name or electoral number and involved only written instructions. This resulted in a substantial quantity of error-ridden and blank ballots being cast, generating a large number of residual votes (not assigned to a candidate and discarded from the tallying of results).
In the mid-1990’s, the Brazilian government developed an EV technology as a substitute for paper ballots. While its introduction aimed at reducing the time and costs of voting counting, other features of the technology, such as the use of candidates’ photographs as visual aids, the use of “error” messages for voters about to cast residual votes, and guiding the voting process step by step, facilitated voting and reduced errors.
(…) Estimates indicate that EV reduced residual voting in state legislature elections by a magnitude larger than 10% of total turnout. Such effect implies that millions of citizens who would have their votes go uncounted when using a paper ballot were de facto enfranchised. Consistent with the hypothesis that these voters were more likely to be less educated, the effects are larger in municipalities with higher illiteracy rates. Moreover, EV raises the vote shares of left-wing parties.
The paper will go on to argue that this enfranchisement of the less educated citizenry did indeed affect public policy. (…) I focus on state government spending, in particular on an area that disproportionately affects the less educated: health care. Poorer Brazilians rely mostly on a public-funded system for health care services, which richer voters are substantially more likely to use the co-existing private services. The less educated have thus relatively stronger preferences for increased public health care provision, and political economy models predict that increasing their participation leads to higher public spending in this area.
Using data from birth records, I also find that EV raised the number of prenatal visits by women to health professionals and lowered the prevalence of low-weight births (below 2500g), and indicator of newborn health. Moreover, these results hold only for less educated mothers, and I find no effects for the more educated, supporting the interpretation that EV lead to benefits specifically targeted at poorer populations.
Fujiwara’s findings are great for a number of reasons, some of which I highlight below:
- Participation and policy preferences: The findings in this paper support the argument for democratic governance, showing that an increase in the participation of poorer segments of society ultimately leads to better service results.
- Institutions and context: The paper indirectly highlights how innovations are intrinsically linked to institutions and their context. For instance, as noted by Fujiwara, “the effect of EV is larger in the proportional representation races where a paper ballot requires writing down the name or number of the candidate (lower chamber of congress and state legislature) than in the plurality races where a paper ballot involves checking a box (senate, governor, and president).” In other words, the electoral system matters, and the Brazilian outcomes would be most likely to be replicated in countries with similar electoral processes (and levels of ballot complexity), rather than those adopting plurality voting systems. (If I remember well, this was one of the findings of a paper by Daniel Hidalgo (unpublished), comparing the effects of e-voting in Brazil and India: the effects of e-voting for elections in the lower house in India [plurality vote] were smaller than in Brazil). In a similar vein, the effects of the introduction of similar technology would probably be lower in places with higher levels of educational attainment within poor segments of society.
- Technology and elections: Much of the work on technology and accountability evolves around non-electoral activities that are insulated from existing processes and institutions, which tends to mitigate the chances of real-life impact. And, whether you like it or not, elections remain one of the most pervasive and consequential processes involving citizen participation in public affairs. There seems to be untapped potential for the use of technology to leverage electoral processes (beyond partisan campaigns). Finding ways to better inform voters (e.g. voting advice applications) and to lower the barriers for entry in electoral competition (why not a Rock the Vote for unlikely candidates?) are some of the paths that could be further explored. Fujiwara’s paper show how technology can enhance development outcomes by building on top of existing institutions.
- Technology and inclusion: For a number of people working with development and public policy, a major concern with technology is the risk of exclusion of marginalized groups. While that is a legitimate concern, this paper shows the opposite effect, reminding us that it is less about technology and more about the use that one makes of it.
- Unintended effects: The use of technology in governance processes is full of stories of unintended effects. Most of them are negative ones, epitomized by the case of digitization of land records in Bangalore [PDF]: instead of transparency and efficiency, it led to increased corruption and inefficiencies. Fujiwara’s paper shows that unexpected benefits are also possible. While the primary goal of the introduction of e-voting in Brazil was related to costs and time, another major unanticipated impact was better service outcomes. If unintended effects are often overlooked by practitioners and researchers alike, this paper highlights the need to look for effects beyond those originally intended.
All of these points, added to the methodological approach adopted by Fujiwara, are good reasons to read the paper. You can find it here [PDF].
Within the open government debate, there is growing interest in the role of technology in citizen engagement. However, as interest in the subject grows, so does the superficiality of the conversations that follow. While the number of citizen engagement and technology events is increasing, the opportunities for in-depth conversations on the subject do not seem to be increasing at the same rate.
This is why, a few weeks ago, I was pleased to visit the University of Westminster for a kick-off talk on “Technology and Participation: Friend or Foe?”, organized by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy (Westminster). It was a pleasure to start a conversation with a group that was willing to engage in a longer and more detailed conversation on the subject.
My talk covered a number of issues that have been keeping me busy recently. On the preliminary quantitative work that I presented, credit should also go to the awesome team that I am working with, which includes Fredrik Sjoberg (NYU), Jonathan Mellon (Oxford) and Paolo Spada (UBC / Harvard). For those who would like to see some of the graphs better, I have also added here [PDF] the slides of my presentation.
I have skipped the video to the beginning of my talk, but the discussion that followed is what made the event interesting. In my opinion, the contributions of Maria Nyberg (Head of Open Policy Making at the Cabinet Office) Catherine Howe (Public-i), as well as those of the participants, were a breath of fresh air in the current citizen engagement conversation. So please bear with me and watch until the end.
I would like to thank Simon Burral (Involve) and Graham Smith (Westminster) for their invitation. Simon leads the great work being done at Involve, one of the best organizations working on citizen engagement nowadays. And to keep it short, Graham is the leading thinker when the issue is democratic innovations.
“On technology and democracy
The title of yesterday’s event, organised by Involve and Westminster University’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, posed a big question, which inevitably led to several other big questions, as the discussion among a lively audience of practitioners, academics and policymakers unfolded (offline and online).
Tiago Peixoto, from the World Bank, kicked off the debate and immediately put the enthusiasm for new technologies into perspective. Back in 1795, the very first model of the telegraph, the Napoleonic semaphore, raised hopes for – and fears of – greater citizen engagement in government. Similarly the invention of the TV sparked debates on whether technology would strengthen or weaken democracy, increasing citizen awareness or creating more opportunities for market and government manipulation of public opinion.
Throughout history, technological developments have marked societal changes, but has technological innovation translated into better democracy? What makes us excited today about technology and participation is the idea that by lowering the transaction costs we can increase people’s incentives to participate. Tiago argued that this costs-benefits rationale doesn’t explain why people continue to vote, since the odds of their vote making a difference are infinitesimal (to be fair voter turnouts are decreasing across most advanced democracies – although this is more a consequence of people’s increasing cynicism towards political elites rather than their understanding of mathematical probabilities).*
So do new technologies mobilise more people or simply normalise the participation of those that already participate? The findings on the matter are still conflicting. Tiago showed us some data on online voting in Rio Grande do Sul participatory budgeting process in Brazil, whereby e-voting would seem to bring in new voters (supporting the mobilisation hypothesis) but from the same social strata (e.g. higher income and education – as per the normalisation hypothesis).
In short, we’re still pretty much confused about the impact of technology on democracy and participation. Perhaps, as suggested by Tiago and Catherine Howe from Public-i, the problem is that we’re focusing too much on technology, tempted by the illusion it offers to simplify and make democracy easy. But the real issue lies elsewhere, in understanding people and policymakers’ incentives and the articulation (or lack thereof) between technologies and democratic institutions. As emphasised by Catherine, technology without democratic evolution is like “lipstick on a pig”.
The gap between institutions and technology is still a big obstacle. Catherine reminded us how participation often continues to translate into one-way communication in government’s engagement strategies, which constrains the potential of new technologies in facilitating greater interaction between citizens and institutions and coproduction of policies as a response to increasing complexity. As academics and practitioners pitch the benefits of meaningful participation to policy makers, Tiago asked whether a focus on instrumental incentives might help us move forward. Rather than always pointing to the normative argument of deepening democracy, we could start using data from cases of participatory budgeting to show how greater participation reduces tax evasion and corruption as well as infant mortality.
He also made a methodological point: we might need to start using more effectively the vast array of data on existing engagement platforms to understand incentives to participation and people’s motivation. We might get some surprises, as findings demystify old myths. Data from Fix My Street would seem to prove that government response to issues raised doesn’t increase the likelihood of future participation by as much as we would assume (28%).** But this is probably a more complicated story, and as pointed out by some people in the audience the nature and salience of both the issue and the response will make a crucial difference.
Catherine highlighted one key problem: when we talk about technology, we continue to get stuck on the application layer, but we really need to be looking at the architecture layer. A democratic push for government legislation over the architecture layer is crucial for preserving the Internet as a neutral space where deeper democracy can develop. Data is a big part of the architecture and there is little democratic control over it. An understanding of a virtual identity model that can help us protect and control our data is key for a genuinely democratic Internet.
Maria Nyberg, from the Cabinet Office, was very clear that technology is neither friend nor foe: like everything, it really depends on how we use it. Technology is all around us and can’t be peripheral to policy making. It offers great opportunities to civil servants as they can tap into data and resources they didn’t have access to before. There is a recognition from government that it doesn’t have the monopoly on solutions and doesn’t always know best. The call is for more open policy making, engaging in a more creative and collaborative manner. Technology can allow for better and faster engagement with people, but there is no silver bullet.
Some people in the audience felt that the drive for online democracy should be citizen-led, as the internet could become the equivalent of a “bloodless guillotine” for politicians. But without net neutrality and citizen control over our own data there might be little space for genuine participation.
*This point was edited on 12/07/2014 following a conversation with Tiago.
** This point was edited on 12/07/2014 following a conversation with Tiago.”
I am also thankful to the UK Political Studies Association (PSA), Involve and the University of Westminster for co-sponsoring my travel to the UK. I will write more later on about the Scaling and Innovation Conference organized by the PSA, where I was honored to be one of the keynote speakers along with MP Chi Onwurah (Shadow Cabinet Office Minister) and Professor Stephen Coleman (Leeds).
Here’s an interesting paper by Weitz-Shapiro and Winters (2014) on the role of education in political control of corruption, which should be of interest to those working in the open government/transparency domains.
When are citizens most likely to hold politicians to account for wrongdoing? In a crowded information environment, political accountability can be achieved only if credible information is available and citizens are able to identify that information. In this paper, we argue that the ability to discern more from less credible information is increasing in citizen sophistication. Using data from an original survey experiment in Brazil, we show that all citizens react negatively to corruption allegations, but that highly educated respondents are more likely to punish credible accusations and to overlook less credible accusations. We then show, using municipal-level audit data, that voters are more likely to punish credible accusations of corruption in municipalities with high literacy rates. Our findings suggest a novel mechanism that may link increasing education with control of political corruption: educated citizens are better able to discern and therefore act on credible accusations.
And, from the conclusion, an important message on the credibility of institutions:
Our findings have interesting implications for our understanding of the relationship between education and political accountability. They suggest a new mechanism through which high educational attainment might decrease corruption—not through changes in preferences that may be associated with different education levels, but rather because more educated individuals are better able to discern more from less credible information and therefore are more likely to act on the former. These results should be heartening to governments, like Brazil’s, that have invested in the creation of reputable independent auditing and control units. As long as these agencies are able to maintain their reputation for high quality, we should expect their influence to grow as the population becomes increasingly educated.
Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that, indirectly, this paper is a good reminder of the validity of the principal-agent model of accountability. Even though it is now fashionable to criticize the model, despite its limitations, it is far from obsolete.
You can download the full paper here [PDF].
A little while ago I mentioned the launch of the Portuguese version of the book organized by Nelson Dias, “Hope for Democracy: 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting Worldwide”.
The good news is that the English version is finally out. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
This book represents the effort of more than forty authors and many other direct and indirect contributions that spread across different continents seek to provide an overview on the Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the World. They do so from different backgrounds. Some are researchers, others are consultants, and others are activists connected to several groups and social movements. The texts reflect this diversity of approaches and perspectives well, and we do not try to influence that.
The pages that follow are an invitation to a fascinating journey on the path of democratic innovation in very diverse cultural, political, social and administrative settings. From North America to Asia, Oceania to Europe, from Latin America to Africa, the reader will find many reasons to closely follow the proposals of the different authors.
The book can be downloaded here [PDF]. I had the pleasure of being one of the book’s contributors, co-authoring an article with Rafael Sampaio on the use of ICT in PB processes: “Electronic Participatory Budgeting: False Dilemmas and True Complexities” [PDF].
While my perception may be biased, I believe this book will be a major contribution for researchers and practitioners in the field of participatory budgeting and citizen engagement in general. Congratulations to Nelson Dias and all the others who contributed their time and energy.
So what does the evidence about citizen engagement say? Particularly in the development world it is common to say that the evidence is “mixed”. It is the type of answer that, even if correct in extremely general terms, does not really help those who are actually designing and implementing citizen engagement reforms.
This is why a new (GPSA-funded) work by Jonathan Fox, “Social Accountability: What does the Evidence Really Say” is a welcome contribution for those working with open government in general and citizen engagement in particular. Rather than a paper, this work is intended as a presentation that summarizes (and disentangles) some of the issues related to citizen engagement.
Before briefly discussing it, some definitional clarification. I am equating “social accountability” with the idea of citizen engagement given Jonathan’s very definition of social accountability:
“Social accountability strategies try to improve public sector performance by bolstering both citizen engagement and government responsiveness”
In short, according to this definition, social accountability is defined, broadly, as “citizen participation” followed by government responsiveness, which encompasses practices as distinct as FOI law campaigns, participatory budgeting and referenda.
But what is new about Jonathan’s work? A lot, but here are three points that I find particularly important, based on a very personal interpretation of his work.
First, Jonathan makes an important distinction between what he defines as “tactical” and “strategic” social accountability interventions. The first type of interventions, which could also be called “naïve” interventions, are for instance those bounded in their approach (one tool-based) and those that assume that mere access to information (or data) is enough. Conversely, strategic approaches aim to deploy multiple tools and articulate society-side efforts with governmental reforms that promote responsiveness.
This distinction is important because, when examining the impact evaluation evidence, one finds that while the evidence is indeed mixed for tactical approaches, it is much more promising for strategic approaches. A blunt lesson to take from this is that when looking at the evidence, one should avoid comparing lousy initiatives with more substantive reform processes. Otherwise, it is no wonder that “the evidence is mixed.”
Second, this work makes an important re-reading of some of the literature that has found “mixed effects”, reminding us that when it comes to citizen engagement, the devil is in the details. For instance, in a number of studies that seem to say that participation does not work, when you look closer you will not be surprised that they do not work. And many times the problem is precisely the fact that there is no participation whatsoever. False negatives, as eloquently put by Jonathan.
Third, Jonathan highlights the need to bring together the “demand” (society) and “supply” (government) sides of governance. Many accountability interventions seem to assume that it is enough to work on one side or the other, and that an invisible hand will bring them together. Unfortunately, when it comes to social accountability it seems that some degree of “interventionism” is necessary in order to bridge that gap.
Of course, there is much more in Jonathan’s work than that, and it is a must read for those interested in the subject. You can download it here [PDF].