A Brilliant Story of Participation, Technology and Development Outcomes

Brazilian electronic voting machine

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].

Education, Information Credibility, and Control of Corruption

Cartoon by Winsor McCay (1930), archived by Alan Light on Flickr.

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].

New Book on 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting

Screenshot 2014-06-09 17.17.40

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.

Social Accountability: What Does the Evidence Really Say?

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].

A Review of the Evidence on Open Budgeting

Brand new.

“A Review of the Evidence on Open Budgeting” is a recent report by the World Bank Institute’sCapacity Development and Results team. It explores key questions and existing evidence around the impact of open budgeting. Despite the growing body of literature, there remains limited substantiation for whether and how open budgeting contributes to reductions in poverty and improvements in the lives of the poor. This report pieces together the results chain presenting evidence for and against from the literature. It explores links between open budgeting and indicators of impact such as human development and public service delivery. The findings highlight the importance of measuring budget transparency, accountability, and participation. The findings show that the impact of institutional changes differ under varying conditions in specific contexts. The conclusions of the report point to the need for further investigation into impact and establishing effective measurement practices for monitoring related institutional change under varying conditions and different contexts.”

You can download the report here [PDF].

The Problem with Theory of Change

picture by skreened.com

If you are working in the fields of development or governance it’s highly likely that you’ve come across the term “theory of change” (ToC). At a conference a couple of weeks ago, while answering some questions, I mentioned that I preferred not to use the term. The comment didn’t go unnoticed by some witty observers on Twitter, and I was surprised by the number of people who came to me afterwards asking why I do not “like” theory of change.

I can see why some people are attracted to the term. First, “change” is a powerful word: it even helps win elections. And when it comes to governance issues, the need for change is almost a consensus. Second, the user of the word “theory” gives scientific verve to the conversation. However, the problem is precisely the appropriateness of its use if one thinks of the word in scientific terms. It seems that people are saying “theory” when they actually mean (at best) “hypothesis”.

We don’t have to go very far to find out what scientific theory actually is. Keeping to information that is just a click away, let’s take one of the definitions reproduced in Wikipedia’s entry for “theory”:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not “guesses” but reliable accounts of the real world.

 Or “scientific theory”:

A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

 And here’s a rap video on the difference between theory and hypothesis:

Granted, the word “theory” is often used as a synonym of “hypothesis”, and even dictionaries do so. But the problem of this in the context of current usages of “theory of change” is that it masks the difference between what we know and do not know about something, often conveying a false sense of scientific rigor. And, particularly when it comes to issues such as development and governance, it is extremely important to have a clear distinction between well-substantiated explanations and every other color of hypotheses, assumptions, and guesses. In fact, in any field, it is a minimal requirement for the production of knowledge.

So here’s an interesting exercise. Search on the web for the use of “theory of change” combined with terms like “accountability” and “open government.” Find, for yourself, which ones are really “theories of change” or, rather, merely “hunches of change.”

Most likely, people will keep using theory of change indiscriminately until the next flavor of the moment comes up. In the meantime, beware.

***

Also read: Open Government, Feedback Loops and Semantic Extravaganza

Participation, Transparency and Accountability: Innovations in South Korea, Brazil, and the Philippines

A report by Brian Wampler for the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT):

Citizen participation in budgetary and other fiscal processes has been expanding at international, national, and local levels over the past 15 years. The direct participation of citizens, it is hoped, will improve governance, limit misuse of public funds, and produce more informed, engaged citizens. At the national level, reformist governments now encourage the direct engagement of citizens during multiple moments of the policy cycle—from initial policy formulation to the oversight of policy implementation. Reformist governments hope to take advantage of increased citizen participation to increase their legitimacy, thus allowing them to change spending and policy priorities, increase state effectiveness by make public bureaucrats more responsive to citizens and elected officials, and, finally, ensure that the quality of public services improves. During the 1980s and 1990s, many subnational governments took advantage of policy decentralization to experiment with new institutional types. Direct citizen participation has been most robust at subnational levels due to the decreased costs and the greater direct impact of citizens on policymaking.

(….)

The main purpose of this report is to examine how three countries, South Korea, Brazil, and the Philippines, have made extensive efforts to create new institutions and policies that encourage the participation of citizens and CSOs in complex policy processes. South Korea developed an institutional arrangement based on policy experts, CSOs, and the Korean Development Institute. Brazil uses a model that relies extensively on the participation of citizens at multiple tiers of government. Finally, the Philippines use a mixed model that incorporates citizens and CSOs at national and subnational levels

(….)

Political reformers seeking to incorporate greater numbers of people into policymaking venues face a series of challenges. These include: (1) asymmetrical access to information as well as differing skills base to interpret information; (2) the difficultly of decision-making when groups grow in size; (3) a reduction in the importance of any single participant due to the greater number of participants; (4) political contestation over who has the right to participate; (5) who are the legitimate representatives of different groups; and (6) higher organizational costs (time, money, personnel). This report maps out how new participatory institutions and programs that are designed to help governments and their civil society allies draw citizens directly into decision-making processes.To explain the variation in the type of participatory experiences now used by different countries,we identify four factors that most strongly affect the types of participation-oriented reforms as well as the results. These four factors include: (a) presidential-level support for reform, (b) the configuration of civil society, (c) state capacity and (d) the geo-political direction of reform (topdown/center –periphery vs. bottom-up/periphery/center. It is the combination of these four factors that most strongly explains the type of institutions adopted in each of these countries.

Read the full report here [PDF]. 

When Citizen Engagement Saves Lives (and what we can learn from it)

When it comes to the relationship between participatory institutions and development outcomes, participatory budgeting stands out as one of the best examples out there. For instance, in a paper recently published in World Development,  Sonia Gonçalves 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.”

Evolution of Expenditure Share in Health and Sanitation compared between adopters and non-adopters of PB (Goncalves 2013).

Evolution of  the share of expenditures in health and sanitation compared between adopters and non-adopters of participatory budgeting (Goncalves 2013).

Now, in an excellent new article published in Comparative Political Studies, the authors Michael Touchton and Brian Wampler come up with similar findings (abstract):

We evaluate the role of a new type of democratic institution, participatory budgeting (PB), for improving citizens’ well-being. Participatory institutions are said to enhance governance, citizens’ empowerment, and the quality of democracy, creating a virtuous cycle to improve the poor’s well-being. Drawing from an original database of Brazil’s largest cities over the last 20 years, we assess whether adopting PB programs influences several indicators of well-being inputs, processes, and outcomes. We find PB programs are strongly associated with increases in health care spending, increases in civil society organizations, and decreases in infant mortality rates. This connection strengthens dramatically as PB programs remain in place over longer time frames. Furthermore, PB’s connection to well-being strengthens in the hand of mayors from the nationally powerful, ideologically and electorally motivated Workers’ Party. Our argument directly addresses debates on democracy and well-being and has powerful implications for participation, governance, and economic development.

When put together, these findings provide compelling evidence for those who – often unfamiliar with the literature – question the effectiveness of participatory governance institutions. Surely, more research is needed, and different citizen engagement initiatives (and contexts) may lead to different results.

But these articles also bring another important takeaway for those working with development and public sector reform. And that is the need to consider the fact that participatory institutions (as most institutional reforms) may take time to produce desirable/noticeable effects. As noted by Touchton and Wampler:

 The relationships we describe between PB and health and sanitation spending, PB and CSOs, and PB and health care outcomes in this section are greater in magnitude and stronger in statistical significance for municipalities that have used PB for a longer period of time. Municipalities using PB for less than 4 years do exhibit lower infant mortality rates than municipalities that never adopted PB. However, there is no statistically significant difference in spending on health care and sanitation between municipalities using PB for less than 4 years and municipalities that never adopted the program. This demonstrates the benefits from adopting PB are not related to low-hanging fruit, but built over a great number of years. Our results imply PB is associated with long-term institutional and political change—not just short-term shifts in funding priorities .

If throughout the years participatory budgeting has produced  evidence of its effectiveness on a number of fronts (e.g. pro-poor spending), it is only 25 years after its first implementation in Brazil that we start to see systematic evidence of sound development outcomes such as reduction in infant mortality. In other words, rushing to draw conclusions at early stages of participatory governance interventions may result in misleading assessments. Even worse, it may lead to discontinuing efforts that are yet to bear fruit in the medium and longer terms.

10 Most Read Posts in 2013

Below is a selection of the 10 most read posts at DemocracySpot in 2013. Thanks to all of those who stopped by throughout the year, and happy 2014.

1. Does transparency lead to trust? Some evidence on the subject.

2. The Foundations of Motivation for Citizen Engagement

3. Open Government, Feedback Loops, and Semantic Extravaganza

4. Open Government and Democracy

5. What’s Wrong with e-Petitions and How to Fix them

6. Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation

7. Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

8. The Effect of SMS on Participation: Evidence from Uganda

9. The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability

10. Lisbon Revisited: Notes on Participation