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].

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

Learning Deliberation with 12 Angry Men

Few movies have captured the imagination of scholars as well as 12 Angry Men, where a jury composed of 12 men has to deliberate on the fate of a Puerto Rican accused of murder. For instance, when I researched the literature about the movie a few years back, I found out that on the 50th anniversary of the movie, an entire edition of the Chicago-Kent Law Review was dedicated to the movie. In its opening article, Law Professor Nancy Marder explains why:

“The movie was, and remains, an anomaly in the annals of jury movies. Whereas most movies with a jury show the jurors a silent, brooding presence whose main job is to observe on the jurors and their deliberations (…). The jurors in  12 Angry Men are the focus of the movie, and they are a loud, active bunch of men whose deliberations are fraught with conflict. Indeed, the dynamic of this group deliberation constitutes the drama of this movie.”

I couldn’t agree more with Professor Marder. But it is not just the dimension of the jury, as a trial institution, that has led the movie to captivate so many scholars. A number of academics interested in group dynamics, deliberation and collective intelligence often use the movie as a reference when illustrating the peculiarities of deliberative processes. Cass Sunstein, for instance, wrote an article [PDF] looking at the issue of group polarization, arguing why – in accordance with his take on the issue – the movie seems to defy the logics of deliberation. Conversely, Hélène Landemore [PDF], building on previous work by Scott Page, uses 12 Angry Men to highlight how diversity enables groups to reach a better decision.

But I will not go into too much detail because, if you haven’t watched the movie yet (starring Henry Fonda as Juror #8), it is a must see.

Crowdsourcing Off-Road Traffic Legislation in Finland

Screen Shot 2013-07-21 at 10.37.34 AM

A paper by Tanja Aitamurto (Tampere) and Hélène Landemore (Stanford) on an interesting crowdsourcing exercise in Finland.

Abstract

This paper reports on a pioneering case study of a legislative process open to the direct online participation of the public. The empirical context of the study is a crowdsourced off-road traffic law in Finland. On the basis of our analysis of the user content generated to date and a series of interviews with key participants, we argue that the process qualifies as a promising case of deliberation on a mass-scale. This case study will make an important contribution to the understanding of online methods for participatory and deliberative democracy. The preliminary findings indicate that there is deliberation in the crowdsourcing process, which occurs organically (to a certain degree) among the participants, despite the lack of incentives for it. Second, the findings strongly indicate that there is a strong educative element in crowdsourced lawmaking process, as the participants share information and learn from each other. The peer-learning aspect could be made even stronger through the addition of design elements in the process and on the crowdsourcing software.

The first two things that come to mind when reading this, are:

  1. If there is a “strong educative element” in the crowdsourcing process, we have an argument for large-scale citizen participation. The more citizens take part in a process, the more citizens benefit from the educative element.
  2. If we consider point 1 to be true, there is still a major technical challenge in terms of having appropriate platforms to enable large-scale deliberative processes. For instance, I have some reservations about crowdsourcing efforts that use ideation systems like Ideascale (as is the case for this experience). In my opinion such systems are prone to information cascades and a series of other biases that compromise an exercise in terms of a) deliberative quality and b) final outcomes (i.e. quality of ideas).

There’s still lots to learn on that front, and there is a dire need for more research of this type. Kudos should also go to the proponents of the initiative, who involved the authors in the project from the start.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

When Diversity Trumps Ability

A little while ago I listed a few of my favorite readings and videos about collective intelligence. But since then I have been extremely bothered by the fact that I forgot to include in the list some references to Scott Page’s work. In my opinion Scott is one of the most important references for anyone interested in subjects such as collective intelligence, epistemic democracy, crowdsourcing, prediction models,and group performance. For instance, his book “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies” is one of the best readings I’ve recently come across in the field.

It should not surprise anyone that some of the smartest people currently working on collective intelligence do not hesitate to cite Scott’s work over and over again in their writings.

As Scott highlights the importance of cognitive diversity for collective problem-solving (where diversity trumps ability), he ends up indirectly providing convincing arguments as to why – under certain conditions – citizens may outperform elected officials and experts. Scott’s work thus becomes compulsory reading for those working with citizen participation.

So I tried to compile a small list of freely available resources for those with an interest in any of the issues mentioned above:

  •  Virginia University Lecture

  • UCSD Lecture

( more recent talk, which includes a great account on the role of diversity in the Netflix algorithm competition)

  • Articles

Page, SE (2007) Making the Difference: Applying a Logic of Diversity. Academy of Management Perspectives 21(4): 6–20.

Hong L, Page SE (2004) Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. PNAS 101: 16385-16389

Hong, Lu and Scott E. Page. (2001) “Problem Solving by Heterogeneous Firms.” Journal of Economic Theory 97(1):123-163.

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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.