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

Diamond’s Course on Democratic Development

I just found out that on April 3rd Coursera started offering a new series of lectures on Democratic Development with Larry Diamond. Here’s a brief description of the course:

This course is intended as a broad, introductory survey of the political, social, cultural, economic, institutional, and international factors that foster and obstruct the development and consolidation of democracy. Each factor will be examined in historical and comparative perspective, with reference to a variety of different national experiences. Students are encouraged to relate the historical development and contemporary situation of particular countries and regions (especially their own) to the various theories about democratic development, and to evaluate those theories in light of country experience. It is also hoped that students in developing or prospective democracies can use the theories, ideas, and lessons in the class to help build or improve democracy in their own countries.

Although it seems that Larry will not approach the issue of participatory democracy, there is little doubt that it is something worth following if one looks at the syllabus. The reading schedule [PDF] is – as one would expect – impeccable, and it is in itself a valuable list of resources for those who would like to move beyond a simplistic understanding of democracy.To set the tone, one of the first suggested readings is the brilliant “What Democracy Is…and Is Not”, a classic by Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl, who together form probably one of the most brilliant (and charming) couples ever. The list of excellent readings goes on forever, with major scholars (beyond Larry himself) such as Lipset, O’Donnel, Lijphart, Carothers and Horowitz.Touching upon issues like ethnic conflict, accountability, rule of law and control of corruption, this course might also be of interest to many development practitioners working in related fields. Personally – and despite the sometimes tiring hype – I look forward to hearing more from Diamond about his take on the role of technologies in democratic transitions (see for instance, this paper of his “Liberation Technology” [PDF]).

Albeit free, this course is priceless.

You can sign up here.

My Reading Suggestions (Part One)

Fundação Biblioteca Nacional

Tom Steinberg asked me for a list of my favorite recent reads. So here’s the first part of a rather disorganized list of readings and other resources, with sporadic comments on why I like some of them. The list is heterogeneous in terms of subject, method and quality. In my opinion, the common denominator among the different resources is their relevance for those working at the intersection of participation and technology.

ON COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE

There is definitely a lot of bad reading out there about collective intelligence.   Indeed, many of the discussions and papers out there are nothing more than half-baked re-readings of ideas and concepts well established in the field of epistemic democracy. But there are a few exceptions. Acquainting myself with Hélène’s awesome work in the domain was one of the highlights for me in 2012. Here’s a sample:

Landemore, Hélène E., Democratic Reason: The Mechanisms of Collective Intelligence in Politics (April 1, 2011). COLLECTIVE WISDOM: PRINCIPLES AND MECHANISMS, Hélène Landemore and Jon Elster, eds., Cambridge University Press, Spring 2012.

You can find more of Hélène’s work here http://www.helenelandemore.com/.

Also, if you are interested in high-level talks and discussions about collective intelligence, the videos of conferences below are some of the best things out there:

Collective Intelligence Conference (Video)

College de France – Collective Intelligence (Video) 

Epistemic Democracy Conference (Video) 

ON COLLECTIVE ACTION

Miller, J & Page, S 2004, ‘The Standing Ovation Problem’, COMPLEXITY, vol. 9, no. 5, pp. 8-16.

Bond, R. M., C. J. Fariss, J. J. Jones, A. D. I. Kramer, C. Marlow, J. E. Settle, and J. H. Fowler.  2012. “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization.”  Nature 489: 295–298.

S. Gonzalez-Bailon, J. Borge-Holthoefer, A. Rivero, and Y. Moreno. The Dynamics of Protest Recruitment through an Online Network. Nature, December 2011.

Margetts, Helen Zerlina, John, Peter, Reissfelder, Stephane and Hale, Scott A., Social Influence and Collective Action: An Experiment Investigating the Effects of Visibility and Social Information Moderated by Personality (April 18, 2012).  

Hale, Scott A. and Margetts, Helen Zerlina, Understanding the Mechanics of Online Collective Action Using ‘Big Data’ (March 22, 2012).

ON DELIBERATION

David Lazer is the co-author of two of these papers. If you don’t know it already, Stuart Shulman’s work is definitely worth checking out. Thamy Pogrebinschi is probably one of the people to look out for in the coming years in the field of participatory democracy.

Lazer, David, Sokhey, Anand E., Neblo, Michael A. and Esterling, Kevin M., Deliberative Ripples: The Network Effects of Political Events (August 10, 2010).

Neblo, Michael A., Esterling, Kevin M., Kennedy, Ryan, Lazer, David and Sokhey, Anand E., Who Wants to Deliberate – and Why? (September 15, 2009). HKS Working Paper No. RWP09-027.

Stuart W. Shulman, 2009. “The case against mass e–mails: Perverse incentives and low quality public participation in U.S. federal rulemaking,” Policy & Internet, volume 1, number 1, article 2.

Pogrebinschi, Thamy, The Squared Circle of Participatory Democracy: Scaling-up Deliberation to the National Level (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper. 

THE ROI OF CITIZEN ENGAGEMENT:

Largely unknown even among the most enthusiastic participation advocates, there is a growing body of literature in the field of tax morale that links citizen engagement to reduced tax evasion: one of the best cases for the ROI of Open Government.  Below is one of the best papers in the field.

Frey, Bruno S., and Lars P. Feld (2002) “Deterrence and Morale in Taxation: An Empirical Analysis.” CESifo Working Paper no. 760, August 2002

You can find more references about tax morale here. Alex Howard gives a good account of how this might be happening in the DR Congo, helped by mobile phones (a project I’m part of).

And if the subject is the ROI of open government, here’s a paper that links participatory budgeting to reduced infant mortality (and there’s more to be published on that front soon).

RANDOMIZED CONTROLLED TRIALS AND OPEN GOVERNMENT

If I were to make any predictions for 2013, I would say we will start to see a growing number of studies using randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to assess the validity of claims for transparency and participation. Indeed, some donors in the open government space have already started to ask for RCT evaluations as a project component. Here are a couple of examples of how good studies on the subject would look (IMHO):

Olken, B. 2010. Direct Democracy and Local Public Goods: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Indonesia. American Political Science Review, 104, pp 243-267

Zhang, K. 2012. “Increasing Citizen Demand for Good Government in Kenya”. Stanford University. 

Of course, scholars, practitioners and donors should take claims about the awesomeness of RCTs with a good grain of salt (and pepper):

Deaton, A. 2008. Instruments of development? Randomization in the tropics, and the hunt for the keys to development. Princeton University mimeo.

Cartwright, N. 2007. “Are RCTs the gold standard?” Biosocieties, 2, 11–20.

FUN STUFF ON TURNOUT AND ELECTIONS

Rothschild, David and Justin Wolfers. 2011. “Forecasting Elections: Voter Intentions versus Expectations.” Working paper, University of Pennsylvania.

Gomez, Brad T., Thomas G. Hansford, and George A. Krause. 2007. “The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections.” Journal of Politics 69 (August): 649–63.

This is just the first part of a longer list. I hope to finish a second part soon, focusing – among other things – on the (uneasy) intersection of behavioural economics and participatory democracy.

Happy reading.

Corruption and the Limits of Electoral Accountability

Picture by watchsmart on flickr.

Interesting new paper looking at electoral accountability in 74 countries

Corruption and Accountability: “Throwing the Bums Out” Does Not Work.

By Crisp, Potter, Olivella and Mishler (November 2012)

Abstract

Many theories of democracy stress the concept of accountability. Voters reward or punish elected ocials by extending or ending their political careers. Seeking the long-term reward of reelection, officials avoid the short-term benefits of corruption that would put them at risk of early electoral defeat. This good behavior, in turn, leads to voter loyalty and reelection. Previous studies of electoral volatility and political corruption, however, have not tested this reciprocal relationship with an appropriate empirical model. In this paper, we employ a bivariate normal model to assess the effects of malfeasance on voter loyalty and, conversely, of voter defection on subsequent malfeasance. We test these relationships on data drawn from 249 elections across 74 countries. Our results show that malfeasance does indeed provoke voter defection, but that electoral volatility is not followed by lower levels of perceived corruption. We discuss the importance of these novel results for the emerging literature on clarity of responsibility.

Some excerpts from the conclusion (highlights are mine):

According to the standard theory, voters hold elected ocials accountable for their performance in oce by voting out of office anyone suspected of corrupt behavior. This presumably purges government of the worst officials, reminds continuing representatives of the voters’ power, and signals to newly elected officials that they ought to behave more virtuously than their predecessors. The empirical evidence we have reported is reassuring of the standard model in only one respect. It clearly shows that voters respond appropriately to perceived corruption by throwing legislators out of office. Nevertheless, the observation that increasing volatility does not reduce perceived corruption undermines a central assumption of retrospective accountability theory: namely, that the replacement of corrupt officials creates a virtuous cycle where corruption and volatility are mutually reinforcing and spiral ever lower in tandem with one another.

The absence of any impact of volatility on perceived corruption means either that legislators do not alter their behavior in the short run in response to the signal provided by vote volatility, or that politicians do respond, but their change in behavior is not immediately perceived by voters who continue to punish newly elected legislators for the sins of their predecessors. Distinguishing between these possibilities, empirically, requires data on actual legislative corruption, which is not available. Nevertheless, weighing the two scenarios, in our estimation the second seems more plausible. In our data set, voter perceptions of legislative corruption appear highly viscous in that they do not vary much over time. Corruption is covert and hard for voters to recognize. When they do perceive corruption, voters respond appropriately by throwing the bums out of oce. But because corruption is covert, it is equally dicult for voters to know if newly elected legislators are really better behaved or whether the corruption of new members simply has not yet been exposed.

In the absence of visible evidence to the contrary, voters have no reason to update their perceptions and treat the new legislators any differently than the old ones. Rather than creating a virtuous cycle, this creates instead a low-level equilibrium trap. Voter perceptions of corruption give rise to higher levels of volatility, but because higher volatility has no systematic impact on subsequent perceptions of corruption, continuing perceptions of corruption are likely to sustain those higher levels of volatility, thereby threatening the re-election prospects of newly elected legislators regardless of their behavior. Our inability to find an effect of vote volatility on corruption by distinguishing quality democracies from low-grade ones (with an interaction with the country’s Polity score) lends support to the idea that the failure of punishment to alter (perceptions of) corruption is not limited to some subset of delegative, authoritarian, or otherwised adjective-laden set of democracies.

Putting these findings in the broader context of the open government agenda, I can’t help but wonder about the limits of transparency in the absence of additional accountability mechanisms.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

Pippa Norris – Making Democratic Governance Work

Here’s something new by Pippa Norris. Definitely worth reading

“Making Democratic Governance Work : How Regimes Shape Prosperity, Welfare, and Peace”

This book focuses on three core questions. Is democratic governance good for economic prosperity? Has this type of regime accelerated progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, social welfare, and human development? Does it generate a peace-dividend and reduce conflict at home? Despite the importance of understanding these questions and the vast research literature generated, remarkably little consensus has emerged about any of these issues. Within the international community, democracy and governance are widely advocated as intrinsically desirable and important goals. Nevertheless, alternative schools of thought continue to dispute their consequences – and thus the most effective strategy for achieving a range of critical developmental objectives. Some believe that human development is largely determined by structural conditions in each society, such as geographic location, natural resources, and the reservoir of human capital, so that regimes have minimal impact. Others advocate promoting democracy to insure that leaders are responsive to social needs and accountable to citizens for achieving better schools, clinics, and wages. Yet others counter that governance capacity is essential for delivering basic public services, and state-building is essential in post-conflict reconstruction prior to holding elections. This book advances the argument that both liberal democracy and state capacity need to be strengthened in parallel to ensure effective development, within the constraints posed by structural conditions. Liberal democracy allows citizens to express their demands, to hold public officials to account, and to rid themselves of incompetent, corrupt, or ineffective leaders. Yet rising public demands that cannot be met by the state are a recipe for frustration, generating disillusionment with incumbent officeholders, or, if discontent spreads to becomes more diffuse, with the way that the regime works, or even ultimately with the promise of liberal democracy ideals. Thus governance capacity is also predicted to play a vital role in advancing human security, so that states have the capacity to respond effectively to citizen’s demands. The argument is demonstrated using systematic evidence gathered from countries worldwide during recent decades and selected cases illustrating the effects of regime change on development.

You can order the book here.