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.
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)
- Coursera lecture on the Diversity Prediction Theorem
( cross-posted from techPresident)
In my frequent conversations about open government and citizen participation, the subject of elite capture (or “how representative it is”) is almost unavoidable. Some go as far as evaluating participatory initiatives on the grounds of an ideal notion of representativeness: participants should perfectly mirror the socio-demographic traits of the larger population from which they come.
But oddly enough, the same people who raise these concerns about participatory initiatives are much less inclined to apply the same reasoning and standards to traditional politics. In other words, few take the time to consider how representative and inclusive existing electoral democracy actually is. An article by Nicholas Carnes at the New York Times about political representation in the United States puts the issue into perspective:
If millionaires were a political party, that party would make up roughly 3 percent of American families, but it would have a super-majority in the Senate, a majority in the House, a majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans were a political party, that party would have made up more than half the country since the start of the 20th century. But legislators from that party (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before entering politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.
I’ve yet to see a participatory process that produces similar results. But the limits of representation do not stop there. African Americans and Latinos are still greatly under-represented in US politics. The gender issue is no different: with the House of Representatives only 17 percent women, the Inter Parliamentary Union ranks the US 82nd in female representation in politics, behind countries such as the Arab Emirates, Sudan, Mauritania and Kazakhstan.
Obviously, the US is by no means exceptional in exclusion. Those working in the field of political participation have long been aware of the excluding effect of representative systems. As put by political scientist Arend Lijphart, unequal participation remains as representative democracy’s “unresolved dilemma.” Even more unfortunately, underlines Lijphart, inequalities in representation and influence “are not randomly distributed, but systematically biased in favor of more privileged citizens (…) and against less advantaged citizens”.
And it is from this unresolved dilemma that the raison d’être of participatory innovations stems. But rather than a replacement for representative systems (as misunderstood by some), participatory innovations are complementary mechanisms to enable the participation of individuals who are systematically excluded from traditional politics, ultimately increasing the overall diversity of voices that influence government.
This observation leads to a fundamental issue when assessing citizen participation initiatives: beyond questioning demographic representativeness, one must also consider the extent to which initiatives succeed (or not) in promoting the participation of previously marginalized sectors of society (i.e. inclusiveness).
So how inclusive are these mechanisms?
To continue with the US example, let’s consider one of the most exciting open government events taking place at the local level in the US: the recent adoption of participatory budgeting in NYC. Unlike most overhyped #opengov experiences, a team of researchers carried out an evaluation of the experience looking at, among other things, the extent to which it promoted inclusiveness. Below are some excerpts from the report [PDF]:
- Twenty percent of PB voters identified themselves as African American; 14 percent as Hispanic or Latino/a; 2 percent as Asian and 2 percent as “Other.”
- A higher percentage of African Americans participated in neighborhood assemblies (38 percent), compared to the full population in the four districts (31 percent).
- Twenty-one percent of budget delegates and 19 percent of PB voters were born outside of the United States.
- Participants that identified themselves as Black/African American were the most likely to volunteer to be budget delegates.
- Women represented 64 percent of neighborhood assembly participants, 65 percent of budget delegates and 62 percent of voters in the PB process.
But how these numbers compare with participation in traditional politics is probably one of the highlights of the evaluation (emphasis is mine):
One of the most striking findings about who participated in PB [participatory budgeting] is how the data compares to other types of civic engagement, particularly voting patterns in NYC elections. Across the districts, PB engaged communities that have traditionally been uninspired by politics. People of color, low-income people and some immigrant groups turned out at higher rates than in previous elections.“
A few numbers worth noting:
Latino/as represented 39 percent of voters in the 2009 City Council elections. However, 50 percent of PB voters identified themselves as Latino/a (District 8 NYC).
Black or African Americans represented 79 percent of voters in 2009 City Council elections. However, 87 percent of the district’s PB voters identified themselves as Black or African American (District 45 NYC).
Twenty-two percent of PB voters had a household income of less than $10,000 compared to 4 percent of the district’s voters in the 2009 City Council election (District 8 NYC).
I have very little doubt, if any, that the contrast would be even starker if we compared the income of those who sit on the City Council and those who participated in the NYC participatory budgeting. In City Councils across the US, less than 10 percent of members come from a blue-collar background. Conversely, the numbers on income of participatory budgeting participants speak for themselves.
As citizen engagement gains traction in the open government agenda, inclusiveness should be one of the top priorities: both from normative and empirical standpoints, more inclusive initiatives are likely to produce better outcomes. The NYC experience provides valuable lessons for donors, policymakers, advocates, and enthusiasts alike. They can find more about it here and here.
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.
New report on Occupy Wall Street in New York City.
Some of the findings:
- Highly educated young adults were overrepresented
among OWS activists and supporters, a group with
limited ethnic/racial or class diversity
- Most OWS activists and supporters were deeply
skeptical of the mainstream political system as an
effective vehicle for social change. For some, this
skepticism intensified after the election of Barack
Obama in 2008 failed to produce the changes they
had been led to expect.
- Despite being disillusioned with mainstream
politics, many OWS activists and supporters
remain politically active and civically engaged.
- OWS was able to attract supporters with a wide
variety of specific concerns, many of whom had
not worked together before, This was in large part
because it made no formal “demands,” and united
around the “We Are the 99%” slogan.
Read the full report here.
(HT Archon Fung)
The Oregon Citizen’s Initiative Review is without doubt one of the most interesting recent innovations in the field of citizen engagement.
Here’s an excerpt from Participedia on the initiative:
The Oregon Citizen Initiative Review (Oregon CIR) is a Citizens’ Initiative Review designed to allow citizens of the U.S. state of Oregon to evaluate statewide ballot initiatives. A Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) is a Citizens’ Jury that deliberates about a ballot initiative. The Oregon CIR is intended to give voters clear, useful, and trustworthy evaluations of initiatives on the ballot. (…)
The Oregon CIR involves four categories of participants: panelists, the citizens who deliberate about a ballot initiative; advocates, individuals who are knowledgeable about the ballot initiative and who argue in support of or in opposition to the ballot initiative; stakeholders, individuals who will be affected by the ballot initiative, who also argue in support of or in opposition to the ballot initiative; and background witnesses, individuals who are knowledgeable about issues related to the initiative, and who present neutral background information about those issues to the panelists. (…)
I have written before about different methods of participant selection, and this is one of the strong points of this initiative:
To select the panelists for the 2010 Oregon CIRs, HDO used the following selection process: HDO took a probability sample of 10,000 Oregon voters. All voters in this sample were sent an invitation to participate in the 2010 Oregon CIR and a demographic survey. Three hundred fifty members of the sample responded, for a response rate of 3.5%. From those who responded, HDO, using the demographic data from the sample survey, anonymously chose 24 panelists, and 5 alternate panelists, for each 2010 Oregon CIR. The panelists and alternates for each CIR were chosen using stratification, so that each panel closely matched the Oregon population in terms of place of residence, political partisanship, education, ethnicity/race, gender, and age.
If advocates and policymakers in the open government space are really serious about citizen engagement, this is the sort of institutional innovation they should be looking at. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be happening.
Find out more about it at http://healthydemocracy.org/
The Institute for Local Government’s Public Engagement program offers resources and support to help local officials and their communities design and carry out effective and inclusive public engagement activities. Topics include:
Personally, I am a strong sympathiser of democracy by sortition.
Historically, the main references to government by sortition refer to Classical Athens and the Florentine Republic in the Early Renaissance.
For those interested in the Florentine experience, in general less known to the public, here’s a great draft paper [pdf] by Yves Sintomer that he presented during a meeting we had a couple of years ago at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio. In the paper, among other things, Yves describes the experience of the Florentine Republic and contrasts it with recent democratic innovations based on random selection. As to these recent experiments, alongside citizens’ juries, probably one of the most studied experiments with sortition in recent history refers to British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.
At a time when citizen participation is considered – at least in theory – an important part of the open government movement, those working in this sphere should pay particular attention to different methods of participant selection (e.g. self-selection, randomized) and what the prospects and limits for each of these different methods are.
An awesome read on this subject is the book Democratic Innovations by Graham Smith. Among other things, Graham looks at the impact that different institutional designs (and methods of selection) have on the inclusiveness of participatory experiences.
If you are interested in sortition, a good resource to follow is the Equality by Log blog. In the blog I just came across an interesting presentation [PDF] by Yoram Gat on the subject of sortition compared to traditional (i.e. representative) democratic institutions.
Maybe after some of these readings you may become a sympathiser of government by lot as well.
I just came across some interesting analysis in a study about SMS usage among low-income populations in Asia, by Juhee Kang (Michigan State University) and Moutusy Maity (Indian Institute of Management Lucknow). The study uses data collected through a survey conducted in 2011 with 9,066 low-income mobile phone users (bottom of the pyramid) from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Some of the numbers provided should serve as a reminder that having a mobile phone does not necessarily mean that a person uses SMS. In other words, if you think your project is inclusive “because it uses SMS” and “nearly everybody has a mobile phone”, think twice: there’s a chance your project is not as inclusive as you’d like to think.
A few excerpts from “Texting among the Bottom of the Pyramid: Facilitators and Barriers to SMS Use among the Low-income Mobile Users in Asia”:
Of the total 9,066 respondents, 54.3 percent own a personal mobile phone (N=4926).
Approximately thirty two percent (32.2%) of the mobile owners have ever used SMS.
While the distribution of the users is similar between urban and rural, it was found that a large proportion
of the non-users live in rural areas (73%).
The reported daily income was higher among the users (USD2.88, SD=2.80) than among the non-users (USD 1.51, SD=2.58).
The non-users tend to have lower education as 83 percent of the non-users had only primary schooling or no formal education.
The users also have a higher level of access to other media such as TV, radio and personal computers than the non-users.
And some sobering conclusions that development practitioners should bear in mind:
We argue that the quantity of mobile phones in the Global South does not automatically translate into the high quality impact of mobile communication. In fact, the path between mobile access and developmental impact seems to consist of multiple stages of mobile service adoption and utilisation. While many development practitioners currently make positive assessments about the growing penetration of mobile phones in developing countries, it is still uncertain how these mobile phones can bring positive benefits to the poor, and what types of services can lead to socioeconomic development.
Making a mere provision of information via SMS may not reach the mobile owners who use mobile phones mainly for voice calls, in particular the poorest and the least educated of the poor. The study found that the barriers to SMS adoption are beyond the issues of affordability and literacy and the problem lies in the current limitations on usability and the lack of familiarity with text-based communications.
You can read the full study here [PDF].
Good paper [PDF] by Daniel Myers (University of Michigan)
Interests, Information and Minority Influence in Deliberation
Daniel Myers (2012)
The ability of citizens to share information is essential to the success of deliberative institutions. This paper builds on game-theoretic models of strategic information transmission to oﬀer a theory of how the interests that deliberators have in the outcome of deliberation can cause some citizens to be unable to share information or inﬂuence the deliberative process. Speciﬁcally, this paper argues that whether a person is able to share information depends on whether that person is in the majority or the minority in terms of their interest in the outcome of deliberation. Deliberating groups will discount information that is provided by members of the minority, even when this information is an important contribution to deliberation. I oﬀer the ﬁrst empirical test of this kind of model in realistic deliberative conditions using two experiments, a laboratory experiment and a ﬁeld experiment, and ﬁnd that arguments that are made by members of the minority are less inﬂuential than the same arguments when they are made by members of the majority. The paper concludes by discussing the implications of these ﬁndings for the equality and epistemic quality of deliberative institutions.