Unusual suspects? Effects of technology on citizen engagement

(Originally posted on the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Development blog)

What is the effect of technology on citizen engagement? On the one hand, enthusiasts praise the prospects offered by technology: from real-time beneficiary feedback to collaborative policymaking, the possibilities for listening at scale seem endless. Skeptics, on the other, fear that unequal access to technologies will do nothing but favor the “usual suspects”, empowering the already empowered and reinforcing existing inequalities. While the debate sometimes gets heated, a common feature unites both sides: there is limited evidence to support both views.

Providing evidence to better inform practice at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement is one of the core goals of the Bank’s Digital Engagement Evaluation Team (DEET). And, to contribute empirical data to the debate on the effects of technology on participatory processes, the team has been carrying out a number of studies, some of them covering as many as 132 countries.

The results of one of these studies have just been published, looking at the effects of Internet voting on the world’s largest participatory budgeting exercise, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Every year, over one million people participate in the state-wide process, where citizens can vote either online or offline for projects that are to be included in the public budget. In this study we present the results of a unique survey of over 22,000 Internet voters, focusing on three key research questions:

1) Does an opportunity to vote online increase participation?
2) If so, what is the socioeconomic profile of new voters?
3) And finally, what is the level of pre-existing engagement of these online voters?

Anticipating some of our results here, nearly two-thirds of respondents answer the first question affirmatively, saying they would not have taken part in the vote if online voting (i-voting) was not available. This evidence supports the view that technology increases participation among individuals who would not have voted otherwise. In parallel to this, our study shows that introducing i-voting does not lead to a substitution effect, meaning that for the most part, those who vote offline will continue to do so, despite the introduction of i-voting.

On the second question, a picture of the “usual suspects” of online engagement emerges: all else equal, i-voting seems more likely to engage individuals who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users. However, from a civic engagement perspective i-voting seems to engage rather unusual suspects, boosting inclusiveness and engaging individuals who were previously uninspired by traditional politics and community activities.

In short, i-voting increases participation among previously non-engaged strata of the population, promoting the inclusiveness of the process as a whole. However, these new participants – the online-only voters – are likely to be socio-economically more privileged: a compelling reason for combining multiple avenues (online and offline) for participation.

In the study we analyze these findings in light of the literature on convenience voting, participatory governance and collective intelligence. We conclude with the implications of the findings for future practice and research.

You can download the paper here

Citizen Engagement: Two Learning Opportunities

For those willing to learn more about citizen engagement, here are two opportunities worth checking out.

The first one is the World Bank’s MOOC on Citizen Engagement. Even though the course has already started it is still possible to enroll. Here’s a brief description of the course:

The 4-week course brings together a diverse range of experts to provide students with a comprehensive overview of citizen engagement. It begins by synthesizing the theories and concepts that underlie citizen engagement, and goes on to explore how citizens can be engaged in both policymaking and public service delivery. Finally, it investigates how recent innovations are shaking up the field, through detailing both successes and failures of these new approaches. Our presenters, leaders in academia, government, and civil society, provide a wide range of perspectives and real-world experience to give participants a deeper understanding of whether citizen engagement can truly enhance the process of development. Participants will also have the opportunity to collaborate with one another and design their own citizen engagement initiatives, thereby putting theories learned in the course into practice.

This week starts module 2, with Matt Leighninger, Tina Nabatchi, Beth Noveck and myself:

This week explores the role that citizens can play in actively shaping public policy. We start by examining how citizens participate, analyzing the differences between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ forms of engagement and asking strategic questions such as who should participate, how should participants interact with decision makers, what information do participants need, and how will participation impact policy decisions. Next, we survey examples of crowdsourcing and open innovation that are helping governments and citizens better interact. Finally, we unpack why citizens participate, moving beyond the mere calculation of costs and benefits described in the rational choice model to an analysis of broader factors that influence participation.

 

govlabcapture

The second opportunity is the coaching program on Citizen Engagement by the GovLab Academy, with Beth Noveck and myself. Here’s the description of the program:

This program is designed to help those wishing to integrate citizen engagement into ongoing projects. Whether policymaking or service delivery in nature, we start from the assumption that, engaging citizens is both more effective and more legitimate as a way of working. Engagement may be offline as well as on and local or widely distributed. But, in every case, teams should have a clear sense of the problem they are trying to solve, the rationale for why they believe greater openness to and collaboration with citizens can have a positive impact, and a willingness to measure impact. Convened by two practitioners/theorists of citizen engagement, the program with emphasize peer-to-peer coaching and introductions to relevant mentors and experts from around the world working on related problems or applying similar methods. Our goal? To have take more citizen engagement projects from idea to implementation. Everyone is invited to apply. There will be an admissions preference for those working at the city-level.

There’s a number of other awesome courses provided by the GovLab: you can check all of them here.

DemocracySpot’s Most Read Posts in 2014

Glasses for reading (1936) – Nationaal Archief

(I should have posted this on the 31st, but better late than never)

Below are some of the most read posts in 2014. While I’m at it, I’ll take the opportunity to explain the reduced number of posts in the last few months. Since mid-2014 I have been working with a small team of political and data scientists on a number of research questions at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement (I presented a few preliminary findings here). Following the period of field work, data collection and experiments, we have now started the drafting and peer-review stage of our research. This has been an extremely time-consuming process, which has taken up most of my weekends, when I generally write for this blog.

Still, one of my new year’s resolutions is precisely to better discipline myself to post more regularly. And I am hopeful that the publication of our upcoming research will make up for the recent reduction in posts. We will start to disseminate our results soon, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s a selection of the five most read posts in 2014.

The Problem with Theory of Change

Technology and Citizen Engagement: Friend or Foe? 

A Brilliant Story of Participation, Technology and Development Outcomes

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

Social Accountability: What Does the Evidence Really Say?

Over 40 Papers on Crowdsourcing for Politics & Policy

pic by James Cridland (flickr)

Today saw the beginning of the biennial conference on Internet, Politics and Policy, convened by the Oxford Internet Institute (University of Oxford) and OII-edited academic journal Policy and Internet. This year’s conference theme is Crowdsourcing for Politics and Policy. Skimming over some papers and abstracts,  here are some of my first (and rather superficial) impressions:

  • Despite the focus of the conference, there are few papers looking at an essential issue of crowdsourcing, namely its potential epistemic attributes. That is, when, why and how “the many are smarter than the few” and the role that technology plays in this.
  • In methodological terms, it seems that very little of the research presented takes advantage of the potential offered by ICT mediated processes when it comes to i) quantitative work with “administrative” data and ii) experimental research design.
  • On the issue of deliberation, it is good to see that more people are starting to look at design issues, slowly moving away from the traditional fixation on the Habermasian ideal (I’ve talked about this in a presentation here).
  • It seems that the majority of the papers focus on European experiences or those from other developed countries. At first, this is not surprising given the location of the conference and the resources that researchers from these countries have (e.g. travel budget). Yet, it may also suggest limited integration between North/South networks of researchers.

With regard to the last point above, it appears that there is a bridge yet to be built between the community of researchers represented by those attending this conference and the emerging community from the tech4accountability space. There’s lots of potential gain for both sides in engaging in a dialogue and, as importantly, a common language. The “Internet & Politics” community would benefit from the tech4accountability’s focus – although sometimes fuzzy – on development outcomes and experiences that emerge from the “South”. Conversely, the tech4accountability community would benefit a great deal by connecting with the existing (and clearly more mature) knowledge when it comes to the intersection of ICT, politics and citizen engagement.

Needless to say, all of the above are initial impressions and broad generalizations, and as such, may be unfair. The OII biennial conference remains, without a doubt, one of the major conferences in its field. You can view the full program of the conference here. I have also listed below in a simplified manner the links to the available papers of the conference according to their respective tracks.

Track A: Harnessing the Crowd

Experiments on Crowdsourcing Policy Assessmen

A Case Study in Modelling Government-Citizen Interaction in Facebook

The potential of Participedia as a crowdsourcing tool for comparative analysis of democratic innovations

Crowd Capital in Governance Contexts

Analyzing Crowd Discussion Towards a more complete model to measure and explain online deliberation

Predicting Events Using Learning Algorithms on Micro Blog Data

A Crowdsourcing Approach to Identify Common Method Bias and Self-Representation

Hate Speech, Machine Classification and Statistical Modelling of Information Flows on Twitter

Internet-mediated cooperative norm setting in the university

Monopsony and the Crowd: Labor for Lemons?

Online labour markets – leveling the playing field for international service markets?

TRACK B: Policy and Government

The Neo-Humanitarians: Assessing the Credibility of Organized Volunteer Crisis Mappers

Let The Users Be The Filter? Crowdsourced Filtering To Avoid Online Intermediary Liability

Regulating Distributed Peer-Production Infrastructures

Population as Auditor of an Election Process in Honduras: VotoSocial

Crowd-sourcing corruption: some challenges, some possible futures

Vertical crowdsourcing: The discourses of activity and the governance of crowds in emergency situations

TRACK C: Engaging the Crowd

What does crowdsourcing legislation entail for the participants? The Finnish case of Avoin Ministeriö

Let the crowd decide? Crowdsourcing ideas as an emerging form of multistakeholder participation

The question of technologically mediated civic political participation reformulated

Discussing Germany’s Future: The Evaluation of Federal Online Citizen Participation

Reprogramming power through crowdsourcing: time, space and citizenship in crowdsourcing for law in Finland

Crowdsourcing as Reflective Political Practice: Building a Location-based Tool for Civic Learning and Engagement

Civic crowdfunding as a marketplace for participation in urban development

Voices in the Noise: Crowdsourcing Public Opinion using Urban Pervasive Technologies

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.

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