Civic Tech and Government Responsiveness

For those interested in tech-based citizen reporting tools (such as FixMyStreet, SeeClickFix), here’s a recent interview of mine with Jeffrey Peel (Citizen 2015) in which I discuss some of our recent research in the area.


Lisbon Revisited: Notes on Participation

A couple of weeks ago I attended a series of conferences in Portugal, where I had the chance to meet some of the best people working in the field of participation. It was also an opportunity to talk with a number of Brazilian observers who provided me with more of an insider’s view of how the recent wave of protests in Brazil relates to the state of participatory governance in the country.

Below is a rather chaotic list of takeaways from these days:

  • The Latin community of researchers and practitioners (mainly Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilian, and French) are some of the best when it comes to participatory design. I was particularly struck by the level of work presented at the Centre for Social Studies of Lisbon, where researchers and scholars focused on the scaling up of participatory governance initiatives—that is, from local to higher levels of government (e.g. state, national). This is a tricky endeavor, as experience shows over and over again that you cannot just replicate local level participatory innovations at other levels. At the risk of stating the obvious, the formula for successful scaling up is far from being discovered. But some people are closer than others.
  • On a totally different note, mobile phones are definitely making their way into participatory budgeting. The coastal city of Cascais deployed an SMS voting system to let citizens decide on the allocation of 1.5 million Euros. The numbers suggest some success: with mobile participation the number of participants jumped from 6,000 (2012 PB) to 24,000 (2013 PB). The municipal administration has also launched a new smart phone app (FixCascais) to enable citizen reporting on problems in the municipality.

  • During the Conference of the International Observatory on Participatory Democracy (IODP), the latest book organized by Nelson Dias was launched. Entitled “Democratic Hope: 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting”, the book brings together texts by more than 40 authors from all the continents, providing an encompassing view of 25 years of PB around the world. I was happy to co-author one of the pieces with Rafael Sampaio. The subject of our article? Technology and participation, of course. The book is currently only available in Portuguese, but hopefully it will soon be translated into English.
  • Nelson Dias has also been doing some interesting research, looking at the development of Portuguese PBs over time and examining what makes some more sustainable than others. The actual impact of citizens’ input on the decision-making process emerges as the determining factor. When it comes to PB, it seems that merely consultative processes are like cigarettes: they stink and lead to early death.

New book organized by Nelson Dias, “Democratic Hope”.

On Brazil: 

  • If you take a closer look at the recent demonstrations in Brazil you will realize that some of the strongest demands refer to increased citizen participation. In Rio de Janeiro for instance, one of the demands is precisely the implementation of participatory budgeting. The Brazilian Federal Government seems to be willing to boost its support for PB.

Rio de Janeiro campaign for Participatory Budgeting.

  • Brazilian politicians start to recognize this demand for participation. And they are quickly realizing that, while they have remained analogue, society has moved on. This reflects well on an op ed by former President Lula in the NYT who argues that

(….) people do not simply wish to vote every four years. They want daily interaction with governments both local and national, and to take part in defining public policies, offering opinions on the decisions that affect them each day. In short, they want to be heard. This creates a tremendous challenge for political leaders. It requires better ways of engagement, via social media, in the workplace and on campuses, reinforcing interaction with workers groups and community leaders, but also with the so-called disorganized sectors, whose desires and needs should be no less respected for lack of organization.

  • Another article by the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro in the Huffington Post makes a similar point, highlighting some interesting numbers about the protests in Brazil:

During the recent demonstrations in Brazil, approximately 62 percent of the people were informed of the event via Facebook, a much higher rate than TV, which was first source of information to 14 percent of attendees, according to Ibope Institute. Three out of four agitators used social networks to round up support.

  • Even if most governments lag behind, there are some promising experiences. For instance, at the height of the demonstrations, Tarso Genro, the Governor of Rio Grande do Sul held a Google Hangout with citizens to listen to their demands. The number of participants: half a million.

Google hangout with 500,000 citizens.

  • Governor Genro then launched an online ideation/ranking process on political reforms.  182,000 votes were cast on over 200 proposals. Among the 10 proposals receiving the most votes? Increased citizen participation in decision-making processes.

Pair-wise voting system used on political reform consultation.

  • The Brazilian Institute of Applied Economics in Brazil (IPEA) is doing some interesting research looking at participation in some of the major federal programs in the country. One of the findings debunks the assumption that participatory processes may delay execution. Participatory and non-participatory processes perform equally when it comes to execution. The difference? Participatory processes are more innovative. More on that later.
  • The vitality of the use of social media to foster collective action in Brazil is contrasted by the demands of some segments of society to put an end to the proportional system of representation in the country. This seems, to a certain extent, rather contradictory. And here’s why.
  • Ronaldo Lemos is now officially representing the MIT Media-Lab in Brazil. This is great news. With an amazing track record, Ronaldo is also one of the people behind the Brazilian Internet “Bill of Rights”, the Marco Civil. Fruit of a truly collaborative exercise, the legislation aims to guarantee the civil rights of Internet users in Brazil.
  • While in the US some transparency advocates fear that Snowden’s leaks might have a chilling effect on the transparency agenda, in Brazil the results are somewhat different. The revelation of the NSA’s electronic surveillance of Brazilian officials has led President Dilma Roussef to consider the approval of the Marco Civil by Congress as a top priority for her Government. If approved, the legislation will be a milestone for those in the country working with technology and open government.


Documentary – Participatory Democracy Around the World

Via the Hunger Project blog I came across this short documentary on participatory democracy, “People Power”, produced by TV Education Asia Pacific and first broadcast on BBC World in 2004. Below, excerpts from the summary by TV EAP of each of the case studies in four countries (India, Malawi, Brazil and Ireland) and their respective videos:

  • Rajasthan, India

It’s state elections in Rajasthan and Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a local activist group invites the people of Beawar to a public meeting where the affidavits on the local candidates are made available to the people. This process of social accountability and transparency extends beyond the political process to the village level, where the MKSS has successfully lobbied for the right to information legislation to overcome the systemic corruption in the political and bureaucratic organisations.

  • Malawi

In Malawi, Africa, people can expect to live only half as long as someone in the Western World. Since most people live in rural communities, the Village Health Service is the life line for most people. But there has been dissatisfaction with the delivery of this service. Care Malawi is piloting a local health initiative program, referred to as the Community Scorecard Project, where the running of the local health services is put back into the hands of the villagers. Here the village people meet and score the delivery of the health services and this is collated by a Village Health Council. At the same time, the Village Health Clinic does a self assessment. Interface meetings between the users of the service and the providers of the service to analyse the information and work out ways of improving the system.

  • Porto Alegre, Brazil

Porto Alegre has been acclaimed as the Brazilian city with the best quality of life for four consecutive years. The challenge is how to include the poorer people in this success. Housing is the major challenge for the City as rural people migrate to the city to seek work. The city government has adopted a program where the people participate in prioritising the City Budget. Over a year, from neighbourhood associations to people’s assemblies, up to 20,000 people have a direct say on how the city budget should be allocated. The Porto Alegre experiment is one of the best known worldwide, acclaimed for both the efficient and the highly democratic management of urban resources it has made possible. The “popular administration” of Porto Alegre was selected by the United Nations as one of the 40 urban innovations worldwide to be presented at the Second Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), held in Istanbul in June 1996.

  • Ireland

A social and economic partnership was formed with all the stakeholders: the national government, the trade unions, the employers and the community to develop a national strategy for Ireland. The Northside Partnership was one of 11 partnerships created to translate the national strategy to the local level. This partnership identified the black spots: high local unemployment, youth leaving before they completed school and young children not going to school. Within this community, there has been an increase of over 50 per cent job creation, a series of specialised training programs and an innovate way to get children to go to school.

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

picture by Elvert Barnes on flickr.

Some of my friends have heard my rants about e-petitions before. Most recently, through a conversation on Facebook, Alex Howard asked if my thoughts on e-petitions had changed.

They haven’t changed. But before I explain why, I should underline that except where otherwise noted, these are general observations and by no means do they refer to any specific initiative.

This is merely a first (and sloppily written) attempt to better formulate the reasoning behind some of my skepticism towards governmental e-petition platforms.


Among many, I can think of four possible shortcomings of e-petitions when it comes to mechanisms of democratic empowerment:

1) The Gagged Participation Syndrome

While citizens can come to e-petition platforms as a virtual place to demonstrate their support for an issue or policy, all e-petitions that I know of suffer from what I call “the gagged participation syndrome”. In other words, those who take part in petitions are unable to communicate with one another.

If we make a parallel with how protests occur in the offline world, the idea becomes clearer. E-petitions resemble the image of gagged protest, where citizens are free to come and show their positions but where each demonstrator is gagged, unable to talk to one another, let alone organize around the cause that is common to them.

This issue is probably one of the most raised among critics of e-petitions and – to my knowledge – has not been addressed by any national government that implemented e-petitions to this day.

2) Selective Hearing

e-Petitions may be an excellent tool for selective hearing. In other words, politicians may respond to e-petitions by cherry-picking the issues that they had already decided to do something about. Creating the illusion of reactivity to citizen feedback when decisions had already been made and taking credit for it is one of the oldest forms of opportunistic politics.

My perception is that, although there are exceptions, most responses to e-petitions do not survive the counterfactual question of whether the government would have acted differently if the e-petitions did not exist.

3) The Demobilization Hypothesis

I have written about political efficacy before, which refers (among other things) to an individual’s perception of his impact through a given political action. The greater the perception that his action is likely to have an impact, the greater his political efficacy is. And the greater this sense of efficacy, the more likely this individual is to participate. Political scientists often refer to the generation of a virtuous cycle in which participation leads to more participation, and you can find a fun example of this here.

Nevertheless, it remains a hypothesis that the reverse is also true. Citizens who contribute their time and knowledge by signing (or starting) an e-petition and later discover their limited (or non-existent) impact, might have their political efficacy undermined. In such cases, petitions might have a secondary and undesirable demobilizing effect, undermining the willingness to engage and furthering public scepticism towards participatory governance.

4) Empowering the empowered?

Finally, it is always possible to raise the old “empowering the already empowered” issue. That is, through e-petitions participation might be distributed in a way that favors the socio-economically better off, therefore deepening differences of societal influence over government. Some would argue that such an effect might be even stronger in the sense that participation occurs exclusively over the Internet. Indeed, some research [PDF] by Lindner and Riehm on petitions in Germany suggests such outcomes:

(…) the introduction of the e-petition system at the Bundestag actually did attract different parts of society, but probably not in such a way some proponents of the reform had envisioned. The share of women, petitioners with formal educational degrees below college/university level, unemployed, and people with disabilities among presenters of public e-petitions is even lower than is already the case within the group of traditional petitioners. The aim to increase the societal representativeness of petitioning by introducing public e-petitions is only reached with regard to younger parts of the population, while existing biases in terms of gender and socio-economic status are even amplified.

Nevertheless, the external validity of these findings remains an open question, and their generalization to other experiences of e-petitions (or e-participation tout court) is far from being as straightforward as it may seem at first. In other words, more research is needed.


Bearing in mind the considerations above, a less skeptical position is also possible. For instance, e-petitions may be seen as a valid way of gauging public preferences and getting issues on the political agenda that would otherwise not make it through traditional politics.

Indeed, e-petitions may be a particularly valid argument in countries where politics is organized around models of strict territorial representation (as opposed to PR systems for instance). In this sense, it would be valid to argue that e-petitions may facilitate the emergence of “ideational constituencies”, transcending the boundaries of electoral districts. Indeed, I believe this is one of the main potentials for e-petitions and one of the missing discussions in the world of Internet and politics in general (for more about it, read this).

The demobilization hypothesis also allows for competing views. For instance, Cruickshank et al. (2010), building upon the concept of efficacy, argue that e-petitions may actually function as an entry point to further participation. Or, as suggested by the title of their paper [PDF], signing an e-petition may be seen “as a transition from lurking to participation.”

Also, it is important to note that e-petitions (and petitions in general) are not all the same, with each one bearing its own promises and shortcomings. From a democratic perspective, a defining element of petitions is the extent to which they are linked to actual decision-making processes. A review of the evidence of petitions a few years ago for the UK government summarizes this point well:

Petitions enable citizens and community groups to raise concerns with public authorities and give some sense of the support for the proposition amongst the wider population. It is a mechanism that is understood by elected members, officers, and the community alike. Petitions differ in the extent and manner in which they are connected to formal decision making processes. Some petitions are not linked to a meaningful formal response mechanism from public authorities. Where citizens see no relationship between their participation and outcomes, not surprisingly, such petitions have the least impact on community empowerment and may even be considered disempowering. Other petitions require a formal response from the public authority. Where it is clear that the authority has given due weight to the proposition, the potential for empowerment increases: the device exhibits the potential for impact on decisions, thus providing a rationale for increased political efficacy and activity amongst civic organisations. (Pratchett et al. 2009)

picture by controlarms on flickr


Of course, I am far from thinking that e-petitions are a lost cause, and there are a number of ways in which shortcomings may be addressed. Thus, to conclude, I present below seven tentative proposals for leveraging the potential of e-petitions.

  1. Unambiguous responsiveness: Processes of institutional change that enable and mandate governmental responsiveness should accompany the implementation of e-petitions. Clear legal requirements may reduce opportunistic actions (e.g. cherry-picking) that ultimately erode public trust.
  2. Enable communication: The “gagged participation syndrome” remains a major limitation of e-petitions. Provided the necessary safeguards are in place (e.g. privacy), allowing citizens to communicate with one another and self-organize will unleash the power of e-petitions. Citizens by themselves might even come up with solutions to some of the issues that they raised in the first place.
  3. Connect constituents to representatives: In the majority of cases, e-petitions are confined to the Executive branch. Communicating to representatives (i.e. MPs) the preferences and concerns of their respective constituencies would simultaneously strengthen participatory and representative democracy. Connecting constituents and their representatives – with their mutual consent – would do so even more.
  4. Know the e-petitioners: Having a better knowledge of the overall traits of the population of e-petitioners may offer a wealth of information to improve the democratic potential of e-petitions. Among other things, governments may be able to launch outreach campaigns to under-represented groups and find more effective means of communication for specific segments of the population. Of course, once again, only if the due safeguards are in place.
  5. Manage expectations: All other things being equal, satisfaction with democratic processes (S) is the difference between results (R) and expectations (E) [hence S = R – E]. Even if results are positive, if citizens’ expectations are higher, satisfaction is negative. Clearly outlining what citizens can expect from their participation minimizes the risk of undermining political efficacy.
  6. Experiment: One of the advantages of new technologies is the fact that experiments can be conducted at extremely lowered costs. In the case of online participation for instance, there is research indicating that different types of design or information provided (e.g. number of subscribers, thresholds) might actually leverage participation. User experience approaches such as AB testing could help identify the best choice architecture for e-petitions. Some experiments could even take place in real life settings without jeopardizing the integrity of the petition process.
  7. Enable and fund research: There is a disproportionate scarcity of good research on e-petitions. Facilitate third party funding and access to data and information to conduct their research on e-petitions. Citizen-generated (big) data has untapped potential for better understanding collective dynamics, which could in turn inform the further design of e-petitions and online participation in general. Two brilliant examples of this type of research in the field of e-petitions can be found here and here [PDF].

When it comes to perfecting participatory institutions, there is no silver bullet. Working with government on a permanent basis for years, I am aware that many of the suggestions above are easier said than done. But it would also be too easy to say that e-petitions are great participatory mechanisms as they stand.



On the US experience, here’s a great post by Alex Howard.

Also, thanks to Marija Novkovic for sharing some of her readings.

Further reading recommendations (besides the papers cited above):

Participation, Democracy and the Downing Street E-petitions service [PDF]

Broadening Participation Through E-Petitions? An Empirical Study of Petitions to the German Parliament [PDF]

Transforming Government through e-Participation: Challenges for e-Democracy [PDF]

Electronic Petitioning and Modernization of Petitioning Systems in Europe [PDF]


211 Years of Political Evolution in 60 Seconds — New and Improved!!

Originally posted on Dart-Throwing Chimp:

The heat maps used in the animation I posted yesterday plotted change over time in counts of countries in each cell of a two-dimensional space representing different kinds of politcal institutions. Over the 211 years in question, however, the number of countries in the world has grown dramatically, from about 50 in 1800 to well over 150 in 2011. For that reason, a couple of commenters wondered whether we would see something different if we plotted proportions instead of counts, using the size of the total population as a denominator in each cell. Proportions better fit the ideas behind a fitness landscape, so I added a line to my code and gave it a whirl. Here’s what I got:

To my eye, there aren’t any big differences in the patterns we see here compared with the ones based on counts. Re-watching the animation today, though, here are a few other…

View original 265 more words

Scaling-up Deliberation to the National Level

This paper takes issue with the question of scaling up deliberation in connection to that of enlarged participation. Its aim is to argue that deliberation can be feasible and effective in wide participatory experiments, and therefore it can scale up to the national level and affect public decisions once the appropriate institutional design is in place. I propose feasibility and effectiveness as two overlapping dimensions of scaling-up deliberation. As for the feasibility dimension, I will argue that the institutional design of large participatory experiments should allow the kind of deliberation found in minipublics to scale up accordingly to three criteria: space, volume and actors. As for the effectiveness dimension, I will argue that large participatory experiments should provide that the deliberation process follows the criteria of transformation and impact in order to scale-up local preferences to the national level and make sure they affect policymaking. Such theoretical framework will be tested against the empirical background provided by the world’s largest participatory experiment known to date, the National Public Policy Conferences in Brazil.

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

Ushahidi in (Sobering) Numbers

For a while, the (quite impressive) number of Ushahidi deployments has been repeated in development circles as proof of its scalability, although very little was known about these various deployments. A new report by Internews sheds light on a number of issues on that front, such as number of participants, areas of intervention and geographical coverage.

Below are a few excerpts from this rather sobering report, based on surveys and an analysis of 12,757 Crowdmaps (highlights are my own):

93% of Crowdmaps had fewer than 10 reports.
61% of Crowdmaps had absolutely no customization at all, i.e., they still had the four default categories and the default report.
89% of Crowdmaps had four categories, including those with the four default categories.
13% of Crowdmaps had 5-10 categories.
94% of Crowdmaps had only one user.

(…) while about 61% percent exhibited virtually no activity beyond installation, 93% of Crowdmap instances reported fewer than 10 reports. In short, the power law distribution was far steeper than the Pareto Principle would anticipate.

Our initial processing shows a vast majority of deployments with little to no actionable data with a slight slope toward the minority with a likelihood of effective and active engagement. 

The more reports a Crowdmap project has, the more reports it seems to attract, leading it to a positive feedback loop. In physics, power law relationships often reflect phase transitions. It is possible that there is an analogous process by which a map project reaches critical mass. If confirmed, this may indicate the importance of strategies to get nascent map projects “over the hump.” This is a promising area for future research.

(…) more attention was given to analyzing the 585 Crowdmaps that had between 21 and 10,000 reports.

The results revealed that the vast majority of these(30%) focused on North America while 18% focused on Western Europe and 16% on Africa.On average, these Crowdmaps had 814 reports.The median number of reports for this set of deployments was substantially lower, at 94, which is not surprising considering that the distribution of this set of cases is highly right-skewed 

An even more important question refers to the number of outputs (Crowdmaps created) and outcomes (impact). The report does not go that far.

But still, it is a milestone in the efforts to better understand ICT mediated reporting (or engagement), a field in which policy is rarely backed by good evidence. Even if these results might come across as disappointing to some, kudos should go to the Ushahidi team for sharing their data for an external evaluation. Having said this, and in the spirit of openness, provided security measures were in place, it would be great if this data could be made available to other researchers to conduct their own analysis.

You can find the full report here

(Photo credit: whiteafrican)