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].

Who Participates in Africa? Dispelling the Myth

picture by Britanny Danisch on flickr.

Whenever discussing participation in Africa (as well as in other developing contexts) the issue of “who participates” often emerges. A constant in these conversations is an assumption that participation in the continent is strongly driven by material and immaterial resources (e.g. money, time). In other words, there seems to be a widespread belief, particularly among development practitioners,  that the most privileged sectors of society are disproportionately more likely to participate than the least well-off.

In part, such an assumption is empirically grounded. Since the early 70s,  studies have shown inequality in political participation, with the most advantaged groups being disproportionately more likely to participate. Considering that policy preferences between groups differ, unequal participation leads to the troubling possibility that public policy is skewed towards favoring the better off, thus further deepening societal differences and access to public goods and services.

However, often ignored is the fact that most of these studies refer to  participation in traditional western democracies, notably the United States and European countries. But do these results hold true when it comes to participation in Africa? This is the question that Ann-Sofie Isaksson (University of Gothenburg) tackles in a paper published in Electoral Studies “Political participation in Africa: The role of individual resources”.

By looking at an Afrobarometer dataset of 27,000 respondents across 20 African countries, Isaksson’s findings challenge the standard thinking on the relationship between resources and participation:

(…) it seems the resource perspective does a poor job at explaining African political participation. If a resource is relevant for meeting the costs of participating, more of that resource should mean more participation. If anything, however, the estimations suggest that having little time (i.e. working full-time) and little money (i.e. being poorer) is associated with more participation.

Isaksson’s analysis is not confined to participation in elections, also examining non-electoral participation, i.e. attending community meetings. With regard to the latter only, there are modest effects associated with exposure to information  (e.g. radio, TV, newspapers) and education. Yet, as the author notes, “the result that community attendance is higher among the poor remains”.

To conclude, as underlined by Isaksson in her paper, she is not alone in terms of findings, with other studies looking at Asia and Latin America pointing in a similar direction, slowly dispelling the myth of the role of resources for participation in developing countries. Development practitioners should start to take note of these encouraging facts.

***

P.s.: An earlier ungated version of the paper can be found here [PDF].

Rethinking Why People Participate

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 9.08.46 PM

Having a refined understanding of what leads people to participate is one of the main concerns of those working with citizen engagement. But particularly when it comes to participatory democracy, that understanding is only partial and, most often, the cliché “more research is needed” is definitely applicable. This is so for a number of reasons, four of which are worth noting here.

  1. The “participatory” label is applied to greatly varied initiatives, raising obvious methodological challenges for comparative research and cumulative learning. For instance, while both participatory budgeting and online petitions can be roughly categorized as “participatory” processes, they are entirely different in terms of fundamental aspects such as their goals, institutional design and expected impact on decision-making.
  2. The fact that many participatory initiatives are conceived as “pilots” or one-off events gives researchers little time to understand the phenomenon, come up with sound research questions, and test different hypotheses over time.  The “pilotitis” syndrome in the tech4accountability space is a good example of this.
  3. When designing and implementing participatory processes, in the face of budget constraints the first victims are documentation, evaluation and research. Apart from a few exceptions, this leads to a scarcity of data and basic information that undermines even the most heroic “archaeological” efforts of retrospective research and evaluation (a far from ideal approach).
  4. The semantic extravaganza that currently plagues the field of citizen engagement, technology and open government makes cumulative learning all the more difficult.

Precisely for the opposite reasons, our knowledge of electoral participation is in better shape. First, despite the differences between elections, comparative work is relatively easy, which is attested by the high number of cross-country studies in the field. Second, the fact that elections (for the most part) are repeated regularly and following a similar design enables the refinement of hypotheses and research questions over time, and specific time-related analysis (see an example here [PDF]). Third, when compared to the funds allocated to research in participatory initiatives, the relative amount of resources channeled into electoral studies and voting behavior is significantly higher. Here I am not referring to academic work only but also to the substantial resources invested by the private sector and parties towards a better understanding of elections and voting behavior. This includes a growing body of knowledge generated by get-out-the-vote (GOTV) research, with fascinating experimental evidence from interventions that seek to increase participation in elections (e.g. door-to-door campaigns, telemarketing, e-mail). Add to that the wealth of electoral data that is available worldwide (in machine-readable formats) and you have some pretty good knowledge to tap into. Finally, both conceptually and terminologically, the field of electoral studies is much more consistent than the field of citizen engagement which, in the long run, tends to drastically impact how knowledge of a subject evolves.

These reasons should be sufficient to capture the interest of those who work with citizen engagement. While the extent to which the knowledge from the field of electoral participation can be transferred to non-electoral participation remains an open question, it should at least provide citizen engagement researchers with cues and insights that are very much worth considering.

This is why I was particularly interested in an article from a recently published book, The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy (Princeton). Entitled “Rethinking Why People Vote: Voting as Dynamic Social Expression”, the article is written by Todd Rogers, Craig Fox and Alan Berger. Taking a behavioralist stance, the authors start by questioning the usefulness of the rationalist models in explaining voting behavior:

“In these [rationalist] models citizens are seen as weighing the anticipated trouble they must go through in order to cast their votes, against the likelihood that their vote will improve the outcome of an election times the magnitude of that improvement. Of course, these models are problematic because the likelihood of casting in the deciding vote is often hopelessly small. In a typical state or national election, a person faces a higher probability of being struck by a car on the way to his or her polling location than of casting the deciding vote.”

(BTW, if you are a voter in certain US states, the odds of being hit by a meteorite are greater than those of casting the deciding vote).

Following on from the fact that traditional models cannot fully explain why and under which conditions citizens vote, the authors develop a framework that considers voting as a “self-expressive voting behavior that is influenced by events occurring before and after the actual moment of casting a vote.” To support their claims, throughout the article the authors build upon existing evidence from GOTV campaigns and other behavioral research. Besides providing a solid overview of the literature in the field, the authors express compelling arguments for mobilizing electoral participation. Below are a few excerpts from the article with some of the main takeaways:

  • Mode of contact: the more personal it is, the more effective it is

“Initial experimental research found that a nonpartisan face-to-face canvassing effort had a 5-8 percentage point mobilizing effect in an uncontested midterm elections in 1998 (Gerber and Green 2000) compared to less than a 1 percentage point mobilizing effect for live phone calls and mailings. More than three dozen subsequent experiments have overwhelmingly supported the original finding (…)”

“Dozens of experiments have examined the effectiveness of GOTV messages delivered by the telephone. Several general findings emerge, all of which are consistent with the broad conclusion that the more personal a GOTV strategy, the more effective. (…) the most effective calls are conducted in an unhurried, “chatty manner.”

“The least personal and the least effective GOTV communication channels entail one way communications. (…) written pieces encouraging people vote that are mailed directly to households have consistently been shown to produce a mall, but positive, increase in turnout.”

  • Voting is affected by events before and after the decision

“One means to facilitate the performance of a socially desirable behavior is to ask people to predict whether they will perform the behavior in the future. In order to present oneself in a favorable light or because of wishful thinking or both, people are generally biased to answer in the affirmative. Moreover, a number of studies have found that people are more likely to follow through on a behavior after they predicted that they will do so (….) Emerging social-networking technologies provide new opportunities for citizens to commit to each other that they will turnout in a given election. These tools facilitate making one’s commitments public, and they also allow for subsequently accountability following an election (…) Asking people to form a specific if-then plan of action, or implementation intention, reduces the cognitive costs of having to remember to pursue an action that one intends to perform. Research shows that when people articulate the how, when and where of their plan to implement an intended behavior, they are more likely to follow through.”

(Not coincidentally, as noted by Sasha Issenberg in his book The Victory Lab, during the 2010 US presidential election millions of democrats received an email reminding them that they had “made a commitment to vote in this election” and that “the time has come to make good on that commitment. Think about when you’ll cast your vote and how you’ll get there.”)

“ (…) holding a person publicly accountable for whether or not she voted may increase her tendency to do so. (…) Studies have found that when people are merely made aware that their behavior will be publicly known, they become more likely to behaving in ways that are consistent with how they believe others think they should behave. (…) At least, at one point Italy exposed those who failed to vote by posting the names of nonvoters outside of local town halls.”

(On the accountability issue, also read this fascinating study [PDF] by Gerber, Green & Larimer)

  • Following the herd: affinitive and belonging needs

“People are strongly motivated to maintain feelings of belonging with others and to affiliate with others. (…) Other GOTV strategies that can increase turnout by serving social needs could involve encouraging people to go to their polling place in groups (i.e., a buddy system), hosting after-voting parties on election day, or encouraging people to talk about voting with their friends, to name a few.”

“(…) studies showed that the motivation to vote significantly increased when participants heard a message that emphasized high expected turnout as opposed to low expected turnout. For example, in the New Jersey study, 77% of the participants who heard the high-turnout script reported being “absolutely certain” that they would vote, compared to 71% of those who heard the low-turnout script. This research also found that moderate and infrequent voters were strongly affected by the turnout information.”

  • Voting as an expression of identity

“(….) citizens can derive value from voting through what the act displays about their identities. People are willing to go to great lengths, and pay great costs, to express that they are a particular kind of person. (….) Experimenters asked participants to complete a fifteen-minute survey that related to an election that was to occur the following week. After completing the survey, the experimenter reviewed the results and reported to participants what their responses indicated. Participants were, in fact, randomly assigned to one of two conditions. Participants in the first condition were labeled as being “above-average citizens[s] … who [are] very likely to vote,” whereas participants in the second condition were labeled as being “average citizen[s] … with an average likelihood of voting. (….) These identity labels proved to have substantial impact on turnout, with 87% of “above average” participants voting versus 75% of “average” participants voting.”

For those working with participatory governance, the question that remains is the extent to which each of these lessons is applicable to non-electoral forms of participation. The differences between electoral and non-electoral forms of participation may cause these techniques to generate very different results. One difference relates to public awareness about participation opportunities. While it would be safe to say that during an important election the majority of citizens are aware of it, the opposite is true for most existing participatory events, where generally only a minority is aware of their existence. In this case, it is unclear whether the impact of mobilization campaigns would be more or less significant when awareness about an event is low. Furthermore, if the act of voting may be automatically linked to a sense of civic duty, would that still hold true for less typical forms of participation (e.g. signing an online petition, attending a community meeting)?

The answer to this “transferability” question is an empirical one, and one that is yet to be answered.  The good news is that while experiments that generate this kind of knowledge are normally resource intensive, the costs of experimentation are driven down when it comes to technology-mediated citizen participation. The use of A/B testing during the Obama campaign is a good example. Below is an excellent account by Dan Siroker on how they conducted online experiments during the presidential campaign.

Bringing similar experiments to other realms of digital participation is the next logical step for those working in the field. Some organizations have already started to take this seriously . The issue is whether others, including governments and donors, will do the same.

A Dynamic Model of Protest

A nice animation based on a paper by Adam Meirowitz (Princeton) and Joshua Tucker (New York University). The video explains why citizens who take action to overthrow bad governments might eventually lose hope  and decide to stay home.

 

The paper was published this year in the American Journal of Political Science. Here is the abstract:

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, a crucial question is whether popular protest is now likely to be a permanent part of Middle Eastern politics or if the protests that have taken place over the past two years are more likely to be a “one-shot deal.” We consider this question from a theoretical perspective, focusing on the relationship between the consequences of protests in one period and the incentives to protest in the future. The model provides numerous predictions for why we might observe a phenomenon that we call the “one-shot deal”: when protest occurs at one time but not in the future despite an intervening period of bad governance. The analysis focuses on the learning process of citizens. We suggest that citizens may not only be discovering the type or quality of their new government—as most previous models of adverse selection assume—but rather citizens may also be learning about the universe of potential governments in their country. In this way, bad performance by one government induces some pessimism about possible replacements. This modeling approach expands the formal literature on adverse selection in elections in two ways: it takes seriously the fact that removing governments can be costly, and it explores the relevance of allowing the citizen/principal to face uncertainty about the underlying distribution from which possible government/agent types are drawn.

The authors’ highlighting of the need to “get it right” in the first transitional elections comes as a reminder of how frail electoral democracy may be in recently transitioned countries. A snapshot from the conclusion (ungated version):

In the aftermath of events like the Arab Spring and the Colored Revolutions, we are once again confronted with the question of what the long-range effects are likely to be of regime change ushered in by citizens taking to the streets. Such moments are often filled with optimism about the potential for people to seize control of their own destiny and finally demand accountability from their governments. The model we present in this article does not deny that this optimistic chain of events can come to fruition, but it does lead to important insights as to when such a scenario is more or less likely.

First, there is likely to be a fundamental difference between what happens following a protest that leads to regime change as opposed to one that leads merely to a change of government without changing the regime. So a protest in France that leads to a change in the government—for example, the 1968 protests and subsequent resignation of de Gaulle (Cerny 1970)—is not likely to change citizens’ minds about the overall distribution of the quality of governments available through French democracy. Citizens may feel that they have received a “bad” draw from this distribution, and thus it is worth trying to throw the current government out of power and replace it with a new draw from the same distribution. In these circumstances—provided the cost of protesting remains constant—there is no reason not to expect French citizens to take to the streets to protest against their government in similar numbers in thefuture.

In a new democracy, however, we suggest that citizens may be simultaneously updating about the quality of the current government and the potential quality of all governments available under a democratic regime. This learning may be rather dramatic during the first governments of the new regime. If these initial governments after a democratic transition should prove to be little better than previous nondemocratic governments, citizens might be unlikely to take costly actions in order to curtail new abuses or even deter a blatant disregard for the new rules calling for periodic elections. Thus, we are probably most likely to see a one-shot-deal scenario when the initial governments following a democratic transition are perceived as no better than the ones that preceded the transition. Conversely, repeated protest might be more likely if there are afew “good” governments—thus leading respondents to think that the average quality of government is indeed better under democracy—before a government that might threaten democracy appears again. The bottom line is that if the type of learning that underlines our model is indeed occurring in newly democratic regimes, then the stakes for these regimes during the initial post-transition governments are likely to be high indeed.

Taken together, these points suggest the potential for the following patterns to emerge. The size and strength of protests may increase over time in a nondemocratic regime, but once the initial goal of removing the old regime from office is accomplished, the ability of prodemocracy forces to bring their supporters to the street may diminish significantly. The intuitive explanation for such a pattern would normally be that “the goal has been met,” but our model suggests a different story: it may not be so much that the goal has been met as the goal no longer seems to be quite so valuable. Again, this points to the importance of “getting it right” in the first transitional elections.

You can read the full paper (ungated version) here [PDF].

HT The Monkey Cage. 

Isolating the Effects of Electoral Participation on Political Efficacy and Political Trust

By Victoria Shineman

There is a rich literature discussing the effects of participation, and a growing number of studies have tried to estimate proposed effects using empirical data. However, empirical testing is difficult because participation is typically both voluntary and costly, causing it to be partially determined by the characteristics it is theorized to affect. Put simply, there is an endogeneity problem. This paper discusses theories regarding how engaging in the act of participation might affect political efficacy and political trust, and then contributes to the empirical literature through experimental innovations which improve our ability to make valid causal inferences. An intensive mobilization treatment was integrated into a panel survey conducted before and after the 2011 San Francisco Municipal Election. Actual voter turnout was validated from the official voter history file. The mobilization treatment increased participation by over 33 percentage points, generating an excellent opportunity to isolate exogenously driven participation. The analysis uses assignment to the mobilization treatment as an instrument for voter turnout, in order to isolate and estimate the independent effect of being mobilized to vote on different dimensions of political efficacy and political trust. Heterogeneous treatment effects are also identified, based on whether each subject approved or disapproved of the electoral outcomes. This paper is part of a larger project intended to isolate and estimate the effects of participation. Additional experiments and observational studies will soon be integrated into the analysis.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

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.

David Karpf on Netroots and the MoveOn Effect

David Karpf lecture at the American University on the impact of technologies on political activism.

 

A brief description of the talk from the Center for Social Media website:

Karpf walked his audience through an examination of internet age advocacy organizations: examining their effectiveness in running campaigns; how they run campaigns as compared to legacy advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club (an organization that predates the internet by nearly 100 years); and what the future of the netroots movements means for the future of all who are involved in advocacy work. Karpf, who served on the Sierra Club board of directors in graduate school, came equipped with a perspective that combines the physical experience of his grassroots campaign work and the intellectual experience of meticulously mapping the behavior and patterns of online groups such as DailyKos and MoveOn.