A Bottom-up Account of Occupy Wall Street

New report on Occupy Wall Street in New York City.

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 08.46.39

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)

Democratic Innovation in Open Government

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/

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]


High-Frequency Data Using Mobile Phones: Incentives and Accountability

Great research note  [PDF] by Croke et al. (2012). Here’s the abstract:

As mobile phone ownership rates have risen dramatically in Africa, there has been increased interest in using mobile telephones as a data collection platform. This note draws on two largely successful pilot projects in Tanzania and South Sudan that used mobile phones for high-frequency data collection. Data were collected on a wide range of topics and in a manner that was cost-effective, flexible, and rapid. Once households were included in the survey, they tended to stick with it: respondent fatigue has not been a major issue. While attrition and nonresponse have been challenges in the Tanzania survey, these were due to design flaws in that particular survey, challenges that can be avoided in future similar projects. Ensuring use of the data to demand better service delivery and policy decisions turned out to be as challenging as collecting the high-quality data. Experiences in Tanzania suggest that good data can be translated into public accountability, but also demonstrate that just putting data out in the public domain is not enough. This note discusses lessons learned and offers suggestions for future applications of mobile phone surveys in developing countries, such as those planned for the World Bank’s “Listening to Africa” initiative.

Of particular interest to me is the fact that part of the design used financial incentives as a means to reduce nonresponse and attrition rates. In the technology and development world there has been lots of talk about “incentives to participate”, where the practical shortcut is often the provision of financial incentives. In Tanzania, for instance, the authors report that “respondents who successfully completed an interview were rewarded with an amount varying from $2 to $4”, not a negligible sum in the Tanzanian context.

Interestingly, in the working paper [PDF] from which this note is drawn, a footnote sheds some light on how effective these rewards were:

Remarkably in both Sudan and Tanzania the amount of the reward did not have a discernable impact on response rates.

But these findings are not as surprising as they may seem. Indeed, there is a good deal of evidence from behavioural economics pointing out that financial incentives might not work as well as traditional economics (and economists) would predict.

And a noteworthy excerpt on the limits of transparency and the role of existing institutions and actors:

One lesson is that  providing citizens with relevant, timely, and accurate data  about the actions of politicians, policy makers, and public service providers is not sufficient. For the data to have impact, they need to be accessible and disseminated widely, and in ways that allow them to be utilized by already existing institutions and actors.

This is an interesting point, although I am not sure to what extent existing institutions are enough. In the field of technology and governance, I believe that it has become quite clear that very little is achieved when technological solutions are not coupled with institutional innovations.

But that’s another story. In any case, a great read, and the type of effort that is badly needed in this space.

My Reading Suggestions (Part One)

Fundação Biblioteca Nacional

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


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

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

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

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

Collective Intelligence Conference (Video)

College de France – Collective Intelligence (Video) 

Epistemic Democracy Conference (Video) 


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Happy reading.