Are ‘Good’ Citizens ‘Good’ Participants?

Article by Catherine Bolzendahl and Hilde Coffé recently published at Political Studies (2013):

Are ‘Good’ Citizens ‘Good’ Participants? Testing Citizenship Norms and Political Participation across 25 Nations. 


Whereas research on political participation typically investigates a variety of socio-economic and attitudinal characteristics, this cross-national study focuses on the relevance of norms when explaining political participation. We examine respondents’ normative beliefs about the importance of various measures of ‘good citizenship’, and their relationship to three modes of political engagement (activism, party membership and voting). We find assigning higher importance to paying taxes/obeying the law is negatively linked to all forms of participation, whereas the opposite is true for norms about the importance of voting and being active in associations. Greater emphasis on norms about understanding others and shopping politically is positively associated with political activism but not with more institutional forms of participation. The relationship between norms and participation differs somewhat across nations, with the most differences between Eastern European respondents and those from Western European and Western non-European respondents. In line with theories on democratic learning, we find that the relationship between citizenship norms and participation is often weakest among Eastern Europeans. Conclusions about the subjective and variable nature of democratic citizenship are discussed.

An interesting finding is the weak link between the duty to “keep a watch on the actions of government” and most types of participation (i.e. political activism and electoral participation). I cannot help but speculate about the extent to which these findings may help to explain why generally it is relatively easier to engage citizens in participatory processes (e.g. participatory budgeting) than have them monitor the outcomes of these same processes (e.g. oversight of budget execution).

Another possible reading is that the citizen who participates is different from the citizen who monitors. One of the practical implications of this would be that we should consider segmenting audiences (and outreach efforts) according to specific stages of the policy cycle.

Read the full article here.

When Diversity Trumps Ability

A little while ago I listed a few of my favorite readings and videos about collective intelligence. But since then I have been extremely bothered by the fact that I forgot to include in the list some references to Scott Page’s work. In my opinion Scott is one of the most important references for anyone interested in subjects such as collective intelligence, epistemic democracy, crowdsourcing, prediction models,and group performance. For instance, his book “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies” is one of the best readings I’ve recently come across in the field.

It should not surprise anyone that some of the smartest people currently working on collective intelligence do not hesitate to cite Scott’s work over and over again in their writings.

As Scott highlights the importance of cognitive diversity for collective problem-solving (where diversity trumps ability), he ends up indirectly providing convincing arguments as to why – under certain conditions – citizens may outperform elected officials and experts. Scott’s work thus becomes compulsory reading for those working with citizen participation.

So I tried to compile a small list of freely available resources for those with an interest in any of the issues mentioned above:

  •  Virginia University Lecture

  • UCSD Lecture

( more recent talk, which includes a great account on the role of diversity in the Netflix algorithm competition)

  • Articles

Page, SE (2007) Making the Difference: Applying a Logic of Diversity. Academy of Management Perspectives 21(4): 6–20.

Hong L, Page SE (2004) Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. PNAS 101: 16385-16389

Hong, Lu and Scott E. Page. (2001) “Problem Solving by Heterogeneous Firms.” Journal of Economic Theory 97(1):123-163.


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.

Social Media and Regime Change in Egypt and Syria

In the middle of a deluge of opinions about the role of social media in the recent arab uprisings, here’s an interesting new paper by Florian Fischer, from the Center for Global Politics.


By testing the model of information cascades through the analysis of the recent political uprisings in Egypt and Syria, this study aims not only at enhancing our knowledge of the model and its possible application(s), but also hopes to specifically shed light on how concise its adoption by Shirky is with regard to social media. At the same time, it may contribute to our understanding of the recent political developments in the Middle East. It is important to mention at this point, that this paper does not aim at a general explanation of the occurrence of political protest in Egypt or Syria. While factors such as economic performance and resource distribution, rising (food) prices, demographic changes in combination with (the lack of) educational and economic opportunities, as well as sectarian divisions can be considered as possibly having contributed to the occurrence and development of political protest in Egypt and Syria respectively, they will not be discussed in detail here due to the scope and focus of this study. Within the broad framework of collective action theory, this paper solely focuses on how political protests might be regarded as information cascades (as understood by Lohmann) and the impact social media might have on these (as proposed by Shirky).

And some of the findings (highlights are mine)

The findings of this study, limited as they may be, suggest that the number of protests before an uprising, i.e. the protest history, has a greater relevance for the success of an uprising to effect regime change than the degree of social media use. Within the research design proposed and the two cases chosen, there was a strong positive correlation between the independent variable “number of previous protests” (IV-1) and the dependent variable “effected regime change”. This outcome thus supports our first hypothesis that the preceding protest history of a country can be a correlating factor with regard to the success of ongoing protests in effecting regime change, and this correlation is positive in its nature, i.e. that the more political protest was manifested before a given moment, the more probable the success of subsequent political protests to effect regime change is.


The correlation between our dependent variable and the independent variable “the degree of social media use” (IV-2) was much less obvious, albeit positive. Although the index used to assess social media use showed a higher value for Egypt, our case with a regime change, than for Syria, the difference in value points is marginal. It is difficult to draw any significant conclusion from this result with regard to the impact of social media on protests and their success in effecting regime change. Thus, the second hypothesis proposed, i.e. that the more social media tools are used in a given regime, the more successful political protests can be in effecting regime change, could not be strongly confirmed by our findings.

You can read the full paper here. 

Eurobarometer: Citizens Engaged in Participatory Democracy

A new report by Eurobarometer on citizen engagement in participatory democracy has been recently published. Here are some of the findings:

A third (34%) of respondents say that they have signed a petition in the last two years. However, the proportion of people who have done this ranges considerably, from 53% in the UK to 7% in Cyprus. Other relatively popular forms of engagement are expressing one’s views online (28%), expressing one’s views with an elected local representative (24%), and taking part in a public debate at local or regional level (18%).

Men are more likely than women to have attempted to express their view using most of the means under discussion; they are also more likely to be members of an NGO or similar association.

A fifth of respondents (20%) are members of an organisation with a specific economic, social, environmental, cultural or sporting interest, while 17% are in another organisation with a special interest, and 16% are Trade Union members. 

The Nordic countries demonstrate a very high level of participation in NGOs and associations, especially Trade Unions. However, in 18 Member States, more than half of the respondents say that they have not had any involvement with this type of organisation. 

Respondents who have expressed their views or joined an NGO are more likely to believe that ways of influencing political decision-making, such as voting, are effective, and also that NGOs can influence political decisions.

And a bit more on socio-demographic traits and participation (highlights are mine):

According to the socio-demographic data, men are more likely than women to have used various means of expressing their views, including taking part in a public debate at local/regional level (22% vs. 15% for women), expressing their views to a local elected representative (27% vs. 20%), and expressing their views via the Internet or social media (32% vs. 25%). However, equal numbers of men and women (both 34%) say that they signed a petition. Overall, 45% of women say that they did none of these things in order to express their views, as opposed to 38% of men.

People in different age groups demonstrate preferences for using different means of expressing their views on public issues. Younger respondents are more likely to use the Internet or social media: 42% of 15-24 year-olds did this during the past two years, but this falls to 17% among people aged 55 or over. Respondents aged 40 and over (26-27%) are more likely to express their views with their local or regional elected representatives than 15-24 year-olds (16%), while people in the 25-39 age bracket (40%) are the most likely to have signed a petition (only 28% of respondents aged 55 and over did this). Respondents aged 55 or over are the most inclined to say that they did not do any of these things: 48% say this, compared with 37-39% of people in the other three age groups. 

Respondents with a higher level of education are more likely to try to express their views via all the means under discussion than people who finished their education at a younger age. For example, 42% of people who finished their education aged 20 or over have  signed a petition in the last two years, compared with just 16% of those who left school aged 15 or below. While 62% of people in the latter group did none of these things in order to express their view, only 34% of people who finished their education aged 20 or over say this. 

In terms of occupation, employees and self-employed people are more likely to seek to express their views using the various available means than manual workers or people who are not working. Nearly half of manual workers (49%) and people who are not working (47%) did not do any of these things, compared with 35% of employees and 34% of self-employed people.

The full report is available here [PDF].