“Civic tech” broadly refers to the use of digital technologies to support a range of citizen engagement processes. From allowing individuals to report problems to local government to enabling the crowdsourcing of national legislation, civic tech aims to promote better policies and services – while contributing to more inclusive democratic institutions. But could civic tech affect public issues in a way that benefits some and excludes others?
Over the decades, the question of who participates in and who is excluded from participation mediated by technology has been the focus of both civic tech critics and proponents. The latter tend to argue that, by enabling citizens to participate without constraints of time and distance, civic tech facilitates the participation of those who usually abstain from engaging with public issues, leading to more inclusive processes. Critics argue that, given the existing digital divide, unequal access to technology will tend to empower the already empowered, further deepening societal differences. Yet both critics and proponents do tend to share an intuitive assumption: the socio-economic profile of whoparticipates is the primary determinant of who benefits from digitally mediated civic participation. For instance, if more men participate, outcomes will favor male preferences, and if more young people participate, outcomes will be more aligned with the concerns of the youth.
In a new paper, we show that the link between the demographics of those participating through digital channels, and the beneficiaries of the participation process, is not necessarily as straightforward as commonly assumed. We review four civic tech cases where data allow us to trace the full participatory chain through:
the initial digital divide
the participant’s demographics
the demands made through the process
the policy outcomes
We examine online voting in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul’s participatory budgeting process, the local problem reporting platform Fix My Street (FMS) in the United Kingdom, Iceland’s online crowdsourced constitution process, and the global petitioning platform Change.org.
Change.org has been used by nearly half a billion people around the globe. Using a dataset of 3.9 million signers of online petitions in 132 countries, we examine the number of successful petitions and assess whether petitions created by women have more success than those submitted by men. Our analysis shows that, even if women create fewer online petitions than men, their petitions are more likely to be successful. All else equal, when online petitions have an impact on government policy, the agenda being implemented is much closer to the issues women choose to focus on.
In Rio Grande do Sul’s digital participatory budgeting (PB), we show that despite important demographic differences between online and offline voters, these inequalities do not affect which types of projects are selected for funding – a consequence of PB’s unique institutional design, which favors redistributive effects.
In fact, of all the cases analyzed, none reflect the standard assumption that inequalities in who participates translate directly into inequalities in who benefits from the policy outcomes. Our results suggest that the socio-economic profile of participants predicts only in part who benefits from civic tech. Just as important to policy outcomes is how the platform translates civic participation into policy demands, and how the government responds to those demands. While civic tech practitioners pay a lot of attention to design from a technological perspective, our findings highlight the importance of considering how civic tech platforms function as political institutions that encourage certain types of behavior while discouraging others.
Civic tech, it seems, is not inherently good nor bad for democratic institutions. Instead, its effect is a combination of who participates on digital platforms and the choices of platform designers and governments.
Post co-authored with Jonathan Mellon and Fredrik M. Sjoberg. Cross-posted from the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Developmentblog.
Voices in the Code, by David G. Robinson, is finally out. I had the opportunity to read the book prior to its publication, and I could not recommend it enough. David shows how, between 2004 and 2014 in the US, experts and citizens came together to build a new kidney transplant matching algorithm. David’s work is a breath of fresh air for the debate surrounding the impact of algorithms on individuals and societies – a debate typically focused on the negative and sometimes disastrous effects of algorithms. While David conveys these risks at the outset of the book, focusing solely on these threats would add little to a public discourse already saturated with concerns.
One of the major missing pieces in the “algorithmic literature” is precisely how citizens, experts and decision-makers can make their interactions more successful, working towards algorithmic solutions that better serve societal goals. The book offers a detailed and compelling case where a long and participatory process leads to the crafting of an algorithm that delivers a public good. This, despite the technical complexities, moral dilemmas, and difficult trade-offs involved in decisions related to the allocation of kidneys to transplant patients. Such a feat would not be achieved without another contribution of the book, which is to offer a didactical demystification of what algorithms are, normally treated as a reserved domain of few experts.
As David conducts his analysis, one also finds an interesting reversal of the assumed relationship between technology and participatory democracy. This relationship has mostly been examined from a civic tech angle, focusing on how technologies can support democratic participation through practices such as e-petitions, online citizens’ assemblies, and digital participatory budgeting. Thus, another original contribution of this book is to look at this relationship from the opposite angle: how can participatory processes better support technological deployments. While technology for participation (civic tech) remains an important topic, we should probably start paying more attention to how participation can support technological solutions (civic for tech).
Continuing on through the book, other interesting insights emerge. For instance, technology and participatory democracy pundits normally subscribe to the virtues of decentralized systems, both from a technological and institutional perspective. Yet David depicts precisely the virtues of a decision-making system centralized at the national level. Should organ transplant issues be decided at the local level in the US, the results would probably not be as successful. Against intuition, David presents a clear case where centralized (although participatory) systems might offer better collective outcomes. Surfacing this counterintuitive finding is a welcome contribution to debates on the trade-offs between centralization and decentralization, both from a technological and institutional standpoint.
But a few paragraphs here cannot do the book justice. Voices in the Code is certainly a must-read for anybody working on issues ranging from institutional design and participatory democracy, all the way to algorithmic accountability and decision support systems.
Open government’s uncertain effects and the Biden opportunity: what now?
A review of 10 years of open government research reveals: 1) “a transparency-driven focus”, 2) “methodological concerns”, and 3) [maybe not surprising] “the lack of empirical evidence regarding the effects of open government”. My take on this is that these findings are, somewhat, self-reinforcing.
First, the early focus on transparency by open government advocates, while ignoring the conditions under which transparency could lead to public goods, should be, in part, to blame. This is even more so if open government interventions insist on tactical, instead of strategicapproaches to accountability. Second, the fact that many of those engaging in open government efforts do not take into account the existing evidence doesn’t help in terms of designing appropriate reforms, nor in terms of calibrating expectations. Proof of this is the recurrent and mostly unsubstantiated spiel that “transparency leads to trust”, voiced by individuals and organizations who should have known better. Third, should there be any effects of open government reforms, these are hard to verify in a credible manner given that evaluations often suffer from methodological weaknesses, as indicated by the paper.
Finally, open government’s semantic extravaganza makes building critical mass all the more difficult. For example, I have my doubts over whether the paper would reach similar conclusions should it have expanded the review to open government practices that, in the literature, are not normally labeled as open government. This would be the case, for instance, of participatory budgeting (which has shown to improve service delivery and increase tax revenues), or strategic approaches to social accountability that present substantial results in terms of development outcomes.
In any case, the research findings are still troubling. The election of President Biden gives some extra oxygen to the open government agenda, and that is great news. But in a context where autocratization turns viral, making a dent in how governments operate will take less policy-based evidence searching and more evidence-based strategizing. That involves leveraging the existing evidence when it is available, and when it is not, the standard path applies: more research is needed.
Open Government Partnership and Justice
On another note, Joe Foti, from the Open Government Partnership (OGP), writes on the need to engage more lawyers, judges and advocates in order to increase the number of accountability-focused OGP commitments. I particularly like Joe’s ideas on bringing these actors together to identify where OGP commitments could be stronger, and how. This resonates with a number of cases I’ve come across in the past where the judiciary played a key role in ensuring that citizens’ voice also had teeth.
I also share Joe’s enthusiasm for the potential of a new generation of commitments that put forward initiatives such as specialized anti-corruption courts and anti-SLAPP provisions. Having said this, the judiciary itself needs to be open, independent and capable. In most countries that I’ve worked in, a good part of open government reforms fail precisely because of a dysfunctional judiciary system.
Diversity, collective intelligence and deliberative democracy
Part of the justification for models of deliberative democracy is their epistemic quality, that is, large and diverse crowds are smarter than the (elected or selected) few. A good part of this argument finds its empirical basis in the fantastic work by Scott Page.
But that’s not all. We know, for instance, that gender diversity on corporate boards improves firms’ performance, ethnic diversity produces more impactful scientific research, diverse groups are better at solving crimes, popular juries are less biased than professional judges, and politically diverse editorial teams produce higher-quality Wikipedia articles. Diversity also helps to explain classical Athens’ striking superiority vis-à-vis other city-states of its time, due to the capacity of its democratic system to leverage the dispersed knowledge of its citizens through sortition.
Now, a Nature article, “Algorithmic and human prediction of success in human collaboration from visual features”, presents new evidence of the power of diversity in problem-solving tasks. In the paper, the authors examine the patterns of group success in Escape The Room, an adventure game in which a group attempts to escape a maze by collectively solving a series of puzzles. The authors find that groups that are larger, older and more gender diverse are significantly more likely to escape. But there’s an exception to that: more age diverse groups are less likely to escape. Intriguing isn’t it?
Deliberative processes online: rough review of the evidence
As the pandemic pushes more deliberative exercises online, researchers and practitioners start to take more seriously the question of how effective online deliberation can be when compared to in-person processes. Surprisingly, there are very few empirical studies comparing the two methods.
But a quick run through the literature offers some interesting insights. For instance, an online 2004 deliberative poll on U.S. foreign policy, and a traditional face-to-face deliberative poll conducted in parallel, presented remarkably similar results. A 2007 experiment comparing online and face-to-face deliberation found that both approaches can increase participants’ issue knowledge, political efficacy, and willingness to participate in politics. A similar comparison from 2009 looking at deliberation over the construction of a power plant in Finland found considerable resemblance in the outcomes of online and face-to-face processes. A study published in 2012 on waste treatment in France found that, compared to the offline process, online deliberation was more likely to: i) increase women’s interventions, ii) promote the justification or arguments, and iii) be oriented towards the common good (although in this case the processes were not similar in design).
The external validity of these findings, however encouraging they may be, remains an empirical question. Particularly given that since these studies were conducted the technology used to support deliberations has in many cases changed (e.g. from written to “zoomified” deliberations). Anyhow, kudos should go to the researchers who started engaging with the subject well over a decade ago: if that work was a niche subject then, their importance now is blatantly obvious.
(BTW, on a related issue, here’s a fascinating 2021 experiment examining whether online juries can make consistent, repeatable decisions: interestingly, deliberating groups are much more consistent than non-deliberating groups)
Fixing the Internet?
Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev published a great article in The Atlantic on the challenges to democracy by an Internet model that fuels disinformation and polarization, presenting alternative paths to address this. I was thankful for the opportunity to make a modest contribution to such a nice piece.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the effects of the Internet in politics. For instance, a new study in the American Political Science Review finds that radical right parties benefit more than any other parties from malicious bots on social media.
2021 continues to be a good year for the proponents of deliberative democracy, with growing coverage of the subject in the mainstream media, in part fueled by the recent launch of Helène Landemore’s great book “Open Democracy.” Looking for something to listen to? Look no further and listen to this interview by Ezra Klein with Helène.
A dialogue among giants
The recording of the roundtable Contours of Participatory Democracy in the 21st Century is now available. The conversation between Jane Mansbridge, Mark Warren and Cristina Lafont can be found here.
Democracy and design thinking
Speaking of giants, the new book by Michael Saward “Democratic Design”, is finally out. I’m a big fan of Michael’s work, so my recommendation may be biased. In this new book Michael brings design thinking together with democratic theory and practice. If the design of democratic institutions is one of your topics, you should definitely check it out!
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to deliver a lecture at the Center for Collective Learning – Artificial and Natural Intelligence Institute. My presentation, Civic Technologies: Past, Present and Future, can be found here.
And finally, for those who really want to geek-out, a list of 15 academic articles I enjoyed reading:
Modern Grantmaking: That’s the title of a new book by Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg. I had the privilege of reading snippets of this, and I can already recommend it not only to those working with grantmaking, but also pretty much anyone working in the international development space.
Lectures: The Center for Collective Learning has a fantastic line-up of lectures open to the public. Find out more here.
Learning from Togo: While unemployment benefits websites were crashing in the US, the Togolese government showed how to leverage mobile money and satellite data to effectively get cash into the hands of those who need it the most
Nudging the nudgers: British MPs are criticising academics for sending them fictitious emails for research. I wonder if part of their outrage is not just about the emails, but about what the study could reveal in terms of their actual responsiveness to different constituencies.
DataViz: Bringing data visualization to physical/offline spaces has been an obsession of mine for quite a while. I was happy to come across this project while doing some research for a presentation
I’ve recently been exchanging with some friends on a list of favorite reads from 2020. While I started with a short list, it quickly grew: after all, despite the pandemic, there has been lots of interesting stuff published in the areas that I care about throughout the year. While the final list of reads varies in terms of subjects, breadth, depth and methodological rigor, I picked these 46 for different reasons. These include my personal judgement of their contribution to the field of democracy, or simply a belief that some of these texts deserve more attention than they currently receive. Others are in the list because I find them particularly surprising or amusing.
As the list is long – and probably at this length, unhelpful to my friends – I tried to divide it into three categories: i) participatory and deliberative democracy, ii) civic tech and digital democracy, and iii) and miscellaneous (which is not really a category, let alone a very helpful one, I know). In any case, many of the titles are indicative of what the text is about, which should make it easier to navigate through the list.
These caveats aside, below is the list of some of my favorite books and articles published in 2020:
Participatory and Deliberative Democracy
While I still plan to make a similar list for representative democracy, this section of the list is intentionally focused on democratic innovations, with a certain emphasis on citizens’ assemblies and deliberative modes of democracy. While this reflects my personal interests, it is also in part due to the recent surge of interest in citizens’ assemblies and other modes of deliberative democracy, and the academic production that followed.
I just came across the recently published data from the GenForward project in the United States, a nationally representative survey of over 3,000 young adults aged 18-36 conducted by political scientist Cathy Cohen at the University of Chicago. The new data on race, young adults, and the 2020 elections paints a challenging picture of how young adults in the country perceive institutions and democracy. For those who think the recent election outcome put democracy back on track, these results reveal important challenges, but also opportunities.
Negative enthusiasm takes the lead in young voters’ motivations
Prior to the election, in an interview with the Washington Post, Donald Trump asserted that “Negative enthusiasm doesn’t win races. Positive enthusiasm, meaning ‘they like somebody’ is how elections are won.” But judging from the survey, negative enthusiasm was determinant in young voters’ choices: 64% of respondents said they would vote for Joe Biden precisely because they disliked the other candidate. There are significant differences across the profiles of respondents: for instance, only 28% of white respondents indicated that they would vote for Biden because they were enthusiastic about the candidate, while this number reaches 47% for black respondents.
While these numbers can be disheartening, one could say they just show democracy at work, with young adults sanctioning the incumbent at the ballots. Add to that the polarized nature of elections, and the results are hardly surprising. But could this also reveal something more worrisome, particularly in the long-term? After all, research shows that voting is a rather habit-forming behavior: a citizen who votes today is more likely to vote in the future, and an 18- year-old who votes for a certain party now is likely to be voting for the same party when he turns 81. Does antagonistic voting behavior follow the same pattern? If it does, what signal does it send to parties? And what does it mean for the future of US democracy if such adversarial behavior crystalizes in the long-term?
Perception of elite capture and de facto disenfranchisement
Overall, 83% of respondents agreed (strongly or somewhat) with the statement that “the government is run by a few big interests, looking out for themselves and their friends.”
These results may seem surprising, but how do they fit with reality? Let’s take, for instance, the US Congress. While only 3% of the US population is made up of millionaires, in Congress they are a majority. And while workers make up more than half (52%) of the US population, they are only 2% in Congress. Is this exclusive club of Congress an exception in American politics? Unfortunately not. When looking at all levels of US government, politicians from working class backgrounds are less than a tenth of all elected officials.
Some might argue that these disparities are not necessarily problematic, as elected individuals can act on behalf of broader interests. But as the saying goes, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Similar to most representative systems around the world, US policymaking is systematically biased towards the interests of the wealthier. So, while it may be depressing that 83% of young adults feel the government is run by a few big interests, it is understandable in the face of a governmental model that is, unfortunately, by the rich and for the rich. This discredit of representative institutions is reinforced by another result of the survey: 75% of young Americans agree (strongly or somewhat) with the statement “The leaders in government care very little about people like me”, revealing a sense of political alienation.
4) Between discredit and revolution
Young adults were also asked about the most effective way to drive real change in the country. And their responses tell us a lot about how they currently perceive traditional democratic institutions and their capacity to address collective issues. First, only 16% of respondents answered that real change can be achieved by voting in national elections. In other words, the overwhelming majority of young adults in the US reject the notion of voting in presidential elections as the ultimate democratic practice in the country.
Second, 22% of respondents find that voting in state and local elections is the most effective way to bring about change. One can only speculate on the reasons for this, but here are a few potential explanations that come to mind. In socioeconomic terms, sub-national institutions are slightly more representative than national ones. This, at least hypothetically, should make these institutions marginally more responsive to larger constituencies. Also, given that most of the participatory institutions that allow citizens to impact decision-making in the US are at the sub-national level (e.g. referendums, initiatives), citizens may perceive state level institutions as being more responsive. Finally, the recent protagonism of some state governments in the response to the Covid-19 crisis might also play a part in these views.
Third, 38% of responses on the most effective ways to create real change in the US mention unconventional (non-electoral) forms of public participation, including categories such as protests, boycotts and social media campaigns. This is the same proportion as answers mentioning voting in elections, presidential and subnational, combined. Most strikingly, the third-most selected means to bring about change is “revolution” (14%). While the term revolution is not clearly defined here, this result certainly shows an eagerness for structural change in the way American democracy works, rather than milder reforms that are unlikely to alter the status quo. If we add revolution to the list of non-electoral forms of participation, these represent a total of 52% of survey responses.
In short, the majority of young Americans between 18 and 36 years old, a sizable part of the electorate, finds that the best way to effect real change in the US lies outside typical democratic institutions. Even the much celebrated “return to [pre-2016] normalcy” following the recent election result is unlikely to reverse this picture on its own. After all, it was this very political normalcy of recent decades, characterized by inequality and poor responsiveness, that led to the situation that now affects US democracy.
Not indifferent to the fact that a return to the pre-2016 era is unlikely to be sustainable, there are now a number of proposals on the table for how American democracy could be strengthened. These include, for instance, the Protecting our Democracy Act, the six strategies put forward by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, and the implementation of proportional voting, most effectively defended in Lee Drutman’s recent book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.
While most of the proposed reforms are well-intended and likely to produce positive results, they are unlikely to address the fundamental issue of unequal responsiveness that affects liberal democracies nowadays. Furthermore, given the context of polarization and distrust, any democratic reforms undertaken by political elites alone are bound to have their legitimacy questioned by a large part of the population. What the numbers of the GenSurvey reveal, above all, is a sense of disenfranchisement and a belief that public decisions are taken by “few big interests, looking out for themselves and their friends.”
Citizens will be wary of any attempts to change the rules of the game, but particularly if these changes are defined by those who benefit the most from the current rules. Thus, efforts to rebuild the foundations of modern democracy, be it in the US or elsewhere, are unlikely to be sustainable if citizens are not effectively included in the process. In that case, why not constitute a large citizens’ assembly on democratic reform, to be subsequently validated through the popular vote? Or, as suggested by Archon Fung, why not empower ordinary citizens to make recommendations to Congress and the administration on how to address democratic issues?
The modalities for citizen involvement in this process are multiple. And while some models may be more feasible than others, one thing is certain: tokenistic approaches to citizen participation in democratic reforms are equally doomed to fail. Addressing the challenges highlighted by this survey will require more than politics as usual. But this can also be an opportunity for Americans to collectively reimagine the democracy they want.
The rapid evolution of digital technologies has been changing relationships between governments and citizens around the world. These shifts make it the right time to pose the key question a new World Bank publication explores:
Will digital technologies, both those that are already widespread and those that are still emerging, have substantial impacts on the way citizens engage and the ways in which power is sought, used, or contested?
The report argues that, regardless of lower technology penetration levels, and given more malleable governance contexts, developing countries may be more influenced by the effects of emerging technologies than older states with greater rigidity and legacy technologies. Digitally influenced citizen engagement is potentially a “leapfrog” area in which developing nations may exploit emerging technologies before the wealthier parts of the world.
But countries can leapfrog to worse futures, not only better ones. The report also conveys concerns about the negative effects digital technologies can have on the governance of nations. Yet, despite emerging challenges, it contends that new and better citizen engagement approaches are possible.
What is missing from public discourse is a discussion of the wide range of options that citizens and decision-makers can call upon to enhance their interactions and manage risks. To consider these options, the report makes 11 predictions regarding the effects of technology on citizen engagement in the coming years, and their policy implications. It also offers six measures that would be prudent for governments to take to mitigate risks and leverage opportunities that technological development brings about.
None of the positive scenarios predicted will emerge without deliberate and intentional actions to support them. And the extent to which they can be shaped to further societal goals will depend on constructive dialogue between governments and citizens themselves. Ultimately, this new publication aims to contribute to this dialogue, so that both developing and developed countries are more likely to leap into better futures.
Text co-authored with Tom Steinberg, originally cross-posted from the World Bank’s Governance for Development blog. You can also read another article about this report in Apolitical here. While I’m at it: if you work in public service and care about making government work better, I highly recommend Apolitical, a peer-to-peer learning platform for government, sharing smart ideas in policy globally. Join for free here .
The other day, a friend of mine who was going to speak at a conference asked me for good cases of civic tech “that works”. I didn’t hesitate, and advised him to get in touch with the people at NOSSAS, a Brazilian organization that combines online and offline collective action to promote social change (full disclosure, I am a member of their board). Until now, however, it has been a challenge to convey to unfamiliar audiences what the organization does, and how. This is why I am particularly glad to see that they have produced a short documentary (16 mins) “NOSSAS: a Laboratory of Other Futures”, which provides a glimpse into the organisation’s thinking and work. So, adding to the video, here are some of the reasons why I think this is a great example of a civic tech organization:
Blending online and offline: “oneline” activism
To my knowledge, no other organization combines online and offline action better than NOSSAS, with online mobilization often used as a gateway to more intensive (and offline) types of participation.
NOSSAS’ successful campaign in the State of Sao Paulo for the creation of the first Police Station dedicated to combating violence against women.
Along with their digital campaigns, they will often mobilize citizens to take offline action. This includes, for instance, attending legislative votes and exerting pressure on elected officials, or taking part in more performative interventions that draw attention from the mainstream media and the population as a whole.
Beyond the obvious target
Understanding that policy change often requires more than a simple stroke of a pen, NOSSAS’ engagement with public officials goes beyond the decision-makers who are formally entitled to make the policy change (e.g. mayor, governor). Their initiatives consistently target the ensemble of actors (e.g. legislators, public prosecutors) who may have an influence over a policy decision or implementation (either directly or indirectly).
NOSSAS’ rich combination of online and offline tactics of popular mobilization, together with this well-calculated engagement of state actors, creates multiple pressure points for governments to respond.
Civil Society as a Platform
A common denominator among the majority of traditional civil society organizations (CSOs) is the self-appointed representation of a specific constituency. In other words, these CSOs will often represent a fixed set of interests of a given constituency by which the CSOs have neither been elected nor authorized. However, one could argue that – for better or for worse – in a period in which citizens increasingly engage directly in political action through a variety of means, the importance of these traditional CSOs may be reduced at worse, and redefined at best.
In this respect, NOSSAS is a great example of emerging CSOs that are more adapted to their time. As such, these new CSOs do not claim to represent the interests of a certain constituency. Instead, they play the role of a platform that amplifies the voices of individuals, facilitating their engagement in collective (connective?) action on a multiplicity of issues they care about.
NOSSAS does have great knowledge of two key ingredients for civic tech: 1) how to mobilize citizens, and 2) how to get governments to respond. But what I find particularly interesting is that they translated this knowledge into a structured methodology to provide online and offline support to users of NOSSAS’ platforms to further their causes.
Does it work? Some evidence suggests that it does. For instance, Pressure Pan is a platform that allows any citizen to initiate collective action to exert pressure on the government regarding a particular agenda (e.g. public safety, mobility rights). And as we documented in Civic Tech in the Global South, while not all of the hundreds of campaigns on Pressure Pan can benefit from specific support from NOSSAS, when they do they are three times more likely to succeed.
A/B testing is similar to an online version of a randomized controlled trial. One of the main differences however is that A/B testing is low-cost, easily deployed (when you have the expertise), and real-time. Yet very few civic tech organizations take advantage of that opportunity. This not the case for NOSSAS: at any given point they are running a number of A/B tests, which help them to refine their mobilization tactics on an ongoing basis. If this sounds like a simple detail, it is not. Beyond generating precious knowledge for the organization’s core functions, the capacity to run A/B tests is often a good litmus test for whether organizations know how to leverage technology beyond the most obvious uses.
And finally, unlike many civic tech initiatives, NOSSAS does have a solid track record of results, a few of which are featured in the video, which you can watch below:
Before joining the board of Nossas, I was already a fan of the work they do: online, offline, and as a platform. I look forward to their work in 2018.
For more about Nossas, also read this excellent post by Felipe Estefan from the Omidyar Network.
The Hewlett Foundation is seeking consultants to help design a potential, longer-term research collaborative to study the application of behavioral insights to nudge governments to respond to citizen feedback. This is just fantastic and deserves a blog post of its own. Hopefully I will be able to do that before the EOI period ends.
Rise and fall of participatory democracy in Brazil?
In an excellent article for Open Democracy, Thamy Pogrebinschi and Talita Tanscheit ask what happened to citizen participation in Brazil. The authors note that “The two main pillars on which institutional innovations in Brazil had been erected – extensive institutionalization and a strong civil society – have not been enough to prevent a functioning system of social participation being torn to shreds in little more than a year.”
I have been asked for my take on the issue more than once. Personally, I am not surprised, despite all the institutionalization and the strength of civil society. Given the current Brazilian context, I would be surprised if the participatory spaces the article examines (councils and conferences) remained unaffected.
Playing the devil’s advocate, this period of crisis may also be an opportunity to reflect on how policy councils and conferences could innovate themselves. While they extremely important, one hypothesis is that these structures failed to appropriately channel societal concerns and demands that later exploded into a political crisis, leading to the current situation.
Provocations aside, it is just too early to tell whether this is the definitive death of conferences and councils. And my sense is that their future will be contingent upon two key points: i) the direction that Brazilian politics take following the 2018 general election (e.g. progressive x populist/authoritarian), ii) the extent to which councils and conferences can adapt to the growing disintermediation in activism that we observe today.
The Business Model of Civic Tech?
If you are working in the civic tech space, you probably came across a new report commissioned by the Knight Foundation and Rita Allen Foundation, “Scaling Civic Tech: Paths to a Sustainable Future.” As highlighted by Christopher Wilson at the Methodical Snark, while not much in the report is surprising for civic technologists, it does provide the reader with a good understanding of the expectations of funders on the issue of financial sustainability.
When thinking about business models of civic tech efforts, I wonder how much money and energy were devoted to having governments open up their datasets while neglecting the issue of how these governments procure technology. If 10% of those efforts had been dedicated to reforming the way governments procure technology, many of those in the civic tech space would now be less dependent on foundations’ grants (or insights on business models).
Having said this, I am a bit bothered by the debate of business models when it comes to democratic goods. After all, what would happen to elections if they depended on business models (or multiple rounds of foundations’ grants)?
Walking the talk: participatory grant making?
A new report commissioned by the Ford Foundation examines whether the time has come for participatory grant making. The report, authored by Cynthia Gibson, explores the potential use of participatory approaches by foundations, and offers a “starter” framework to inform the dialogue on the subject.
Well-informed by the literature on participatory and deliberative democracy, the report also touches upon the key question of whether philanthropic institutions, given their tax benefits, owe the public a voice in decisions they make. If you are not convinced, this Econtalk podcast with Bob Reich (Stanford) on foundations and philanthropy is rather instructive. There is also a great anecdote in the podcast that illustrates the point for public voice, as described by Reich:
“So, in the final days of creating the Open Society Institute and associated foundations, there was disagreement amongst the staff that Soros had hired about exactly what their program areas, or areas of focus would be. And, to resolve a disagreement, Soros allegedly slammed his fist on the table and said, ‘Well, at the end of the day, it’s my money. We’re going to do it my way.’ And a program officer that he’d hired said, ‘Well, actually Mr. Soros, about 30% or 40% of it would have been the taxpayer’s money. So, I think some other people actually have a say in what you do, here, too.’ And he was fired the next week.”
Talking about podcasts, the Real Democracy Now Podcast is fantastic. It is definitely one of the best things out there for practitioners and scholars working with citizen engagement.
Although broader in terms of the subjects covered, Talking Politics by David Runciman and Catherine Carr is another great option.
Techniques for mobilizing citizens to vote in elections have become highly sophisticated in large part thanks to get-out-the-vote (GOTV) research, with fascinating experimental evidence from interventions to increase turnout. Until recently, the use of these techniques has been mostly limited to electoral processes, often resorting to resource intensive tactics such as door-to-door canvassing and telemarketing campaigns. But as digital technologies such as email and SMS lower the costs for targeting and contacting individuals, the adaptation of these practices to participatory processes is becoming increasingly common. This leads to the question: how effective are GOTV-type efforts when using technology outside of the electoral realm?
One of the first (if not the first) efforts to bring together technology and GOTV techniques to non-electoral processes took place in the participatory budgeting (PB) process of the municipality of Ipatinga in Brazil in 2005. An automated system of targeted phone calls to landlines was deployed, with a recorded voice message from the mayor informing residents of the time and the location of the next PB meeting closest to them. Fast forward over a decade later, and New Yorkers can receive personalized text messages on their phones indicating the nearest PB polling location. Rather than a mere coincidence, the New York case illustrates a growing trend in participatory initiatives that – consciously or not – combine technology with traditional GOTV techniques to mobilize participation.
However, and unlike GOTV in elections, little is known about the effects of these efforts in participatory processes, the reasons for which I briefly speculated about in a previous post. We have just published a study in the British Journal of Political Science that, we hope, starts to reduce this gap between practice and knowledge. Entitled “A Get-Out-the-Vote Experiment on the World’s Largest Participatory Budgeting Vote in Brazil”, the study is co-authored by Jonathan Mellon, Fredrik M. Sjoberg and myself. The experiment was conducted in close collaboration with Rio Grande do Sul’s State Government (Brazil), which holds the world’s largest participatory budgeting process.
In the experiment, over 43,000 citizens were randomly assigned to receive email and text messages encouraging them to take part in the PB voting process. We used voting records to assess the impact of these messages on turnout and support for public investments. The turnout effect we document in the study is substantially larger than what has been found in most previous GOTV studies, and particularly those focusing on the effect of technologies like email and SMS. The increase in participation, however, did not alter which projects were selected through the PB vote: voters in the control and treatment groups shared the same preferences. In the study, we also assessed whether different message framing (e.g. intrinsic versus extrinsic) mattered. Not that much, we found, and a lottery incentive treatment had the opposite effect to what many might expect. Overall, our experiment suggests that tech-enabled GOTV approaches in participatory processes are rather promising if increasing levels of participation is one of the goals. But the “more research is needed” disclaimer, as usual, applies.
You can find the final study (gated version) here, and the pre-published (open) version here.
It’s been a while since the last post here. In compensation, it’s not been a bad year in terms of getting some research out there. First, we finally managed to publish “Civic Tech in the Global South: Assessing Technology for the Public Good.” With a foreword by Beth Noveck, the book is edited by Micah Sifry and myself, with contributions by Evangelia Berdou, Martin Belcher, Jonathan Fox, Matt Haikin, Claudia Lopes, Jonathan Mellon and Fredrik Sjoberg.
The book is comprised of one study and three field evaluations of civic tech initiatives in developing countries. The study reviews evidence on the use of twenty-three information and communication technology (ICT) platforms designed to amplify citizen voices to improve service delivery. Focusing on empirical studies of initiatives in the global south, the authors highlight both citizen uptake (yelp) and the degree to which public service providers respond to expressions of citizen voice (teeth). The first evaluation looks at U-Report in Uganda, a mobile platform that runs weekly large-scale polls with young Ugandans on a number of issues, ranging from access to education to early childhood development. The following evaluation takes a closer look at MajiVoice, an initiative that allows Kenyan citizens to report, through multiple channels, complaints with regard to water services. The third evaluation examines the case of Rio Grande do Sul’s participatory budgeting – the world’s largest participatory budgeting system – which allows citizens to participate either online or offline in defining the state’s yearly spending priorities. While the comparative study has a clear focus on the dimension of government responsiveness, the evaluations examine civic technology initiatives using five distinct dimensions, or lenses. The choice of these lenses is the result of an effort bringing together researchers and practitioners to develop an evaluation framework suitable to civic technology initiatives.
The book was a joint publication by The World Bank and Personal Democracy Press. You can download the book for free here.
Women create fewer online petitions than men — but they’re more successful
Another recent publication was a collaboration between Hollie R. Gilman, Jonathan Mellon, Fredrik Sjoberg and myself. By examining a dataset covering Change.org online petitions from 132 countries, we assess whether online petitions may help close the gap in participation and representation between women and men. Tony Saich, director of Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Innovation (publisher of the study), puts our research into context nicely:
The growing access to digital technologies has been considered by democratic scholars and practitioners as a unique opportunity to promote participatory governance. Yet, if the last two decades is the period in which connectivity has increased exponentially, it is also the moment in recent history that democratic growth has stalled and civic spaces have shrunk. While the full potential of “civic technologies” remains largely unfulfilled, understanding the extent to which they may further democratic goals is more pressing than ever. This is precisely the task undertaken in this original and methodologically innovative research. The authors examine online petitions which, albeit understudied, are one of the fastest growing types of political participation across the globe. Drawing from an impressive dataset of 3.9 million signers of online petitions from 132 countries, the authors assess the extent to which online participation replicates or changes the gaps commonly found in offline participation, not only with regards to who participates (and how), but also with regards to which petitions are more likely to be successful. The findings, at times counter-intuitive, provide several insights for democracy scholars and practitioners alike. The authors hope this research will contribute to the larger conversation on the need of citizen participation beyond electoral cycles, and the role that technology can play in addressing both new and persisting challenges to democratic inclusiveness.
But what do we find? Among other interesting things, we find that while women create fewer online petitions than men, they’re more successful at it! This article in the Washington Post summarizes some of our findings, and you can download the full study here.
Other studies that were recently published include:
What effect does bureaucratic responsiveness have on citizen participation? Since the 1940s, attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy have been used to explain participation. The authors develop a “calculus of participation” that incorporates objective efficacy—the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact—and test the model against behavioral data from the online application Fix My Street (n = 399,364). A successful first experience using Fix My Street is associated with a 57 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report, and the experience of bureaucratic responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.
Do online and offline voters differ in terms of policy preferences? The growth of Internet voting in recent years has opened up new channels of participation. Whether or not political outcomes change as a consequence of new modes of voting is an open question. Here we analyze all the votes cast both offline (n = 5.7 million) and online (n = 1.3 million) and compare the actual vote choices in a public policy referendum, the world’s largest participatory budgeting process, in Rio Grande do Sul in June 2014. In addition to examining aggregate outcomes, we also conducted two surveys to better understand the demographic profiles of who chooses to vote online and offline. We find that policy preferences of online and offline voters are no different, even though our data suggest important demographic differences between offline and online voters.
We still plan to publish a few more studies this year, one looking at digitally-enabled get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts, and two others examining the effects of participatory governance on citizens’ willingness to pay taxes (including a fun experiment in 50 countries across all continents).
In the meantime, if you are interested in a quick summary of some of our recent research findings, this 30 minutes video of my keynote at the last TicTEC Conference in Florence should be helpful.