Between too much and too little: a tentative framework for putting trust in government into context 

In a dialogue with his disciple Tsze-kung, Confucius advises that a government needs three things: weapons, food, and trust. And if a ruler cannot maintain the three of them, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. 

Fast forward over two thousand years, and trust in government remains a hot topic. After all, rule of law and democratic institutions clearly require some minimal consent and trust in government. And, to varying degrees, the success of most public policies and programs, from paying taxes to recycling, depends on citizens’ compliance and cooperation.

Trust in government has also generated increased interest during the pandemic. For example, in an article for The Atlantic, Francis Fukuyama described trust in government as the most important predictor of a government’s capacity to respond to the ongoing health crisis. His argument is intuitive: particularly during times of crisis, discretionary authority needs to be delegated to executive branches, as “no set of preexisting laws or rules can ever anticipate all of the novel and rapidly changing situations that countries will face”. In that context, so goes the argument, “citizens have to believe that the executive knows what it is doing.” Fukuyama’s take on the importance of trust during the pandemic resonates with evidence from previous health crises and, not surprisingly, scholarly interest in the subject has soared since the outbreak. Confucius’ argument still resonates.  

Equally interesting, however, has been the emergence of a public debate that also asks whether, in some cases, trust in government may be unwarranted. For instance, reporting on the health situation in Lebanon, a Washington Post article highlighted that “paradoxically, distrust of the notoriously dysfunctional government may have helped.” In a similar vein, The Economist argued that, during an epidemic, trust can be a “double-edged sword”. The behavior of many political leaders in downplaying the seriousness of the crisis has also illustrated how, in certain cases, distrusting the government is the healthiest option available. 

These insights run counter to the conventional wisdom, which tends to consider trust in government as a good in itself. For instance, a frequent selling point for open government reforms is the (often misleading) claim that transparency will lead to increased trust in government. But it shouldn’t take a pandemic to realize that trust in government can also be overrated. Checks and balances, foundational to the modern state, were built upon the premise of distrust. For Montesquieu, the separation of powers was necessary to avoid exposing citizens to “arbitrary control.” David Hume cautioned that when designing government systems, “every man ought to be supposed a knave.” And, for Madison, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” 

But if there are good reasons to trust in government, as well as good reasons not to, when is trust more or less appropriate? This is certainly a complex question, and the purpose of this post is by no means to provide a definitive answer. Instead, it aims to put forward a very simple (and perhaps simplistic) framework to start thinking about the imponderable problem of trust in government according to its context.

To understand the proposed framework, we can start with the following premise:

All else equal, individuals’ trust in their government should be expected to be proportional to the trustworthiness of that government.

This premise, I believe, is uncontroversial. As put by philosopher Onora O’Neill, trust is valuable only “when placed in trustworthy agents and activities, but damaging or costly when (mis)placed in untrustworthy agents and activities.”

But how do we define trustworthiness? Any attempt is bound to generate contestations, as has been the case for the definition of trust in government. For the purpose of this exercise, I borrow a definition from Margaret Levi, a prominent scholar on the subject, who considers a government to be worthy of citizens’ trust when it 

(…) keeps its promises (or has exceptionally good reasons why it fails to), is relatively fair in its decision-making and enforcement processes, and delivers goods and services.

With this definition in mind, and the premise put forward earlier, the more a government keeps its promises, is fair, and delivers goods and services, the more citizens should trust that government, and vice-versa. If we depict the relationships between levels of trust and trustworthiness in a matrix, an interesting perspective emerges, as shown below:   

Figure 1: Trust Matrix

In the top right and lower left (quadrants 2 and 3), we have scenarios of consistency, where citizens’ level of trust in governments corresponds to the level of government trustworthiness. In quadrant 2 we have scenarios of constructive consistency, characterized by a virtuous cycle where high trust leads to higher trustworthiness and vice-versa. In these scenarios citizens are, for instance, more willing to cooperate with government policies (e.g. taxation, vaccination), thereby enhancing governmental capacity to respond to public needs (e.g. public investments, disease control). Quadrant 3 represents scenarios of disruptive consistency, with disruptive meaning a context that can lead to both negative and positive developments. On the one hand, it may engender a vicious and destructive cycle whereby the government’s poor performance leads to less trust, further reducing the likelihood that governments are able to perform. On the other hand, it may lead to a process of creative destruction. After all, distrust of authorities often sparks democratic progress. In this respect, a context of disruptive consistency may open spaces of contestation and competition (e.g. through elections), generating incentives for political actors to perform better.   

Quadrants 1 and 4 reflect scenarios of inconsistency, where the level of trust in government does not correspond to a government’s trustworthiness. In the cynical quadrant, despite government trustworthiness, citizens still show low levels of trust towards their government. Such a scenario is not free from implications: governmental policies may have disproportionately higher implementation costs, given that the public is less likely to comply and cooperate with these policies. In quadrant 4, (credulous), citizens trust their governments even though they are not deserving of that trust. In this scenario, untrustworthy governments have little incentive to change their behavior (e.g. delivering public goods and services), given that their citizens already trust them and do not present any threat to the status quo. This becomes a low-accountability trap, with citizens unlikely to engage to keep office-holders accountable for their actions in the public realm. 

What does this all look like in practice? Into which quadrants do countries fall? While measuring trustworthiness goes beyond the scope of this post (more on that below), we can map it against existing indicators linked to  trustworthiness, such as the Government Effectiveness Index, which captures, among other things, quality of public services, quality of civil service and  governments’ commitments to their policies. 

Figure 2. All over the map: the relationship between trust and government effectiveness

Source:  author’s own based on Government Effectiveness Index (2020) and World Economic Forum Executive Survey (2018)

As the figure above illustrates, the 135 countries covered by the dataset fall into all four quadrants. Trust in government, as it turns out, is not consistently aligned with dimensions of government trustworthiness. Yet two-thirds of the countries (89) fall into the dark green consistent scenarios, indicating that in most countries, the level of trust in government is commensurate with the level of trustworthiness. This calls into question narratives that typically suggest a widespread crisis of trust in governments. Increased trust in government in this majority of countries would result in shifts towards situations of credulity: arguably the worst-case scenario, and a boon for women and men in power to behave more as knaves than angels. More importantly, the figure shows that increased trust in government emerges as a clearly desirable goal in just one of the four scenarios of the trust matrix (cynical, upper-left), where only 29 of 135 countries currently find themselves, including Argentina, Poland and South Korea. 

Even if this framework may be reductionist, I believe it could still be useful for several reasons, a few of which I would like to highlight. First, the matrix gives us an indication of where trust in government may need to be increased or decreased. If one knows how to increase trust in government (and that’s a bold assumption), the framework provides some guidance on where it would make sense to start. 

Second, these scenarios may help us better hypothesize which types of policy reforms would be desirable to pursue. For instance, in the scenario of credulous inconsistency (lower-right), the desirable outcome is that citizens become less credulous of their government and replace it through the ballots (in the case of a democracy), or dissent (in the case of an authoritarian regime). In these cases, potential activities could be efforts that i) increase transparency of government’s poor performance (to reduce trust), and ii) facilitate individual and collective action (to sanction poor performance). If these assumptions hold true in practice and at scale, and whether they can be voluntarily induced, remains an empirical question.  

Finally, by adding trustworthiness as a variable, we expand our focus beyond “the eyes of the [governed] beholder” to a relational dimension in which governmental actions play an important role. By doing so, we also become more wary of hasty assumptions such as “transparency leads to trust”, where low trust in government is perceived more as a function of the opacity of a government’s behavior, rather than of its behavior. Which brings me to my next point. 

Pathways towards consistency

If we consider that individuals’ trust in their government should be proportional to the trustworthiness of that government, we should contemplate the factors contributing to such consistency. Two are particularly noteworthy here: education and transparency. 

As highlighted by Armen Hakhverdian and Quinton Mayne, citizens with a higher level of education are more likely to i) identify practices that negatively affect the functioning of government institutions, and ii) be normatively troubled by these practices. For example, the authors show that education is negatively related to institutional trust in corrupt societies and positively related to institutional trust in clean societies. If we consider that integrity is a property of trustworthy governments, education acts as a force creating consistency and moving away from cynical or credulous inconsistency.

But how do citizens identify, in the first place, the government practices that affect the functioning of institutions? One way is through personal experience: for instance, when citizens are either victims or witnesses of abuse by state agents (e.g. bribery requests, police violence). However, the most important way in which citizens identify these practices is through publicly available information on governmental actions. This brings me to the issue of transparency: its instrumental value is not whether it leads to more trust in government, as is often advocated. Rather, its value lies in its capacity to help individuals calibrate their trust vis-à-vis their governments, either towards more, or less, trust. 

Final notes: measurements and definitions 

One practical issue when it comes to trust in government is the availability of data. The most recent World Values Survey (WVS) has data on trust in government institutions for only 50 countries, the Gallup Poll for 43 countries, and the widely publicized Edelman Trust Barometer Survey covers no more than 28 countries. And by any count, there are at least 193 countries in the world. While claims about a global crisis of trust abound, global data about trust in government is less abundant.[1]

And which data one uses also matters, as illustrated below. For instance, when using data from the WVS, the countries falling under each quadrant differ from the results presented earlier (from the World Economic Forum’s Executive Survey). In short, different surveys will offer different results, each of them with their own shortcomings in terms of sample size, accuracy, or both.[2] In short, claims about trust in government, particularly at the global level, should be made carefully. Bearing these considerations in mind, the analytical framework put forward remains useful. Whichever indicator of trust one finds more appropriate to use, the framework still helps highlight in which cases trust in government is consistent or not with measures of government trustworthiness. In a passage of his most recent book, Ethan Zuckerman refers to “a sweet spot between too much trust and too little.” This framework, I believe, provides clues on where that spot may be.

Figure 3: Government Effectiveness vs Trust in Government (WVS survey)

Source:  author’s own based on Government Effectiveness Index (2020) and World Values Survey (Wave 7)

A final note regarding the definition of trustworthiness is important. Levi’s definition certainly covers most of the characteristics that one would attribute to a trustworthy government, such as keeping promises, fairness in decision-making and enforcement, and delivery of goods and services. But as Levi highlights, the relative fairness of processes involves “the norms of place and time,” which makes fairness a concept that is contextual and of an evolving nature. This adds layers of complexity and raises some interesting questions, two of which I would like to highlight here.

The first regards the procedural and substantive dimensions of fairness and trustworthiness. In recent decades, many high-income democracies have performed well in procedural terms, with free and fair elections and laws that are mostly clear, stable, and equally enforced. From a procedural angle, these governments are worthy of trust. Nevertheless, on substantive grounds, one could contend that the opposite is also true. Take, for example, the overwhelming evidence that in these same democracies, government responsiveness has been systematically biased towards the needs of the better-off. Add to that growing inequality and a shrinking provision of public goods and services, and it becomes difficult to advocate for trustworthiness calculations based solely on procedural attributes. 

As a side note, precisely because of the factors described above, one could say that part of the political polarization we see within countries today can be attributed to a growing divide between segments of the population that favor either procedural or substantive aspects of trustworthiness. For instance, some segments may privilege fair elections, while others attach more importance to substantive matters, such as bridging the gap between the rich and poor. Going back to the proposed trust matrix, the question then becomes whether trustworthiness should be assessed on procedural or substantive grounds and, if the answer is “both”, how to conciliate them. While answering this question brings its own normative and methodological challenges, evading it may fail to capture nuances that underpin the relationship between trust in government and government trustworthiness. 

The second question is much simpler, albeit one with procedural and substantive consequences. Shouldn’t a government’s trustworthiness also be measured by the extent to which it offers participatory avenues for citizens to express themselves, beyond regular elections? After all, considering that trust is a two-way street, if governments expect to be trusted, shouldn’t they also trust citizens to shape decisions that affect their lives? 

*** 

P.S.: I’m thankful for comments on earlier versions of this text from Amy Chamberlain, Jonathan Fox, Quinton Mayne, Jon Mellon, Hollie Russon Gilman, Paolo Spada and Tom Steinberg.  


[1] On claims of a global crisis of trust see, for instance, here, here and here.

[2] On methodological challenges see Carlsson et al. 2018, Robinson and Tannenberg 2018, Shockley et al. 2017.

Easter readings: new selection of articles and notes on democracy, open government, civic tech and others

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 strategic approaches 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.  

At the same time, an excellent Twitter thread by Levi Boxel is a good reminder that sometimes we may be overestimating some of the effects of the Internet on polarization. Levi highlights three stylized facts with regards to mass polarization: i) it’s been increasing since at least the 1980’s in the US, ii) it’s been increasing more quickly among old age groups in the US, and iii) in the past 30 years countries present different patterns of polarization despite similar Internet usage.

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. 

Open democracy

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!   

Civic Tech 

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.

Scholar articles: 

And finally, for those who really want to geek-out, a list of 15 academic articles I enjoyed reading:

Protzer, E. S. (2021). Social Mobility Explains Populism, Not Inequality or Culture. CID Research Fellow and Graduate Student Working Paper Series.

Becher, M., & Stegmueller, D. (2021). Reducing Unequal Representation: The Impact of Labor Unions on Legislative Responsiveness in the US Congress. Perspectives on Politics, 19(1), 92-109.

Foster, D., & Warren, J. (2021). The politics of spatial policies. Available at SSRN 3768213.

Hanretty, C. (2021). The Pork Barrel Politics of the Towns Fund. The Political Quarterly.

RAD, S. R., & ROY, O. (2020). Deliberation, Single-Peakedness, and Coherent Aggregation. American Political Science Review, 1-20.

Migchelbrink, K., & Van de Walle, S. (2021). A systematic review of the literature on determinants of public managers’ attitudes toward public participation. Local Government Studies, 1-22.

Armand, A., Coutts, A., Vicente, P. C., & Vilela, I. (2020). Does information break the political resource curse? Experimental evidence from Mozambique. American Economic Review, 110(11), 3431-53.

Giraudet, L. G., Apouey, B., Arab, H., Baeckelandt, S., Begout, P., Berghmans, N., … & Tournus, S. (2021). Deliberating on Climate Action: Insights from the French Citizens’ Convention for Climate (No. hal-03119539).

Rivera-Burgos, V. (2020). Are Minorities Underrepresented in Government Policy? Racial Disparities in Responsiveness at the Congressional District Level.

Erlich, A., Berliner, D., Palmer-Rubin, B., & Bagozzi, B. E. (2021). Media Attention and Bureaucratic Responsiveness. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory.

Eubank, N., & Fresh, A. Enfranchisement and Incarceration After the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Mueller, S., Gerber, M., & Schaub, H. P. Democracy Beyond Secrecy: Assessing the Promises and Pitfalls of Collective Voting. Swiss Political Science Review.

Campbell, T. (2021). Black Lives Matter’s Effect on Police Lethal Use-of-Force. Available at SSRN.

Wright, N., Nagle, F., & Greenstein, S. M. (2020). Open source software and global entrepreneurship. Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper, (20-139), 20-139.

Boxell, L., & Steinert-Threlkeld, Z. (2021). Taxing dissent: The impact of a social media tax in Uganda. Available at SSRN 3766440.

Miscellaneous radar: 

  • 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

Enjoy the holiday.

46 favorite reads on democracy, civic tech and a few other interesting things

open book lot

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.  

On Civic Tech and Digital Democracy

2020 was the year where the field of civic tech seemed to take a democratic turn, from fixing potholes to fixing democracy.

MISCELANEOUS

Finally, a section as random as 2020.

As mentioned before, the list is already too long. But if there’s anything anyone thinks should absolutely be on this list, please do let me know.

2020 and beyond: 11 predictions at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement

pic by @jmuniz on Unsplah

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, Emerging Digital Technologies and Citizen Participation, benefits from the insights of 30 leading scholars and practitioners, and explores what technology might mean for citizen engagement and politics in the coming years. 

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 .

NOSSAS as the New Civil Society: Online, Offline, and as a Platform

nossas1

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

nossas2

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.

nossas5

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.

  • Structured knowledge

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

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.

  • Results

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.

Catching up: civic tech research, crisis of participation in Brazil, podcasts and more

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picture by tollwerk on flickr

The dream consultancy

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.”

Democracy podcasts real-democracy-now-logo-jpg

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.

Other tips are more than welcome!

And this is brilliant…

(via @oso)

Other interesting stuff you may have missed

Study analyzing Pew survey data suggests a “gateway effect” where slacktivism by the politically uninterested may lead to greater political activity offline

Seeing the World Through the Other’s Eye: An Online Intervention Reducing Ethnic Prejudice

Smartphone monitoring streamlined information flows and improved inspection rates at public clinics across Punjab (ht @coscrovedent)

The Unintended Effects of Bottom-Up Accountability: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Peru

Literature review: does public reporting in the health sector influence quality, patient and provider’s perspective?

Techniques and Technologies for Mobilizing Citizens: Do They Work?

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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.

 

Catching up (again!) on DemocracySpot

cover-bookIt’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

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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:

The Effect of Bureaucratic Responsiveness on Citizen Participation (Public Administration Review)

Abstract:

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.

Does online voting change the outcome? Evidence from a multi-mode public policy referendum (Electoral Studies)

Abstract:

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.

 

 

New Papers Published: FixMyStreet and the World’s Largest Participatory Budgeting

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Voting in Rio Grande do Sul’s Participatory Budgeting  (picture by Anderson Lopes)

Here are two new published papers that my colleagues Jon Mellon, Fredrik Sjoberg and myself have been working on.

The first, The Effect of Bureaucratic Responsiveness on Citizen Participation, published in Public Administration Review, is – to our knowledge – the first study to quantitatively assess at the individual level the often-assumed effect of government responsiveness on citizen engagement. It also describes an example of how the data provided through digital platforms may be leveraged to better understand participatory behavior. This is the fruit of a research collaboration with MySociety, to whom we are extremely thankful.

Below is the abstract:

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.

An earlier, ungated version of the paper can be found here.

The second paper, Does Online Voting Change the Outcome? Evidence from a Multi-mode Public Policy Referendum, has just been published in Electoral Studies. In an earlier JITP paper (ungated here) looking at Rio Grande do Sul State’s Participatory Budgeting – the world’s largest – we show that, when compared to offline voting, online voting tends to attract participants who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users. Yet, one question remained: does the inclusion of new participants in the process with a different profile change the outcomes of the process (i.e. which projects are selected)? Below is the abstract of the paper.

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.

The extent to which these findings are transferable to other PB processes that combine online and offline voting remains an empirical question. In the meantime, nonetheless, these findings suggest a more nuanced view of the potential effects of digital channels as a supplementary means of engagement in participatory processes. I hope to share an ungated version of the paper in the coming days.

New IDS Journal – 9 Papers in Open Government

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The new IDS Bulletin is out. Edited by Rosemary McGee and Duncan Edwards, this is the first open access version of the well-known journal by the Institute of Development Studies. It brings eight new studies looking at a variety of open government issues, ranging from uptake in digital platforms to government responsiveness in civic tech initiatives. Below is a brief presentation of this issue:

Open government and open data are new areas of research, advocacy and activism that have entered the governance field alongside the more established areas of transparency and accountability. In this IDS Bulletin, articles review recent scholarship to pinpoint contributions to more open, transparent, accountable and responsive governance via improved practice, projects and programmes in the context of the ideas, relationships, processes, behaviours, policy frameworks and aid funding practices of the last five years. They also discuss questions and weaknesses that limit the effectiveness and impact of this work, offer a series of definitions to help overcome conceptual ambiguities, and identify hype and euphemism. The contributions – by researchers and practitioners – approach contemporary challenges of achieving transparency, accountability and openness from a wide range of subject positions and professional and disciplinary angles. Together these articles give a sense of what has changed in this fast-moving field, and what has not – this IDS Bulletin is an invitation to all stakeholders to take stock and reflect.

The ambiguity around the ‘open’ in governance today might be helpful in that its very breadth brings in actors who would otherwise be unlikely adherents. But if the fuzzier idea of ‘open government’ or the allure of ‘open data’ displace the task of clear transparency, hard accountability and fairer distribution of power as what this is all about, then what started as an inspired movement of governance visionaries may end up merely putting a more open face on an unjust and unaccountable status quo.

Among others, the journal presents an abridged version of a paper by Jonathan Fox and myself on digital technologies and government responsiveness (for full version download here).

Below is a list of all the papers:

Rosie McGee, Duncan Edwards
Tiago Peixoto, Jonathan Fox
Katharina Welle, Jennifer Williams, Joseph Pearce
Miguel Loureiro, Aalia Cassim, Terence Darko, Lucas Katera, Nyambura Salome
Elizabeth Mills
Laura Neuman
David Calleb Otieno, Nathaniel Kabala, Patta Scott-Villiers, Gacheke Gachihi, Diana Muthoni Ndung’u
Christopher Wilson, Indra de Lanerolle
Emiliano Treré