The Journal of Field Actions, together with Civicus, has just published a special issue “Stories of Innovative Democracy at the Local Level: Enhancing Participation, Activism and Social Change Across the World.” When put together, the 13 articles provide a lively illustration of the wealth of democratic innovations taking place around the world.
Within the open government debate, there is growing interest in the role of technology in citizen engagement. However, as interest in the subject grows, so does the superficiality of the conversations that follow. While the number of citizen engagement and technology events is increasing, the opportunities for in-depth conversations on the subject do not seem to be increasing at the same rate.
This is why, a few weeks ago, I was pleased to visit the University of Westminster for a kick-off talk on “Technology and Participation: Friend or Foe?”, organized by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy (Westminster). It was a pleasure to start a conversation with a group that was willing to engage in a longer and more detailed conversation on the subject.
My talk covered a number of issues that have been keeping me busy recently. On the preliminary quantitative work that I presented, credit should also go to the awesome team that I am working with, which includes Fredrik Sjoberg (NYU), Jonathan Mellon (Oxford) and Paolo Spada (UBC / Harvard). For those who would like to see some of the graphs better, I have also added here [PDF] the slides of my presentation.
I have skipped the video to the beginning of my talk, but the discussion that followed is what made the event interesting. In my opinion, the contributions of Maria Nyberg (Head of Open Policy Making at the Cabinet Office) Catherine Howe (Public-i), as well as those of the participants, were a breath of fresh air in the current citizen engagement conversation. So please bear with me and watch until the end.
I would like to thank Simon Burral (Involve) and Graham Smith (Westminster) for their invitation. Simon leads the great work being done at Involve, one of the best organizations working on citizen engagement nowadays. And to keep it short, Graham is the leading thinker when the issue is democratic innovations.
“On technology and democracy
The title of yesterday’s event, organised by Involve and Westminster University’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, posed a big question, which inevitably led to several other big questions, as the discussion among a lively audience of practitioners, academics and policymakers unfolded (offline and online).
Tiago Peixoto, from the World Bank, kicked off the debate and immediately put the enthusiasm for new technologies into perspective. Back in 1795, the very first model of the telegraph, the Napoleonic semaphore, raised hopes for – and fears of – greater citizen engagement in government. Similarly the invention of the TV sparked debates on whether technology would strengthen or weaken democracy, increasing citizen awareness or creating more opportunities for market and government manipulation of public opinion.
Throughout history, technological developments have marked societal changes, but has technological innovation translated into better democracy? What makes us excited today about technology and participation is the idea that by lowering the transaction costs we can increase people’s incentives to participate. Tiago argued that this costs-benefits rationale doesn’t explain why people continue to vote, since the odds of their vote making a difference are infinitesimal (to be fair voter turnouts are decreasing across most advanced democracies – although this is more a consequence of people’s increasing cynicism towards political elites rather than their understanding of mathematical probabilities).*
So do new technologies mobilise more people or simply normalise the participation of those that already participate? The findings on the matter are still conflicting. Tiago showed us some data on online voting in Rio Grande do Sul participatory budgeting process in Brazil, whereby e-voting would seem to bring in new voters (supporting the mobilisation hypothesis) but from the same social strata (e.g. higher income and education – as per the normalisation hypothesis).
In short, we’re still pretty much confused about the impact of technology on democracy and participation. Perhaps, as suggested by Tiago and Catherine Howe from Public-i, the problem is that we’re focusing too much on technology, tempted by the illusion it offers to simplify and make democracy easy. But the real issue lies elsewhere, in understanding people and policymakers’ incentives and the articulation (or lack thereof) between technologies and democratic institutions. As emphasised by Catherine, technology without democratic evolution is like “lipstick on a pig”.
The gap between institutions and technology is still a big obstacle. Catherine reminded us how participation often continues to translate into one-way communication in government’s engagement strategies, which constrains the potential of new technologies in facilitating greater interaction between citizens and institutions and coproduction of policies as a response to increasing complexity. As academics and practitioners pitch the benefits of meaningful participation to policy makers, Tiago asked whether a focus on instrumental incentives might help us move forward. Rather than always pointing to the normative argument of deepening democracy, we could start using data from cases of participatory budgeting to show how greater participation reduces tax evasion and corruption as well as infant mortality.
He also made a methodological point: we might need to start using more effectively the vast array of data on existing engagement platforms to understand incentives to participation and people’s motivation. We might get some surprises, as findings demystify old myths. Data from Fix My Street would seem to prove that government response to issues raised doesn’t increase the likelihood of future participation by as much as we would assume (28%).** But this is probably a more complicated story, and as pointed out by some people in the audience the nature and salience of both the issue and the response will make a crucial difference.
Catherine highlighted one key problem: when we talk about technology, we continue to get stuck on the application layer, but we really need to be looking at the architecture layer. A democratic push for government legislation over the architecture layer is crucial for preserving the Internet as a neutral space where deeper democracy can develop. Data is a big part of the architecture and there is little democratic control over it. An understanding of a virtual identity model that can help us protect and control our data is key for a genuinely democratic Internet.
Maria Nyberg, from the Cabinet Office, was very clear that technology is neither friend nor foe: like everything, it really depends on how we use it. Technology is all around us and can’t be peripheral to policy making. It offers great opportunities to civil servants as they can tap into data and resources they didn’t have access to before. There is a recognition from government that it doesn’t have the monopoly on solutions and doesn’t always know best. The call is for more open policy making, engaging in a more creative and collaborative manner. Technology can allow for better and faster engagement with people, but there is no silver bullet.
Some people in the audience felt that the drive for online democracy should be citizen-led, as the internet could become the equivalent of a “bloodless guillotine” for politicians. But without net neutrality and citizen control over our own data there might be little space for genuine participation.
*This point was edited on 12/07/2014 following a conversation with Tiago.
** This point was edited on 12/07/2014 following a conversation with Tiago.”
I am also thankful to the UK Political Studies Association (PSA), Involve and the University of Westminster for co-sponsoring my travel to the UK. I will write more later on about the Scaling and Innovation Conference organized by the PSA, where I was honored to be one of the keynote speakers along with MP Chi Onwurah (Shadow Cabinet Office Minister) and Professor Stephen Coleman (Leeds).
A little while ago I mentioned the launch of the Portuguese version of the book organized by Nelson Dias, “Hope for Democracy: 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting Worldwide”.
The good news is that the English version is finally out. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
This book represents the effort of more than forty authors and many other direct and indirect contributions that spread across different continents seek to provide an overview on the Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the World. They do so from different backgrounds. Some are researchers, others are consultants, and others are activists connected to several groups and social movements. The texts reflect this diversity of approaches and perspectives well, and we do not try to influence that.
The pages that follow are an invitation to a fascinating journey on the path of democratic innovation in very diverse cultural, political, social and administrative settings. From North America to Asia, Oceania to Europe, from Latin America to Africa, the reader will find many reasons to closely follow the proposals of the different authors.
The book can be downloaded here [PDF]. I had the pleasure of being one of the book’s contributors, co-authoring an article with Rafael Sampaio on the use of ICT in PB processes: “Electronic Participatory Budgeting: False Dilemmas and True Complexities” [PDF].
While my perception may be biased, I believe this book will be a major contribution for researchers and practitioners in the field of participatory budgeting and citizen engagement in general. Congratulations to Nelson Dias and all the others who contributed their time and energy.
Few movies have captured the imagination of scholars as well as 12 Angry Men, where a jury composed of 12 men has to deliberate on the fate of a Puerto Rican accused of murder. For instance, when I researched the literature about the movie a few years back, I found out that on the 50th anniversary of the movie, an entire edition of the Chicago-Kent Law Review was dedicated to the movie. In its opening article, Law Professor Nancy Marder explains why:
“The movie was, and remains, an anomaly in the annals of jury movies. Whereas most movies with a jury show the jurors a silent, brooding presence whose main job is to observe on the jurors and their deliberations (…). The jurors in 12 Angry Men are the focus of the movie, and they are a loud, active bunch of men whose deliberations are fraught with conflict. Indeed, the dynamic of this group deliberation constitutes the drama of this movie.”
I couldn’t agree more with Professor Marder. But it is not just the dimension of the jury, as a trial institution, that has led the movie to captivate so many scholars. A number of academics interested in group dynamics, deliberation and collective intelligence often use the movie as a reference when illustrating the peculiarities of deliberative processes. Cass Sunstein, for instance, wrote an article [PDF] looking at the issue of group polarization, arguing why – in accordance with his take on the issue – the movie seems to defy the logics of deliberation. Conversely, Hélène Landemore [PDF], building on previous work by Scott Page, uses 12 Angry Men to highlight how diversity enables groups to reach a better decision.
But I will not go into too much detail because, if you haven’t watched the movie yet (starring Henry Fonda as Juror #8), it is a must see.
Through the Facebook Participatory Budgeting group I came across a documentary about Belo Horizonte’s PB. The documentary, by Joao Ramos de Almeida, provides a unique view of the functioning of one of the oldest PBs in Brazil.
Among other things, the documentary shows how the process leads to a degree of civic empowerment and activism rarely seen in traditional governing models. It is particularly interesting to see how citizens contest, for instance, the cost estimates of public works made by the city administration. The documentary also shows how PB manages to engage citizens in an extremely time consuming process. It is also interesting to see that, while there is some degree of deliberation in the PB process, much of it is also about negotiation between the different communities involved.
Among other things, it shows that Belo Horizonte’s PB is far from perfect, and the suspicion of some degree of co-optation of some PB participants by the administration highlights difficulties that are inherent to many participatory processes. To some, it might come across as a sobering message. Yet, when looking at participatory initiatives, we should not only compare their functioning to an ideal vision of democracy. In this case, we should also compare it to the status quo, that is, how public budgeting takes place in the absence of public participation.
For those interested in citizen engagement this documentary (English subtitles, 55 mins) is worth watching.
I just came across a fascinating paper published last June in the Journal of Transplation, Social Media and Organ Donation: the Facebook Effect. Unfortunately I could not find an ungated version of the paper, but the abstract is below:
Despite countless media campaigns, organ donation rates in the United States have remained static while need has risen dramatically. New efforts to increase organ donation through public education are necessary to address the waiting list of over 100,000 patients. On May 1, 2012, the online social network, Facebook, altered its platform to allow members to specify “Organ Donor” as part of their profile. Upon such choice, members were offered a link to their state registry to complete an official designation, and their “friends” in the network were made aware of the new status as a donor. Educational links regarding donation were offered to those considering the new organ donor status. On the first day of the Facebook organ donor initiative, there were 13 054 new online registrations, representing a 21.1-fold increase over the baseline average of 616 registrations. This first-day effect ranged from 6.9× (Michigan) to 108.9× (Georgia). Registration rates remained elevated in the following 12 days. During the same time period, no increase was seen in registrations from the DMV. Novel applications of social media may prove effective in increasing organ donation rates and likewise might be utilized in other refractory public health problems in which communication and education are essential.
The concept, as reported on the John Hopkins University website, was developed by two long–time friends, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg and JHU transplant surgeon Andrew Cameron:
When Harvard University friends Sheryl Sandberg and Andrew M. Cameron, M.D., Ph.D., met up at their 20th college reunion last spring, they got to talking. Sandberg knew that Cameron, a transplant surgeon at Johns Hopkins, was passionate about solving the perennial problem of transplantation: the critical shortage of donated organs in the United States. And he knew that Sandberg, as chief operating officer of Facebook, had a way of easily reaching hundreds of millions of people.
The findings of the study are fascinating and a reminder of the variety of ways in which social media, and particularly Facebook, can be used towards the public good. But when it comes to the issue of citizen engagement, I have reservations about seeing Facebook as a virtual public sphere. Rather than a public square, Facebook resembles the food court of a shopping mall: while it is a social space, it is still a private one and it is still about business. But despite that fact, there’s lots of amazing things that can be done, and we are just scraping the surface. Some of my thoughts on this are in a recent article at TechCrunch.
Like this? Also read about the foundations of motivation in the age of social media.
So here it is, finally, the much awaited PhD by Hollie Russon-Gilman (Ash Center – Harvard) on Participatory Budgeting in the United States.
Below is the abstract.
Participatory Budgeting (PB) has expanded to over 1,500 municipalities worldwide since
its inception in Porto Alege, Brazil in 1989 by the leftist Partido dos Trabalhadores
(Workers’ Party). While PB has been adopted throughout the world, it has yet to take
hold in the United States. This dissertation examines the introduction of PB to the United
States with the first project in Chicago in 2009, and proceeds with an in-depth case study
of the largest implementation of PB in the United States: Participatory Budgeting in New
York City. I assess the outputs of PB in the United States including deliberations,
governance, and participation.
I argue that PB produces better outcomes than the status quo budget process in New York
City, while also transforming how those who participate understand themselves as
citizens, constituents, Council members, civil society leaders and community
stakeholders. However, there are serious challenges to participation, including high costs
of engagement, process exhaustion, and perils of scalability. I devise a framework for
assessment called “citizenly politics,” focusing on: 1) designing participation 2)
deliberation 3) participation and 4) potential for institutionalization. I argue that while the
material results PB produces are relatively modest, including more innovative projects,
PB delivers more substantial non-material or existential results. Existential citizenly
rewards include: greater civic knowledge, strengthened relationships with elected
officials, and greater community inclusion. Overall, PB provides a viable and
informative democratic innovation for strengthening civic engagement within the United
States that can be streamlined and adopted to scale.
You can read the full dissertation here [PDF].