Rethinking Why People Participate

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Having a refined understanding of what leads people to participate is one of the main concerns of those working with citizen engagement. But particularly when it comes to participatory democracy, that understanding is only partial and, most often, the cliché “more research is needed” is definitely applicable. This is so for a number of reasons, four of which are worth noting here.

  1. The “participatory” label is applied to greatly varied initiatives, raising obvious methodological challenges for comparative research and cumulative learning. For instance, while both participatory budgeting and online petitions can be roughly categorized as “participatory” processes, they are entirely different in terms of fundamental aspects such as their goals, institutional design and expected impact on decision-making.
  2. The fact that many participatory initiatives are conceived as “pilots” or one-off events gives researchers little time to understand the phenomenon, come up with sound research questions, and test different hypotheses over time.  The “pilotitis” syndrome in the tech4accountability space is a good example of this.
  3. When designing and implementing participatory processes, in the face of budget constraints the first victims are documentation, evaluation and research. Apart from a few exceptions, this leads to a scarcity of data and basic information that undermines even the most heroic “archaeological” efforts of retrospective research and evaluation (a far from ideal approach).
  4. The semantic extravaganza that currently plagues the field of citizen engagement, technology and open government makes cumulative learning all the more difficult.

Precisely for the opposite reasons, our knowledge of electoral participation is in better shape. First, despite the differences between elections, comparative work is relatively easy, which is attested by the high number of cross-country studies in the field. Second, the fact that elections (for the most part) are repeated regularly and following a similar design enables the refinement of hypotheses and research questions over time, and specific time-related analysis (see an example here [PDF]). Third, when compared to the funds allocated to research in participatory initiatives, the relative amount of resources channeled into electoral studies and voting behavior is significantly higher. Here I am not referring to academic work only but also to the substantial resources invested by the private sector and parties towards a better understanding of elections and voting behavior. This includes a growing body of knowledge generated by get-out-the-vote (GOTV) research, with fascinating experimental evidence from interventions that seek to increase participation in elections (e.g. door-to-door campaigns, telemarketing, e-mail). Add to that the wealth of electoral data that is available worldwide (in machine-readable formats) and you have some pretty good knowledge to tap into. Finally, both conceptually and terminologically, the field of electoral studies is much more consistent than the field of citizen engagement which, in the long run, tends to drastically impact how knowledge of a subject evolves.

These reasons should be sufficient to capture the interest of those who work with citizen engagement. While the extent to which the knowledge from the field of electoral participation can be transferred to non-electoral participation remains an open question, it should at least provide citizen engagement researchers with cues and insights that are very much worth considering.

This is why I was particularly interested in an article from a recently published book, The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy (Princeton). Entitled “Rethinking Why People Vote: Voting as Dynamic Social Expression”, the article is written by Todd Rogers, Craig Fox and Alan Berger. Taking a behavioralist stance, the authors start by questioning the usefulness of the rationalist models in explaining voting behavior:

“In these [rationalist] models citizens are seen as weighing the anticipated trouble they must go through in order to cast their votes, against the likelihood that their vote will improve the outcome of an election times the magnitude of that improvement. Of course, these models are problematic because the likelihood of casting in the deciding vote is often hopelessly small. In a typical state or national election, a person faces a higher probability of being struck by a car on the way to his or her polling location than of casting the deciding vote.”

(BTW, if you are a voter in certain US states, the odds of being hit by a meteorite are greater than those of casting the deciding vote).

Following on from the fact that traditional models cannot fully explain why and under which conditions citizens vote, the authors develop a framework that considers voting as a “self-expressive voting behavior that is influenced by events occurring before and after the actual moment of casting a vote.” To support their claims, throughout the article the authors build upon existing evidence from GOTV campaigns and other behavioral research. Besides providing a solid overview of the literature in the field, the authors express compelling arguments for mobilizing electoral participation. Below are a few excerpts from the article with some of the main takeaways:

  • Mode of contact: the more personal it is, the more effective it is

“Initial experimental research found that a nonpartisan face-to-face canvassing effort had a 5-8 percentage point mobilizing effect in an uncontested midterm elections in 1998 (Gerber and Green 2000) compared to less than a 1 percentage point mobilizing effect for live phone calls and mailings. More than three dozen subsequent experiments have overwhelmingly supported the original finding (…)”

“Dozens of experiments have examined the effectiveness of GOTV messages delivered by the telephone. Several general findings emerge, all of which are consistent with the broad conclusion that the more personal a GOTV strategy, the more effective. (…) the most effective calls are conducted in an unhurried, “chatty manner.”

“The least personal and the least effective GOTV communication channels entail one way communications. (…) written pieces encouraging people vote that are mailed directly to households have consistently been shown to produce a mall, but positive, increase in turnout.”

  • Voting is affected by events before and after the decision

“One means to facilitate the performance of a socially desirable behavior is to ask people to predict whether they will perform the behavior in the future. In order to present oneself in a favorable light or because of wishful thinking or both, people are generally biased to answer in the affirmative. Moreover, a number of studies have found that people are more likely to follow through on a behavior after they predicted that they will do so (….) Emerging social-networking technologies provide new opportunities for citizens to commit to each other that they will turnout in a given election. These tools facilitate making one’s commitments public, and they also allow for subsequently accountability following an election (…) Asking people to form a specific if-then plan of action, or implementation intention, reduces the cognitive costs of having to remember to pursue an action that one intends to perform. Research shows that when people articulate the how, when and where of their plan to implement an intended behavior, they are more likely to follow through.”

(Not coincidentally, as noted by Sasha Issenberg in his book The Victory Lab, during the 2010 US presidential election millions of democrats received an email reminding them that they had “made a commitment to vote in this election” and that “the time has come to make good on that commitment. Think about when you’ll cast your vote and how you’ll get there.”)

“ (…) holding a person publicly accountable for whether or not she voted may increase her tendency to do so. (…) Studies have found that when people are merely made aware that their behavior will be publicly known, they become more likely to behaving in ways that are consistent with how they believe others think they should behave. (…) At least, at one point Italy exposed those who failed to vote by posting the names of nonvoters outside of local town halls.”

(On the accountability issue, also read this fascinating study [PDF] by Gerber, Green & Larimer)

  • Following the herd: affinitive and belonging needs

“People are strongly motivated to maintain feelings of belonging with others and to affiliate with others. (…) Other GOTV strategies that can increase turnout by serving social needs could involve encouraging people to go to their polling place in groups (i.e., a buddy system), hosting after-voting parties on election day, or encouraging people to talk about voting with their friends, to name a few.”

“(…) studies showed that the motivation to vote significantly increased when participants heard a message that emphasized high expected turnout as opposed to low expected turnout. For example, in the New Jersey study, 77% of the participants who heard the high-turnout script reported being “absolutely certain” that they would vote, compared to 71% of those who heard the low-turnout script. This research also found that moderate and infrequent voters were strongly affected by the turnout information.”

  • Voting as an expression of identity

“(….) citizens can derive value from voting through what the act displays about their identities. People are willing to go to great lengths, and pay great costs, to express that they are a particular kind of person. (….) Experimenters asked participants to complete a fifteen-minute survey that related to an election that was to occur the following week. After completing the survey, the experimenter reviewed the results and reported to participants what their responses indicated. Participants were, in fact, randomly assigned to one of two conditions. Participants in the first condition were labeled as being “above-average citizens[s] … who [are] very likely to vote,” whereas participants in the second condition were labeled as being “average citizen[s] … with an average likelihood of voting. (….) These identity labels proved to have substantial impact on turnout, with 87% of “above average” participants voting versus 75% of “average” participants voting.”

For those working with participatory governance, the question that remains is the extent to which each of these lessons is applicable to non-electoral forms of participation. The differences between electoral and non-electoral forms of participation may cause these techniques to generate very different results. One difference relates to public awareness about participation opportunities. While it would be safe to say that during an important election the majority of citizens are aware of it, the opposite is true for most existing participatory events, where generally only a minority is aware of their existence. In this case, it is unclear whether the impact of mobilization campaigns would be more or less significant when awareness about an event is low. Furthermore, if the act of voting may be automatically linked to a sense of civic duty, would that still hold true for less typical forms of participation (e.g. signing an online petition, attending a community meeting)?

The answer to this “transferability” question is an empirical one, and one that is yet to be answered.  The good news is that while experiments that generate this kind of knowledge are normally resource intensive, the costs of experimentation are driven down when it comes to technology-mediated citizen participation. The use of A/B testing during the Obama campaign is a good example. Below is an excellent account by Dan Siroker on how they conducted online experiments during the presidential campaign.

Bringing similar experiments to other realms of digital participation is the next logical step for those working in the field. Some organizations have already started to take this seriously . The issue is whether others, including governments and donors, will do the same.

Why ‘I-Paid-A-Bribe’ Worked in India but Failed in China

source: China Daily

Interesting paper by Yuen Yuen Ang, Political Scientist at the University of Michigan:

Authoritarian states restrain online activism not only through repression and censorship, but also by indirectly weakening the ability of netizens to self-govern and constructively engage the state. I demonstrate this argument by comparing I-Paid-A-Bribe (IPAB) — a crowd-sourcing platform that collects anonymous reports of petty bribery — in India and China. Whereas IPAB originated and has thrived in India, a copycat effort in China fizzled out within months. Contrary to those who attribute China’s failed outcome to repression, I find that even before authorities shut down IPAB, the sites were already plagued by internal organizational problems that were comparatively absent in India. The study tempers expectations about the revolutionary effects of new media in mobilizing contention and checking corruption in the absence of a strong civil society.

And a brief video with Yuen Yuen

Also read

I Paid a Bribe. So What? 

Open Government and Democracy

12 Papers on Social Media and Political Participation

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I just came across the website of the Social Media and Political Participation conference, which took place in Florence this May.

Below is the presentation by Henry Farrel (from the Monkey Cage) on Cognitive Democracy and the Internet, followed by links to the papers.

Cognitive Democracy and the Internet Henry Farrell, George Washington University

Politics 2.0: The Multifaceted Effect of Broadband Internet on Political Participation Francesco Sobbrio, European University Institute

Birds of the Same Feather Tweet Together: Bayesian Ideal Point Estimation Using Twitter Data Pablo Barbera, New York University

Politicians Go Social. Estimating Intra-Party Heterogeneity (and its Effects) through the Analysis of Social Media Andrea Ceron, University of Milan

Connective Action in European Mass Protest  Eva Anduiza, Autonomous University of Barcelona

The Bridges and Brokers of Global Campaigns in the Context of Social Media Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, Oxford Internet Institute

Every Tweet Counts? How Sentiment Analysis of Social Media Can Improve our Knowledge of Citizens’ Policy Preferences: An Application to Italy and France Stefano Iacus, University of Milan

The Rise and Decline of the “Occupy Wall Street” Movement from a Digital Perspective Alessandro Flammini, University of Indiana

Is the Internet Good or Bad for Politics? Yes. Let’s talk about How and Why Zeynep Tufekci, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Follow the leader! Dynamics and Patterns of Activity among the Followers of the Main Italian Political Leaders during the 2013 General Election Campaign Cristian Vaccari, New York University and University of Bologna

Social Networks, Peer Pressure and Protest Participation Alexey Makarin, New Economic School, Moscow

Mobilizing Online Data to Understand Offline Mobilization: Two Attempts at Online Observational Research in Russia   Sam Greene, King’s College London

Technology and Citizen Participation in Lawmaking: What’s the Impact?

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In times of open government one can come across many initiatives that claim to enable citizens to participate in the lawmaking process, but much less evidence is available about how effective that participation is. 

This is one of the reasons why I believe the e-Democracia project by the Brazilian House of Representatives is an extremely important experience for those interested in online participatory lawmaking. Besides taking place in one of the worlds’ largest democracies, e-Democracia is one of the few experiences to have shown evidence of actual impact – albeit sometimes limited – of citizens’ participation in the lawmaking process  (full disclosure, I advised the project in its early stages of implementation).

A new paper by Patricia Rossini (UFMG – Brazil) looks at a particular case of e-Democracia, in which citizens provided input for the drafting of the Brazilian Internet Bill of Rights. Below is the abstract of the paper – Is political participation online effective? A case study of the Brazilian Federal Chamber of  Representatives’ e-democracy initiative.

Abstract:

In Brazil, the Federal Chamber of Representatives conducts an e-democracy initiative that enables people to participate in political decisions regarding legislation. There are forums in which people can discuss and propose amendments to draft bills, vote for surveys to decide on the most important issues and speak their minds regarding legislative activities. The goal of this paper is to analyze the effectiveness of citizens’ engagement in the e-democracy initiative through the case study of the discussion of the Internet Civilian Landmark – a bill to regulate Internet use in Brazil. After a brief review of literature on e-democracy, we intend to measure if the platform guaranteed citizens an opportunity to affect decision-making by evaluating if the amendments suggested by users through the initiative were effectively taken into account by the legislative committee.

And a small excerpt from the conclusion:

Even though there are many barriers (social, economical and cultural, to cite some) that need to be transposed in order to reach a greater level of citizenship and deliberation on online public spheres, our case study shows that those who were engaged in the Internet Civilian Landmark’s discussion were able to reach decision-makers and to effectively make amendments to this bill. Although the final decision was top-down, as the representatives had the power to decide on what suggestions they would take into account, they were clearly open to accept amendments proposed.

Download the full paper here [PDF].

The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability

My article in response to Yu and Robinson’s recent paper on open data has just been published in the UCLA Law Review Discourse: The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability: A Response to Yu and Robinson’s The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”

Below is the abstract:

By looking at the nature of data that may be disclosed by governments, Harlan Yu and David Robinson provide an analytical framework that evinces the ambiguities underlying the term “open government data.” While agreeing with their core analysis, I contend that the authors ignore the enabling conditions under which transparency may lead to accountability, notably the publicity and political agency conditions. I argue that the authors also overlook the role of participatory mechanisms as an essential element in unlocking the potential for open data to produce better government decisions and policies. Finally, I conduct an empirical analysis of the publicity and political agency conditions in countries that have launched open data efforts, highlighting the challenges associated with open data as a path to accountability.

As I wrote the article, it became even more evident to me that the challenges for open data resemble those of democracy. To be successful, both depend on free press, fair elections, and multiple avenues of citizen participation. The resemblance goes one step further: both are most needed where they are least likely to thrive. On democracy and challenging environments, political scientist Robert Dahl wrote:

Democracy, it appears, is a bit chancy.  But its chances also depend on what we do ourselves.  Even if we cannot count on benign forces to favor democracy, we are not mere victims of blind forces over which we have no control. With adequate understanding of what democracy requires and the will to meet its requirements, we can act to preserve and, what is more, to advance democratic ideas and practices

May Dahl’s call resonate with the open data movement.

A Dynamic Model of Protest

A nice animation based on a paper by Adam Meirowitz (Princeton) and Joshua Tucker (New York University). The video explains why citizens who take action to overthrow bad governments might eventually lose hope  and decide to stay home.

 

The paper was published this year in the American Journal of Political Science. Here is the abstract:

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, a crucial question is whether popular protest is now likely to be a permanent part of Middle Eastern politics or if the protests that have taken place over the past two years are more likely to be a “one-shot deal.” We consider this question from a theoretical perspective, focusing on the relationship between the consequences of protests in one period and the incentives to protest in the future. The model provides numerous predictions for why we might observe a phenomenon that we call the “one-shot deal”: when protest occurs at one time but not in the future despite an intervening period of bad governance. The analysis focuses on the learning process of citizens. We suggest that citizens may not only be discovering the type or quality of their new government—as most previous models of adverse selection assume—but rather citizens may also be learning about the universe of potential governments in their country. In this way, bad performance by one government induces some pessimism about possible replacements. This modeling approach expands the formal literature on adverse selection in elections in two ways: it takes seriously the fact that removing governments can be costly, and it explores the relevance of allowing the citizen/principal to face uncertainty about the underlying distribution from which possible government/agent types are drawn.

The authors’ highlighting of the need to “get it right” in the first transitional elections comes as a reminder of how frail electoral democracy may be in recently transitioned countries. A snapshot from the conclusion (ungated version):

In the aftermath of events like the Arab Spring and the Colored Revolutions, we are once again confronted with the question of what the long-range effects are likely to be of regime change ushered in by citizens taking to the streets. Such moments are often filled with optimism about the potential for people to seize control of their own destiny and finally demand accountability from their governments. The model we present in this article does not deny that this optimistic chain of events can come to fruition, but it does lead to important insights as to when such a scenario is more or less likely.

First, there is likely to be a fundamental difference between what happens following a protest that leads to regime change as opposed to one that leads merely to a change of government without changing the regime. So a protest in France that leads to a change in the government—for example, the 1968 protests and subsequent resignation of de Gaulle (Cerny 1970)—is not likely to change citizens’ minds about the overall distribution of the quality of governments available through French democracy. Citizens may feel that they have received a “bad” draw from this distribution, and thus it is worth trying to throw the current government out of power and replace it with a new draw from the same distribution. In these circumstances—provided the cost of protesting remains constant—there is no reason not to expect French citizens to take to the streets to protest against their government in similar numbers in thefuture.

In a new democracy, however, we suggest that citizens may be simultaneously updating about the quality of the current government and the potential quality of all governments available under a democratic regime. This learning may be rather dramatic during the first governments of the new regime. If these initial governments after a democratic transition should prove to be little better than previous nondemocratic governments, citizens might be unlikely to take costly actions in order to curtail new abuses or even deter a blatant disregard for the new rules calling for periodic elections. Thus, we are probably most likely to see a one-shot-deal scenario when the initial governments following a democratic transition are perceived as no better than the ones that preceded the transition. Conversely, repeated protest might be more likely if there are afew “good” governments—thus leading respondents to think that the average quality of government is indeed better under democracy—before a government that might threaten democracy appears again. The bottom line is that if the type of learning that underlines our model is indeed occurring in newly democratic regimes, then the stakes for these regimes during the initial post-transition governments are likely to be high indeed.

Taken together, these points suggest the potential for the following patterns to emerge. The size and strength of protests may increase over time in a nondemocratic regime, but once the initial goal of removing the old regime from office is accomplished, the ability of prodemocracy forces to bring their supporters to the street may diminish significantly. The intuitive explanation for such a pattern would normally be that “the goal has been met,” but our model suggests a different story: it may not be so much that the goal has been met as the goal no longer seems to be quite so valuable. Again, this points to the importance of “getting it right” in the first transitional elections.

You can read the full paper (ungated version) here [PDF].

HT The Monkey Cage. 

Diamond’s Course on Democratic Development

I just found out that on April 3rd Coursera started offering a new series of lectures on Democratic Development with Larry Diamond. Here’s a brief description of the course:

This course is intended as a broad, introductory survey of the political, social, cultural, economic, institutional, and international factors that foster and obstruct the development and consolidation of democracy. Each factor will be examined in historical and comparative perspective, with reference to a variety of different national experiences. Students are encouraged to relate the historical development and contemporary situation of particular countries and regions (especially their own) to the various theories about democratic development, and to evaluate those theories in light of country experience. It is also hoped that students in developing or prospective democracies can use the theories, ideas, and lessons in the class to help build or improve democracy in their own countries.

Although it seems that Larry will not approach the issue of participatory democracy, there is little doubt that it is something worth following if one looks at the syllabus. The reading schedule [PDF] is – as one would expect – impeccable, and it is in itself a valuable list of resources for those who would like to move beyond a simplistic understanding of democracy.To set the tone, one of the first suggested readings is the brilliant “What Democracy Is…and Is Not”, a classic by Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl, who together form probably one of the most brilliant (and charming) couples ever. The list of excellent readings goes on forever, with major scholars (beyond Larry himself) such as Lipset, O’Donnel, Lijphart, Carothers and Horowitz.Touching upon issues like ethnic conflict, accountability, rule of law and control of corruption, this course might also be of interest to many development practitioners working in related fields. Personally – and despite the sometimes tiring hype – I look forward to hearing more from Diamond about his take on the role of technologies in democratic transitions (see for instance, this paper of his “Liberation Technology” [PDF]).

Albeit free, this course is priceless.

You can sign up here.

Social Media and Regime Change in Egypt and Syria

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

Abstract:

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

And some of the findings (highlights are mine)

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

(…)

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

You can read the full paper here. 

Mobile Phones and Gender Inequality: Can We Hear Her Now?

While the growth of mobile phones is undeniably impressive, when we look at issues more closely, mobile phones are far from being the panacea that some purport it to be. This master thesis [PDF] by Kari Mackey adds to a literature that examines the relationship between mobile phones and gender inequality. 

Here’s the abstract: 

Are mobile phones the best vehicle for reducing gender inequality in the developing world? ICT experts champion the use of mobile phones to improve women’s lives, and various stakeholders have invested millions of dollars to launch mobile phone programs for women. Yet, given high female illiteracy rates, patriarchal societies, and other structural and cultural barriers in developing countries, many scholars contend that limited access to ICTs can perpetuate gender inequality. Rooted in the theory that women’s empowerment and equality are inseparable and necessary components for the realization of sustainable economic and social development, this paper aims to determine if stakeholders are jumping on the mobile phone bandwagon too soon by using a multivariate regression of cross national data to demonstrate whether or not mobile phones fall short of advancing women at the same rate that men develop.

And a snapshot from the conclusion: 

According to this study, mobile phones alone are not enough to reduce gender inequality. In fact, there appears to be no relationship between mobile phones and gender inequality, or one particular vehicle that is shown to be best at closing the gender gap. Rather there seems to be various moving parts working in unison. While increasing women’s literacy, reducing religious favoritism, and strengthening democracy are demonstrated by this study to be statistically significant contributors to greater gender equality, this research was limited in scope. There are 40 surely other variables out there, such as cultural attitudes, affecting gender inequality that have yet to be put through the rigorous test of statistical analysis. In order to determine what they are, it is clear that better data and additional scholarship are needed.

Open Government and Democracy

The International Budget Partnership (IBP) has recently released the results of the Open Budget Survey 2012, which measures “the state of budget transparency, participation and oversight in 100 countries around the world”. In the survey report, the authors highlighted the positive relationship between budget transparency and democracy:

A democratic political system is a significant factor that supports budget transparency (…) In fact, a switch from autocracy to democracy is typically associated with an improvement in a country’s OBI score by almost 20 points, after controlling for other variables. In addition, transparency seems to depend much more on current levels of democracy than on how long a country has been a democracy: for countries in transition, this means that rapid improvements in transparency can be achieved without having to wait for slow processes of learning and adaptation.

This adds to a growing body of literature showing that democracies (and electoral competition) are indeed more transparent than other types of regime. If the relationship between democracy and openness comes across as obvious, it also opens space for some questions about the open government movement and its strategy to promote transparency.

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Political Rights and Civil Liberties in 2013 – Freedom House

Transparency, it seems, is one of the vital signs of well-functioning democracies. Chronic lack of transparency, on the other hand, emerges as the symptom of flawed democracies or authoritarian regimes. If this logic is correct (and the evidence suggests it is) advocating for transparency would correspond to treating the symptoms of a disease, rather than preventing it in the first place.

This is not to say that promoting transparency reforms (e.g. open data, open budgets) is a useless act. Treating a symptom is not a problem in itself: it alleviates the pain and may even prevent further complications. But neglecting to treat the cause of the symptom is surely a bad practice.

This begs a fundamental question: are open government advocates efficiently channelling their energy and resources when asking for more transparency from governments that have little or no inclination to democracy? Or are they failing to strike a balance which combines a focus on transparency with more fundamental reforms that promote, for instance, free, fair and competitive elections?

Granted, transparency and democracy are mutually reinforcing: it is difficult to think of a democracy without informed consent. And even well-established democracies still have a long way to go towards more transparency. But, for instance, going as far as considering that open government may blossom in non-democracies seems questionable to me. All the technology and transparency in the world is unlikely to realize its full potential in the absence of fundamental political rights and civil liberties.

It might be time to start focusing on the role that political regimes play in promoting values that are dear to the open government movement, such as transparency, participation and collaboration. And democracy – or lack thereof – is the elephant in the room.

***

Further reading

Alt, J. E., Lassen, D. D., & Rose, S. (2005). “The causes of fiscal transparency: Evidence from the US States.” IMF Staff Papers, 53(Special Issue), 30–57.

Alt, J. E., & Lowry, R. C. (2010). “Transparency and accountability: Empirical results for US States.” Journal of Theoretical Politics, 22(4), 379–406.

Hollyer, J. R., Rosendorff, B. P., & Vreeland, J. R. (2011). “Democracy and transparency.” Journal of Politics, 73(4), 1191–1205.

Rosendorff, B. Peter, and James Raymond Vreeland. (2004). “Democracy and Data Dissemination: The Effect of Political Regime on Transparency.” Working Paper, Yale. 

Rosendorff, B. Peter and Doces, John A. (2006). “Democracy and Transparency”. Swiss Political Science Review, 12 (3), 99-112.

Wehner, J. and de Renzio, P. (2013) “Citizens, Legislators, and Executive Disclosure: The Political Determinants of Fiscal Transparency.” World Development, 41, 96-108.