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


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 Data: Democrats and Republicans, Who Shows us the Stimulus Online?

A few days ago I posted the results of an assessment of a report from July 2009 by Good Jobs First, a study on the effectiveness and transparency of state websites devoted to tracking stimulus money. The results of my analysis showed that states with lower houses controlled by Democrats are statistically more likely to have more transparent and open stimulus websites.

Right after I posted, I found out that a new version of the report had just been released. The report consists of an updated evaluation of state recovery websites based on data collected in January 2010. Moreover, it deploys a renewed methodology, given the fact that recovery efforts “are further along and the federal government’s website now contains extensive recipient data”.

The overall results of the report demonstrate that considerable improvements have been made by many states since their recovery websites were first created in spring 2009. At the same time, the report shows a persistence of the discrepancies in the quality and quantity of information offered by the different states.

However, of particular interest for the purpose of my analysis, which looks at the factors that influence levels of transparency, are the “ups and downs” that have been identified in the study. In other words, in the new report, several states reached considerably higher scores if compared to the previous report and vice-versa, leading to a reconfiguration of the rankings.

In this respect, it is pertinent to question to what extent this reconfiguration alters the pattern previously identified by my analysis, which shows a statistically significant correlation between the number of Democrats in the lower house of a state and the transparency of that state’s recovery website.

The scatter plot below illustrates the results based on the newest report (January 2009). The horizontal line inside the diagram indicates the average (mean) transparency score of each state, with the points above the horizontal line representing the states scoring above the average and vice-versa. The vertical line divides those states with Republican (left side) and Democrat (right side) majorities in each lower house.

If in July 2009 only two websites from the Republican side scored above the average, in January 2010 four websites score above the average. On the Democrat side, the effects are similar, with some websites significantly increasing their scores, such as Kentucky – which climbed from 47th place in 2009 to 2nd place in 2010 – and Minnesota that rose from 34th to 4th place in the overall ranking.

In fact, the pattern remains unaltered and statistically significant: the more seats held by Democrats in the lower house, the more transparent the state recovery website is likely to be, even when controlling for other factors such as e-government readiness and unemployment levels. The analysis indicates that there is a less than 0.2% chance of the results being random. That is, this new data strengthens the previous findings.

To put it in less technical terms, it seems like citizens living in states with a Democrat majority in the lower house are more likely to know where the recovery money is going in their state. Well, at least for the moment.