Virtual Parliaments in Times of Coronavirus: Flattening the Authoritarian Curve?

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, legislative bodies around the world have struggled to function. Meanwhile, from Europe, all the way to Australia and Pakistan, calls to ensure that national legislatures continue to operate abound. In the UK, over 100 MPs signed an open letter asking for the creation of a digital parliament to “maintain democratic traditions in accordance with social distancing.” In the US, amidst media concerns of a “sidelined” Congress, dozens of House Democrats sent a letter to their leadership calling for a change in the rules to enable remote voting.

The disruption in legislative work caused by the pandemic has visibly impacted crisis response efforts. For instance, in Canada, the House of Commons delayed for weeks the vote on a critical wage bill, aimed at covering a percentage of employees’ wages so that employers can keep them on the payroll. The key point of contention? Liberals wanted to vote via virtual parliament, while Conservatives asked for in-person participation. 

The functioning of parliaments becomes all the more important as fears of executive overreach are revealed to be founded). Indeed, previous evidence suggests that a pandemic crisis is fertile ground for authoritarian drifts; and chronic abuses are unlikely to stop as the outbreak expands and a growing number of parliaments are unable to work.

Freedom of information for example – particularly relevant during such crises – is under assault. The Global Right to Information Rating shows that since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, countries on multiple continents have altered or lifted their “right to know” legislation. At the same time, a growing number of governments restrict journalistic coverage of the outbreak through threats and detentions.

In a context where traditional forms of collective action and resistance – such as social movements and protests – are constrained by physical distancing, parliaments should be the first line of defense in flattening the authoritarian curve. While innovative models of social activism are certainly emerging, they may not be sufficient to contain authoritarian drifts. To avoid rule of law giving way to rule by decree, parliaments must continue working, even if virtually. 

The Brazilian Virtual House of Representatives

On March 11th, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Six days later, in one of the swiftest parliamentary responses, the Brazilian House of Representatives approved a normative resolution authorizing MPs to vote online and provided guidelines for the launch of a “virtual parliament”. 

The Office of the Clerk and the House’s digital services (Department for Information Technology and Innovation, DITEC) immediately got to work on the technical solutions required by this rule change. The mobile application Infoleg, originally developed to follow up on the work of the House of Representatives, was repurposed to enable MPs’ mobile phones, following authentication protocols, to function as remote devices for registering presence and casting votes. But Infoleg is more than an e-voting app: it integrates most of the information required by an MP to properly navigate parliamentary sessions, including the list of representatives that will discuss a bill, or the pending procedural motions involved in the deliberation of a matter. While MPs use an external videoconferencing system for their interventions during sittings, the critical systems for registering presence and votes are entirely developed and managed by the House’s internal digital services.

On March 25th, eight days after enacting the new Rules of Procedure, the House of Representatives conducted the first online voting in its history. By April 9th ten virtual sessions had been held, with 15 pieces of legislation, six urgency motions and one constitutional amendment passed. Average attendance for these ten virtual sessions was 98.6% (503 out of 513 representatives), far above the in-person average (87.1%). The constitutional amendment, it seems, was the first ever to be approved by a legislative body through online voting. It was also one of the fastest legislative responses to the financial challenges generated by the pandemic – especially important given the delicate fiscal situation of the country.

Explaining the rapid transition

There is no single explanation of why some parliaments are struggling to function, while others are being more reactive. Yet in the case of Brazil, three enabling factors are worth highlighting.

Political response

Strong digital capacity does not guarantee a smooth transition to a virtual modus operandi. Take for instance Estonia, which has one of the most technologically savvy governments in the world and where online voting for elections is old news: as noted by Andy Williamson, Senior Researcher for the Inter Parliamentary Union, existing regulation prohibits remote sitting of the Estonian parliament. In other words, along with digital capacity, the shift to a virtual parliament may in many cases require political leadership to eliminate analog obstacles. In the Brazilian case, this included swift action by the Speaker of the House, who expedited a normative resolution that was rapidly approved by MPs across the political spectrum. This process, however, must be understood in its broader political context. The current relationship between the national Executive and Legislative is notoriously conflictual. It is therefore possible that the rapid response was also a preemptive move by the House to avoid executive overreach and to maintain political relevance during the crisis. Parliaments in similar situations may want to take note. 

Administrative capacity

The importance of the administrative capacity of the Office of the Clerk (the Office) should not be understated. Amassing some of the most qualified civil servants in Brazil, it is the Office that makes political responses technically viable – examining constraints and opportunities and advising the House leadership on the most effective approaches. It should be noted that the adoption of the virtual parliament resolution was facilitated by existing legislation. Passed in October 2019 as a result of a shared vision between the House leadership and the Office of the Clerk, this legislation includes guidelines for a paperless legislative process. 

Digital capacity

Finally, a key enabler of the rapid response by the Brazilian House was the existence of a highly qualified, in-house digital team (DITEC), with the mandate and resources to quickly redesign systems that were already developed , maintained and updated internally (e.g. Infoleg, remote voting for committees). The full implementation of the virtual parliament was by no means a small task, and involved DITEC’s core teams on user experience, cybersecurity, application development, legislative informatics, voting and attendance systems, plenary operation (e.g. video streaming), help desk, and emergency response.

It is worth noting that DITEC’s response builds on a tradition of excellence. The House of Representatives has for over a decade been a trailblazer in digital democracy, illustrated for instance by the 2009 launch of e-Democracia, a collaborative platform to engage citizens and civil society organisations in the lawmaking process. 

In short, digital transformation does not happen overnight, and the House’s timely response to pandemic-related challenges was in part due to in-house capacity built and honed over the years. (Full disclosure, I was an adviser to the e-Democracia program in its early days, when working on my research on digital parliaments).  

(MP connects to virtual session)

Potential effects of virtual parliaments

It is too early to assess the effects of the pandemic on democratic institutions. The same is true for the medium- and long-term effects of legislatures’ transitions to digital environments. But for the Brazilian case, we can hypothesize:

Effects on party politics

The virtualization of parliamentary procedures may lead to further strengthening of party leaders. First, given that MPs are no longer traveling to the capital, the number of in-person meetings, both formal and informal, is drastically reduced. This reinforces the coordination role of party leaders, already an important position in Brazil. Second, with sittings taking place virtually, for practical reasons the ‘floor time’ allocated to MPs is reduced, increasing the visibility of party leaders who also control the floor time allowed for their MPs.

The impact of this increased influence and visibility of party leaders is uncertain. On the one hand, in a multi-party system with 24 parties represented in the House, a strengthening of leaders’ coordination roles may facilitate the management of legislative politics and even enhance House efficiency. On the other hand, it may weaken the position of a considerable contingent of representatives who work somewhat independently, across party lines. This could be particularly problematic for newly elected MPs who benefited from the support of political renewal movements, whose allegiances to party lines are weaker. This effect could be offset, however, by the stronger online presence of these new, often younger MPs who are used to engaging remotely with their constituents.

Effects on media coverage and third party oversight

As in most countries, the media coverage of politics in Brazil is centered in the capital city, with most journalists, offices and support staff based in Brasília. A good part of that infrastructure depends on in-person and informal exchanges between journalists and their sources, through hallway conversations, over coffee, or at social events. Civil society organisations follow a similar pattern, focusing their advocacy and oversight activities where most MPs are found. With a transition to virtual operation, economies of scale in terms of geographic location and in-person interactions are lost.

A potential secondary effect is that the House becomes less subject to scrutiny from the press and organized groups. Some CSO leaders have indeed expressed such concerns over the shift. José Antonio Moroni, leader of a coalition of social movements for political reform lamented to a local media outlet: “[…]  before the MPs circulated in the corridors, and we managed, to a certain extent, to have a dialogue. Now, with this process, we get nothing.” But organisations are reacting quickly, as described by a member of the Education Workers’ Confederation: “We, for instance, already have a list of all the MPs, with e-mail, WhatsApp details, and now we are incentivizing our member organizations not only to maintain their communication with MPs, but actually to intensify the online pressure.”

More digital politics (and fake news) 

As the Brazilian parliament moves to an online environment and physical distancing measures continue to be implemented (with varying degrees of success), we should also expect that more political conversations will take place online. This is not necessarily good news, particularly given that some studies suggest that Brazil is particularly fertile ground for fake news. Add to this a combination of a growing polarization between the branches of government, and the infodemic generated by the current crisis, and you have all the ingredients for accelerating the fake news arms race in the country. As we argued in a recent report, a possible consequence of this arms race is a further and unhealthy shift of the focus of public debates: towards disputes over the authenticity of statements and evidence, reducing the time and energy left to discuss possible actions and solutions to problems. 

Whether these hypotheses are validated or not remains an empirical question. These effects become more probable the longer that parliament is obliged to work remotely – a function of the length of the crisis. 

So what?

For national legislatures like Brazil’s, the hypothetical adverse effects of a virtual parliament are dwarfed by the possibility of undermining the structure of checks and balances. In other words, these potential effects should be weighed against the possibility of a closed parliament. 

The temporary transition to an online environment should also be regarded as an opportunity to explore options for a more open parliament going forward. For example, virtual citizen panels, consisting of randomly selected citizens representing a microcosm of the population, could be convened online to advise on divisive issues including crisis response measures (after all, if parliament can function in a decentralized manner, why not consider the same for a more participatory model of politics?) Such an effort – which would, again, require a political decision by the House leadership – would put the parliament at the forefront of democratic innovations. 

In this respect, from a digital democracy perspective, the Brazilian case is one more example of the prospects and limitations of technology for achieving democratic aspirations. The fact that the House adopted a virtual model is critical at this moment. Yet it does not render the legislative any more transparent, representative or participatory than before. Without reforms, digital practices will always mirror their analog origins, whether good and bad. International organizations, donors and tech enthusiasts should not therefore delude themselves: establishing virtual parliaments will do nothing for national legislatures that suffer from pre-existing conditions or that are already on life support. As some recent events attest, national parliaments themselves can be accomplices in the crossing of democratic lines during the coronavirus response.

From a more technical perspective, democracy scholars and practitioners (myself included), have long been aware of the importance of face-to-face interactions for democratic processes. The limitations of existing solutions for digital replication of these interactions was no secret. What few of us expected, however, was how fast democratic praxis would have to transition to a virtual space in order to maintain basic functioning. This applies not only to legislative procedures but also to democratic innovations such as participatory budgeting and citizens assemblies. Unless one believes this pandemic is a one-off with short-term consequences only, the current context reveals the need to invest time and resources in reducing, at least partially, the dependency of democratic processes on face-to-face interaction. If the question of how to best achieve online participation and deliberation at scale was once a niche area, this is no longer the case. 

On a more futuristic note: could virtual parliaments be an additional source of resilience in the case of unilateral action by any given executive? Consider the case of Estonia’s Digital Embassies program. Based on cloud technology and off-site servers based in Luxembourg, the program aims to ensure the functioning of critical government functions regardless of Estonia’s territorial integrity. Historically, parliaments have been shut down through coercion of parliamentarians and the closure of legislatives’ physical spaces. But what happens if a parliament can work virtually, with MPs geographically dispersed within and outside their territory? Again, it is an empirical question that – one hopes – won’t need to be answered anytime soon.  

Finally, and back to the Brazilian case: as previously mentioned, several countries have altered or lifted their “right to know” legislation during the crisis. The Brazilian President recently enacted a provisional measure temporarily suspending deadlines for answering certain information requests from the public. The Speaker of the House has already announced his intention to reverse the measure in parliament. While the final result is hard to anticipate, one thing is certain: the next battle for the right to information in Brazil will take place online.

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Further reading:

GovLab – CrowdLaw Communiqué: Continuity of Legislatures 

OECD – How can digital tools support deliberation?

Hansard Society – How are parliaments responding to the coronavirus pandemic?

The Inter-Parliamentary Union – Parliaments in a time of pandemic

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.

World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends

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The World Development Report 2016, the main annual publication of the World Bank, is out. This year’s theme is Digital Dividends, examining the role of digital technologies in the promotion of development outcomes. The findings of the WDR are simultaneously encouraging and sobering. Those skeptical of the role of digital technologies in development might be surprised by some of the results presented in the report. Technology advocates from across the spectrum (civic tech, open data, ICT4D) will inevitably come across some facts that should temper their enthusiasm.

While some may disagree with the findings, this Report is an impressive piece of work, spread across six chapters covering different aspects of digital technologies in development: 1) accelerating growth, 2) expanding opportunities, 3) delivering services, 4) sectoral policies, 5) national priorities, 6) global cooperation. My opinion may be biased, as somebody who made some modest contributions to the Report, but I believe that, to date, this is the most thorough effort to examine the effects of digital technologies on development outcomes. The full report can be downloaded here.

The report draws, among other things, from 14 background papers that were prepared by international experts and World Bank staff. These background papers serve as additional reading for those who would like to examine certain issues more closely, such as social media, net neutrality, and the cybersecurity agenda.

For those interested in citizen participation and civic tech, one of the papers written by Prof. Jonathan Fox and myself – When Does ICT-Enabled Citizen Voice Lead to Government Responsiveness? – might be of particular interest. Below is the abstract:

This paper reviews evidence on the use of 23 information and communication technology (ICT) platforms to project citizen voice to improve public service delivery. This meta-analysis focuses on empirical studies of initiatives in the global South, highlighting both citizen uptake (‘yelp’) and the degree to which public service providers respond to expressions of citizen voice (‘teeth’). The conceptual framework further distinguishes between two trajectories for ICT-enabled citizen voice: Upwards accountability occurs when users provide feedback directly to decision-makers in real time, allowing policy-makers and program managers to identify and address service delivery problems – but at their discretion. Downwards accountability, in contrast, occurs either through real time user feedback or less immediate forms of collective civic action that publicly call on service providers to become more accountable and depends less exclusively on decision-makers’ discretion about whether or not to act on the information provided. This distinction between the ways in which ICT platforms mediate the relationship between citizens and service providers allows for a precise analytical focus on how different dimensions of such platforms contribute to public sector responsiveness. These cases suggest that while ICT platforms have been relevant in increasing policymakers’ and senior managers’ capacity to respond, most of them have yet to influence their willingness to do so.

You can download the paper here.

Any feedback on our paper or models proposed (see below, for instance) would be extremely welcome.

unpacking

unpacking user feedback and civic action: difference and overlap

I also list below the links to all the background papers and their titles

Enjoy the reading.

Unusual suspects? Effects of technology on citizen engagement

(Originally posted on the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Development blog)

What is the effect of technology on citizen engagement? On the one hand, enthusiasts praise the prospects offered by technology: from real-time beneficiary feedback to collaborative policymaking, the possibilities for listening at scale seem endless. Skeptics, on the other, fear that unequal access to technologies will do nothing but favor the “usual suspects”, empowering the already empowered and reinforcing existing inequalities. While the debate sometimes gets heated, a common feature unites both sides: there is limited evidence to support both views.

Providing evidence to better inform practice at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement is one of the core goals of the Bank’s Digital Engagement Evaluation Team (DEET). And, to contribute empirical data to the debate on the effects of technology on participatory processes, the team has been carrying out a number of studies, some of them covering as many as 132 countries.

The results of one of these studies have just been published, looking at the effects of Internet voting on the world’s largest participatory budgeting exercise, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Every year, over one million people participate in the state-wide process, where citizens can vote either online or offline for projects that are to be included in the public budget. In this study we present the results of a unique survey of over 22,000 Internet voters, focusing on three key research questions:

1) Does an opportunity to vote online increase participation?
2) If so, what is the socioeconomic profile of new voters?
3) And finally, what is the level of pre-existing engagement of these online voters?

Anticipating some of our results here, nearly two-thirds of respondents answer the first question affirmatively, saying they would not have taken part in the vote if online voting (i-voting) was not available. This evidence supports the view that technology increases participation among individuals who would not have voted otherwise. In parallel to this, our study shows that introducing i-voting does not lead to a substitution effect, meaning that for the most part, those who vote offline will continue to do so, despite the introduction of i-voting.

On the second question, a picture of the “usual suspects” of online engagement emerges: all else equal, i-voting seems more likely to engage individuals who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users. However, from a civic engagement perspective i-voting seems to engage rather unusual suspects, boosting inclusiveness and engaging individuals who were previously uninspired by traditional politics and community activities.

In short, i-voting increases participation among previously non-engaged strata of the population, promoting the inclusiveness of the process as a whole. However, these new participants – the online-only voters – are likely to be socio-economically more privileged: a compelling reason for combining multiple avenues (online and offline) for participation.

In the study we analyze these findings in light of the literature on convenience voting, participatory governance and collective intelligence. We conclude with the implications of the findings for future practice and research.

You can download the paper here

DemocracySpot’s Most Read Posts in 2014

Glasses for reading (1936) – Nationaal Archief

(I should have posted this on the 31st, but better late than never)

Below are some of the most read posts in 2014. While I’m at it, I’ll take the opportunity to explain the reduced number of posts in the last few months. Since mid-2014 I have been working with a small team of political and data scientists on a number of research questions at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement (I presented a few preliminary findings here). Following the period of field work, data collection and experiments, we have now started the drafting and peer-review stage of our research. This has been an extremely time-consuming process, which has taken up most of my weekends, when I generally write for this blog.

Still, one of my new year’s resolutions is precisely to better discipline myself to post more regularly. And I am hopeful that the publication of our upcoming research will make up for the recent reduction in posts. We will start to disseminate our results soon, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s a selection of the five most read posts in 2014.

The Problem with Theory of Change

Technology and Citizen Engagement: Friend or Foe? 

A Brilliant Story of Participation, Technology and Development Outcomes

When Citizen Engagement Saves Lives (and what we can learn from it) 

Social Accountability: What Does the Evidence Really Say?