Below is a selection of the 10 most read posts at DemocracySpot in 2013. Thanks to all of those who stopped by throughout the year, and happy 2014.
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.
A paper recently published in World Development brings new and fascinating evidence from Mexico of the impact of participatory governance mechanisms on access to services.
Below are a few excerpts from the paper by Diaz-Cayeros, Malagoni, and Ruiz-Euler “Traditional Governance, Citizen Engagement, and Local Public Goods: Evidence from Mexico” (emphasis are mine):
The goal of this paper is to assess the eﬀects of traditional governance on local public good provision. We ask whether poor indigenous communities are better oﬀ by choosing to govern themselves through “traditional” customary law and participatory democracy, versus delegating decisions concerning the provision of public goods to “modern” forms of representative government, structured through political parties. This is a crucial question for developing countries seeking to enhance accountability, and a central problem in the theory of participatory democracy.
Our research design takes advantage of an important institutional innovation in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, that in 1995 allowed indigenous communities to choose their forms of governance. The reform gave full legal standing to a form of traditional indigenous governance called usos y costumbres (usos hereafter), which entails electing individuals to leadership positions through customary law in non-partisan elections, making decisions through participatory democracy, and monitoring compliance through a parallel (and often informal) system of law enforcement and community justice. If they did not choose usos, municipalities could opt instead for party governance, which entails the selection of municipal authorities through electoral competition among political parties and the adjudication of conﬂicts only through the formal institutional channels, namely the state and federal judiciary.
Our results show that electricity provision increased faster in those municipalities governed by usos. They also suggest that traditional governance may improve the provision of education and sewerage. With respect to citizen engagement and elite capture, contrary to existing scholarly work, we ﬁnd no evidence of entrenchment of local bosses (caciques) associated with the former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) in places ruled by usos. Our ﬁndings suggest that traditional participatory forms of governance do not handicap democratic development. Furthermore, municipalities governed by usos are more likely to hold open council meetings allowing citizens to participate in decisionmaking processes. We attribute better public goods coverage to diﬀerences in local governance and collective decisionmaking practices. We suggest three speciﬁc channels through which traditional governance aﬀects local public good provision: the social embeddedness of municipal presidents, broader civic engagement in collective-decision making, and credible social sanctions. We argue that traditional governance practices (which include in our setting decision-making through direct participatory practices, the obligation to provide services for the community, and the establishment of a parallel system of justice), allow poor communities to better hold their political leaders accountable, prevent elite capture, and monitor and sanction non-cooperative behavior.
Systems of governance based on electoral competition among political parties diﬀer essentially from usos because decisions are taken by politicians without an ongoing process of consultation with the citizenry. The monitoring and sanctioning dynamics that come into play when citizens gather in public assemblies are usually absent in party-run municipalities, and thus the allocation of resources for public goods seems sub-optimal.
Diﬀerences between the two types of governance that we presented in the paper point to a broader discussion of the organization of democracy. The delegated format of decision-making in electoral democracies dominated by political parties seems to bear a higher risk of agency loss than deliberative decision-making of what is often referred to as participatory democracy. (…) there are lessons to be extracted from the fact that, with regard to the provision of some basic services, a non-partisan political arrangement presented some advantages over the widespread electoral and party-based democratic organization. Participation and collective monitoring of authority are hugely important to maximize collective well-being.
Read the full paper here [PDF].
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.
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].
( cross-posted from techPresident)
In my frequent conversations about open government and citizen participation, the subject of elite capture (or “how representative it is”) is almost unavoidable. Some go as far as evaluating participatory initiatives on the grounds of an ideal notion of representativeness: participants should perfectly mirror the socio-demographic traits of the larger population from which they come.
But oddly enough, the same people who raise these concerns about participatory initiatives are much less inclined to apply the same reasoning and standards to traditional politics. In other words, few take the time to consider how representative and inclusive existing electoral democracy actually is. An article by Nicholas Carnes at the New York Times about political representation in the United States puts the issue into perspective:
If millionaires were a political party, that party would make up roughly 3 percent of American families, but it would have a super-majority in the Senate, a majority in the House, a majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans were a political party, that party would have made up more than half the country since the start of the 20th century. But legislators from that party (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before entering politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.
I’ve yet to see a participatory process that produces similar results. But the limits of representation do not stop there. African Americans and Latinos are still greatly under-represented in US politics. The gender issue is no different: with the House of Representatives only 17 percent women, the Inter Parliamentary Union ranks the US 82nd in female representation in politics, behind countries such as the Arab Emirates, Sudan, Mauritania and Kazakhstan.
Obviously, the US is by no means exceptional in exclusion. Those working in the field of political participation have long been aware of the excluding effect of representative systems. As put by political scientist Arend Lijphart, unequal participation remains as representative democracy’s “unresolved dilemma.” Even more unfortunately, underlines Lijphart, inequalities in representation and influence “are not randomly distributed, but systematically biased in favor of more privileged citizens (…) and against less advantaged citizens”.
And it is from this unresolved dilemma that the raison d’être of participatory innovations stems. But rather than a replacement for representative systems (as misunderstood by some), participatory innovations are complementary mechanisms to enable the participation of individuals who are systematically excluded from traditional politics, ultimately increasing the overall diversity of voices that influence government.
This observation leads to a fundamental issue when assessing citizen participation initiatives: beyond questioning demographic representativeness, one must also consider the extent to which initiatives succeed (or not) in promoting the participation of previously marginalized sectors of society (i.e. inclusiveness).
So how inclusive are these mechanisms?
To continue with the US example, let’s consider one of the most exciting open government events taking place at the local level in the US: the recent adoption of participatory budgeting in NYC. Unlike most overhyped #opengov experiences, a team of researchers carried out an evaluation of the experience looking at, among other things, the extent to which it promoted inclusiveness. Below are some excerpts from the report [PDF]:
- Twenty percent of PB voters identified themselves as African American; 14 percent as Hispanic or Latino/a; 2 percent as Asian and 2 percent as “Other.”
- A higher percentage of African Americans participated in neighborhood assemblies (38 percent), compared to the full population in the four districts (31 percent).
- Twenty-one percent of budget delegates and 19 percent of PB voters were born outside of the United States.
- Participants that identified themselves as Black/African American were the most likely to volunteer to be budget delegates.
- Women represented 64 percent of neighborhood assembly participants, 65 percent of budget delegates and 62 percent of voters in the PB process.
But how these numbers compare with participation in traditional politics is probably one of the highlights of the evaluation (emphasis is mine):
One of the most striking findings about who participated in PB [participatory budgeting] is how the data compares to other types of civic engagement, particularly voting patterns in NYC elections. Across the districts, PB engaged communities that have traditionally been uninspired by politics. People of color, low-income people and some immigrant groups turned out at higher rates than in previous elections.“
A few numbers worth noting:
Latino/as represented 39 percent of voters in the 2009 City Council elections. However, 50 percent of PB voters identified themselves as Latino/a (District 8 NYC).
Black or African Americans represented 79 percent of voters in 2009 City Council elections. However, 87 percent of the district’s PB voters identified themselves as Black or African American (District 45 NYC).
Twenty-two percent of PB voters had a household income of less than $10,000 compared to 4 percent of the district’s voters in the 2009 City Council election (District 8 NYC).
I have very little doubt, if any, that the contrast would be even starker if we compared the income of those who sit on the City Council and those who participated in the NYC participatory budgeting. In City Councils across the US, less than 10 percent of members come from a blue-collar background. Conversely, the numbers on income of participatory budgeting participants speak for themselves.
As citizen engagement gains traction in the open government agenda, inclusiveness should be one of the top priorities: both from normative and empirical standpoints, more inclusive initiatives are likely to produce better outcomes. The NYC experience provides valuable lessons for donors, policymakers, advocates, and enthusiasts alike. They can find more about it here and here.
When designing citizen engagement mechanisms I always consider sortition (or randomization) as a mechanism of participant selection. Nevertheless, and particularly in the #opengov space, my experience is that this idea does not resonate a lot: it sounds less sexy than crowdsourcing and more complicated than over-simplistic mechanisms of “civil society engagement”.
This is why it is always great to see someone like Lawrence Lessig putting forward a system of “Citizen Conventions” for proposing amendments to the Constitution based upon sortition. In this video below, at a hearing at the U.S. Senate’s Commission of Justice, Lessig explains in a few seconds how such a system would work:
With his unique eloquence, Lessig also makes the best case for ordinary citizens to engage with the Constitution and reforms:
I think to the surprise of many people, you would see that ordinary people deliberating about what the Constitution needs and how the reforms should go forward, would far surpass ninety eight percent of what is commonly discussed in this particular context. And that’s because, frankly, politics is the one sport where the amateur is better for the nation than the professional.
Lessig’s remark on the amateur’s role in politics reminds me of something I read a while ago from the apologue of Protagoras. When charged with taking to humans the art of politics, Mercury asks Jupiter whether it should be distributed like the other arts, to the competent ones only. Jupiter replies that the art of politics should be distributed to all. Otherwise, says Jupiter, the city would not exist.
The Institute for Local Government’s Public Engagement program offers resources and support to help local officials and their communities design and carry out effective and inclusive public engagement activities. Topics include:
On the 1st of June, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in the UK published online the paper “Empowering communities to influence local decision making: A systematic review of the evidence”.
In this paper, Prof. Lawrence Pratchett and his colleagues provide evidence-based lessons on six empowerment mechanisms:
1) asset transfer
2) citizen governance
4) participatory budgeting
Having worked as a consultant for a short while in this project (where I learned more than I provided), I had the opportunity to glimpse how these great scholars employed top-level methodology and analytical rigor to come up with the results they are now sharing with the broader public.
Among other findings, the research shows that each of the six mechanisms can potentially – to some extent – empower the citizens participating directly in it. Nonetheless, only the citizen governance and participatory budgeting mechanisms provided “evidence of spill-over from individuals to the wider community”.
However, any reference to a main finding would be unfair, given the amount of valuable information provided by this research for academics and practitioners interested in issues related to empowerment. A full reading is well worth it.
The authors of this report raise the bar by going well beyond the general assumptions and unsubstantiated lucubrations that are, unfortunately, so common in the domain.
You can download the full-report here [PDF].
(originally posted in Facebook’s Participatory Budgeting group)