Citizen Engagement Improves Access to Public Goods in Mexico

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].


Petition Growth and Success Rates on the UK No. 10 Downing Street Website


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This is the kind of research that should be informing the design of ICT mediated initiatives. It also a good example as to why policymakers  and practitioners should reach out more to scholars (and vice-versa).

Now that so much of collective action takes place online, web-generated data can further understanding of the mechanics of Internet-based mobilisation. This trace data offers social science researchers the potential for new forms of analysis, using real-time transactional data based on entire populations, rather than sample-based surveys of what people think they did or might do. This paper uses a ‘big data’ approach to track the growth of over 8,000 petitions to the UK Government on the No. 10 Downing Street website for two years, analysing the rate of growth per day and testing the hypothesis that the distribution of daily change will be leptokurtic (rather than normal) as previous research on agenda setting would suggest. This hypothesis is confirmed, suggesting that Internet-based mobilisation is characterized by tipping points (or punctuated equilibria) and explaining some of the volatility in online collective action. We find also that most successful petitions grow quickly and that the number of signatures a petition receives on its first day is a significant factor in explaining the overall number of signatures a petition receives during its lifetime. These findings have implications for the strategies of those initiating petitions and the design of web sites with the aim of maximising citizen engagement with policy issues.

Read more here [PDF].


The Way to Randomized Controlled Trials in Open Government

As I have written before, we may start to see a growing number of studies using randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to assess the validity of claims for transparency and participation. And in fact some donors in the open government space have already started to ask for RCT evaluations as a component of projects to be funded. But they might be skipping some important steps. A brief comment from the Simply Statistics blog suggests that a sequential approach (with RCTs at the end rather than at the start) might be more appropriate and cost-effective:

A really nice example where epidemiological studies are later confirmed by a randomized trial. From a statistician’s point of view, this is the idealized way that science would work. First, data that are relatively cheap (observational/retrospective studies) are used to identify potential associations of interest. After a number of these studies show a similar effect, a randomized study is performed to confirm what we suspected from the cheaper studies.

I think this consideration is particularly important for those funding open government evaluation work. Before jumping on the RCT bandwagon, one should first look at pre-existing knowledge to consider which questions are to be asked. But having followed the #opengov conversation for a while, I’d say this doesn’t happen very often.