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.
Rio Grande do Sul Participatory Budgeting Voting System (2014)
Within the open government debate, there is growing interest in the role of technology in citizen engagement. However, as interest in the subject grows, so does the superficiality of the conversations that follow. While the number of citizen engagement and technology events is increasing, the opportunities for in-depth conversations on the subject do not seem to be increasing at the same rate.
My talk covered a number of issues that have been keeping me busy recently. On the preliminary quantitative work that I presented, credit should also go to the awesome team that I am working with, which includes Fredrik Sjoberg (NYU), Jonathan Mellon (Oxford) and Paolo Spada (UBC / Harvard). For those who would like to see some of the graphs better, I have also added here [PDF] the slides of my presentation.
I have skipped the video to the beginning of my talk, but the discussion that followed is what made the event interesting. In my opinion, the contributions of Maria Nyberg (Head of Open Policy Making at the Cabinet Office) Catherine Howe (Public-i), as well as those of the participants, were a breath of fresh air in the current citizen engagement conversation. So please bear with me and watch until the end.
I would like to thank Simon Burral (Involve) and Graham Smith (Westminster) for their invitation. Simon leads the great work being done at Involve, one of the best organizations working on citizen engagement nowadays. And to keep it short, Graham is the leading thinker when the issue is democratic innovations.
Below is also an excellent summary by Sonia Bussu (Involve), capturing some of the main points of my talk and the discussion that ensued (originally posted here).
“On technology and democracy
The title of yesterday’s event, organised by Involve and Westminster University’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, posed a big question, which inevitably led to several other big questions, as the discussion among a lively audience of practitioners, academics and policymakers unfolded (offline and online).
Tiago Peixoto, from the World Bank, kicked off the debate and immediately put the enthusiasm for new technologies into perspective. Back in 1795, the very first model of the telegraph, the Napoleonic semaphore, raised hopes for – and fears of – greater citizen engagement in government. Similarly the invention of the TV sparked debates on whether technology would strengthen or weaken democracy, increasing citizen awareness or creating more opportunities for market and government manipulation of public opinion.
Throughout history, technological developments have marked societal changes, but has technological innovation translated into better democracy? What makes us excited today about technology and participation is the idea that by lowering the transaction costs we can increase people’s incentives to participate. Tiago argued that this costs-benefits rationale doesn’t explain why people continue to vote, since the odds of their vote making a difference are infinitesimal (to be fair voter turnouts are decreasing across most advanced democracies – although this is more a consequence of people’s increasing cynicism towards political elites rather than their understanding of mathematical probabilities).*
So do new technologies mobilise more people or simply normalise the participation of those that already participate? The findings on the matter are still conflicting. Tiago showed us some data on online voting in Rio Grande do Sul participatory budgeting process in Brazil, whereby e-voting would seem to bring in new voters (supporting the mobilisation hypothesis) but from the same social strata (e.g. higher income and education – as per the normalisation hypothesis).
In short, we’re still pretty much confused about the impact of technology on democracy and participation. Perhaps, as suggested by Tiago and Catherine Howe from Public-i, the problem is that we’re focusing too much on technology, tempted by the illusion it offers to simplify and make democracy easy. But the real issue lies elsewhere, in understanding people and policymakers’ incentives and the articulation (or lack thereof) between technologies and democratic institutions. As emphasised by Catherine, technology without democratic evolution is like “lipstick on a pig”.
The gap between institutions and technology is still a big obstacle. Catherine reminded us how participation often continues to translate into one-way communication in government’s engagement strategies, which constrains the potential of new technologies in facilitating greater interaction between citizens and institutions and coproduction of policies as a response to increasing complexity. As academics and practitioners pitch the benefits of meaningful participation to policy makers, Tiago asked whether a focus on instrumental incentives might help us move forward. Rather than always pointing to the normative argument of deepening democracy, we could start using data from cases of participatory budgeting to show how greater participation reduces tax evasion and corruption as well as infant mortality.
He also made a methodological point: we might need to start using more effectively the vast array of data on existing engagement platforms to understand incentives to participation and people’s motivation. We might get some surprises, as findings demystify old myths. Data from Fix My Street would seem to prove that government response to issues raised doesn’t increase the likelihood of future participation by as much as we would assume (28%).** But this is probably a more complicated story, and as pointed out by some people in the audience the nature and salience of both the issue and the response will make a crucial difference.
Catherine highlighted one key problem: when we talk about technology, we continue to get stuck on the application layer, but we really need to be looking at the architecture layer. A democratic push for government legislation over the architecture layer is crucial for preserving the Internet as a neutral space where deeper democracy can develop. Data is a big part of the architecture and there is little democratic control over it. An understanding of a virtual identity model that can help us protect and control our data is key for a genuinely democratic Internet.
Maria Nyberg, from the Cabinet Office, was very clear that technology is neither friend nor foe: like everything, it really depends on how we use it. Technology is all around us and can’t be peripheral to policy making. It offers great opportunities to civil servants as they can tap into data and resources they didn’t have access to before. There is a recognition from government that it doesn’t have the monopoly on solutions and doesn’t always know best. The call is for more open policy making, engaging in a more creative and collaborative manner. Technology can allow for better and faster engagement with people, but there is no silver bullet.
Some people in the audience felt that the drive for online democracy should be citizen-led, as the internet could become the equivalent of a “bloodless guillotine” for politicians. But without net neutrality and citizen control over our own data there might be little space for genuine participation.
*This point was edited on 12/07/2014 following a conversation with Tiago.
** This point was edited on 12/07/2014 following a conversation with Tiago.”
I am also thankful to the UK Political Studies Association (PSA), Involve and the University of Westminster for co-sponsoring my travel to the UK. I will write more later on about the Scaling and Innovation Conference organized by the PSA, where I was honored to be one of the keynote speakers along with MP Chi Onwurah (Shadow Cabinet Office Minister) and Professor Stephen Coleman (Leeds).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
“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.