Voices in the Code, by David G. Robinson, is finally out. I had the opportunity to read the book prior to its publication, and I could not recommend it enough. David shows how, between 2004 and 2014 in the US, experts and citizens came together to build a new kidney transplant matching algorithm. David’s work is a breath of fresh air for the debate surrounding the impact of algorithms on individuals and societies – a debate typically focused on the negative and sometimes disastrous effects of algorithms. While David conveys these risks at the outset of the book, focusing solely on these threats would add little to a public discourse already saturated with concerns.
One of the major missing pieces in the “algorithmic literature” is precisely how citizens, experts and decision-makers can make their interactions more successful, working towards algorithmic solutions that better serve societal goals. The book offers a detailed and compelling case where a long and participatory process leads to the crafting of an algorithm that delivers a public good. This, despite the technical complexities, moral dilemmas, and difficult trade-offs involved in decisions related to the allocation of kidneys to transplant patients. Such a feat would not be achieved without another contribution of the book, which is to offer a didactical demystification of what algorithms are, normally treated as a reserved domain of few experts.
As David conducts his analysis, one also finds an interesting reversal of the assumed relationship between technology and participatory democracy. This relationship has mostly been examined from a civic tech angle, focusing on how technologies can support democratic participation through practices such as e-petitions, online citizens’ assemblies, and digital participatory budgeting. Thus, another original contribution of this book is to look at this relationship from the opposite angle: how can participatory processes better support technological deployments. While technology for participation (civic tech) remains an important topic, we should probably start paying more attention to how participation can support technological solutions (civic for tech).
Continuing on through the book, other interesting insights emerge. For instance, technology and participatory democracy pundits normally subscribe to the virtues of decentralized systems, both from a technological and institutional perspective. Yet David depicts precisely the virtues of a decision-making system centralized at the national level. Should organ transplant issues be decided at the local level in the US, the results would probably not be as successful. Against intuition, David presents a clear case where centralized (although participatory) systems might offer better collective outcomes. Surfacing this counterintuitive finding is a welcome contribution to debates on the trade-offs between centralization and decentralization, both from a technological and institutional standpoint.
But a few paragraphs here cannot do the book justice. Voices in the Code is certainly a must-read for anybody working on issues ranging from institutional design and participatory democracy, all the way to algorithmic accountability and decision support systems.
Open government’s uncertain effects and the Biden opportunity: what now?
A review of 10 years of open government research reveals: 1) “a transparency-driven focus”, 2) “methodological concerns”, and 3) [maybe not surprising] “the lack of empirical evidence regarding the effects of open government”. My take on this is that these findings are, somewhat, self-reinforcing.
First, the early focus on transparency by open government advocates, while ignoring the conditions under which transparency could lead to public goods, should be, in part, to blame. This is even more so if open government interventions insist on tactical, instead of strategicapproaches to accountability. Second, the fact that many of those engaging in open government efforts do not take into account the existing evidence doesn’t help in terms of designing appropriate reforms, nor in terms of calibrating expectations. Proof of this is the recurrent and mostly unsubstantiated spiel that “transparency leads to trust”, voiced by individuals and organizations who should have known better. Third, should there be any effects of open government reforms, these are hard to verify in a credible manner given that evaluations often suffer from methodological weaknesses, as indicated by the paper.
Finally, open government’s semantic extravaganza makes building critical mass all the more difficult. For example, I have my doubts over whether the paper would reach similar conclusions should it have expanded the review to open government practices that, in the literature, are not normally labeled as open government. This would be the case, for instance, of participatory budgeting (which has shown to improve service delivery and increase tax revenues), or strategic approaches to social accountability that present substantial results in terms of development outcomes.
In any case, the research findings are still troubling. The election of President Biden gives some extra oxygen to the open government agenda, and that is great news. But in a context where autocratization turns viral, making a dent in how governments operate will take less policy-based evidence searching and more evidence-based strategizing. That involves leveraging the existing evidence when it is available, and when it is not, the standard path applies: more research is needed.
Open Government Partnership and Justice
On another note, Joe Foti, from the Open Government Partnership (OGP), writes on the need to engage more lawyers, judges and advocates in order to increase the number of accountability-focused OGP commitments. I particularly like Joe’s ideas on bringing these actors together to identify where OGP commitments could be stronger, and how. This resonates with a number of cases I’ve come across in the past where the judiciary played a key role in ensuring that citizens’ voice also had teeth.
I also share Joe’s enthusiasm for the potential of a new generation of commitments that put forward initiatives such as specialized anti-corruption courts and anti-SLAPP provisions. Having said this, the judiciary itself needs to be open, independent and capable. In most countries that I’ve worked in, a good part of open government reforms fail precisely because of a dysfunctional judiciary system.
Diversity, collective intelligence and deliberative democracy
Part of the justification for models of deliberative democracy is their epistemic quality, that is, large and diverse crowds are smarter than the (elected or selected) few. A good part of this argument finds its empirical basis in the fantastic work by Scott Page.
But that’s not all. We know, for instance, that gender diversity on corporate boards improves firms’ performance, ethnic diversity produces more impactful scientific research, diverse groups are better at solving crimes, popular juries are less biased than professional judges, and politically diverse editorial teams produce higher-quality Wikipedia articles. Diversity also helps to explain classical Athens’ striking superiority vis-à-vis other city-states of its time, due to the capacity of its democratic system to leverage the dispersed knowledge of its citizens through sortition.
Now, a Nature article, “Algorithmic and human prediction of success in human collaboration from visual features”, presents new evidence of the power of diversity in problem-solving tasks. In the paper, the authors examine the patterns of group success in Escape The Room, an adventure game in which a group attempts to escape a maze by collectively solving a series of puzzles. The authors find that groups that are larger, older and more gender diverse are significantly more likely to escape. But there’s an exception to that: more age diverse groups are less likely to escape. Intriguing isn’t it?
Deliberative processes online: rough review of the evidence
As the pandemic pushes more deliberative exercises online, researchers and practitioners start to take more seriously the question of how effective online deliberation can be when compared to in-person processes. Surprisingly, there are very few empirical studies comparing the two methods.
But a quick run through the literature offers some interesting insights. For instance, an online 2004 deliberative poll on U.S. foreign policy, and a traditional face-to-face deliberative poll conducted in parallel, presented remarkably similar results. A 2007 experiment comparing online and face-to-face deliberation found that both approaches can increase participants’ issue knowledge, political efficacy, and willingness to participate in politics. A similar comparison from 2009 looking at deliberation over the construction of a power plant in Finland found considerable resemblance in the outcomes of online and face-to-face processes. A study published in 2012 on waste treatment in France found that, compared to the offline process, online deliberation was more likely to: i) increase women’s interventions, ii) promote the justification or arguments, and iii) be oriented towards the common good (although in this case the processes were not similar in design).
The external validity of these findings, however encouraging they may be, remains an empirical question. Particularly given that since these studies were conducted the technology used to support deliberations has in many cases changed (e.g. from written to “zoomified” deliberations). Anyhow, kudos should go to the researchers who started engaging with the subject well over a decade ago: if that work was a niche subject then, their importance now is blatantly obvious.
(BTW, on a related issue, here’s a fascinating 2021 experiment examining whether online juries can make consistent, repeatable decisions: interestingly, deliberating groups are much more consistent than non-deliberating groups)
Fixing the Internet?
Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev published a great article in The Atlantic on the challenges to democracy by an Internet model that fuels disinformation and polarization, presenting alternative paths to address this. I was thankful for the opportunity to make a modest contribution to such a nice piece.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the effects of the Internet in politics. For instance, a new study in the American Political Science Review finds that radical right parties benefit more than any other parties from malicious bots on social media.
2021 continues to be a good year for the proponents of deliberative democracy, with growing coverage of the subject in the mainstream media, in part fueled by the recent launch of Helène Landemore’s great book “Open Democracy.” Looking for something to listen to? Look no further and listen to this interview by Ezra Klein with Helène.
A dialogue among giants
The recording of the roundtable Contours of Participatory Democracy in the 21st Century is now available. The conversation between Jane Mansbridge, Mark Warren and Cristina Lafont can be found here.
Democracy and design thinking
Speaking of giants, the new book by Michael Saward “Democratic Design”, is finally out. I’m a big fan of Michael’s work, so my recommendation may be biased. In this new book Michael brings design thinking together with democratic theory and practice. If the design of democratic institutions is one of your topics, you should definitely check it out!
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to deliver a lecture at the Center for Collective Learning – Artificial and Natural Intelligence Institute. My presentation, Civic Technologies: Past, Present and Future, can be found here.
And finally, for those who really want to geek-out, a list of 15 academic articles I enjoyed reading:
Modern Grantmaking: That’s the title of a new book by Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg. I had the privilege of reading snippets of this, and I can already recommend it not only to those working with grantmaking, but also pretty much anyone working in the international development space.
Lectures: The Center for Collective Learning has a fantastic line-up of lectures open to the public. Find out more here.
Learning from Togo: While unemployment benefits websites were crashing in the US, the Togolese government showed how to leverage mobile money and satellite data to effectively get cash into the hands of those who need it the most
Nudging the nudgers: British MPs are criticising academics for sending them fictitious emails for research. I wonder if part of their outrage is not just about the emails, but about what the study could reveal in terms of their actual responsiveness to different constituencies.
DataViz: Bringing data visualization to physical/offline spaces has been an obsession of mine for quite a while. I was happy to come across this project while doing some research for a presentation
I’ve recently been exchanging with some friends on a list of favorite reads from 2020. While I started with a short list, it quickly grew: after all, despite the pandemic, there has been lots of interesting stuff published in the areas that I care about throughout the year. While the final list of reads varies in terms of subjects, breadth, depth and methodological rigor, I picked these 46 for different reasons. These include my personal judgement of their contribution to the field of democracy, or simply a belief that some of these texts deserve more attention than they currently receive. Others are in the list because I find them particularly surprising or amusing.
As the list is long – and probably at this length, unhelpful to my friends – I tried to divide it into three categories: i) participatory and deliberative democracy, ii) civic tech and digital democracy, and iii) and miscellaneous (which is not really a category, let alone a very helpful one, I know). In any case, many of the titles are indicative of what the text is about, which should make it easier to navigate through the list.
These caveats aside, below is the list of some of my favorite books and articles published in 2020:
Participatory and Deliberative Democracy
While I still plan to make a similar list for representative democracy, this section of the list is intentionally focused on democratic innovations, with a certain emphasis on citizens’ assemblies and deliberative modes of democracy. While this reflects my personal interests, it is also in part due to the recent surge of interest in citizens’ assemblies and other modes of deliberative democracy, and the academic production that followed.
The rapid evolution of digital technologies has been changing relationships between governments and citizens around the world. These shifts make it the right time to pose the key question a new World Bank publication explores:
Will digital technologies, both those that are already widespread and those that are still emerging, have substantial impacts on the way citizens engage and the ways in which power is sought, used, or contested?
The report argues that, regardless of lower technology penetration levels, and given more malleable governance contexts, developing countries may be more influenced by the effects of emerging technologies than older states with greater rigidity and legacy technologies. Digitally influenced citizen engagement is potentially a “leapfrog” area in which developing nations may exploit emerging technologies before the wealthier parts of the world.
But countries can leapfrog to worse futures, not only better ones. The report also conveys concerns about the negative effects digital technologies can have on the governance of nations. Yet, despite emerging challenges, it contends that new and better citizen engagement approaches are possible.
What is missing from public discourse is a discussion of the wide range of options that citizens and decision-makers can call upon to enhance their interactions and manage risks. To consider these options, the report makes 11 predictions regarding the effects of technology on citizen engagement in the coming years, and their policy implications. It also offers six measures that would be prudent for governments to take to mitigate risks and leverage opportunities that technological development brings about.
None of the positive scenarios predicted will emerge without deliberate and intentional actions to support them. And the extent to which they can be shaped to further societal goals will depend on constructive dialogue between governments and citizens themselves. Ultimately, this new publication aims to contribute to this dialogue, so that both developing and developed countries are more likely to leap into better futures.
Text co-authored with Tom Steinberg, originally cross-posted from the World Bank’s Governance for Development blog. You can also read another article about this report in Apolitical here. While I’m at it: if you work in public service and care about making government work better, I highly recommend Apolitical, a peer-to-peer learning platform for government, sharing smart ideas in policy globally. Join for free here .
At the World Bank, we have published two new studies on the effect of citizen engagement on tax morale and tax compliance.
In the first, published last month, we examine the Brazilian case, using data from all 5,570 municipalities in the country. We focus on two types of institutions that municipalities can voluntarily adopt to give citizens the opportunity to voice their preferences on policies and spending: public policy councils and participatory budgeting. Municipalities who adopt these practices collect significantly more local taxes. For instance, the adoption of participatory budgeting leads to the collection of up to 39% more tax revenues. Overall, the increase in municipal budgets is equivalent to roughly 40% of their capital investment spending.
But how context-dependent are these findings?
In the second study, published last week, we present results from the largest cross-country experiment ever conducted on tax morale. A unique online experiment, the study involved 65,000 individuals across 50 countries from all continents. Our results show that regardless of government systems, levels of development and culture, citizens are more committed to tax compliance when they: i) are able to voice their preferences about government spending, and ii) learn about government oversight of public resources.
Michael Touchton, Brian Wampler and Tiago C. Peixoto
Abstract: Traditionally, governments seek to mobilize tax revenues by expanding their enforcement of existing tax regimes and facilitating tax payments. However, enforcement and facilitation can be costly and produce diminishing marginal returns if citizens are unwilling to pay their taxes. This paper addresses gaps in knowledge about tax compliance, by asking a basic question: what explains why citizens and businesses comply with tax rules? To answer this question, the paper shows how the voluntary adoption of two different types of participatory governance institutions influences municipal tax collection in Brazil. Municipalities that voluntarily adopt participatory institutions collect significantly higher levels of taxes than similar municipalities without these institutions. The paper provides evidence that moves scholarship on tax compliance beyond enforcement and facilitation paradigms, while offering a better assessment of the role of local democratic institutions for government performance and tax compliance.
Fredrik M. Sjoberg, Jonathan Mellon, Tiago C. Peixoto, Johannes Hemker and Lily L. Tsai
Abstract: An online survey experiment spanning 50 countries finds sizable improvements in tax morale when (a) the salience of anti-corruption efforts is increased and (b) citizens are allowed to voice their expenditure preferences to the government. These results hold very broadly across a uniquely large and diverse sample of respondents from all continents. The findings are consistent with theories emphasizing the role of democratic accountability, as well as of perceptions of legitimacy and “retributive justice,” in generating voluntary tax compliance. Implications and avenues for further research are discussed.
The literature on corruption is disputed territory, and one that is full of surprises. On one side, a number of scholars and development practitioners follow the traditional understanding, arguing that corruption is an evil to be eradicated at any cost. On the other, some scholars and practitioners see corruption as an “informal tax” that mediates access to goods and services in contexts of poor institutions and policies, commonly found in the early stages of development. In other words, corruption is a symptom, rather than a problem, with some even arguing that corruption may generate efficiencies in certain contexts: the so-called “greasing-the-wheel hypothesis.”
If these differences in perspective were not enough, a new paper adds more nuance to the debate and challenges conventional wisdom. Launched in 2003, the Brazilian anti-corruption program consists of a series of random audits by the federal government to assess whether municipalities effectively spend earmarked federal transfers according to pre-established guidelines. The results of the audits are then disseminated to the public, with auditors engaging with local councils and civil society to encourage them to monitor tax revenues. The program became famous in development and anti-corruption circles, in great part thanks to an earlier paper by Ferraz and Finan (2008) which found that “the release of the audit outcomes had a significant impact on incumbents’ electoral performance, and that these effects were more pronounced in municipalities where local radio was present to divulge the information.”
But if, when they know about it, citizens are more likely to vote corrupt politicians out of office, what is the effect of these audits on the quality of service delivery? This is the question that Guilherme Lichand, Marcos Lopes and Marcelo Medeiros (2016) try to answer in a new paper entitled “Is Corruption Good For Your Health?.” Below is the abstract of the paper, (highlights are mine):
While corruption crackdowns have been shown to effectively reduce missing government expenditures, their effects on public service delivery have not been credibly documented. This matters because, if corruption generates incentives for bureaucrats to deliver those services, then deterring it might actually hurt downstream outcomes. This paper exploits variation from an anti-corruption program in Brazil, designed by the federal government to enforce guidelines on earmarked transfers to municipalities, to study this question. Combining random audits with a differences-in-differences strategy, we find that the anti-corruption program greatly reduced occurrences of over-invoicing and off-the-record payments, and of procurement manipulation within health transfers. However, health indicators, such as hospital beds and immunization coverage, became worse as a result. Evidence from audited amounts suggests that lower corruption came at a high cost: after the program, public spending fell by so much that corruption per dollar spent actually increased. These findings are consistent with those responsible for procurement dramatically reducing purchases after the program, either because they no longer can capture rents, or because they are afraid of being punished for procurement mistakes.
The paper’s final discussion is no less provocative. An excerpt below:
(…) While the Brazilian anti-corruption program represents a major improvement in monitoring and transparency, the focus of administrative penalties and of public opinion on corruption, instead of on the quality of public services, all seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. These findings suggest that policies that expand the scope of desirable outcomes beyond formal procedures, that differentiate between active and passive waste, and that support local procurement staff in complying with complex guidelines might be important steps towards balancing incentives between procuring and making proper use of public funds.
Given that many other governance/accountability interventions traditionally focus on corruption rather than on the performance of services delivered, practitioners should take note of these findings. In the meantime, the debate on corruption and development gets some good extra fuel.
The new IDS Bulletin is out. Edited by Rosemary McGee and Duncan Edwards, this is the first open access version of the well-known journal by the Institute of Development Studies. It brings eight new studies looking at a variety of open government issues, ranging from uptake in digital platforms to government responsiveness in civic tech initiatives. Below is a brief presentation of this issue:
Open government and open data are new areas of research, advocacy and activism that have entered the governance field alongside the more established areas of transparency and accountability. In this IDS Bulletin, articles review recent scholarship to pinpoint contributions to more open, transparent, accountable and responsive governance via improved practice, projects and programmes in the context of the ideas, relationships, processes, behaviours, policy frameworks and aid funding practices of the last five years. They also discuss questions and weaknesses that limit the effectiveness and impact of this work, offer a series of definitions to help overcome conceptual ambiguities, and identify hype and euphemism. The contributions – by researchers and practitioners – approach contemporary challenges of achieving transparency, accountability and openness from a wide range of subject positions and professional and disciplinary angles. Together these articles give a sense of what has changed in this fast-moving field, and what has not – this IDS Bulletin is an invitation to all stakeholders to take stock and reflect.
The ambiguity around the ‘open’ in governance today might be helpful in that its very breadth brings in actors who would otherwise be unlikely adherents. But if the fuzzier idea of ‘open government’ or the allure of ‘open data’ displace the task of clear transparency, hard accountability and fairer distribution of power as what this is all about, then what started as an inspired movement of governance visionaries may end up merely putting a more open face on an unjust and unaccountable status quo.
Among others, the journal presents an abridged version of a paper by Jonathan Fox and myself on digital technologies and government responsiveness (for full version download here).
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.
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.
The other day during a talk with researcher Tanya Lokot I heard an interesting story from Russia. Disgusted with the state of their streets, activists started painting caricatures of government officials over potholes.
In the case of a central street in Saratov, the immediate response to one of these graffiti was this:
Later on, following increased media attention – and some unexpected turnarounds – the pothole got fixed.
That reminded me of a recurrent theme in some conversations I have, which refers to whether praising and shaming matters to civic tech and, if so, to which extent. To stay with two classic examples, think of solutions such as FixMyStreet and SeeClickFix, through which citizens publically report problems to the authorities.
Considering government takes action, what prompts them to do so? At a very basic level, three hypothesis are possible:
1) Governments take action based on their access to distributed information about problems (which they supposedly are not aware of)
2) Governments take action due to the “naming and shaming” effect, avoiding to be publically perceived as unresponsive (and seeking praise for its actions)
3) Governments take action for both of the reasons above
Some could argue that hypothesis 3 is the most likely to be true, with some governments leaning more towards one reason to respond than others. Yet, the problem is that we know very little about these hypotheses, if anything. In other words – to my knowledge – we do not know whether making reports through these platforms public makes any difference whatsoever when it comes to governments’ responsiveness. Some might consider this as a useless academic exercise: as long as these tools work, who cares? But I would argue that the answer that questions matters a lot when it comes to the design of similar civic tech initiatives that aim to prompt government to action.
Let’s suppose that we find that all else equal governments are significantly more responsive to citizen reports when these are publically displayed. This would have importance both in terms of process and technological design. In terms of process, for instance, civic tech initiatives would probably be more successful if devoting part of their resources to amplify the visibility of government action and inaction (e.g. through local media). Conversely, from a technological standpoint, designers should devote substantive more effort on interfaces that maximizes praising and shaming of governments based on their performance (e.g. rankings, highlighting pending reports). Conversely, we might find that publicizing reports have very little effect in terms of responsiveness. In that case, more work would be needed to figure out which other factors – beyond will and capacity – play a role in government responsiveness (e.g. quality of reports).
Most likely, praising and shaming would depend on a number of factors such as political competition, bureaucratic autonomy, and internal performance routines. But a finer understanding of that would not only bear an impact on the civic tech field, but across the whole accountability landscape. To date, we know very little about it. Yet, one of the untapped potential of civic technology is precisely that of conducting experiments at lowered costs. For instance, conducting randomized controlled trials on the effects on the publicization of government responsiveness should not be so complicated (e.g effects of rankings, amplifying visibility of unfixed problems). Add to that analysis of existing systems’ data from civic tech platforms, and some good qualitative work, and we might get a lot closer at figuring out what makes politicians and civil servants’ “tick”.
Until now, behavioral economics in public policy has been mainly about nudging citizens toward preferred choices. Yet it may be time to start also working in the opposite direction, nudging governments to be more responsive to citizens. Understanding whether praising and shaming works (and if so, how and to what extent) would be an important step in that direction.
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).