10 Most Read Posts in 2013

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.

1. Does transparency lead to trust? Some evidence on the subject.

2. The Foundations of Motivation for Citizen Engagement

3. Open Government, Feedback Loops, and Semantic Extravaganza

4. Open Government and Democracy

5. What’s Wrong with e-Petitions and How to Fix them

6. Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation

7. Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

8. The Effect of SMS on Participation: Evidence from Uganda

9. The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability

10. Lisbon Revisited: Notes on Participation

Crowdsourcing Off-Road Traffic Legislation in Finland

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A paper by Tanja Aitamurto (Tampere) and Hélène Landemore (Stanford) on an interesting crowdsourcing exercise in Finland.


This paper reports on a pioneering case study of a legislative process open to the direct online participation of the public. The empirical context of the study is a crowdsourced off-road traffic law in Finland. On the basis of our analysis of the user content generated to date and a series of interviews with key participants, we argue that the process qualifies as a promising case of deliberation on a mass-scale. This case study will make an important contribution to the understanding of online methods for participatory and deliberative democracy. The preliminary findings indicate that there is deliberation in the crowdsourcing process, which occurs organically (to a certain degree) among the participants, despite the lack of incentives for it. Second, the findings strongly indicate that there is a strong educative element in crowdsourced lawmaking process, as the participants share information and learn from each other. The peer-learning aspect could be made even stronger through the addition of design elements in the process and on the crowdsourcing software.

The first two things that come to mind when reading this, are:

  1. If there is a “strong educative element” in the crowdsourcing process, we have an argument for large-scale citizen participation. The more citizens take part in a process, the more citizens benefit from the educative element.
  2. If we consider point 1 to be true, there is still a major technical challenge in terms of having appropriate platforms to enable large-scale deliberative processes. For instance, I have some reservations about crowdsourcing efforts that use ideation systems like Ideascale (as is the case for this experience). In my opinion such systems are prone to information cascades and a series of other biases that compromise an exercise in terms of a) deliberative quality and b) final outcomes (i.e. quality of ideas).

There’s still lots to learn on that front, and there is a dire need for more research of this type. Kudos should also go to the proponents of the initiative, who involved the authors in the project from the start.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

Does transparency lead to trust? Some evidence on the subject.

As open government gains traction in the international agenda, it is increasingly common to come across statements that assume a causal relationship in which transparency leads to trust in government. But to what extent are claims that transparency leads to trust backed up by evidence?

Judging from some recent publications on the subject, such a relationship is not as straightforward as sadvocates would like. In fact, in a number of cases, the evidence points in another direction: that is, transparency may ultimately decrease trust.

Below is a brief overview of research that has been carried out on the subject:

Transparency has been trumpeted by many as the key to trust in government. The assumption is that if government organisations open up and show the public what decisions are made, how they are made and what the results are, people will automatically have more trust in government. But does transparency really lead to more trust? Or will it only provide critical citizens with more information to blame government again and again for small mistakes? Transparency and Trustexamines the effects of transparency on trust in a government organisation. By using an experimental method this study moves beyond normative or correlational research on transparency. In doing so, causal inferences regarding the relation between transparency and trust are allowed. Several objects of transparency and dimensions of information are being put to the test in three experiments. The experiments show that transparency is merely a ‘hygiene factor’: it does not contribute to higher levels of trust and it can even lead to lower levels of trust if people are disappointed with the degree to which government is transparent. This conclusion challenges current overly optimistic assumptions concerning the effect of transparency on trust.

Building on the notion of transparency as a strong democratic value and theories of procedural justice, this article reports an explorative experimental test whether transparency in decision making may lead to increased perceived legitimacy in terms of decision acceptance and trust. This is done in a context of difficult decisions of high importance for citizens – namely priority setting in public health care. An experiment was designed in which ordinary citizens were presented with a description of a case of priority setting between two groups with different health care needs. One group was given no information at all on the decision-making procedure, as an example of non-transparent decision making, and six groups were presented with different descriptions of the decision-making procedure, as examples of transparency in decision making. The transparent procedures were derived from three basic forms of democratic decision making: representation, direct participation and expert decision making. A second manipulation framed the decision-making procedure alternatively in positive or negative terms in order to capture media framing effects as well. According to the findings of the study, transparent decision-making procedures tend to weaken rather than strengthen general trust in health care – a finding that might reveal obstacles to attempts to strengthen the legitimacy of health care by employing transparent procedures. The results also show that while the form of decision making had no significant impact on perceived legitimacy, positive or negative framing of a decision-making procedure influences public perceptions of both the procedure and the decision outcome.

Of course, the impact of transparency on trust may vary according to the context:

 Transparency is considered a key value for trustworthy governments. However, the effect of transparency on citizens’ trust across national cultures is overlooked in current research. This article compares the effect of transparency on trust in government in the Netherlands and South Korea. The effect is investigated in two similar series of three experiments. The authors hypothesize that the effect of transparency differs because the countries have different cultural values regarding power distance and short- and long-term orientation. Results reveal similar patterns in both countries: transparency has a subdued and sometimes negative effect on trust in government. However, the negative effect in South Korea is much stronger. The difference in the magnitude of transparency’s effect suggests that national cultural values play a significant role in how people perceive and appreciate government transparency.

But some evidence goes even further, suggesting that transparency may have a demobilizing effect on citizens. And, if context matters, such a demobilizing effect might be particularly strong in the context of developing countries:

International organizations, policy experts, and nongovernmental organizations promote greater governmental transparency as a crucial reform to enhance accountability and curb corruption. Transparency is predicted to deter corruption in part by expanding the possibilities for public or societal accountability, that is, for citizens and citizens associations to monitor, scrutinize, and act to hold public office holders to account. Although the societal accountability mechanism linking transparency and good government is often implied, it builds on a number of assumptions seldom examined empirically. This article unpacks the assumptions of principal-agent theories of accountability and suggests that the logic of collective action can be used to understand why exposure of egregious and endemic corruption may instead demobilize the demos (i.e., resignation) rather than enhance accountability (i.e., indignation). We explore these theoretical contentions and examine how transparency affects three indicators of indignations versus resignation—institutional trust, political involvement, and political interest—given different levels of corruption. The empirical analyses confirm that an increase in transparency in highly corrupt countries tends to breed resignation rather than indignation.

Democratic theory often assumes that offering more information to voters will enhance electoral accountability. However, it is unclear whether corruption information translates into higher political participation and increased support for challengers. For example, information on corruption could lower the utility one gets from participating in elections at all. We provide experimental evidence that such information not only decreases incumbent support in local elections in Mexico, but also decreases voter turnout and challengers’ votes, as well as erodes partisan attachments. Our results suggest that while information clearly is necessary to improve accountability, corruption information is not necessarily suficient, since voters may respond to it by withdrawing from the political process.

Surely, transparency remains an essential – although quite insufficient – ingredient of accountability. On the trust issue, one could easily think of a number of scenarios in which it is actually better that citizens do not trust their governments. In fact, systems of checks and balances and oversight institutions are not specifically conceived under the logic of trust. Quite on the contrary, such institutional designs assume some level of suspicion vis-à-vis governments: as put in the Federalist Paper No. 51, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Granted, in some cases a perfect world in which citizens trust their governments may well be desirable. It may even be that transparency leads – in the long run – to increased trust: a great way to sell transparency to governments. But if we want to walk the talk of evidence-based policymaking, we may consider dropping the trust rhetoric. At least for now.

Italian Politics 2.0: The Multifaceted Effect of the Internet on Political Participation

We investigate the impact of the diffusion of high-speed Internet on different forms of political participation, using data from Italy. We exploit differences in the availability of ADSL broadband technology across municipalities, using the exogenous variation induced by the fact that the cost of providing ADSL-based Internet services in a given municipality depends on its relative position in the pre-existing voice telecommunications infrastructure. We first show that broadband Internet had a substantial negative effect on turnout in parliamentary elections between 1996 and 2008. However, we also find that it was positively associated with other forms of political participation, both online and offline: the emergence of local online grassroots protest movements, and turnout in national referenda (largely opposed by mainstream parties). We then show that the negative effect of Internet on turnout in parliamentary elections is essentially reversed after 2008, when the local grassroots movements coalesce into the Five-Star Movement (M5S) electoral list. Our findings are consistent with the view that: 1) The effect of Internet availability on political participation changes across different forms of engagement; 2) It also changes over time, as new political actors emerge who can take advantage of the new technology to tap into the existence of a disenchanted or demobilized contingent of voters; and 3) These new forms of mobilization eventually feed back into the mainstream electoral process, converting “exit” back into “voice”.

Read full paper here [PDF].

How effective are whistleblower laws in combating corruption?

A new discussion paper by Rajeev Goel and Michael Nelson looks at the effectiveness of US whistleblower laws in combating corruption. The abstract is below:

Whistleblower laws are becoming important governance tools in both the public and private sectors. To examine the effectiveness of whistleblower laws and their awareness, this study creates a unique internet-based measure of awareness about whistleblower laws and provisions, focusing on the United States. Placing the analysis within the larger corruption literature, our results show that greater whistleblower awareness results in more observed corruption and this holds across specifications. Internet awareness of whistleblower laws appears to be more effective at exposing corruption than the quantity and quality of whistleblower laws themselves.

And a few excerpts from the conclusion, which highlights the role of the internet:

Couching the empirical analysis within the extant literature on the causes of corruption, our results show that greater internet awareness about whistleblower laws results in more corruption coming to light and being successfully prosecuted. In terms of magnitude, an increase in whistleblower hits by one sample standard deviation would increase average corruption convictions per million population by nearly thirty over a decade-long period. Interestingly, the internet awareness about corruption seems relatively more effective at exposing corruption than the quantity and quality of whistleblower laws themselves. Further, the direct government resources allocated to controlling crime and the indirect efforts via whistleblower awareness are found to be complementary. These findings are generally robust to alternate specifications, including an allowance for potential endogeneity of whistleblower awareness, and to broader measures of internet whistleblower awareness. (…)

The results for the United States in terms of the effectiveness of whistleblower laws in exposing corruption should be of interest to policy makers everywhere, especially in other nations that do not have adequate protections for whistleblowers. As internet diffusion grows and the digital divide narrows, it would be interesting to see a further impact of whistleblower awareness and, more generally, of the internet.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

12 Papers on Social Media and Political Participation

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I just came across the website of the Social Media and Political Participation conference, which took place in Florence this May.

Below is the presentation by Henry Farrel (from the Monkey Cage) on Cognitive Democracy and the Internet, followed by links to the papers.

Cognitive Democracy and the Internet Henry Farrell, George Washington University

Politics 2.0: The Multifaceted Effect of Broadband Internet on Political Participation Francesco Sobbrio, European University Institute

Birds of the Same Feather Tweet Together: Bayesian Ideal Point Estimation Using Twitter Data Pablo Barbera, New York University

Politicians Go Social. Estimating Intra-Party Heterogeneity (and its Effects) through the Analysis of Social Media Andrea Ceron, University of Milan

Connective Action in European Mass Protest  Eva Anduiza, Autonomous University of Barcelona

The Bridges and Brokers of Global Campaigns in the Context of Social Media Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, Oxford Internet Institute

Every Tweet Counts? How Sentiment Analysis of Social Media Can Improve our Knowledge of Citizens’ Policy Preferences: An Application to Italy and France Stefano Iacus, University of Milan

The Rise and Decline of the “Occupy Wall Street” Movement from a Digital Perspective Alessandro Flammini, University of Indiana

Is the Internet Good or Bad for Politics? Yes. Let’s talk about How and Why Zeynep Tufekci, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Follow the leader! Dynamics and Patterns of Activity among the Followers of the Main Italian Political Leaders during the 2013 General Election Campaign Cristian Vaccari, New York University and University of Bologna

Social Networks, Peer Pressure and Protest Participation Alexey Makarin, New Economic School, Moscow

Mobilizing Online Data to Understand Offline Mobilization: Two Attempts at Online Observational Research in Russia   Sam Greene, King’s College London

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].