New Papers Published: FixMyStreet and the World’s Largest Participatory Budgeting


Voting in Rio Grande do Sul’s Participatory Budgeting  (picture by Anderson Lopes)

Here are two new published papers that my colleagues Jon Mellon, Fredrik Sjoberg and myself have been working on.

The first, The Effect of Bureaucratic Responsiveness on Citizen Participation, published in Public Administration Review, is – to our knowledge – the first study to quantitatively assess at the individual level the often-assumed effect of government responsiveness on citizen engagement. It also describes an example of how the data provided through digital platforms may be leveraged to better understand participatory behavior. This is the fruit of a research collaboration with MySociety, to whom we are extremely thankful.

Below is the abstract:

What effect does bureaucratic responsiveness have on citizen participation? Since the 1940s, attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy have been used to explain participation. The authors develop a “calculus of participation” that incorporates objective efficacy—the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact—and test the model against behavioral data from the online application Fix My Street (n = 399,364). A successful first experience using Fix My Street is associated with a 57 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report, and the experience of bureaucratic responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.

An earlier, ungated version of the paper can be found here.

The second paper, Does Online Voting Change the Outcome? Evidence from a Multi-mode Public Policy Referendum, has just been published in Electoral Studies. In an earlier JITP paper (ungated here) looking at Rio Grande do Sul State’s Participatory Budgeting – the world’s largest – we show that, when compared to offline voting, online voting tends to attract participants who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users. Yet, one question remained: does the inclusion of new participants in the process with a different profile change the outcomes of the process (i.e. which projects are selected)? Below is the abstract of the paper.

Do online and offline voters differ in terms of policy preferences? The growth of Internet voting in recent years has opened up new channels of participation. Whether or not political outcomes change as a consequence of new modes of voting is an open question. Here we analyze all the votes cast both offline (n = 5.7 million) and online (n = 1.3 million) and compare the actual vote choices in a public policy referendum, the world’s largest participatory budgeting process, in Rio Grande do Sul in June 2014. In addition to examining aggregate outcomes, we also conducted two surveys to better understand the demographic profiles of who chooses to vote online and offline. We find that policy preferences of online and offline voters are no different, even though our data suggest important demographic differences between offline and online voters.

The extent to which these findings are transferable to other PB processes that combine online and offline voting remains an empirical question. In the meantime, nonetheless, these findings suggest a more nuanced view of the potential effects of digital channels as a supplementary means of engagement in participatory processes. I hope to share an ungated version of the paper in the coming days.

DemocracySpot’s Most Read Posts in 2014

Glasses for reading (1936) – Nationaal Archief

(I should have posted this on the 31st, but better late than never)

Below are some of the most read posts in 2014. While I’m at it, I’ll take the opportunity to explain the reduced number of posts in the last few months. Since mid-2014 I have been working with a small team of political and data scientists on a number of research questions at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement (I presented a few preliminary findings here). Following the period of field work, data collection and experiments, we have now started the drafting and peer-review stage of our research. This has been an extremely time-consuming process, which has taken up most of my weekends, when I generally write for this blog.

Still, one of my new year’s resolutions is precisely to better discipline myself to post more regularly. And I am hopeful that the publication of our upcoming research will make up for the recent reduction in posts. We will start to disseminate our results soon, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s a selection of the five most read posts in 2014.

The Problem with Theory of Change

Technology and Citizen Engagement: Friend or Foe? 

A Brilliant Story of Participation, Technology and Development Outcomes

When Citizen Engagement Saves Lives (and what we can learn from it) 

Social Accountability: What Does the Evidence Really Say?

Who Participates in Africa? Dispelling the Myth

picture by Britanny Danisch on flickr.

Whenever discussing participation in Africa (as well as in other developing contexts) the issue of “who participates” often emerges. A constant in these conversations is an assumption that participation in the continent is strongly driven by material and immaterial resources (e.g. money, time). In other words, there seems to be a widespread belief, particularly among development practitioners,  that the most privileged sectors of society are disproportionately more likely to participate than the least well-off.

In part, such an assumption is empirically grounded. Since the early 70s,  studies have shown inequality in political participation, with the most advantaged groups being disproportionately more likely to participate. Considering that policy preferences between groups differ, unequal participation leads to the troubling possibility that public policy is skewed towards favoring the better off, thus further deepening societal differences and access to public goods and services.

However, often ignored is the fact that most of these studies refer to  participation in traditional western democracies, notably the United States and European countries. But do these results hold true when it comes to participation in Africa? This is the question that Ann-Sofie Isaksson (University of Gothenburg) tackles in a paper published in Electoral Studies “Political participation in Africa: The role of individual resources”.

By looking at an Afrobarometer dataset of 27,000 respondents across 20 African countries, Isaksson’s findings challenge the standard thinking on the relationship between resources and participation:

(…) it seems the resource perspective does a poor job at explaining African political participation. If a resource is relevant for meeting the costs of participating, more of that resource should mean more participation. If anything, however, the estimations suggest that having little time (i.e. working full-time) and little money (i.e. being poorer) is associated with more participation.

Isaksson’s analysis is not confined to participation in elections, also examining non-electoral participation, i.e. attending community meetings. With regard to the latter only, there are modest effects associated with exposure to information  (e.g. radio, TV, newspapers) and education. Yet, as the author notes, “the result that community attendance is higher among the poor remains”.

To conclude, as underlined by Isaksson in her paper, she is not alone in terms of findings, with other studies looking at Asia and Latin America pointing in a similar direction, slowly dispelling the myth of the role of resources for participation in developing countries. Development practitioners should start to take note of these encouraging facts.


P.s.: An earlier ungated version of the paper can be found here [PDF].

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

Rethinking Why People Participate

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 9.08.46 PM

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.

This is why I was particularly interested in an article from a recently published book, The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy (Princeton). Entitled “Rethinking Why People Vote: Voting as Dynamic Social Expression”, the article is written by Todd Rogers, Craig Fox and Alan Berger. Taking a behavioralist stance, the authors start by questioning the usefulness of the rationalist models in explaining voting behavior:

“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.

What Can Genetics Tell Us About Participation?

For a while now there’s been some literature looking at the extent to which genetic traits might be linked to patterns of political participation, with some studies suggesting that genes might even play a role in which party one votes for. Here’s a great contribution to this literature, looking at the extent to which psychological traits – cognitive ability, personal control, and extraversion – mediate the relationship between genes and participatory behavior. As well as the findings, the paper also presents an excellent overview of the literature at the intersection of genetics and political participation. Below are a few excerpts from the paper (forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science).

Motivated by earlier research showing a genetic basis for political attitudes (Martin et al. 1986, Alford, Funk & Hibbing 2005), researchers recently discovered that political behaviors like voter turnout and other acts of political participation are also influenced by genetic variation (Fowler,Baker & Dawes 2008). These findings raise the question of how genes and political participation are linked. Mondak (2010) suggested that personality traits may intermediate the relationship between genes and political participation, a conjecture that is potentially supported by recent scholarship demonstrating a relationship between personality traits and political participation (Gerber et al. 2011, Mondak et al. 2010, Mondak 2010, Blais & St-Vincent 2011, Vecchione & Caprara 2009, Mondak & Halperin 2008, Denny & Doyle 2008, Gallego & Oberski 2012). However, an empirical link between genes, personality traits, and political participation has yet to be established. This article seeks to explore the relationship between all three using a uniquely assembled and comprehensive genetically informative dataset with information on personality, cognitive ability and a wide range of political attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. We focus on three potential intermediate psychological traits identified by the literature: cognitive ability, personal control, and extraversion.


To preview our results, we demonstrate that both acts of participation and related political predispositions share a common source of genetic variation with psychological traits. However, the three psychological traits we study account for only a modest amount of the heritable variation in political participation and predispositions. If psychological traits are in fact mediators, as has been hypothesized by other scholars (Mondak et al. 2010, Mondak 2010), a majority of the heritable variation in political participation and predispositions is likely mediated by traits other than cognitive ability, personal control, and extraversion. Finally, we attempt to test the nature of the relationship between genes, psychological traits, and political participation using a Direction of Causation model (Heath et al. 1993, Duy & Martin 1994).

You can read the full paper “Genes, Psychological Traits, and Participation” here [PDF].