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.

Democracy, Redistribution and Equality

Via ABCDemocracy I came across this great article in the Brazilian Political Science Review by Adam Przeworski, one of the most important political scientists in the field of democracy and political economy. Here is the abstract of Przeworski’s paper Democracy, Redistribution and Equality: 

The article argues that economic inequality inevitably generates political inequality, which in turn reproduces economic inequality. Basic concepts are introduced first along with strong caveats concerning the quality of the cross- national data on income distributions; historical patterns of income inequality are summarized next, and with these preliminaries, a distinction is made between redistribution of consumption at a particular time and equalization of income earning capacities over time. Following this economic considerations, the article discussion moves to political factors that may block redistributions.

And for those working in the field of open government, money and politics; here are some interesting thoughts:

The impact of money on politics cannot be reduced to “corruption.” True, corruption scandals abound: suitcases filled in cash are found in the prime minister’s office, government contracts are awarded to firms co-owned by government ministers, public officials exit politics to cushy jobs in private companies they favored, insider trades are rampant, political parties are found to have bank accounts in Switzerland, local governments operate systematic bribe schedules on contractors, the list goes on and on. Moreover, such scandals are by no means limited to less developed countries or to young democracies: these examples are drawn from Germany, Spain, France, Italy, United States, and Belgium. But reducing the political role of money to instances of “corruption” is deeply misleading. Conceptualized as “corruption,” the influence of money becomes something anomalous, out-of-ordinary. We are told that when special interests bribe legislators or bureaucrats, democracy is corrupted. And then nothing needs to be said when special interests make legal political contributions. In order to exist and to participate in elections, political parties need money. Because election results matter for the private interests, they understandably seek to befriend parties and influence results of elections. The logic of political competition is inexorable. That the same acts are legal in some countries and illegal in other systems – some U.S. political financing practices would constitute corruption in several democracies – is in the end of secondary importance. The influence of money on politics is a structural feature of democracy in economically unequal societies.


The relation between money and politics can be to some extent mitigated so that the impact of economic inequality on political inequality varies across countries. Various regulatory schemes have been proposed and various are in use but we have no systematic knowledge of their effects. Perhaps instead of legal regulation, more effective are mechanisms by which poor people can pool their resources in order to counterbalance the influence of the rich. Unions provided this mechanism in the past and still do in some countries: income inequality is lower in countries which continue to have encompassing unions (Scheve and Stasavage 2009)22 Non-governmental organizations now play some of this role and, as the 2008 Obama campaign has shown, perhaps the internet will provide an alternative mechanism. But perfect political equality is impossible in economically unequal societies. Something is wrong when a plurality of citizens in a democracy answer the question about which institutions have most power in their country with “banks.23 Perhaps the most plausible explanation of the persistence of inequality is the feedback from political to economic inequality. High economic inequality generates high political inequality, disproportionate political influence of the rich perpetuates the inequality.

Definitely worth reading.