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.

World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends

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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.

For those interested in citizen participation and civic tech, one of the papers written by Prof. Jonathan Fox and myself – When Does ICT-Enabled Citizen Voice Lead to Government Responsiveness? – might be of particular interest. Below is the abstract:

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.

You can download the paper here.

Any feedback on our paper or models proposed (see below, for instance) would be extremely welcome.


unpacking user feedback and civic action: difference and overlap

I also list below the links to all the background papers and their titles

Enjoy the reading.

Social Media and Regime Change in Egypt and Syria

In the middle of a deluge of opinions about the role of social media in the recent arab uprisings, here’s an interesting new paper by Florian Fischer, from the Center for Global Politics.


By testing the model of information cascades through the analysis of the recent political uprisings in Egypt and Syria, this study aims not only at enhancing our knowledge of the model and its possible application(s), but also hopes to specifically shed light on how concise its adoption by Shirky is with regard to social media. At the same time, it may contribute to our understanding of the recent political developments in the Middle East. It is important to mention at this point, that this paper does not aim at a general explanation of the occurrence of political protest in Egypt or Syria. While factors such as economic performance and resource distribution, rising (food) prices, demographic changes in combination with (the lack of) educational and economic opportunities, as well as sectarian divisions can be considered as possibly having contributed to the occurrence and development of political protest in Egypt and Syria respectively, they will not be discussed in detail here due to the scope and focus of this study. Within the broad framework of collective action theory, this paper solely focuses on how political protests might be regarded as information cascades (as understood by Lohmann) and the impact social media might have on these (as proposed by Shirky).

And some of the findings (highlights are mine)

The findings of this study, limited as they may be, suggest that the number of protests before an uprising, i.e. the protest history, has a greater relevance for the success of an uprising to effect regime change than the degree of social media use. Within the research design proposed and the two cases chosen, there was a strong positive correlation between the independent variable “number of previous protests” (IV-1) and the dependent variable “effected regime change”. This outcome thus supports our first hypothesis that the preceding protest history of a country can be a correlating factor with regard to the success of ongoing protests in effecting regime change, and this correlation is positive in its nature, i.e. that the more political protest was manifested before a given moment, the more probable the success of subsequent political protests to effect regime change is.


The correlation between our dependent variable and the independent variable “the degree of social media use” (IV-2) was much less obvious, albeit positive. Although the index used to assess social media use showed a higher value for Egypt, our case with a regime change, than for Syria, the difference in value points is marginal. It is difficult to draw any significant conclusion from this result with regard to the impact of social media on protests and their success in effecting regime change. Thus, the second hypothesis proposed, i.e. that the more social media tools are used in a given regime, the more successful political protests can be in effecting regime change, could not be strongly confirmed by our findings.

You can read the full paper here. 

Cyberactivism through Social Media: Twitter, YouTube, and the Mexican Political Movement “I’m Number 132”

By Sandoval-Almazan & Gil-Garcia (2012)

Social media is increasingly important for political and social activism in Mexico. In particular, Twitter has played a significant role in influencing government decision making and shaping the relationships between governments, citizens, politicians, and other stakeholders. Within the last few months, some commentators even argue that Mexican politics has a new influential actor: “I’m Number 132” (a studentbased social movement using Twitter and YouTube). After the Arab Spring and the uprisings that have led to significant political changes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran, the Mexican case could provide new insights to understand these social movements. Understanding the students’ political mobilization “I’m Number 132” in the context of the 2012 presidential election in Mexico, and how they have been using social media tools to communicate their concerns and organize protests across the country, could help us to explain why and how these social meda-enabled political movements emerge and evolve.

Download the full paper here [PDF].