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.
In a dialogue with his disciple Tsze-kung, Confucius advises that a government needs three things: weapons, food, and trust. And if a ruler cannot maintain the three of them, he should give up the weapons first and the food next.
Fast forward over two thousand years, and trust in government remains a hot topic. After all, rule of law and democratic institutions clearly require some minimal consent and trust in government. And, to varying degrees, the success of most public policies and programs, from paying taxes to recycling, depends on citizens’ compliance and cooperation.
Trust in government has also generated increased interest during the pandemic. For example, in an article for The Atlantic, Francis Fukuyama described trust in government as the most important predictor of a government’s capacity to respond to the ongoing health crisis. His argument is intuitive: particularly during times of crisis, discretionary authority needs to be delegated to executive branches, as “no set of preexisting laws or rules can ever anticipate all of the novel and rapidly changing situations that countries will face”. In that context, so goes the argument, “citizens have to believe that the executive knows what it is doing.” Fukuyama’s take on the importance of trust during the pandemic resonates with evidence from previous health crises and, not surprisingly, scholarly interest in the subject has soared since the outbreak. Confucius’ argument still resonates.
Equally interesting, however, has been the emergence of a public debate that also asks whether, in some cases, trust in government may be unwarranted. For instance, reporting on the health situation in Lebanon, a Washington Post article highlighted that “paradoxically, distrust of the notoriously dysfunctional government may have helped.” In a similar vein, The Economist argued that, during an epidemic, trust can be a “double-edged sword”. The behavior of many political leaders in downplaying the seriousness of the crisis has also illustrated how, in certain cases, distrusting the government is the healthiest option available.
These insights run counter to the conventional wisdom, which tends to consider trust in government as a good in itself. For instance, a frequent selling point for open government reforms is the (often misleading) claim that transparency will lead to increased trust in government. But it shouldn’t take a pandemic to realize that trust in government can also be overrated. Checks and balances, foundational to the modern state, were built upon the premise of distrust. For Montesquieu, the separation of powers was necessary to avoid exposing citizens to “arbitrary control.” David Hume cautioned that when designing government systems, “every man ought to be supposed a knave.” And, for Madison, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
But if there are good reasons to trust in government, as well as good reasons not to, when is trust more or less appropriate? This is certainly a complex question, and the purpose of this post is by no means to provide a definitive answer. Instead, it aims to put forward a very simple (and perhaps simplistic) framework to start thinking about the imponderable problem of trust in government according to its context.
To understand the proposed framework, we can start with the following premise:
All else equal, individuals’ trust in their government should be expected to be proportional to the trustworthiness of that government.
This premise, I believe, is uncontroversial. As put by philosopher Onora O’Neill, trust is valuable only “when placed in trustworthy agents and activities, but damaging or costly when (mis)placed in untrustworthy agents and activities.”
But how do we define trustworthiness? Any attempt is bound to generate contestations, as has been the case for the definition of trust in government. For the purpose of this exercise, I borrow a definition from Margaret Levi, a prominent scholar on the subject, who considers a government to be worthy of citizens’ trust when it
(…) keeps its promises (or has exceptionally good reasons why it fails to), is relatively fair in its decision-making and enforcement processes, and delivers goods and services.
With this definition in mind, and the premise put forward earlier, the more a government keeps its promises, is fair, and delivers goods and services, the more citizens should trust that government, and vice-versa. If we depict the relationships between levels of trust and trustworthiness in a matrix, an interesting perspective emerges, as shown below:
Figure 1: Trust Matrix
In the top right and lower left (quadrants 2 and 3), we have scenarios of consistency, where citizens’ level of trust in governments corresponds to the level of government trustworthiness. In quadrant 2 we have scenarios of constructive consistency, characterized by a virtuous cycle where high trust leads to higher trustworthiness and vice-versa. In these scenarios citizens are, for instance, more willing to cooperate with government policies (e.g. taxation, vaccination), thereby enhancing governmental capacity to respond to public needs (e.g. public investments, disease control). Quadrant 3 represents scenarios of disruptive consistency, with disruptive meaning a context that can lead to both negative and positive developments. On the one hand, it may engender a vicious and destructive cycle whereby the government’s poor performance leads to less trust, further reducing the likelihood that governments are able to perform. On the other hand, it may lead to a process of creative destruction. After all, distrust of authorities often sparks democratic progress. In this respect, a context of disruptive consistency may open spaces of contestation and competition (e.g. through elections), generating incentives for political actors to perform better.
Quadrants 1 and 4 reflect scenarios of inconsistency, where the level of trust in government does not correspond to a government’s trustworthiness. In the cynical quadrant, despite government trustworthiness, citizens still show low levels of trust towards their government. Such a scenario is not free from implications: governmental policies may have disproportionately higher implementation costs, given that the public is less likely to comply and cooperate with these policies. In quadrant 4, (credulous), citizens trust their governments even though they are not deserving of that trust. In this scenario, untrustworthy governments have little incentive to change their behavior (e.g. delivering public goods and services), given that their citizens already trust them and do not present any threat to the status quo. This becomes a low-accountability trap, with citizens unlikely to engage to keep office-holders accountable for their actions in the public realm.
What does this all look like in practice? Into which quadrants do countries fall? While measuring trustworthiness goes beyond the scope of this post (more on that below), we can map it against existing indicators linked to trustworthiness, such as the Government Effectiveness Index, which captures, among other things, quality of public services, quality of civil service and governments’ commitments to their policies.
Figure 2. All over the map: the relationship between trust and government effectiveness
Source: author’s own based on Government Effectiveness Index (2020) and World Economic Forum Executive Survey (2018)
As the figure above illustrates, the 135 countries covered by the dataset fall into all four quadrants. Trust in government, as it turns out, is not consistently aligned with dimensions of government trustworthiness. Yet two-thirds of the countries (89) fall into the dark green consistent scenarios, indicating that in most countries, the level of trust in government is commensurate with the level of trustworthiness. This calls into question narratives that typically suggest a widespread crisis of trust in governments. Increased trust in government in this majority of countries would result in shifts towards situations of credulity: arguably the worst-case scenario, and a boon for women and men in power to behave more as knaves than angels. More importantly, the figure shows that increased trust in government emerges as a clearly desirable goal in just one of the four scenarios of the trust matrix (cynical, upper-left), where only 29 of 135 countries currently find themselves, including Argentina, Poland and South Korea.
Even if this framework may be reductionist, I believe it could still be useful for several reasons, a few of which I would like to highlight. First, the matrix gives us an indication of where trust in government may need to be increased or decreased. If one knows how to increase trust in government (and that’s a bold assumption), the framework provides some guidance on where it would make sense to start.
Second, these scenarios may help us better hypothesize which types of policy reforms would be desirable to pursue. For instance, in the scenario of credulous inconsistency (lower-right), the desirable outcome is that citizens become less credulous of their government and replace it through the ballots (in the case of a democracy), or dissent (in the case of an authoritarian regime). In these cases, potential activities could be efforts that i) increase transparency of government’s poor performance (to reduce trust), and ii) facilitate individual and collective action (to sanction poor performance). If these assumptions hold true in practice and at scale, and whether they can be voluntarily induced, remains an empirical question.
Finally, by adding trustworthiness as a variable, we expand our focus beyond “the eyes of the [governed] beholder” to a relational dimension in which governmental actions play an important role. By doing so, we also become more wary of hasty assumptions such as “transparency leads to trust”, where low trust in government is perceived more as a function of the opacity of a government’s behavior, rather than of its behavior. Which brings me to my next point.
Pathways towards consistency
If we consider that individuals’ trust in their government should be proportional to the trustworthiness of that government, we should contemplate the factors contributing to such consistency. Two are particularly noteworthy here: education and transparency.
As highlighted by Armen Hakhverdian and Quinton Mayne, citizens with a higher level of education are more likely to i) identify practices that negatively affect the functioning of government institutions, and ii) be normatively troubled by these practices. For example, the authors show that education is negatively related to institutional trust in corrupt societies and positively related to institutional trust in clean societies. If we consider that integrity is a property of trustworthy governments, education acts as a force creating consistency and moving away from cynical or credulous inconsistency.
But how do citizens identify, in the first place, the government practices that affect the functioning of institutions? One way is through personal experience: for instance, when citizens are either victims or witnesses of abuse by state agents (e.g. bribery requests, police violence). However, the most important way in which citizens identify these practices is through publicly available information on governmental actions. This brings me to the issue of transparency: its instrumental value is not whether it leads to more trust in government, as is often advocated. Rather, its value lies in its capacity to help individuals calibrate their trust vis-à-vis their governments, either towards more, or less, trust.
Final notes: measurements and definitions
One practical issue when it comes to trust in government is the availability of data. The most recent World Values Survey (WVS) has data on trust in government institutions for only 50 countries, the Gallup Poll for 43 countries, and the widely publicized Edelman Trust Barometer Survey covers no more than 28 countries. And by any count, there are at least 193 countries in the world. While claims about a global crisis of trust abound, global data about trust in government is less abundant.
And which data one uses also matters, as illustrated below. For instance, when using data from the WVS, the countries falling under each quadrant differ from the results presented earlier (from the World Economic Forum’s Executive Survey). In short, different surveys will offer different results, each of them with their own shortcomings in terms of sample size, accuracy, or both. In short, claims about trust in government, particularly at the global level, should be made carefully. Bearing these considerations in mind, the analytical framework put forward remains useful. Whichever indicator of trust one finds more appropriate to use, the framework still helps highlight in which cases trust in government is consistent or not with measures of government trustworthiness. In a passage of his most recent book, Ethan Zuckerman refers to “a sweet spot between too much trust and too little.” This framework, I believe, provides clues on where that spot may be.
Figure 3: Government Effectiveness vs Trust in Government (WVS survey)
Source: author’s own based on Government Effectiveness Index (2020) and World Values Survey (Wave 7)
A final note regarding the definition of trustworthiness is important. Levi’s definition certainly covers most of the characteristics that one would attribute to a trustworthy government, such as keeping promises, fairness in decision-making and enforcement, and delivery of goods and services. But as Levi highlights, the relative fairness of processes involves “the norms of place and time,” which makes fairness a concept that is contextual and of an evolving nature. This adds layers of complexity and raises some interesting questions, two of which I would like to highlight here.
The first regards the procedural and substantive dimensions of fairness and trustworthiness. In recent decades, many high-income democracies have performed well in procedural terms, with free and fair elections and laws that are mostly clear, stable, and equally enforced. From a procedural angle, these governments are worthy of trust. Nevertheless, on substantive grounds, one could contend that the opposite is also true. Take, for example, the overwhelming evidence that in these same democracies, government responsiveness has been systematically biased towards the needs of the better-off. Add to that growing inequality and a shrinking provision of public goods and services, and it becomes difficult to advocate for trustworthiness calculations based solely on procedural attributes.
As a side note, precisely because of the factors described above, one could say that part of the political polarization we see within countries today can be attributed to a growing divide between segments of the population that favor either procedural or substantive aspects of trustworthiness. For instance, some segments may privilege fair elections, while others attach more importance to substantive matters, such as bridging the gap between the rich and poor. Going back to the proposed trust matrix, the question then becomes whether trustworthiness should be assessed on procedural or substantive grounds and, if the answer is “both”, how to conciliate them. While answering this question brings its own normative and methodological challenges, evading it may fail to capture nuances that underpin the relationship between trust in government and government trustworthiness.
The second question is much simpler, albeit one with procedural and substantive consequences. Shouldn’t a government’s trustworthiness also be measured by the extent to which it offers participatory avenues for citizens to express themselves, beyond regular elections? After all, considering that trust is a two-way street, if governments expect to be trusted, shouldn’t they also trust citizens to shape decisions that affect their lives?
P.S.: I’m thankful for comments on earlier versions of this text from Amy Chamberlain, Jonathan Fox, Quinton Mayne, Jon Mellon, Hollie Russon Gilman, Paolo Spada and Tom Steinberg.
 On claims of a global crisis of trust see, for instance, here, here and here.
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 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.
A little while ago I mentioned the launch of the Portuguese version of the book organized by Nelson Dias, “Hope for Democracy: 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting Worldwide”.
The good news is that the English version is finally out. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
This book represents the effort of more than forty authors and many other direct and indirect contributions that spread across different continents seek to provide an overview on the Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the World. They do so from different backgrounds. Some are researchers, others are consultants, and others are activists connected to several groups and social movements. The texts reflect this diversity of approaches and perspectives well, and we do not try to influence that.
The pages that follow are an invitation to a fascinating journey on the path of democratic innovation in very diverse cultural, political, social and administrative settings. From North America to Asia, Oceania to Europe, from Latin America to Africa, the reader will find many reasons to closely follow the proposals of the different authors.
While my perception may be biased, I believe this book will be a major contribution for researchers and practitioners in the field of participatory budgeting and citizen engagement in general. Congratulations to Nelson Dias and all the others who contributed their time and energy.
“A Review of the Evidence on Open Budgeting” is a recent report by the World Bank Institute’sCapacity Development and Results team. It explores key questions and existing evidence around the impact of open budgeting. Despite the growing body of literature, there remains limited substantiation for whether and how open budgeting contributes to reductions in poverty and improvements in the lives of the poor. This report pieces together the results chain presenting evidence for and against from the literature. It explores links between open budgeting and indicators of impact such as human development and public service delivery. The findings highlight the importance of measuring budget transparency, accountability, and participation. The findings show that the impact of institutional changes differ under varying conditions in specific contexts. The conclusions of the report point to the need for further investigation into impact and establishing effective measurement practices for monitoring related institutional change under varying conditions and different contexts.”
[This is a cross-post from Sunlight Foundation’s series OpenGov Conversations, an ongoing discourse featuring contributions from transparency and accountability researchers and practitioners around the world.]
As asserted by Jeremy Bentham nearly two centuries ago, “[I]n the same proportion as it is desirable for the governed to know the conduct of their governors, is it also important for the governors to know the real wishes of the governed.” Although Bentham’s historical call may come across as obvious to some, it highlights one of the major shortcomings of the current open government movement: while a strong focus is given to mechanisms to let the governed know the conduct of their governors (i.e. transparency), less attention is given to the means by which the governed can express their wishes (i.e. citizen engagement).
But striking a balance between transparency and participation is particularly important if transparency is conceived as a means for accountability. To clarify, let us consider the role transparency (and data) plays in a simplified accountability cycle. As any accountability mechanism built on disclosure principles, it should require a minimal chain of events that can be summarized in the following manner: (1) Data is published; (2) The data published reaches its intended public; (3) Members of the public are able to process the data and react to it; and (4) Public officials respond to the public’s reaction or are sanctioned by the public through institutional means. This simplified path toward accountability highlights the limits of the disclosure of information. Even in the most simplified model of accountability, while essential, the disclosure of data accounts for no more than one-fourth of the accountability process. [Note 1 – see below]
But what are the conditions required to close the accountability cycle? First, once the data is disclosed (1), in order for it to reach its intended public (2), a minimal condition is the presence of info-mediators that can process open data in a minimally enabling environment (e.g. free and pluralistic media). Considering these factors are present, we are still only half way towards accountability. Nevertheless, the remaining steps (3 and 4) cannot be achieved in the absence of citizen engagement, notably electoral and participatory processes.
With regard to elections as a means for accountability, citizens may periodically choose to reward or sanction elected officials based on the information that they have received and processed. While this may seem a minor requisite for developed democracies like the US, the problem gains importance for a number of countries where open data platforms have launched but where elections are still a work in progress (in such cases, some research suggests that transparency may even backfire).
But, even if elections are in place, alone they might not suffice. The Brazilian case is illustrative and highlights the limits of representative systems as a means to create sustained interface between governments and citizens. Despite two decades of electoral democracy and unprecedented economic prosperity in the country, citizens suddenly went to the streets to demand an end to corruption, improvement in public services and… increased participation. Politicians, themselves, came to the quick realization that elections are not enough, as recently underlined by former Brazilian President Lula in an op ed at the New York Times “(….) people do not simply wish to vote every four years. They want daily interaction with governments both local and national, and to take part in defining public policies, offering opinions on the decisions that affect them each day.” If transparency and electoral democracy are not enough, citizen engagement remains as the missing link for open and inclusive governments.
Open Data And Citizen Engagement
Within an ecosystem that combines transparency and participation, examining the relationship between the two becomes essential. More specifically, a clearer understanding of the interaction between open data and participatory institutions remains a frontier to be explored. In the following paragraphs I put forward two issues, of many, that I believe should be considered when examining this interaction.
I) Behavior and causal chains
Evan Lieberman and his colleagues conducted an experiment in Kenya that provided parents with information about their children’s schools and how to improve their children’s learning. Nevertheless, to the disillusionment of many, despite efforts to provide parents with access to information, the intervention had no impact on parents’ behavior. Following this rather disappointing finding, the authors proceeded to articulating a causal chain that explores the link between access to information and behavioral change.
The Information-Citizen Action Causal Chain (Lieberman et al. 2013)
While the model put forward by the authors is not perfect, it is a great starting point and it does call attention to the dire need for a clear understanding of the ensemble of mechanisms and factors acting between access to data and citizen action.
II) Embeddedness in participatory arrangements
Another issue that might be worth examination relates to the extent to which open data is purposefully connected to participatory institutions or not. In this respect, much like the notion of targeted transparency, a possible hypothesis would be that open data is fully effective for accountability purposes only when the information produced becomes “embedded” in participatory processes.
This notion of “embeddedness” would call for hard thinking on how different participatory processes can most benefit from open data and its applications (e.g. visualizations, analysis). For example, the use of open data to inform a referendum process is potentially a very different type of use than within participatory budgeting process. Stemming from this reasoning, open data efforts should be increasingly customized to different existing participatory processes, hence increasing their embeddedness in these processes. This would be the case, for instance, when budget data visualization solutions are tailored to inform participatory budgeting meetings, thus creating a clear link between the consumption of that data and the decision-making process that follows.
Granted, information is per se an essential component of good participatory processes, and one can take a more or less intuitive view on which types of information are more suitable for one process or another. However, a more refined knowledge of how to maximize the impact of data in participatory processes is far from achieved and much more work is needed.
R&D For Data-Driven Participation
Coming up with clear hypotheses and testing them is essential if we are to move forward with the ecosystem that brings together open data, participation and accountability. Surely, many organizations working in the open government space are operating with limited resources, squeezing their budgets to keep their operational work going. In this sense, conducting experiments to test hypotheses may appear as a luxury that very few can afford.
Nevertheless, one of the opportunities provided by the use of technologies for civic behavior is that of potentially driving down the costs for experimentation. For instance, online and mobile experiments could play the role of tech-enabled (and affordable) randomized controlled trials, improving our understanding of how open data can be best used to spur collective action. Thinking of the ways in which technology can be used to conduct lowered costs experiments to shed light on behavioral and causal chains is still limited to a small number of people and organizations, and much work is needed on that front.
Yet, it is also important to acknowledge that experiments are not the only source of relevant knowledge. To stick with a simple example, in some cases even an online survey trying to figure out who is accessing data, what data they use, and how they use it may provide us with valuable knowledge about the interaction between open data and citizen action. In any case, however, it may be important that the actors working in that space agree upon a minimal framework that facilitates comparison and incremental learning: the field of technology for accountability desperately needs a more coordinated research agenda.
Citizen Data Platforms?
As more and more players engage in participatory initiatives, there is a significant amount of citizen-generated data being collected, which is important on its own. However, in a similar vein to government data, the potential of citizen data may be further unlocked if openly available to third parties who can learn from it and build upon it. In this respect, it might not be long before we realize the need to have adequate structures and platforms to host this wealth of data that – hopefully – will be increasingly generated around the world. This would entail that not only governments open up their data related to citizen engagement initiatives, but also that other actors working in that field – such as donors and NGOs – do the same. Such structures would also be the means by which lessons generated by experiments and other approaches are widely shared, bringing cumulative knowledge to the field.
However, as we think of future scenarios, we should not lose sight of current challenges and knowledge gaps when it comes to the relationship between citizen engagement and open data. Better disentangling the relationship between the two is the most immediate priority, and a long overdue topic in the open government conversation.
Note 2: And some evidence seems to confirm that hypothesis. For instance, in a field experiment in Kenya, villagers only responded to information about local spending in development projects when that information was coupled with specific guidance on how to participate in local decision-making processes).
HEC Paris has just hosted the 3rd Global Conference on Transparency Research, and they have made the list of accepted papers available. Judging from the amount and quality of papers from this year’s and last year’s conference in the Netherlands, it seems that, despite its short history, the conference is likely to become the place for transparency research (to further establish itself as the global reference in that domain, maybe the conference organizers could consider a 4th conference in a developing country).
As one goes through the papers, it is clear that unlike most of the open government space, when it comes to research, transparency is treated less as a matter of technology and formats and more as a matter of social and political institutions. And that is a good thing.
Matt Andrews recently posted an interesting analysis in his blog. Measuring the difference in transparency between budget formulation and budget execution, Matt finds that “Most countries have a gap between the scores they get in transparency of budget preparation and transparency of budget execution. Indeed, 63% of the countries have more transparency in budget formulation than in budget execution.” And he concludes that “countries with higher OBI scores tend to have relatively bigger gaps than the others—so that I am led to believe that countries generally focus on improving transparency in formulation to get better scores (with efforts to make execution getting less attention).” He has also written a second post about it and the IBP folks have replied to him here.