New Book on Open Parliaments

Brazilian House of Representatives

Cristiano Faria’s book on Open Parliaments has finally been translated from its original Portuguese to English. There are many reasons to read Cristiano’s piece, one of them being the scarcity of literature dealing with the usage of ICT by the legislative branch. I was honoured to be invited to write the preface to this book, in which I list a few other reasons why I think this book is very worthwhile reading. I have reproduced the preface below, with the addition of some hyperlinks.

***

Towards the end of the 18th Century, not long after the French Revolution, engineer Claude Chappe invented the optical telegraph. Also known as the Napoleonic Telegraph, this technological innovation enabled the transmission of messages over great distances at unprecedented speeds for its time. This novelty did not go unnoticed by the intellectuals of the period: the possibility of establishing a telegraph network that could connect individuals at high speed and lowered costs was seen as a unique opportunity for direct democracy to flourish.

The difficulties associated with direct democracy, so eloquently expressed by Rousseau just a few years earlier, no longer seemed relevant: simply opening the code used by the telegraph operators would suffice for a whirlpool of ideas to flow between citizens and government, bringing a new era of participatory decision-making. Events, however, took a different turn, and as time went by the enthusiasm for a democratic renewal faded away.

In the course of the centuries that followed, similar stories abounded. The emergence of each new ICT gave rise to a period of enthusiasm surrounding a renewal in politics and government, only to be followed by bitter disillusionment. While the causes of these historical experiences are multiple, it is safe to say that the failure of these technologies to deliver their much-heralded potential is underscored by a lack of understanding of the role of political institutions. These institutions are, inexorably, sources of obstacles and challenges that go beyond the reach of technological solutions.

Indeed, one could argue that despite the historical evidence, even today a certain amount of ingenuity permeates the majority of academic works in the domain of electronic democracy and open government, overestimating technological innovation and neglecting the role of institutions, actors, and their respective strategies.

Not falling prey to the techno-determinist temptation but rather carrying out an analysis grounded in institutions, organizational processes and actors’ strategies, is one of the many strengths of Cristiano Faria’s work. His experience as a civil servant in the Brazilian House of Representatives and his academic rigour bring together qualities that are rarely combined in the literature about the public sector. The result is a work that offers an unusual vision, taking into account a wide range of factors involved in processes of technological enactment and institutional innovation.

While underpinning the book as a whole, this encompassing perspective is most prominent in Chapters 4 and 5, in the case studies on the experiences from Brazil (e-Democracy) and Chile (Virtual Senator). Motivating factors, constraints, and institutional and organizational arrangements are brought to light. The reader encounters elements and processes that often go unperceived by even the most attentive observers and experienced academics.

For instance, while analysing the Brazilian case, Cristiano underscores the essential role played by legislative consultants in channelling citizens’ input into the formal decision-making processes of the House of Representatives. Only an individual who is viscerally familiar with the functioning of the public institutions in question is capable of such an insight – one of many throughout the book.

Even for this reason alone, this work is of inestimable value to the Brazilian and international literature in the fields of electronic democracy and open government. Numerous other characteristics, however, further add to its worth for researchers, politicians, civil servants and ordinary citizens with an interest in these subjects.

The object of study is relevant in itself. There is a disproportionate shortage of literature about the role of technologies with regard to the legislative branch. An incomplete understanding of how public institutions operate and interact among themselves has led an increasing number of academics and observers to focus their attention on the executive branch. Furthermore, in the limited literature that is available about the use of technologies by the legislative, the majority of studies are disappointingly superficial or excessively descriptive.

Cristiano’s text, although rich in detail, never loses sight of the major theoretical and normative perspectives that inform the state of the art in the electronic democracy debate. The literature that guides this piece is impeccable. This is a text that brings the reader into contact with the main theories and arguments relating to issues of transparency, participation, actors’ strategies, and processes of institutional and technological innovation.

Lastly, by presenting cases ranging from New Zealand to the Catalan Parliaments, this book has the inestimable worth of being a historical record, immune to temporal and technological changes. Cristiano Faria captures the state of the art in electronic democracy experiences in the legislative at the beginning of the 21st century. To ensure that the destiny of these experiences differs from that of the Napoleonic Telegraph, a realistic and perspicacious reflection is necessary, to which this book makes its contribution.

Infotopia – Unleashing the Democratic Power of Transparency

Archon Fung has just published a new paper in Politics & Society, “Infotopia: Unleashing the Democratic Power of Transparency”.

Abstract

In Infotopia, citizens enjoy a wide range of information about the organizations upon which they rely for the satisfaction of their vital interests. The provision of that information is governed by principles of democratic transparency. Democratic transparency both extends and critiques current enthusiasms about transparency. It urges us to conceptualize information politically, as a resource to turn the behavior of large organizations in socially beneficial ways. Transparency efforts have targets, and we should think of those targets as large organizations: public and civic, but especially private and corporate. Democratic transparency consists of four principles. First, information about the operations and actions of large organizations that affect citizens’ interests should be rich, deep, and readily available to the public. Second, the amount of available information should be proportionate to the extent to which those organizations jeopardize citizens’ interests. Third, information should be organized and provided in ways that are accessible to individuals and groups that use that information. Finally, the social, political, and economic structures of society should be organized in ways that allow individuals and groups to take action based on Infotopia’s public disclosures.

Read the full paper here [PDF] / ht Alex Howard.

Towards Open Government in Nepal

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 15.43.16

On March 28-29, 2011, Freedom Forum, in collaboration with the World Bank, organized Nepal’s first National Convention on the Right to Information in Kathmandu in an effort to draw high level attention to issues affecting implementation of the RTI law and to build broad consensus to strengthen the RTI regime. The convention brought together over 150 practitioners, including senior Government of Nepal officials, members of the Constituent Assembly, and civil society leaders. (…) These discussions were anchored in a series of thematic papers prepared for the Convention focusing on the challenges facing the NIC, public agencies, and information officers in implementing the new law; the role of the press, citizens, and local government in activating the demand for information across society; the legal regime governing the RTI particularly the classification and exemptions regime and the nature of the constitutional guarantee for RTI; and the role of RTI in curbing corruption and democratising political parties. These papers constitute the centre-piece of this volume

Read the full volume here [PDF].

Promise and Pitfalls of Targeted Transparency: A Light-handed Approach to Social Policy

The book “Full Disclosure” is a must read for anybody working with transparency policies.

In this brief new paper, the authors (David Weil, Archon Fung and Mary Graham) discuss the concept of targeted transparency, and shed light on how and when it works.

Targeted transparency represents a more focused approach to public information in which government compels companies or public service agencies to disclose information in standardized formats in order to reduce specific risks or improve services. Such policies are more light-handed than conventional regulation because they rely on the power of information rather than on enforcement of rules and standards or financial inducements to alter choices.

Targeted transparency is frequently used to introduce new scientific evidence of public risks into market choices. As targeted transparency takes a prominent place beside standard-setting and financial incentives as a tool of social policy, it becomes more important to understand when and how it works. Ineffective disclosure requirements can be costly. Forcing companies to collect and disclose information can require substantial resources. Mandated disclosure of incomplete or ou-tof-date information can mislead consumers and create new risks.

Read the full paper here [PDF]

In the video below you can watch a panel discussion on “Full Disclosure” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on April 11, with Elena Fagotto, Archon Fung, Mary Graham, and David Weil.

 

 

Open Government and Democracy

The International Budget Partnership (IBP) has recently released the results of the Open Budget Survey 2012, which measures “the state of budget transparency, participation and oversight in 100 countries around the world”. In the survey report, the authors highlighted the positive relationship between budget transparency and democracy:

A democratic political system is a significant factor that supports budget transparency (…) In fact, a switch from autocracy to democracy is typically associated with an improvement in a country’s OBI score by almost 20 points, after controlling for other variables. In addition, transparency seems to depend much more on current levels of democracy than on how long a country has been a democracy: for countries in transition, this means that rapid improvements in transparency can be achieved without having to wait for slow processes of learning and adaptation.

This adds to a growing body of literature showing that democracies (and electoral competition) are indeed more transparent than other types of regime. If the relationship between democracy and openness comes across as obvious, it also opens space for some questions about the open government movement and its strategy to promote transparency.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 00.42.12

Political Rights and Civil Liberties in 2013 – Freedom House

Transparency, it seems, is one of the vital signs of well-functioning democracies. Chronic lack of transparency, on the other hand, emerges as the symptom of flawed democracies or authoritarian regimes. If this logic is correct (and the evidence suggests it is) advocating for transparency would correspond to treating the symptoms of a disease, rather than preventing it in the first place.

This is not to say that promoting transparency reforms (e.g. open data, open budgets) is a useless act. Treating a symptom is not a problem in itself: it alleviates the pain and may even prevent further complications. But neglecting to treat the cause of the symptom is surely a bad practice.

This begs a fundamental question: are open government advocates efficiently channelling their energy and resources when asking for more transparency from governments that have little or no inclination to democracy? Or are they failing to strike a balance which combines a focus on transparency with more fundamental reforms that promote, for instance, free, fair and competitive elections?

Granted, transparency and democracy are mutually reinforcing: it is difficult to think of a democracy without informed consent. And even well-established democracies still have a long way to go towards more transparency. But, for instance, going as far as considering that open government may blossom in non-democracies seems questionable to me. All the technology and transparency in the world is unlikely to realize its full potential in the absence of fundamental political rights and civil liberties.

It might be time to start focusing on the role that political regimes play in promoting values that are dear to the open government movement, such as transparency, participation and collaboration. And democracy – or lack thereof – is the elephant in the room.

***

Further reading

Alt, J. E., Lassen, D. D., & Rose, S. (2005). “The causes of fiscal transparency: Evidence from the US States.” IMF Staff Papers, 53(Special Issue), 30–57.

Alt, J. E., & Lowry, R. C. (2010). “Transparency and accountability: Empirical results for US States.” Journal of Theoretical Politics, 22(4), 379–406.

Hollyer, J. R., Rosendorff, B. P., & Vreeland, J. R. (2011). “Democracy and transparency.” Journal of Politics, 73(4), 1191–1205.

Rosendorff, B. Peter, and James Raymond Vreeland. (2004). “Democracy and Data Dissemination: The Effect of Political Regime on Transparency.” Working Paper, Yale. 

Rosendorff, B. Peter and Doces, John A. (2006). “Democracy and Transparency”. Swiss Political Science Review, 12 (3), 99-112.

Wehner, J. and de Renzio, P. (2013) “Citizens, Legislators, and Executive Disclosure: The Political Determinants of Fiscal Transparency.” World Development, 41, 96-108.

High-Frequency Data Using Mobile Phones: Incentives and Accountability

Great research note  [PDF] by Croke et al. (2012). Here’s the abstract:

As mobile phone ownership rates have risen dramatically in Africa, there has been increased interest in using mobile telephones as a data collection platform. This note draws on two largely successful pilot projects in Tanzania and South Sudan that used mobile phones for high-frequency data collection. Data were collected on a wide range of topics and in a manner that was cost-effective, flexible, and rapid. Once households were included in the survey, they tended to stick with it: respondent fatigue has not been a major issue. While attrition and nonresponse have been challenges in the Tanzania survey, these were due to design flaws in that particular survey, challenges that can be avoided in future similar projects. Ensuring use of the data to demand better service delivery and policy decisions turned out to be as challenging as collecting the high-quality data. Experiences in Tanzania suggest that good data can be translated into public accountability, but also demonstrate that just putting data out in the public domain is not enough. This note discusses lessons learned and offers suggestions for future applications of mobile phone surveys in developing countries, such as those planned for the World Bank’s “Listening to Africa” initiative.

Of particular interest to me is the fact that part of the design used financial incentives as a means to reduce nonresponse and attrition rates. In the technology and development world there has been lots of talk about “incentives to participate”, where the practical shortcut is often the provision of financial incentives. In Tanzania, for instance, the authors report that “respondents who successfully completed an interview were rewarded with an amount varying from $2 to $4”, not a negligible sum in the Tanzanian context.

Interestingly, in the working paper [PDF] from which this note is drawn, a footnote sheds some light on how effective these rewards were:

Remarkably in both Sudan and Tanzania the amount of the reward did not have a discernable impact on response rates.

But these findings are not as surprising as they may seem. Indeed, there is a good deal of evidence from behavioural economics pointing out that financial incentives might not work as well as traditional economics (and economists) would predict.

And a noteworthy excerpt on the limits of transparency and the role of existing institutions and actors:

One lesson is that  providing citizens with relevant, timely, and accurate data  about the actions of politicians, policy makers, and public service providers is not sufficient. For the data to have impact, they need to be accessible and disseminated widely, and in ways that allow them to be utilized by already existing institutions and actors.

This is an interesting point, although I am not sure to what extent existing institutions are enough. In the field of technology and governance, I believe that it has become quite clear that very little is achieved when technological solutions are not coupled with institutional innovations.

But that’s another story. In any case, a great read, and the type of effort that is badly needed in this space.

Corruption and the Limits of Electoral Accountability

Picture by watchsmart on flickr.

Interesting new paper looking at electoral accountability in 74 countries

Corruption and Accountability: “Throwing the Bums Out” Does Not Work.

By Crisp, Potter, Olivella and Mishler (November 2012)

Abstract

Many theories of democracy stress the concept of accountability. Voters reward or punish elected ocials by extending or ending their political careers. Seeking the long-term reward of reelection, officials avoid the short-term benefits of corruption that would put them at risk of early electoral defeat. This good behavior, in turn, leads to voter loyalty and reelection. Previous studies of electoral volatility and political corruption, however, have not tested this reciprocal relationship with an appropriate empirical model. In this paper, we employ a bivariate normal model to assess the effects of malfeasance on voter loyalty and, conversely, of voter defection on subsequent malfeasance. We test these relationships on data drawn from 249 elections across 74 countries. Our results show that malfeasance does indeed provoke voter defection, but that electoral volatility is not followed by lower levels of perceived corruption. We discuss the importance of these novel results for the emerging literature on clarity of responsibility.

Some excerpts from the conclusion (highlights are mine):

According to the standard theory, voters hold elected ocials accountable for their performance in oce by voting out of office anyone suspected of corrupt behavior. This presumably purges government of the worst officials, reminds continuing representatives of the voters’ power, and signals to newly elected officials that they ought to behave more virtuously than their predecessors. The empirical evidence we have reported is reassuring of the standard model in only one respect. It clearly shows that voters respond appropriately to perceived corruption by throwing legislators out of office. Nevertheless, the observation that increasing volatility does not reduce perceived corruption undermines a central assumption of retrospective accountability theory: namely, that the replacement of corrupt officials creates a virtuous cycle where corruption and volatility are mutually reinforcing and spiral ever lower in tandem with one another.

The absence of any impact of volatility on perceived corruption means either that legislators do not alter their behavior in the short run in response to the signal provided by vote volatility, or that politicians do respond, but their change in behavior is not immediately perceived by voters who continue to punish newly elected legislators for the sins of their predecessors. Distinguishing between these possibilities, empirically, requires data on actual legislative corruption, which is not available. Nevertheless, weighing the two scenarios, in our estimation the second seems more plausible. In our data set, voter perceptions of legislative corruption appear highly viscous in that they do not vary much over time. Corruption is covert and hard for voters to recognize. When they do perceive corruption, voters respond appropriately by throwing the bums out of oce. But because corruption is covert, it is equally dicult for voters to know if newly elected legislators are really better behaved or whether the corruption of new members simply has not yet been exposed.

In the absence of visible evidence to the contrary, voters have no reason to update their perceptions and treat the new legislators any differently than the old ones. Rather than creating a virtuous cycle, this creates instead a low-level equilibrium trap. Voter perceptions of corruption give rise to higher levels of volatility, but because higher volatility has no systematic impact on subsequent perceptions of corruption, continuing perceptions of corruption are likely to sustain those higher levels of volatility, thereby threatening the re-election prospects of newly elected legislators regardless of their behavior. Our inability to find an effect of vote volatility on corruption by distinguishing quality democracies from low-grade ones (with an interaction with the country’s Polity score) lends support to the idea that the failure of punishment to alter (perceptions of) corruption is not limited to some subset of delegative, authoritarian, or otherwised adjective-laden set of democracies.

Putting these findings in the broader context of the open government agenda, I can’t help but wonder about the limits of transparency in the absence of additional accountability mechanisms.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

Does access to information enhance accountability?

This paper [PDF] examines whether access to information enhances political accountability. Based upon the results of Brazil’s recent anti-corruption program that randomly audits municipal expenditures of federally-transferred funds, it estimates the effects of the disclosure of local government corruption practices upon the re-election success of incumbent mayors. Comparing municipalities audited before and after the elections, we show that the audit policy reduced the incumbent’s likelihood of re-election by approximately 20 percent, and was more pronounced in municipalities with radio stations. These findings highlight the value of information and the role of the media in reducing informational asymmetries in the political process. 

Ferraz, Claudio, and Frederico Finan. 2008. “Exposing Corrupt Politicians: The Effects of Brazil’s Publicly Released Audits on Electoral Outcomes.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 123(2): 703–45.

New Data: Democrats and Republicans, Who Shows us the Stimulus Online?

A few days ago I posted the results of an assessment of a report from July 2009 by Good Jobs First, a study on the effectiveness and transparency of state websites devoted to tracking stimulus money. The results of my analysis showed that states with lower houses controlled by Democrats are statistically more likely to have more transparent and open stimulus websites.

Right after I posted, I found out that a new version of the report had just been released. The report consists of an updated evaluation of state recovery websites based on data collected in January 2010. Moreover, it deploys a renewed methodology, given the fact that recovery efforts “are further along and the federal government’s recovery.gov website now contains extensive recipient data”.

The overall results of the report demonstrate that considerable improvements have been made by many states since their recovery websites were first created in spring 2009. At the same time, the report shows a persistence of the discrepancies in the quality and quantity of information offered by the different states.

However, of particular interest for the purpose of my analysis, which looks at the factors that influence levels of transparency, are the “ups and downs” that have been identified in the study. In other words, in the new report, several states reached considerably higher scores if compared to the previous report and vice-versa, leading to a reconfiguration of the rankings.

In this respect, it is pertinent to question to what extent this reconfiguration alters the pattern previously identified by my analysis, which shows a statistically significant correlation between the number of Democrats in the lower house of a state and the transparency of that state’s recovery website.

The scatter plot below illustrates the results based on the newest report (January 2009). The horizontal line inside the diagram indicates the average (mean) transparency score of each state, with the points above the horizontal line representing the states scoring above the average and vice-versa. The vertical line divides those states with Republican (left side) and Democrat (right side) majorities in each lower house.

If in July 2009 only two websites from the Republican side scored above the average, in January 2010 four websites score above the average. On the Democrat side, the effects are similar, with some websites significantly increasing their scores, such as Kentucky – which climbed from 47th place in 2009 to 2nd place in 2010 – and Minnesota that rose from 34th to 4th place in the overall ranking.

In fact, the pattern remains unaltered and statistically significant: the more seats held by Democrats in the lower house, the more transparent the state recovery website is likely to be, even when controlling for other factors such as e-government readiness and unemployment levels. The analysis indicates that there is a less than 0.2% chance of the results being random. That is, this new data strengthens the previous findings.

To put it in less technical terms, it seems like citizens living in states with a Democrat majority in the lower house are more likely to know where the recovery money is going in their state. Well, at least for the moment.