Open Data and Citizen Engagement – Disentangling the Relationship

[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.

 

Beyond Elections

 

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.

Information-Citizen Action Causal Chain

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.

 

Notes

 

Note 1: This section of this post is based on arguments previously developed in the article, “The Uncertain Relationship between Open Data and Accountability”.

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).

 

 

37 Papers on Transparency

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.

This year’s papers are listed below:

***

Also read:

The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability

Does Transparency Lead to Trust? Some Evidence on the Subject

What shapes citizens’ evaluations of their public officials’ accountability? Evidence from local Ethiopia

 

I just came across an interesting paper by Sebastian Jilke published in Public Administration and Development. on the effects of access to information and participatory planning on citizens’ perception of local public officials. Below the summary of the paper:

In this article, we study which institutional factors shape citizens’ views of the local accountability of their public officials. Our departing assumption is that evaluations of local accountability do not merely reflect citizens’ political attitudes and beliefs, but also whether local institutions contribute to an environment of mutual trust, accountability and ultimately democratic legitimacy. Combining public opinion data from a large-N citizen survey (N=10,651) with contextual information for 63 local governments in Ethiopia, we look at access to information, participatory planning and the publicness of basic services as potential predictors of citizens’ evaluations of local public officials. Our findings suggest that local context matters. Jurisdictions that provide access to information on political decision-making are perceived to have more accountable officials. Moreover, when local governments provide public fora that facilitate citizens’ stakes in local planning processes, it positively affects citizens’ evaluations of the accountability of their officials. Our study adds to the  empirical literature by showing that establishing local institutions that can foster citizen-government relations at the local level through inclusive processes is crucial for improving public perceptions of accountability.

And a few more excerpts from the conclusion:

We have presented an empirical test of local institutional factors – particularly access to information,  participatory planning and publicness of basic services – and their impact on citizens’ perceptions of local accountability in Ethiopian local governments. Our empirical results show that two out of the three factors matter. Once a jurisdiction adopts participatory planning and/or provides access to information on political decision-making, it positively affects the way in which citizens perceive the accountability of their officials. In sum, both factors are thought to improve the relationship between citizens and their respective local governments. Hence, our findings suggest that establishing local institutions that can foster citizen-government relations at the local level are crucial for improving public attitudes towards local government. Furthermore, positive attitudes towards local government, furthermore, strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the state at the local level. Thus development practitioners and policy-makers may take these institutional factors into account when reforming local governments.

You can read an ungated version of the paper here [PDF].

And you can read more about the benefits of citizen participation here. 

The Participatory Turn: Participatory Budgeting Comes to America

 

So here it is, finally, the much awaited PhD by Hollie Russon-Gilman (Ash Center – Harvard) on Participatory Budgeting in the United States.

Below is the abstract.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) has expanded to over 1,500 municipalities worldwide since
its inception in Porto Alege, Brazil in 1989 by the leftist Partido dos Trabalhadores
(Workers’ Party). While PB has been adopted throughout the world, it has yet to take
hold in the United States. This dissertation examines the introduction of PB to the United
States with the first project in Chicago in 2009, and proceeds with an in-depth case study
of the largest implementation of PB in the United States: Participatory Budgeting in New
York City. I assess the outputs of PB in the United States including deliberations,
governance, and participation.
I argue that PB produces better outcomes than the status quo budget process in New York
City, while also transforming how those who participate understand themselves as
citizens, constituents, Council members, civil society leaders and community
stakeholders. However, there are serious challenges to participation, including high costs
of engagement, process exhaustion, and perils of scalability. I devise a framework for
assessment called “citizenly politics,” focusing on: 1) designing participation 2)
deliberation 3) participation and 4) potential for institutionalization. I argue that while the
material results PB produces are relatively modest, including more innovative projects,
PB delivers more substantial non-material or existential results. Existential citizenly
rewards include: greater civic knowledge, strengthened relationships with elected
officials, and greater community inclusion. Overall, PB provides a viable and
informative democratic innovation for strengthening civic engagement within the United
States that can be streamlined and adopted to scale.

You can read the full dissertation here [PDF].

Like it?  You might also want to read this about who participates in NYC’s PB and this about the effects of PB on infant mortality in Brazil.

Taxation and Accountability: Experimental Evidence for Taxation’s Effect on Citizen Behavior

A paper by Lucy Martin (Yale)

In sub-Saharan Africa, low taxes co-exist with even lower government accountability, seen in high levels of corruption and low public goods provision. While there are existing theories of why taxation might be linked to better governance, many of the microfoundations of this effect remain unclear. I argue that taxation impacts governance by altering the expressive benefit citizens receive from sanctioning corrupt officials, making those who pay taxes more likely to hold leaders accountable. I provide new cross-national evidence that taxation and corruption are linked; I then formalize the theory and test the proposed mechanism using a set of laboratory-in-the-field experiments in Uganda. I find evidence that taxation activates a stronger fairness norm, leading citizens to demand more from leaders. This effect is strongest among adult, wage-earning men – exactly the group who has the most experience, historically, paying taxes in Uganda. I then propose additional tests, to be carried out in 2013, to strengthen and expand my findings.

And a tip for development professionals from the conclusion:

(…) aid professionals should seriously consider the role of formal taxation, as well as more informal community contributions, when designing development interventions. Adding some sort of community contribution to external aid programs could encourage give aid beneciaries more ownership over projects and, this paper suggests, make them more likely to hold local leaders accountable for how development funds are spent.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

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.

The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability

My article in response to Yu and Robinson’s recent paper on open data has just been published in the UCLA Law Review Discourse: The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability: A Response to Yu and Robinson’s The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”

Below is the abstract:

By looking at the nature of data that may be disclosed by governments, Harlan Yu and David Robinson provide an analytical framework that evinces the ambiguities underlying the term “open government data.” While agreeing with their core analysis, I contend that the authors ignore the enabling conditions under which transparency may lead to accountability, notably the publicity and political agency conditions. I argue that the authors also overlook the role of participatory mechanisms as an essential element in unlocking the potential for open data to produce better government decisions and policies. Finally, I conduct an empirical analysis of the publicity and political agency conditions in countries that have launched open data efforts, highlighting the challenges associated with open data as a path to accountability.

As I wrote the article, it became even more evident to me that the challenges for open data resemble those of democracy. To be successful, both depend on free press, fair elections, and multiple avenues of citizen participation. The resemblance goes one step further: both are most needed where they are least likely to thrive. On democracy and challenging environments, political scientist Robert Dahl wrote:

Democracy, it appears, is a bit chancy.  But its chances also depend on what we do ourselves.  Even if we cannot count on benign forces to favor democracy, we are not mere victims of blind forces over which we have no control. With adequate understanding of what democracy requires and the will to meet its requirements, we can act to preserve and, what is more, to advance democratic ideas and practices

May Dahl’s call resonate with the open data movement.