“Civic tech” broadly refers to the use of digital technologies to support a range of citizen engagement processes. From allowing individuals to report problems to local government to enabling the crowdsourcing of national legislation, civic tech aims to promote better policies and services – while contributing to more inclusive democratic institutions. But could civic tech affect public issues in a way that benefits some and excludes others?
Over the decades, the question of who participates in and who is excluded from participation mediated by technology has been the focus of both civic tech critics and proponents. The latter tend to argue that, by enabling citizens to participate without constraints of time and distance, civic tech facilitates the participation of those who usually abstain from engaging with public issues, leading to more inclusive processes. Critics argue that, given the existing digital divide, unequal access to technology will tend to empower the already empowered, further deepening societal differences. Yet both critics and proponents do tend to share an intuitive assumption: the socio-economic profile of whoparticipates is the primary determinant of who benefits from digitally mediated civic participation. For instance, if more men participate, outcomes will favor male preferences, and if more young people participate, outcomes will be more aligned with the concerns of the youth.
In a new paper, we show that the link between the demographics of those participating through digital channels, and the beneficiaries of the participation process, is not necessarily as straightforward as commonly assumed. We review four civic tech cases where data allow us to trace the full participatory chain through:
the initial digital divide
the participant’s demographics
the demands made through the process
the policy outcomes
We examine online voting in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul’s participatory budgeting process, the local problem reporting platform Fix My Street (FMS) in the United Kingdom, Iceland’s online crowdsourced constitution process, and the global petitioning platform Change.org.
Change.org has been used by nearly half a billion people around the globe. Using a dataset of 3.9 million signers of online petitions in 132 countries, we examine the number of successful petitions and assess whether petitions created by women have more success than those submitted by men. Our analysis shows that, even if women create fewer online petitions than men, their petitions are more likely to be successful. All else equal, when online petitions have an impact on government policy, the agenda being implemented is much closer to the issues women choose to focus on.
In Rio Grande do Sul’s digital participatory budgeting (PB), we show that despite important demographic differences between online and offline voters, these inequalities do not affect which types of projects are selected for funding – a consequence of PB’s unique institutional design, which favors redistributive effects.
In fact, of all the cases analyzed, none reflect the standard assumption that inequalities in who participates translate directly into inequalities in who benefits from the policy outcomes. Our results suggest that the socio-economic profile of participants predicts only in part who benefits from civic tech. Just as important to policy outcomes is how the platform translates civic participation into policy demands, and how the government responds to those demands. While civic tech practitioners pay a lot of attention to design from a technological perspective, our findings highlight the importance of considering how civic tech platforms function as political institutions that encourage certain types of behavior while discouraging others.
Civic tech, it seems, is not inherently good nor bad for democratic institutions. Instead, its effect is a combination of who participates on digital platforms and the choices of platform designers and governments.
Post co-authored with Jonathan Mellon and Fredrik M. Sjoberg. Cross-posted from the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Developmentblog.
As the saying goes: “if you think technology is the solution, you don’t understand the problem”. The same goes for technologies for civic or public service purposes. In fact, many argue that a common trait of good professionals working in the digital space is their capacity to, whenever necessary, politely convince their counterparts that their new “app” idea sucks.
Over time, practitioners will develop their own intuition and tricks of the trade to assess what should be built or not, and if so, how. That knowledge is mostly shared within networks of practitioners, sometimes through a few humorous tips, such as: “If building a dashboard is the first thing a government official asks you, run for your life!”
But this kind of tacit knowledge remains mostly contained and fragmented across small groups, and it is rarely translated for the benefit of others in an accessible manner. And these others are often the ones who come up either with the ideas, the money to fund the ideas, or both.
Construct a monstrous building in the middle of nowhere and movies might be made about you; build a pointless app that no one uses and you will just need to cite a misleading metric in a donor report and no one will care. Conversely, construct a good building in a sensible place and no one will think it worthy of notice; build a not-terrible app that people use for longer than the launch press release circulates, and you will immediately be nominated to half a dozen “X under X” lists.
So, by far the best method is to adopt a simple principle: Don’t build it.
When someone says, “We should build some tech for that”, just say no. When an investor or donor says, “Why don’t you build some technology”, just say no. When you read another article or see another TEDx talk about someone pretending their app achieved something, while citing numbers that are both unverified and meaningless, and a voice inside says, “why don’t we also build technology”, just say no.
Does that mean that the rest of this guide is pointless? Hopefully so. But in reality, at some point some idea may gather such momentum or such force of conviction that the “do not build it” ethos will start to falter. At that point, ask these questions…
I will stop here. In short, this guide is a must-read for anybody designing, implementing, funding or just coming up with “disruptive” ideas on technologies for civic engagement and public service delivery.
Ps.: The teaser for the guide, is itself priceless:
Open government’s uncertain effects and the Biden opportunity: what now?
A review of 10 years of open government research reveals: 1) “a transparency-driven focus”, 2) “methodological concerns”, and 3) [maybe not surprising] “the lack of empirical evidence regarding the effects of open government”. My take on this is that these findings are, somewhat, self-reinforcing.
First, the early focus on transparency by open government advocates, while ignoring the conditions under which transparency could lead to public goods, should be, in part, to blame. This is even more so if open government interventions insist on tactical, instead of strategicapproaches to accountability. Second, the fact that many of those engaging in open government efforts do not take into account the existing evidence doesn’t help in terms of designing appropriate reforms, nor in terms of calibrating expectations. Proof of this is the recurrent and mostly unsubstantiated spiel that “transparency leads to trust”, voiced by individuals and organizations who should have known better. Third, should there be any effects of open government reforms, these are hard to verify in a credible manner given that evaluations often suffer from methodological weaknesses, as indicated by the paper.
Finally, open government’s semantic extravaganza makes building critical mass all the more difficult. For example, I have my doubts over whether the paper would reach similar conclusions should it have expanded the review to open government practices that, in the literature, are not normally labeled as open government. This would be the case, for instance, of participatory budgeting (which has shown to improve service delivery and increase tax revenues), or strategic approaches to social accountability that present substantial results in terms of development outcomes.
In any case, the research findings are still troubling. The election of President Biden gives some extra oxygen to the open government agenda, and that is great news. But in a context where autocratization turns viral, making a dent in how governments operate will take less policy-based evidence searching and more evidence-based strategizing. That involves leveraging the existing evidence when it is available, and when it is not, the standard path applies: more research is needed.
Open Government Partnership and Justice
On another note, Joe Foti, from the Open Government Partnership (OGP), writes on the need to engage more lawyers, judges and advocates in order to increase the number of accountability-focused OGP commitments. I particularly like Joe’s ideas on bringing these actors together to identify where OGP commitments could be stronger, and how. This resonates with a number of cases I’ve come across in the past where the judiciary played a key role in ensuring that citizens’ voice also had teeth.
I also share Joe’s enthusiasm for the potential of a new generation of commitments that put forward initiatives such as specialized anti-corruption courts and anti-SLAPP provisions. Having said this, the judiciary itself needs to be open, independent and capable. In most countries that I’ve worked in, a good part of open government reforms fail precisely because of a dysfunctional judiciary system.
Diversity, collective intelligence and deliberative democracy
Part of the justification for models of deliberative democracy is their epistemic quality, that is, large and diverse crowds are smarter than the (elected or selected) few. A good part of this argument finds its empirical basis in the fantastic work by Scott Page.
But that’s not all. We know, for instance, that gender diversity on corporate boards improves firms’ performance, ethnic diversity produces more impactful scientific research, diverse groups are better at solving crimes, popular juries are less biased than professional judges, and politically diverse editorial teams produce higher-quality Wikipedia articles. Diversity also helps to explain classical Athens’ striking superiority vis-à-vis other city-states of its time, due to the capacity of its democratic system to leverage the dispersed knowledge of its citizens through sortition.
Now, a Nature article, “Algorithmic and human prediction of success in human collaboration from visual features”, presents new evidence of the power of diversity in problem-solving tasks. In the paper, the authors examine the patterns of group success in Escape The Room, an adventure game in which a group attempts to escape a maze by collectively solving a series of puzzles. The authors find that groups that are larger, older and more gender diverse are significantly more likely to escape. But there’s an exception to that: more age diverse groups are less likely to escape. Intriguing isn’t it?
Deliberative processes online: rough review of the evidence
As the pandemic pushes more deliberative exercises online, researchers and practitioners start to take more seriously the question of how effective online deliberation can be when compared to in-person processes. Surprisingly, there are very few empirical studies comparing the two methods.
But a quick run through the literature offers some interesting insights. For instance, an online 2004 deliberative poll on U.S. foreign policy, and a traditional face-to-face deliberative poll conducted in parallel, presented remarkably similar results. A 2007 experiment comparing online and face-to-face deliberation found that both approaches can increase participants’ issue knowledge, political efficacy, and willingness to participate in politics. A similar comparison from 2009 looking at deliberation over the construction of a power plant in Finland found considerable resemblance in the outcomes of online and face-to-face processes. A study published in 2012 on waste treatment in France found that, compared to the offline process, online deliberation was more likely to: i) increase women’s interventions, ii) promote the justification or arguments, and iii) be oriented towards the common good (although in this case the processes were not similar in design).
The external validity of these findings, however encouraging they may be, remains an empirical question. Particularly given that since these studies were conducted the technology used to support deliberations has in many cases changed (e.g. from written to “zoomified” deliberations). Anyhow, kudos should go to the researchers who started engaging with the subject well over a decade ago: if that work was a niche subject then, their importance now is blatantly obvious.
(BTW, on a related issue, here’s a fascinating 2021 experiment examining whether online juries can make consistent, repeatable decisions: interestingly, deliberating groups are much more consistent than non-deliberating groups)
Fixing the Internet?
Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev published a great article in The Atlantic on the challenges to democracy by an Internet model that fuels disinformation and polarization, presenting alternative paths to address this. I was thankful for the opportunity to make a modest contribution to such a nice piece.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the effects of the Internet in politics. For instance, a new study in the American Political Science Review finds that radical right parties benefit more than any other parties from malicious bots on social media.
2021 continues to be a good year for the proponents of deliberative democracy, with growing coverage of the subject in the mainstream media, in part fueled by the recent launch of Helène Landemore’s great book “Open Democracy.” Looking for something to listen to? Look no further and listen to this interview by Ezra Klein with Helène.
A dialogue among giants
The recording of the roundtable Contours of Participatory Democracy in the 21st Century is now available. The conversation between Jane Mansbridge, Mark Warren and Cristina Lafont can be found here.
Democracy and design thinking
Speaking of giants, the new book by Michael Saward “Democratic Design”, is finally out. I’m a big fan of Michael’s work, so my recommendation may be biased. In this new book Michael brings design thinking together with democratic theory and practice. If the design of democratic institutions is one of your topics, you should definitely check it out!
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to deliver a lecture at the Center for Collective Learning – Artificial and Natural Intelligence Institute. My presentation, Civic Technologies: Past, Present and Future, can be found here.
And finally, for those who really want to geek-out, a list of 15 academic articles I enjoyed reading:
Modern Grantmaking: That’s the title of a new book by Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg. I had the privilege of reading snippets of this, and I can already recommend it not only to those working with grantmaking, but also pretty much anyone working in the international development space.
Lectures: The Center for Collective Learning has a fantastic line-up of lectures open to the public. Find out more here.
Learning from Togo: While unemployment benefits websites were crashing in the US, the Togolese government showed how to leverage mobile money and satellite data to effectively get cash into the hands of those who need it the most
Nudging the nudgers: British MPs are criticising academics for sending them fictitious emails for research. I wonder if part of their outrage is not just about the emails, but about what the study could reveal in terms of their actual responsiveness to different constituencies.
DataViz: Bringing data visualization to physical/offline spaces has been an obsession of mine for quite a while. I was happy to come across this project while doing some research for a presentation
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 other day, a friend of mine who was going to speak at a conference asked me for good cases of civic tech “that works”. I didn’t hesitate, and advised him to get in touch with the people at NOSSAS, a Brazilian organization that combines online and offline collective action to promote social change (full disclosure, I am a member of their board). Until now, however, it has been a challenge to convey to unfamiliar audiences what the organization does, and how. This is why I am particularly glad to see that they have produced a short documentary (16 mins) “NOSSAS: a Laboratory of Other Futures”, which provides a glimpse into the organisation’s thinking and work. So, adding to the video, here are some of the reasons why I think this is a great example of a civic tech organization:
Blending online and offline: “oneline” activism
To my knowledge, no other organization combines online and offline action better than NOSSAS, with online mobilization often used as a gateway to more intensive (and offline) types of participation.
NOSSAS’ successful campaign in the State of Sao Paulo for the creation of the first Police Station dedicated to combating violence against women.
Along with their digital campaigns, they will often mobilize citizens to take offline action. This includes, for instance, attending legislative votes and exerting pressure on elected officials, or taking part in more performative interventions that draw attention from the mainstream media and the population as a whole.
Beyond the obvious target
Understanding that policy change often requires more than a simple stroke of a pen, NOSSAS’ engagement with public officials goes beyond the decision-makers who are formally entitled to make the policy change (e.g. mayor, governor). Their initiatives consistently target the ensemble of actors (e.g. legislators, public prosecutors) who may have an influence over a policy decision or implementation (either directly or indirectly).
NOSSAS’ rich combination of online and offline tactics of popular mobilization, together with this well-calculated engagement of state actors, creates multiple pressure points for governments to respond.
Civil Society as a Platform
A common denominator among the majority of traditional civil society organizations (CSOs) is the self-appointed representation of a specific constituency. In other words, these CSOs will often represent a fixed set of interests of a given constituency by which the CSOs have neither been elected nor authorized. However, one could argue that – for better or for worse – in a period in which citizens increasingly engage directly in political action through a variety of means, the importance of these traditional CSOs may be reduced at worse, and redefined at best.
In this respect, NOSSAS is a great example of emerging CSOs that are more adapted to their time. As such, these new CSOs do not claim to represent the interests of a certain constituency. Instead, they play the role of a platform that amplifies the voices of individuals, facilitating their engagement in collective (connective?) action on a multiplicity of issues they care about.
NOSSAS does have great knowledge of two key ingredients for civic tech: 1) how to mobilize citizens, and 2) how to get governments to respond. But what I find particularly interesting is that they translated this knowledge into a structured methodology to provide online and offline support to users of NOSSAS’ platforms to further their causes.
Does it work? Some evidence suggests that it does. For instance, Pressure Pan is a platform that allows any citizen to initiate collective action to exert pressure on the government regarding a particular agenda (e.g. public safety, mobility rights). And as we documented in Civic Tech in the Global South, while not all of the hundreds of campaigns on Pressure Pan can benefit from specific support from NOSSAS, when they do they are three times more likely to succeed.
A/B testing is similar to an online version of a randomized controlled trial. One of the main differences however is that A/B testing is low-cost, easily deployed (when you have the expertise), and real-time. Yet very few civic tech organizations take advantage of that opportunity. This not the case for NOSSAS: at any given point they are running a number of A/B tests, which help them to refine their mobilization tactics on an ongoing basis. If this sounds like a simple detail, it is not. Beyond generating precious knowledge for the organization’s core functions, the capacity to run A/B tests is often a good litmus test for whether organizations know how to leverage technology beyond the most obvious uses.
And finally, unlike many civic tech initiatives, NOSSAS does have a solid track record of results, a few of which are featured in the video, which you can watch below:
Before joining the board of Nossas, I was already a fan of the work they do: online, offline, and as a platform. I look forward to their work in 2018.
For more about Nossas, also read this excellent post by Felipe Estefan from the Omidyar Network.
The Hewlett Foundation is seeking consultants to help design a potential, longer-term research collaborative to study the application of behavioral insights to nudge governments to respond to citizen feedback. This is just fantastic and deserves a blog post of its own. Hopefully I will be able to do that before the EOI period ends.
Rise and fall of participatory democracy in Brazil?
In an excellent article for Open Democracy, Thamy Pogrebinschi and Talita Tanscheit ask what happened to citizen participation in Brazil. The authors note that “The two main pillars on which institutional innovations in Brazil had been erected – extensive institutionalization and a strong civil society – have not been enough to prevent a functioning system of social participation being torn to shreds in little more than a year.”
I have been asked for my take on the issue more than once. Personally, I am not surprised, despite all the institutionalization and the strength of civil society. Given the current Brazilian context, I would be surprised if the participatory spaces the article examines (councils and conferences) remained unaffected.
Playing the devil’s advocate, this period of crisis may also be an opportunity to reflect on how policy councils and conferences could innovate themselves. While they extremely important, one hypothesis is that these structures failed to appropriately channel societal concerns and demands that later exploded into a political crisis, leading to the current situation.
Provocations aside, it is just too early to tell whether this is the definitive death of conferences and councils. And my sense is that their future will be contingent upon two key points: i) the direction that Brazilian politics take following the 2018 general election (e.g. progressive x populist/authoritarian), ii) the extent to which councils and conferences can adapt to the growing disintermediation in activism that we observe today.
The Business Model of Civic Tech?
If you are working in the civic tech space, you probably came across a new report commissioned by the Knight Foundation and Rita Allen Foundation, “Scaling Civic Tech: Paths to a Sustainable Future.” As highlighted by Christopher Wilson at the Methodical Snark, while not much in the report is surprising for civic technologists, it does provide the reader with a good understanding of the expectations of funders on the issue of financial sustainability.
When thinking about business models of civic tech efforts, I wonder how much money and energy were devoted to having governments open up their datasets while neglecting the issue of how these governments procure technology. If 10% of those efforts had been dedicated to reforming the way governments procure technology, many of those in the civic tech space would now be less dependent on foundations’ grants (or insights on business models).
Having said this, I am a bit bothered by the debate of business models when it comes to democratic goods. After all, what would happen to elections if they depended on business models (or multiple rounds of foundations’ grants)?
Walking the talk: participatory grant making?
A new report commissioned by the Ford Foundation examines whether the time has come for participatory grant making. The report, authored by Cynthia Gibson, explores the potential use of participatory approaches by foundations, and offers a “starter” framework to inform the dialogue on the subject.
Well-informed by the literature on participatory and deliberative democracy, the report also touches upon the key question of whether philanthropic institutions, given their tax benefits, owe the public a voice in decisions they make. If you are not convinced, this Econtalk podcast with Bob Reich (Stanford) on foundations and philanthropy is rather instructive. There is also a great anecdote in the podcast that illustrates the point for public voice, as described by Reich:
“So, in the final days of creating the Open Society Institute and associated foundations, there was disagreement amongst the staff that Soros had hired about exactly what their program areas, or areas of focus would be. And, to resolve a disagreement, Soros allegedly slammed his fist on the table and said, ‘Well, at the end of the day, it’s my money. We’re going to do it my way.’ And a program officer that he’d hired said, ‘Well, actually Mr. Soros, about 30% or 40% of it would have been the taxpayer’s money. So, I think some other people actually have a say in what you do, here, too.’ And he was fired the next week.”
Talking about podcasts, the Real Democracy Now Podcast is fantastic. It is definitely one of the best things out there for practitioners and scholars working with citizen engagement.
Although broader in terms of the subjects covered, Talking Politics by David Runciman and Catherine Carr is another great option.