Unusual suspects? Effects of technology on citizen engagement

(Originally posted on the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Development blog)

What is the effect of technology on citizen engagement? On the one hand, enthusiasts praise the prospects offered by technology: from real-time beneficiary feedback to collaborative policymaking, the possibilities for listening at scale seem endless. Skeptics, on the other, fear that unequal access to technologies will do nothing but favor the “usual suspects”, empowering the already empowered and reinforcing existing inequalities. While the debate sometimes gets heated, a common feature unites both sides: there is limited evidence to support both views.

Providing evidence to better inform practice at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement is one of the core goals of the Bank’s Digital Engagement Evaluation Team (DEET). And, to contribute empirical data to the debate on the effects of technology on participatory processes, the team has been carrying out a number of studies, some of them covering as many as 132 countries.

The results of one of these studies have just been published, looking at the effects of Internet voting on the world’s largest participatory budgeting exercise, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Every year, over one million people participate in the state-wide process, where citizens can vote either online or offline for projects that are to be included in the public budget. In this study we present the results of a unique survey of over 22,000 Internet voters, focusing on three key research questions:

1) Does an opportunity to vote online increase participation?
2) If so, what is the socioeconomic profile of new voters?
3) And finally, what is the level of pre-existing engagement of these online voters?

Anticipating some of our results here, nearly two-thirds of respondents answer the first question affirmatively, saying they would not have taken part in the vote if online voting (i-voting) was not available. This evidence supports the view that technology increases participation among individuals who would not have voted otherwise. In parallel to this, our study shows that introducing i-voting does not lead to a substitution effect, meaning that for the most part, those who vote offline will continue to do so, despite the introduction of i-voting.

On the second question, a picture of the “usual suspects” of online engagement emerges: all else equal, i-voting seems more likely to engage individuals who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users. However, from a civic engagement perspective i-voting seems to engage rather unusual suspects, boosting inclusiveness and engaging individuals who were previously uninspired by traditional politics and community activities.

In short, i-voting increases participation among previously non-engaged strata of the population, promoting the inclusiveness of the process as a whole. However, these new participants – the online-only voters – are likely to be socio-economically more privileged: a compelling reason for combining multiple avenues (online and offline) for participation.

In the study we analyze these findings in light of the literature on convenience voting, participatory governance and collective intelligence. We conclude with the implications of the findings for future practice and research.

You can download the paper here

New Evidence that Citizen Engagement Increases Tax Revenues

pic by Tax Credits on flickr

Quite a while ago, drawing mainly from the literature on tax morale, I posted about the evidence on the relationship between citizen engagement and tax revenues, in which participatory processes lead to increased tax compliance (as a side note, I’m still surprised how those working with citizen engagement are unaware of this evidence).

Until very recently this evidence was based on observational studies, both qualitative and quantitative. Now we have – to my knowledge – the first experimental evidence that links citizen participation and tax compliance. A new working paper published by Diether Beuermann and Maria Amelina present the results of a randomized experiment in Russia, described in the abstract below:

This paper provides the first experimental evaluation of the participatory budgeting model showing that it increased public participation in the process of public decision making, increased local tax revenues collection, channeled larger fractions of public budgets to services stated as top priorities by citizens, and increased satisfaction levels with public services. These effects, however, were found only when the model was implemented in already-mature administratively and politically decentralized local governments. The findings highlight the importance of initial conditions with respect to the decentralization context for the success of participatory governance.

In my opinion, this paper is important for a number of reasons, some of which are worth highlighting here. First, it adds substantive support to the evidence on the positive relationship between citizen engagement and tax revenues. Second, in contrast to studies suggesting that participatory innovations are most likely to work when they are “organic”, or “bottom-up”, this paper shows how external actors can induce the implementation of successful participatory experiences. Third, I could not help but notice that two commonplace explanations for the success of citizen engagement initiatives, “strong civil society” and “political will”, do not feature in the study as prominent success factors.  Last, but not least, the paper draws attention to how institutional settings matter (i.e. decentralization). Here, the jack-of-all-trades (yet not very useful) “context matters”, could easily be replaced by “institutions matter”.

You can read the full paper here [PDF].

Who Participates in Africa? Dispelling the Myth

picture by Britanny Danisch on flickr.

Whenever discussing participation in Africa (as well as in other developing contexts) the issue of “who participates” often emerges. A constant in these conversations is an assumption that participation in the continent is strongly driven by material and immaterial resources (e.g. money, time). In other words, there seems to be a widespread belief, particularly among development practitioners,  that the most privileged sectors of society are disproportionately more likely to participate than the least well-off.

In part, such an assumption is empirically grounded. Since the early 70s,  studies have shown inequality in political participation, with the most advantaged groups being disproportionately more likely to participate. Considering that policy preferences between groups differ, unequal participation leads to the troubling possibility that public policy is skewed towards favoring the better off, thus further deepening societal differences and access to public goods and services.

However, often ignored is the fact that most of these studies refer to  participation in traditional western democracies, notably the United States and European countries. But do these results hold true when it comes to participation in Africa? This is the question that Ann-Sofie Isaksson (University of Gothenburg) tackles in a paper published in Electoral Studies “Political participation in Africa: The role of individual resources”.

By looking at an Afrobarometer dataset of 27,000 respondents across 20 African countries, Isaksson’s findings challenge the standard thinking on the relationship between resources and participation:

(…) it seems the resource perspective does a poor job at explaining African political participation. If a resource is relevant for meeting the costs of participating, more of that resource should mean more participation. If anything, however, the estimations suggest that having little time (i.e. working full-time) and little money (i.e. being poorer) is associated with more participation.

Isaksson’s analysis is not confined to participation in elections, also examining non-electoral participation, i.e. attending community meetings. With regard to the latter only, there are modest effects associated with exposure to information  (e.g. radio, TV, newspapers) and education. Yet, as the author notes, “the result that community attendance is higher among the poor remains”.

To conclude, as underlined by Isaksson in her paper, she is not alone in terms of findings, with other studies looking at Asia and Latin America pointing in a similar direction, slowly dispelling the myth of the role of resources for participation in developing countries. Development practitioners should start to take note of these encouraging facts.


P.s.: An earlier ungated version of the paper can be found here [PDF].

Participation, Transparency and Accountability: Innovations in South Korea, Brazil, and the Philippines

A report by Brian Wampler for the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT):

Citizen participation in budgetary and other fiscal processes has been expanding at international, national, and local levels over the past 15 years. The direct participation of citizens, it is hoped, will improve governance, limit misuse of public funds, and produce more informed, engaged citizens. At the national level, reformist governments now encourage the direct engagement of citizens during multiple moments of the policy cycle—from initial policy formulation to the oversight of policy implementation. Reformist governments hope to take advantage of increased citizen participation to increase their legitimacy, thus allowing them to change spending and policy priorities, increase state effectiveness by make public bureaucrats more responsive to citizens and elected officials, and, finally, ensure that the quality of public services improves. During the 1980s and 1990s, many subnational governments took advantage of policy decentralization to experiment with new institutional types. Direct citizen participation has been most robust at subnational levels due to the decreased costs and the greater direct impact of citizens on policymaking.


The main purpose of this report is to examine how three countries, South Korea, Brazil, and the Philippines, have made extensive efforts to create new institutions and policies that encourage the participation of citizens and CSOs in complex policy processes. South Korea developed an institutional arrangement based on policy experts, CSOs, and the Korean Development Institute. Brazil uses a model that relies extensively on the participation of citizens at multiple tiers of government. Finally, the Philippines use a mixed model that incorporates citizens and CSOs at national and subnational levels


Political reformers seeking to incorporate greater numbers of people into policymaking venues face a series of challenges. These include: (1) asymmetrical access to information as well as differing skills base to interpret information; (2) the difficultly of decision-making when groups grow in size; (3) a reduction in the importance of any single participant due to the greater number of participants; (4) political contestation over who has the right to participate; (5) who are the legitimate representatives of different groups; and (6) higher organizational costs (time, money, personnel). This report maps out how new participatory institutions and programs that are designed to help governments and their civil society allies draw citizens directly into decision-making processes.To explain the variation in the type of participatory experiences now used by different countries,we identify four factors that most strongly affect the types of participation-oriented reforms as well as the results. These four factors include: (a) presidential-level support for reform, (b) the configuration of civil society, (c) state capacity and (d) the geo-political direction of reform (topdown/center –periphery vs. bottom-up/periphery/center. It is the combination of these four factors that most strongly explains the type of institutions adopted in each of these countries.

Read the full report here [PDF]. 

The Effect of SMS on Participation: Evidence from Uganda

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I’ve been wanting to post about this paper for a while. At the intersection of technology and citizen participation this is probably one of the best studies produced in 2013 and I’m surprised I haven’t heard a lot about it outside the scholarly circle.

One of the fundamental questions concerning the use of technology to foster participation is whether it impacts inclusiveness and, if it does, in what way. That is, if technology has an effect on participation, does it reinforce or minimize participation biases? There is no straightforward answer, and the limited existing evidence suggests that the impact of technology on inclusiveness depends on a number of factors such as technology fit, institutional design and communication efforts.

If the answer to the question is “it depends”, then the more studies looking at the subject, the more we refine our understanding of how it works, when and why. The study, “Does Information Technology Flatten Interest Articulation? Evidence from Uganda” (Grossman, Humphreys, & Sacramone-Lutz, 2013), is a great contribution in that sense. The abstract is below (highlights are mine):

We use a field experiment to study how the availability and cost of political communication channels affect the efforts constituents take to influence their representatives. We presented sampled constituents in Uganda with an opportunity to send a text-message to their representatives at one of three randomly assigned prices. This allows us to ascertain whether ICTs can “flatten” interest articulation and how access costs determine who communicates and what gets communicated to politicians. Critically, contrary to concerns that technological innovations benefit the privileged, we find that ICT leads to significant flattening: a greater share of marginalized populations use this channel compared to existing political communication channels. Price matters too, as free messaging increase uptake by about 50%. Surprisingly, subsidy-induced increases in uptake do not yield further flattening since free channels are used at higher rates by both marginalized and well-connected constituents. More subtle strategic hypotheses find little support in the data.

But even if the question of “who participates” is answered in this paper, one is left wondering “as to what effect?”. Fortunately, the authors mention in a footnote that they are collecting data for a companion paper in which they focus on the behavior of MPs, which will hopefully address this issue. Looking forward to reading that one as well.


Also read

Mobile phones and SMS: some data on inclusiveness 

Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

Mobile Connectivity in Africa: Increasing the Likelihood of Violence?

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.