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?

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.




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).



The Fateful Choice: The Pilgrims Assign Private Property Rights in Land

On the eve of Thanksgiving here in the US, Andro Linklater, the author of a new book, Owning the Earth:  The Transforming History of Land Ownership (Bloomsbury), describes how the Pilgrims imposed their notions of private property on the land commons in the New World.  The consequences – while perhaps inevitable, whether from them or other settlers – were nonetheless pivotal in the future development of America.  Lanklater published an excerpt of his book recently on the Bloomberg News website. (Tragically, Linklater died a week before his book’s publication on November 12.)

In 1623, William Bradford, the future governor of the colony, declared that land would be privately owned and managed, with each family assigned a parcel of land “according to the proportion of their number.”  This decision had profound effects on how individual Pilgrims managed their land and related to each other.  

As Bradford wrote:  ‘‘And no man now thought he could live except he had catle and a great deale of ground to keep them all, all striving to increase their stocks. By which means they were scattered all over the bay quickly and the towne in which they lived compactly till now was left very thinne.’’ You might say that private property rights in land were the beginning of suburban sprawl. 

Linklater points out that the native people, the Wampanaog, had allowed individual parcels of land to be used and occupied by individual families, but no one could have exclusive, permanent ownership of the land.  As the Wampanaog leader Massasoit explained:  ‘‘The land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish, and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?’’

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Adding Art to Public Meetings

We hope you’ll take a moment to read this inspiring article about the power of art in public meetings - and in this case, the art of words – from our friends at AmericaSpeaks. You can read it below or find the original post on their blog by clicking here.


The Power of Spoken Word

We have facilitated hundreds of public meetings over the past 18 years. All are memorable in their own right, but some have special moments that are unforgettable.

At our Creating Community Solutions DC meeting on Saturday, October 12th, we facilitated a day-long meeting for 400 participants on mental health in the District. We had a fantastic turnout, literally standing room only, and particularly of youth aged 15-24, with more than 120 participating.

In every meeting, we try to feature local talent of one type or another – whether it be a band that plays prior to the beginning of a meeting or an exercise leader who leads an energetic stretch break for participants 4 or 5 hours into the meeting.

At Creating Community Solutions, we had the honor of including two very talented, precocious teenage spoken word artists, both from the DC Youth Slam Team.

Both artists – Amina Iro and Thomas “Vocab” Hill – have been performing for the past year, and have competed in national contests like the 2013 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival.

Amina performed first, a powerful poem about the depression her mother has battled and the impact it has on her mom, herself, and her family. The crowd gave her an extended standing ovation.

Later in the morning Vocab performed a moving piece about his uncle, a veteran, who suffers PTSD after several tours in Iraq. He too brought down the house.

Whereas the rest of the day focused on conveying critical data and information about mental health and illness and featured in-depth and sometimes difficult conversations about what challenges youth face and how do we overcome these challenges, these artistic moments served to inspire, energize, and focus the audience on the critical nature of the convening.

Art can make an enormous difference in so many parts of our lives. And, even in unlikely settings like a public meeting on a public policy concern.

Thank you Amina and Thomas!

To read more about Creating Community Solutions DC, CLICK HERE.

15% Discount for NCDD Members on Harwood Lab

Mike Wood of the Harwood Institute shared on the listserv today that they still have a few spaces left in their national Public Innovators Lab, happening December 10-12 in Alexandria, VA (at United Way Worldwide’s Mary Gates Learning Center). Every NCDD member gets a 15% rebate on the price. You can register here and when you input your organization’s name, just add “-NCDD” after the name and you’ll get the 15% percent rebate on whatever credit card you use to pay the fee.

HarwoodLogoThis is a 3-day learning session where we take you through all of the essential Harwood tools and frameworks that are designed to help you develop a deep understanding of your community through conversations and then use that public knowledge to shape your strategies and change the way you operate inside and out. We cover topics such as:

  • Understanding your community’s “stage of community life” and the implications for how you structure your community change agenda.
  • Assessing your “public capital” – there are nine factors of public capital – the essential ingredients of community. Learn how you develop strategies that actually create public capital at the same time (what we call finding the sweet spot).
  • The 3 A’s of Public Life – Authority, Authenticity and Accountability – assess yourself and your organization against the 3 A’s and learn about how to cultivate these characteristics
  • Turning Outward and “The Turn Quiz” – what it means to be turned outward in your work and how you can easily engage with your staff and teams on whether you have a outward or inwardly focused culture.

Learn more at

Two Job Openings at the Orton Family Foundation

Orton LogoOur partners at the Orton Family Foundation, an NCDD member organization, have recently announced two great job opportunities that we wanted to make sure all of our NCDD members hear about. Orton is looking for a new Senior Associate in Outreach & Strategic Partnerships and for a new Communications Associate, and we know that there are lots of NCDD members out there who would be great for the positions.

You can read about the current job openings, as well as future ones, on the Orton website at, or you can check out the descriptions below.

The Senior Associate position is described briefly below, and you can find the full job description by clicking here.

Senior Associate, Outreach & Strategic Partnerships: This full-time position reports to the Executive Director. Applicants must possess a strong commitment to the success and future of small towns and cities in rural areas and to the Orton Family Foundation’s philosophy and mission.  Travel will be required and needed for achievement of goals.

The ideal candidate must: have a minimum 5 years of demonstrated success at identifying and forming purposeful relationships with program/organizational/business strategic partners; be a tech-savvy and people-oriented professional who can set and achieve goals to grow program support among individual supporters and mutually aligned groups; be able to persuasively communicate the Foundation’s Mission and Purpose; be a self-starter who can develop direction and activities for success. Primarily an externally focused position, candidate must have strong commitment to accountability to and communication with fellow Foundation staff that develop and implement mission driven program and communication activities. Must have a deep commitment to and passion for the life, culture, heritage, and future of rural small towns and cities across the USA.

And next, the brief description of the Communications Associate position is below, with the full job description available here.

Communications Associate: This full-time position will report to the Communications Director and work closely with Foundation staff to shape and strengthen the Foundation’s voice and coordinate its message, with particular emphasis on responsibility for the Foundation’s website and the promotion and marketing of its offerings.

The ideal candidate will have: at least 4-5 years experience in media and digital marketing; a college degree; strong written and verbal skills; extensive website management experience; public relations, publicity, and marketing experience; fluency in social media, blogs, and other online promotional channels; creative thinking and a willingness to take risks; knowledge of multimedia production and online distribution; mastery of Microsoft tools; ability to manage people and projects; a spirited, directed work style.

We encourage NCDD members to consider applying for either of these great positions by sending your resume and cover letter to Make sure to share the openings with your friends and colleagues, too.

The application deadline is Friday, December 20th, so don’t let the date sneak up on you. Good luck to all the applicants!

lowering the voting age to 17

(New York City) One of the recommendations of our major recent report, “All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement,” is to experiment with lowering the voting age to 17 in local and state elections. Voting for the first time at 18 is a bit problematic, because that is just when many people have left the communities in which they grew up for work or college. They are suddenly in networks of other 18-year-olds, in which everyone is new to politics, and less connected to older adults. On the other hand, if you could vote at 17, you could register in school and learn about the political system and how to vote in your social studies class.

In November, Takoma Park, MD tried it. Their 16- and 17-year-old residents voted in the city’s municipal election. Their turnout was 16.9%, nearly double the 8.5% turnout rate of eligible residents 18 and up.

This is a tiny data point–one election in one small community. A possible explanation for the respectable turnout is that it was the first time; there was a “buzz” about the new right to vote. We know that the first presidential election in which 18-21′s could vote, 1972, set a turnout record never since matched. But the more optimistic explanation is that Takoma Park kids heard about the election in school and were encouraged to vote. That could happen every year.

The post lowering the voting age to 17 appeared first on Peter Levine.