46 favorite reads on democracy, civic tech and a few other interesting things

open book lot

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.  

On Civic Tech and Digital Democracy

2020 was the year where the field of civic tech seemed to take a democratic turn, from fixing potholes to fixing democracy.


Finally, a section as random as 2020.

As mentioned before, the list is already too long. But if there’s anything anyone thinks should absolutely be on this list, please do let me know.

Digital Government: Minding the Empathy Gap*

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re pulling on a door marked “pull” only to realize that you have to “push” to open it? These ubiquitous poorly designed doors are called “Norman doors” that both confuse and embarrass door openers. 

Online, certain experiences are not so different from physical Norman doors. Imagine that you are trying to accomplish a task online, such as requesting a service or paying a bill, but you just cannot understand what you have to do to get it done. It’s not your fault: you have just been victim of bad user experience (UX) design.

Government digital services are particularly prone to bad UX design – with users in some cases preferring to interact with government in-person  rather than having to go through even more cumbersome and unintelligible online  processes.

Less visible to the public, civil servants themselves are also victims: software developed to conduct simple and menial tasks are so poorly designed that training to use them is required. In the worst, and unfortunately common scenario, civil servants refuse to adopt a new piece of software, despite training that often substitutes for real change management to usable digital processes. And behind narratives of “resistance to change” and “poor ownership” of software, often hides poor UX design; something that cannot be solved by decrees or dollars alone. 

In the private sector, poor UX gets you out of business. In the public sector, exceptions apart, users are blamed for low uptake. But it doesn’t always have to be this way. 

Enter UX research and design

The term user experience was coined in 1993 by the famous cognitive psychologist and designer Don Norman, while conducting human interaction research and application at Apple Computers. As put by Norman, going beyond human-computer interaction, user experience covers “all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.”

In the private sector, the concept of user experience has been operationalized through user research. In general, the term user research refers to a continuous research process, that allows to learn about users and create services that increasingly meet their needs. Focusing on understanding users’ behaviors, needs, and motivations, user research employs a number of methods, such as card sorting task analysis, and usability testing. Companies like Google, Netflix and Airbnb take user research seriously, dedicating sizeable budgets to these activities. There are good reasons for this: research estimates that on average, every dollar invested in UX brings 100 in return , an ROI of 9,900%, with firms considering UX capacity “a matter of survival”.

A growing number of governments are starting to give UX research the attention that it deserves, such as the UK’s Government Digital Service United States Digital Service Unit, and Team Digitale in Italy, to cite a few. A smaller number of governments in lower- and middle-income countries are also starting to embrace this approach. For example, Argentina’s government created a new digital driving license, replacing physical cards with a digital document stored on users’ smartphones. Through a combination of user research and agile software development, the government delivered the new license in 65 days. In a similar vein, in Moldova, the combination of user research and process reengineering led to the elimination of several steps for parents’ enrollment in the country’s child care benefits program: workload for enrollment and processing benefits were reduced by 70%, dramatically reducing the time for benefits to reach the families.

Service design and the empathy gap

Studies by cognitive scientists and psychologists consistently reveal an empathy gap where decision-makers overestimate the similarity between what they value and what others value. Part of this effect stems from decision-makers’ natural incapacity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. In this respect, one of the core functions of user research is precisely bridging this empathy gap, allowing the researcher to better capture the user’s perspective.

If by now user research should be a prerequisite for the design of any services, this is even more true for services in developing countries. This is so because, the more different the realities of two individuals, the larger the empathy gap between the two of them. This includes socio-economic background, including age, gender, ethnic background, or disabilities, as well as digital literacy. And all else equal, the less developed a country the less likely public services are designed by people who use them, or who share experiences that are closer to that of the end-users. In that case it is common to find, for instance, designers of public transport systems who use private drivers and health experts who never received treatment in a public hospital. The result are services built on a larger empathy gap, conceived by people whose frame of reference is even more distant from everyday users.

If governments are willing to deliver digital services that truly add value to their users, they will have to start paying significantly more attention to user research than they currently do. In practice, closing the empathy gap requires a number of steps that are worth highlighting. First, governments should be directly employing public servants who have skills in user research, combined with professionals with additional Internet-era skills such as digital design and agile project management. Second, governments should adopt a “users’ needs” first approach when prioritizing which services are digitized. That is, instead of relying on a checklist approach to ‘eServices’, governments let user research guide them on which services should be digitized. Finally, governments should abandon the number of services provided as a measure of success and instead, focus on the number of users who get services that are faster, cheaper and more efficient.

We are cognizant that for some government and development professionals, these three steps may be considered a tall ask. But that’s the only way forward if we want to avoid reproducing digital Norman doors, wasting resources and further frustrating public service users. 

*Co-authored with Kai Kaiser and Huong Thi Lan Tran, originally posted in the World Bank’s Governance for Development blog.

2020 and beyond: 11 predictions at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement

pic by @jmuniz on Unsplah

The rapid evolution of digital technologies has been changing relationships between governments and citizens around the world.  These shifts make it the right time to pose the key question a new World Bank publication explores: 

Will digital technologies, both those that are already widespread and those that are still emerging, have substantial impacts on the way citizens engage and the ways in which power is sought, used, or contested?

The report, Emerging Digital Technologies and Citizen Participation, benefits from the insights of 30 leading scholars and practitioners, and explores what technology might mean for citizen engagement and politics in the coming years. 

The report argues that, regardless of lower technology penetration levels, and given more malleable governance contexts, developing countries may be more influenced by the effects of emerging technologies than older states with greater rigidity and legacy technologies. Digitally influenced citizen engagement is potentially a “leapfrog” area in which developing nations may exploit emerging technologies before the wealthier parts of the world.  

But countries can leapfrog to worse futures, not only better ones. The report also conveys concerns about the negative effects digital technologies can have on the governance of nations. Yet, despite emerging challenges, it contends that new and better citizen engagement approaches are possible. 

What is missing from public discourse is a discussion of the wide range of options that citizens and decision-makers can call upon to enhance their interactions and manage risks. To consider these options, the report makes 11 predictions regarding the effects of technology on citizen engagement in the coming years, and their policy implications. It also offers six measures that would be prudent for governments to take to mitigate risks and leverage opportunities that technological development brings about. 

None of the positive scenarios predicted will emerge without deliberate and intentional actions to support them. And the extent to which they can be shaped to further societal goals will depend on constructive dialogue between governments and citizens themselves. Ultimately, this new publication aims to contribute to this dialogue, so that both developing and developed countries are more likely to leap into better futures. 


Text co-authored with Tom Steinberg, originally cross-posted from the World Bank’s Governance for Development blog. You can also read another article about this report in Apolitical here. While I’m at it: if you work in public service and care about making government work better, I highly recommend Apolitical, a peer-to-peer learning platform for government, sharing smart ideas in policy globally. Join for free here .

New Research on Participatory Governance and Tax Compliance

At the World Bank, we have published two new studies on the effect of citizen engagement on tax morale and tax compliance.

In the first, published last month, we examine the Brazilian case, using data from all 5,570 municipalities in the country. We focus on two types of institutions that municipalities can voluntarily adopt to give citizens the opportunity to voice their preferences on policies and spending: public policy councils and participatory budgeting. Municipalities who adopt these practices collect significantly more local taxes. For instance, the adoption of participatory budgeting leads to the collection of up to 39% more tax revenues. Overall, the increase in municipal budgets is equivalent to roughly 40% of their capital investment spending.

But how context-dependent are these findings?

In the second study, published last week, we present results from the largest cross-country experiment ever conducted on tax morale. A unique online experiment, the study involved 65,000 individuals across 50 countries from all continents. Our results show that regardless of government systems, levels of development and culture, citizens are more committed to tax compliance when they: i) are able to voice their preferences about government spending, and ii) learn about government oversight of public resources.

I hope you will enjoy the reading.

Of Governance and Revenue: Participatory Institutions and Tax Compliance in Brazil

Michael Touchton, Brian Wampler and Tiago C. Peixoto

Abstract: Traditionally, governments seek to mobilize tax revenues by expanding their enforcement of existing tax regimes and facilitating tax payments. However, enforcement and facilitation can be costly and produce diminishing marginal returns if citizens are unwilling to pay their taxes. This paper addresses gaps in knowledge about tax compliance, by asking a basic question: what explains why citizens and businesses comply with tax rules? To answer this question, the paper shows how the voluntary adoption of two different types of participatory governance institutions influences municipal tax collection in Brazil. Municipalities that voluntarily adopt participatory institutions collect significantly higher levels of taxes than similar municipalities without these institutions. The paper provides evidence that moves scholarship on tax compliance beyond enforcement and facilitation paradigms, while offering a better assessment of the role of local democratic institutions for government performance and tax compliance.

Voice and Punishment : A Global Survey Experiment on Tax Morale

Fredrik M. Sjoberg, Jonathan Mellon, Tiago C. Peixoto, Johannes Hemker and Lily L. Tsai

Abstract: An online survey experiment spanning 50 countries finds sizable improvements in tax morale when (a) the salience of anti-corruption efforts is increased and (b) citizens are allowed to voice their expenditure preferences to the government. These results hold very broadly across a uniquely large and diverse sample of respondents from all continents. The findings are consistent with theories emphasizing the role of democratic accountability, as well as of perceptions of legitimacy and “retributive justice,” in generating voluntary tax compliance. Implications and avenues for further research are discussed.

French Development Agency Champions the Commons as New Vision for Development

The word “development” has long been associated with the Western project of promoting technological and economic “progress” for the world’s marginalized countries.  The thinking has been:  With enough support to build major infrastructure projects, expand private property rights, and build market regimes, the poor nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia can escape their poverty and become "modern" -- prosperous, happy consumers and entrepreneurs poised to enter a bright future driven by economic growth and technology.

That idea hasn’t worked out so well.

As climate change intensifies, the ecological implications of growth-based “development” are now alarming if not fatuous. The 2008 financial crisis exposed the sham of self-regulating “free markets” and the structural political corruption, consumer predation and wealth inequality that they tend to entail.  And culturally, people are starting to realize, even in poorer countries, that the satisfactions of mass consumerism are a mirage. A life defined by a dependency on global markets and emulation of western lifestyles is a pale substitute for a life embedded in native cultures, languages and social norms, and enlivened by working partnerships with nature and peers.

It is therefore exciting to learn that Agence Française de Développement (AFD) – the French development agency, based in Paris – is actively considering the commons as a “future cornerstone of development.”

A key voice for this shift in perspective at AFD is Chief Economist Gaël Giraud, who boldly acknowledges that “growth is no longer a panacea.”  He compares the current economic predicament to the plight of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, who had to keep running faster and faster just to stay in the same place.  (For a short video interview with Giraud, in French, click here.  Here is an AFD webpage devoted to various commons issues.)

In a blog post outlining his views of the commons and development (and not necessarily reflecting those of AFD), Giraud cited the loss of biodiversity of species as a major reason for a strategic shift in “development” goals. “The last mass extinction phase [of five previous ones in the planet’s history] affected dinosaurs and 40% of animal species 65 million years ago,” writes Giraud. “At each of these phases, a substantial proportion of fauna was lost within a phenomenon of a massive decline of biodiversity.”

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Beyond Development: The Commons as a New/Old Paradigm of Human Flourishing

On June 21, I gave a presentation to a number of staffers and others at the Agence Française de Développement in Paris outlining my vision of the commons as an alternative vision of "development."  The talk was entitled "Beyond Development:  The Commons as a New/Old Paradigm of Human Flourishing."  Here are my prepared remarks:

I am grateful to be back in your lovely city, and I am grateful for your invitation to speak today about the commons as a new vision of “development.”  As the planet reels from the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change, we are seeing the distinct limits of the prevailing paradigms of economic thought, governance, law and politics.  While collapse and catastrophe have their own lurid attraction to many, the human species – and our governments – have a duty to seriously entertain the questions:  What new structures and logics will serve us better?  How can we better meet basic human needs – not just materially, but socially and spiritually?  And can we move beyond rhetoric and general abstractions to practical, concrete actions?

After studying the commons for nearly twenty years as an independent scholar and activist, I have come to the conclusion that the commons hold great promise in answering these questions.  But it is not a ready-made “solution” so much as a general paradigm and organizing perspective – embodied, fortunately, in thousands of instructive examples.  The commons is a lens that helps us understand what it means to be a human being in meaningful relation to other people and to the Earth.  This then becomes the standard by which we try to design our social institutions.

Talking about the commons forces us to grapple with the checkered history of “development” policy and what it reveals about global capitalism and poorer, marginalized countries.  We have long known that development objectives tend to reflect the political priorities of rich, industrialized western nations, particularly their interests in economic growth and private capital accumulation. 

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New IDS Journal – 9 Papers in Open Government

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The new IDS Bulletin is out. Edited by Rosemary McGee and Duncan Edwards, this is the first open access version of the well-known journal by the Institute of Development Studies. It brings eight new studies looking at a variety of open government issues, ranging from uptake in digital platforms to government responsiveness in civic tech initiatives. Below is a brief presentation of this issue:

Open government and open data are new areas of research, advocacy and activism that have entered the governance field alongside the more established areas of transparency and accountability. In this IDS Bulletin, articles review recent scholarship to pinpoint contributions to more open, transparent, accountable and responsive governance via improved practice, projects and programmes in the context of the ideas, relationships, processes, behaviours, policy frameworks and aid funding practices of the last five years. They also discuss questions and weaknesses that limit the effectiveness and impact of this work, offer a series of definitions to help overcome conceptual ambiguities, and identify hype and euphemism. The contributions – by researchers and practitioners – approach contemporary challenges of achieving transparency, accountability and openness from a wide range of subject positions and professional and disciplinary angles. Together these articles give a sense of what has changed in this fast-moving field, and what has not – this IDS Bulletin is an invitation to all stakeholders to take stock and reflect.

The ambiguity around the ‘open’ in governance today might be helpful in that its very breadth brings in actors who would otherwise be unlikely adherents. But if the fuzzier idea of ‘open government’ or the allure of ‘open data’ displace the task of clear transparency, hard accountability and fairer distribution of power as what this is all about, then what started as an inspired movement of governance visionaries may end up merely putting a more open face on an unjust and unaccountable status quo.

Among others, the journal presents an abridged version of a paper by Jonathan Fox and myself on digital technologies and government responsiveness (for full version download here).

Below is a list of all the papers:

Rosie McGee, Duncan Edwards
Tiago Peixoto, Jonathan Fox
Katharina Welle, Jennifer Williams, Joseph Pearce
Miguel Loureiro, Aalia Cassim, Terence Darko, Lucas Katera, Nyambura Salome
Elizabeth Mills
Laura Neuman
David Calleb Otieno, Nathaniel Kabala, Patta Scott-Villiers, Gacheke Gachihi, Diana Muthoni Ndung’u
Christopher Wilson, Indra de Lanerolle
Emiliano Treré


World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends

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The World Development Report 2016, the main annual publication of the World Bank, is out. This year’s theme is Digital Dividends, examining the role of digital technologies in the promotion of development outcomes. The findings of the WDR are simultaneously encouraging and sobering. Those skeptical of the role of digital technologies in development might be surprised by some of the results presented in the report. Technology advocates from across the spectrum (civic tech, open data, ICT4D) will inevitably come across some facts that should temper their enthusiasm.

While some may disagree with the findings, this Report is an impressive piece of work, spread across six chapters covering different aspects of digital technologies in development: 1) accelerating growth, 2) expanding opportunities, 3) delivering services, 4) sectoral policies, 5) national priorities, 6) global cooperation. My opinion may be biased, as somebody who made some modest contributions to the Report, but I believe that, to date, this is the most thorough effort to examine the effects of digital technologies on development outcomes. The full report can be downloaded here.

The report draws, among other things, from 14 background papers that were prepared by international experts and World Bank staff. These background papers serve as additional reading for those who would like to examine certain issues more closely, such as social media, net neutrality, and the cybersecurity agenda.

For those interested in citizen participation and civic tech, one of the papers written by Prof. Jonathan Fox and myself – When Does ICT-Enabled Citizen Voice Lead to Government Responsiveness? – might be of particular interest. Below is the abstract:

This paper reviews evidence on the use of 23 information and communication technology (ICT) platforms to project citizen voice to improve public service delivery. This meta-analysis focuses on empirical studies of initiatives in the global South, highlighting both citizen uptake (‘yelp’) and the degree to which public service providers respond to expressions of citizen voice (‘teeth’). The conceptual framework further distinguishes between two trajectories for ICT-enabled citizen voice: Upwards accountability occurs when users provide feedback directly to decision-makers in real time, allowing policy-makers and program managers to identify and address service delivery problems – but at their discretion. Downwards accountability, in contrast, occurs either through real time user feedback or less immediate forms of collective civic action that publicly call on service providers to become more accountable and depends less exclusively on decision-makers’ discretion about whether or not to act on the information provided. This distinction between the ways in which ICT platforms mediate the relationship between citizens and service providers allows for a precise analytical focus on how different dimensions of such platforms contribute to public sector responsiveness. These cases suggest that while ICT platforms have been relevant in increasing policymakers’ and senior managers’ capacity to respond, most of them have yet to influence their willingness to do so.

You can download the paper here.

Any feedback on our paper or models proposed (see below, for instance) would be extremely welcome.


unpacking user feedback and civic action: difference and overlap

I also list below the links to all the background papers and their titles

Enjoy the reading.

When Citizen Engagement Saves Lives (and what we can learn from it)

When it comes to the relationship between participatory institutions and development outcomes, participatory budgeting stands out as one of the best examples out there. For instance, in a paper recently published in World Development,  Sonia Gonçalves finds that municipalities that adopted participatory budgeting in Brazil “favoured an allocation of public expenditures that closely matched the popular preferences and channeled a larger fraction of their total budget to key investments in sanitation and health services.”  As a consequence, the author also finds that this change in the allocation of public expenditures “is associated with a pronounced reduction in the infant mortality rates for municipalities which adopted participatory budgeting.”

Evolution of Expenditure Share in Health and Sanitation compared between adopters and non-adopters of PB (Goncalves 2013).

Evolution of  the share of expenditures in health and sanitation compared between adopters and non-adopters of participatory budgeting (Goncalves 2013).

Now, in an excellent new article published in Comparative Political Studies, the authors Michael Touchton and Brian Wampler come up with similar findings (abstract):

We evaluate the role of a new type of democratic institution, participatory budgeting (PB), for improving citizens’ well-being. Participatory institutions are said to enhance governance, citizens’ empowerment, and the quality of democracy, creating a virtuous cycle to improve the poor’s well-being. Drawing from an original database of Brazil’s largest cities over the last 20 years, we assess whether adopting PB programs influences several indicators of well-being inputs, processes, and outcomes. We find PB programs are strongly associated with increases in health care spending, increases in civil society organizations, and decreases in infant mortality rates. This connection strengthens dramatically as PB programs remain in place over longer time frames. Furthermore, PB’s connection to well-being strengthens in the hand of mayors from the nationally powerful, ideologically and electorally motivated Workers’ Party. Our argument directly addresses debates on democracy and well-being and has powerful implications for participation, governance, and economic development.

When put together, these findings provide compelling evidence for those who – often unfamiliar with the literature – question the effectiveness of participatory governance institutions. Surely, more research is needed, and different citizen engagement initiatives (and contexts) may lead to different results.

But these articles also bring another important takeaway for those working with development and public sector reform. And that is the need to consider the fact that participatory institutions (as most institutional reforms) may take time to produce desirable/noticeable effects. As noted by Touchton and Wampler:

 The relationships we describe between PB and health and sanitation spending, PB and CSOs, and PB and health care outcomes in this section are greater in magnitude and stronger in statistical significance for municipalities that have used PB for a longer period of time. Municipalities using PB for less than 4 years do exhibit lower infant mortality rates than municipalities that never adopted PB. However, there is no statistically significant difference in spending on health care and sanitation between municipalities using PB for less than 4 years and municipalities that never adopted the program. This demonstrates the benefits from adopting PB are not related to low-hanging fruit, but built over a great number of years. Our results imply PB is associated with long-term institutional and political change—not just short-term shifts in funding priorities .

If throughout the years participatory budgeting has produced  evidence of its effectiveness on a number of fronts (e.g. pro-poor spending), it is only 25 years after its first implementation in Brazil that we start to see systematic evidence of sound development outcomes such as reduction in infant mortality. In other words, rushing to draw conclusions at early stages of participatory governance interventions may result in misleading assessments. Even worse, it may lead to discontinuing efforts that are yet to bear fruit in the medium and longer terms.

10 Most Read Posts in 2013

Below is a selection of the 10 most read posts at DemocracySpot in 2013. Thanks to all of those who stopped by throughout the year, and happy 2014.

1. Does transparency lead to trust? Some evidence on the subject.

2. The Foundations of Motivation for Citizen Engagement

3. Open Government, Feedback Loops, and Semantic Extravaganza

4. Open Government and Democracy

5. What’s Wrong with e-Petitions and How to Fix them

6. Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation

7. Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

8. The Effect of SMS on Participation: Evidence from Uganda

9. The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability

10. Lisbon Revisited: Notes on Participation