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.

Survey of young adults further exposes the challenges for US democracy. But addressing them could be an opportunity to reimagine democracy.

I just came across the recently published data from the GenForward project in the United States, a nationally representative survey of over 3,000 young adults aged 18-36 conducted by political scientist Cathy Cohen at the University of Chicago. The new data on race, young adults, and the 2020 elections paints a challenging picture of how young adults in the country perceive institutions and democracy. For those who think the recent election outcome put democracy back on track, these results reveal important challenges, but also opportunities.

  1. Negative enthusiasm takes the lead in young voters’ motivations

Prior to the election, in an interview with the Washington Post, Donald Trump  asserted that “Negative enthusiasm doesn’t win races. Positive enthusiasm, meaning ‘they like somebody’ is how elections are won.” But judging from the survey, negative enthusiasm was determinant in young voters’ choices: 64% of respondents said they would vote for Joe Biden precisely because they disliked the other candidate. There are significant differences across the profiles of respondents: for instance, only 28% of white respondents indicated that they would vote for Biden because they were enthusiastic about the candidate, while this number reaches 47% for black respondents.  

While these numbers can be disheartening, one could say they just show democracy at work, with young adults sanctioning the incumbent at the ballots. Add to that the polarized nature of elections, and the results are hardly surprising. But could this also reveal something more worrisome, particularly in the long-term? After all, research shows that voting is a rather habit-forming behavior: a citizen who votes today is more likely to vote in the future, and an 18- year-old who votes for a certain party now is likely to be voting for the same party when he turns 81. Does antagonistic voting behavior follow the same pattern? If it does, what signal does it send to parties? And what does it mean for the future of US democracy if such adversarial behavior crystalizes in the long-term?

  1. Perception of elite capture and de facto disenfranchisement 

Overall, 83% of respondents agreed (strongly or somewhat) with the statement that “the government is run by a few big interests, looking out for themselves and their friends.”

These results may seem surprising, but how do they fit with reality? Let’s take, for instance, the US Congress. While only 3% of the US population is made up of millionaires, in Congress they are a majority. And while workers make up more than half (52%) of the US population, they are only 2% in Congress. Is this exclusive club of Congress an exception in American politics? Unfortunately not. When looking at all levels of US government, politicians from working class backgrounds are less than a tenth of all elected officials. 

Some might argue that these disparities are not necessarily problematic, as elected individuals can act on behalf of broader interests. But as the saying goes, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Similar to most representative systems around the world, US policymaking is systematically biased towards the interests of the wealthier. So, while it may be depressing that 83% of young adults feel the government is run by a few big interests, it is understandable in the face of a governmental model that is, unfortunately, by the rich and for the rich. This discredit of representative institutions is reinforced by another result of the survey: 75% of young Americans agree (strongly or somewhat) with the statement “The leaders in government care very little about people like me”, revealing a sense of political alienation.  

4) Between discredit and revolution 

Young adults were also asked about the most effective way to drive real change in the country. And their responses tell us a lot about how they currently perceive traditional democratic institutions and their capacity to address collective issues. First, only 16% of respondents answered that real change can be achieved by voting in national elections. In other words, the overwhelming majority of young adults in the US reject the notion of voting in presidential elections as the ultimate democratic practice in the country. 

Second, 22% of respondents find that voting in state and local elections is the most effective way to bring about change. One can only speculate on the reasons for this, but here are a few potential explanations that come to mind. In socioeconomic terms, sub-national institutions are slightly more representative than national ones. This, at least hypothetically, should make these institutions marginally more responsive to larger constituencies. Also, given that most of the participatory institutions that allow citizens to impact decision-making in the US are at the sub-national level (e.g. referendums, initiatives), citizens may perceive state level institutions as being more responsive. Finally, the recent protagonism of some state  governments in the response to the Covid-19 crisis might also play a part in these views. 

Third,  38% of responses on the most effective ways to create real change in the US mention unconventional (non-electoral) forms of public participation, including categories such as protests, boycotts and social media campaigns. This is the same proportion as answers mentioning voting in elections, presidential and subnational, combined. Most strikingly, the third-most selected means to bring about change is “revolution” (14%). While the term revolution is not clearly defined here, this result certainly shows an eagerness for structural change in the way American democracy works, rather than milder reforms that are unlikely to alter the status quo. If we add revolution to the list of non-electoral forms of participation, these represent a total of 52% of survey responses. 

In short, the majority of young Americans between 18 and 36 years old, a sizable part of the electorate, finds that the best way to effect real change in the US lies outside typical democratic institutions. Even the much celebrated “return to [pre-2016] normalcy” following the recent election result is unlikely to reverse this picture on its own. After all, it was this very political normalcy of recent decades, characterized by inequality and poor responsiveness, that led to the situation that now affects US democracy. 

Not indifferent to the fact that a return to the pre-2016 era is unlikely to be sustainable, there are now a number of proposals on the table for how American democracy could be strengthened. These include, for instance, the Protecting our Democracy Act, the six strategies put forward by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, and the implementation of proportional voting, most effectively defended in Lee Drutman’s recent book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.

While most of the proposed reforms are well-intended and likely to produce positive results, they are unlikely to address the fundamental issue of unequal responsiveness that affects liberal democracies nowadays. Furthermore, given the context of polarization and distrust, any democratic reforms undertaken by political elites alone are bound to have their legitimacy questioned by a large part of the population. What the numbers of the GenSurvey reveal, above all, is a sense of disenfranchisement and a belief that public decisions are taken by “few big interests, looking out for themselves and their friends.” 

Citizens will be wary of any attempts to change the rules of the game, but particularly if these changes are defined by those who benefit the most from the current rules. Thus, efforts to rebuild the foundations of modern democracy, be it in the US or elsewhere, are unlikely to be sustainable if citizens are not effectively included in the process. In that case, why not constitute a large citizens’ assembly on democratic reform, to be subsequently validated through the popular vote? Or, as suggested by Archon Fung, why not empower ordinary citizens to make recommendations to Congress and the administration on how to address democratic issues?

The modalities for citizen involvement in this process are multiple. And while some models may be more feasible than others, one thing is certain: tokenistic approaches to citizen participation in democratic reforms are equally doomed to fail. Addressing the challenges highlighted by this survey will require more than politics as usual. But this can also be an opportunity for Americans to collectively reimagine the democracy they want. 


The Democratic Lottery*

With a newly elected President and the most fragmented Parliament in its history, Brazilian politics are likely headed for gridlock. Lottery could well be the solution.

Tiago Peixoto and Guilherme Lessa


For many Brazilians who recently cast their ballots to elect a new President, the choice was between the unacceptable and the scandalous. Mr. Bolsonaro, the winning candidate, received 39.3% of votes, while abstentions, null and blank votes accounted for 28.5%. A record 7.4% of votes were null, the largest percentage since Brazil’s transition to democracy in the late 1980’s. Considering that voting is compulsory in Brazil, these figures signal a deep and persistent disbelief in democracy as a means to improve the life of the average citizen. When asked about her preferred candidate at the polling station, it would not be unthinkable for a voter to respond “I’d rather randomly pick any Brazilian to run the country.”

The idea may seem absurd, or a symptom of the ideological schizophrenia that now ravages Brazil, where the two contenders for the highest office were diametrically opposed and their supporters’ main argument was “the other is worse.” Research conducted in the United States indicates that the electorate’s mistrust of their representatives is far from being a Brazilian idiosyncrasy: 43% of American voters state they would trust a group of people randomly selected through a lottery more than they trust elected members of the Executive or Legislative.

Many political scientists view this as a symptom of a global crisis of representation, a growing distance between representatives and the represented, both part of a machine mediated by parties that are disconnected from everyday life and often involved in corruption scandals. While political parties are suffering decreasing membership, political campaigns are increasingly dependent on large donations and mass media campaigns – all of which can be done without the engagement of everyday citizens. The disconnect between citizens and their representatives has driven the international success of candidates who claim to be political outsiders (even if they are not) and private sector meritocrats.

Representative democracy has always suffered from an inherent contradiction: electoral processes do not generate representative results. Think of the teacher who asks her students who wants to be the class representative. Only one or two students raise their hand. To be a representative does not require broad knowledge of the reality of the represented but, rather, an extroverted and sociable personality which, ultimately, lends itself to the role to be played. In the case of elections, the availability of time and money for campaigning, as well as support from the party machinery, are also predicting factors in who gets to run and, most importantly, who gets to win.

The bias generated by electoral processes can take several forms, but is particularly visible in terms of gender, race and income. For instance, despite high turnover in the Brazilian Legislative, the numbers remain disheartening. While half of the population is female, their participation in the House of Representatives stands at a meager 15%. Similarly, 75% of House members identify as white, compared to 44% of the Brazilian population. The mismatch is not unique to Brazil. As reported by Nicholas Carnes in his recent book The Cash Ceiling, in the United States, while millionaires represent only three percent of the American population, they are a majority in Congress. While working-class people make up half of US citizens, they only account for two percent of members of Congress.

The denial of politics as a symptom of this disconnect demonstrates the extent to which inclusiveness in politics matters, bringing about some worrisome consequences. Heroic exceptions aside, the election of new representatives generally fails to alter the propensity of the electoral machine to reproduce its own logic. The Brazilian electoral system, like that of other modern democracies, continues to produce legislative bodies that fail to represent the diversity of their electorate. Changing politicians does not necessarily imply changing politics.

Fixing this imbalance between the electorate and the elected is a complex matter with which many scholars of democracy have grappled. An increasingly popular proposal among political scientists is the use of lottery as a complementary means to select Legislative representatives. Proponents of this approach describe several advantages, of which three are worth highlighting. First, a body of representatives selected by lottery would be more representative of the population as a whole, resulting in agendas and policies that are more closely aligned with societal concerns. Second, the influence of money in campaigning – a constant source of scandal and corruption – would be eliminated. Finally, and in line with well-established research in the field of decision-making, a more diverse legislative body would be collectively smarter, generating decisions that could maximize the public good.

But how would this work in practice?

“Let’s hold a lottery!”, says the spokesperson for today’s miracle solution. Lottery, after all, does have its precedents in democracy’s formative history. For over a century in classical Athens, randomly selected citizens were responsible for important advances in legislation and public policy. Similarly, at its height, the Republic of Florence used lottery to allocate some of the most important positions in the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary. Today, several countries use juries composed of randomly selected citizens as a means to ensure impartiality and efficacy within the Judiciary.    

Globally, we see hundreds of inspiring experiences in which randomly selected citizens deliberate on issues of public interest: in Ireland and Mongolia to guide constitutional reforms; in Canada to inform changes in electoral legislation; in Australia to develop public budgets; and in the United States to support citizens’ legislative initiatives.

Naturally, such a complex and somewhat unexpected proposal brings about a challenging question: how can it be implemented in a way that results in a more representative Legislative? Changing the rules of the game, as we all know, is not a trivial task. Political reform, even if thoroughly thought through, still depends on the approval of those who benefit the most from the status quo.   

The proponents of lottery selection rarely advocate for the direct substitution of members of parliament by randomly selected citizens. Pragmatically, they usually call for the implementation of intermediary strategies, such as the use of citizens’ panels as complementary decision-making processes.

So why not try it?

It is an established fact that Mr. Bolsonaro will be faced with one of the most fragmented congresses in Brazilian history. While his initial popularity may allow the president-elect to pass reforms in the first few months of his mandate, decision paralysis and political gridlock seem inevitable in years to come.What risk, then, would a panel of randomly selected citizens with a voice and a vote in congressional committees dealing with specific policies such as environment and education pose? Like a jury, such a panel would dedicate its time to understanding the facts relating to the subject at hand, listen to different positions, formulate amendments and potentially cast votes on the most divisive issues. It would represent a microcosm of Brazilian public opinion in an environment that is informed, egalitarian and civilized. Although unlikely, such a reform could be the first step towards strengthening the (increasingly weak) link between representatives and the represented.

*Article translated and adapted from original, published in Revista E, ed. 2400, October 2018.

A Brilliant Story of Participation, Technology and Development Outcomes

Brazilian electronic voting machine

A major argument for democratic governance is that more citizen participation leads to better outcomes through an improved alignment between citizens’ preferences and policies. But how does that play out in practice? Looking at the effects of the introduction of electronic voting (EV) in Brazil, a paper by Thomas Fujiwara (Princeton) sheds light on this question. Entitled “Voting Technology, Political Responsiveness, and Infant Health: Evidence from Brazil” (2013), it is one of the best papers I’ve read when it comes to bringing together the issues of technology, participation and development outcomes.

Below is an extract from the paper:

This paper provides evidence on how improving political participation can lead to better service outcomes. It estimates the effects of an electronic voting, or EV, technology in reducing a mundane, but nonetheless important, obstacle to political participation: difficulty in operating ballots. The results indicate that EV caused a large de facto enfranchisement of less educated voters, which lead to the election of more left-wing state legislators, increased public health care spending, utilization (prenatal visits), and infant health (birth weight).

While filling out a ballot may be a trivial task to educated citizens in developed countries, the same is not true in Brazil, where 23% of adults are “unable to read or write a simple note” and 42% did not complete the 4th grade. Moreover, before 1994 Brazilian paper ballots required voters to write a candidate’s name or electoral number and involved only written instructions. This resulted in a substantial quantity of error-ridden and blank ballots being cast, generating a large number of residual votes (not assigned to a candidate and discarded from the tallying of results).

In the mid-1990’s, the Brazilian government developed an EV technology as a substitute for paper ballots. While its introduction aimed at reducing the time and costs of voting counting, other features of the technology, such as the use of candidates’ photographs as visual aids, the use of “error” messages for voters about to cast residual votes, and guiding the voting process step by step, facilitated voting and reduced errors.

(…) Estimates indicate that EV reduced residual voting in state legislature elections by a magnitude larger than 10% of total turnout. Such effect implies that millions of citizens who would have their votes go uncounted when using a paper ballot were de facto enfranchised. Consistent with the hypothesis that these voters were more likely to be less educated, the effects are larger in municipalities with higher illiteracy rates. Moreover, EV raises the vote shares of left-wing parties.

The paper will go on to argue that this enfranchisement of the less educated citizenry did indeed affect public policy. (…) I focus on  state government spending, in particular on an area that disproportionately affects the less educated: health care. Poorer Brazilians rely mostly on a public-funded system for health care services, which richer voters are substantially more likely to use the co-existing private services. The less educated have thus relatively stronger preferences for increased public health care provision, and political economy models predict that increasing their participation leads to higher public spending in this area.

Using data from birth records, I also find that EV raised the number of prenatal visits by women to health professionals and lowered the prevalence of low-weight births (below 2500g), and indicator of newborn health. Moreover, these results hold only for less educated mothers, and I find no effects for the more educated, supporting the interpretation that EV lead to benefits specifically targeted at poorer populations.

Fujiwara’s findings are great for a number of reasons, some of which I highlight below:

  • Participation and policy preferences: The findings in this paper support the argument for democratic governance, showing that an increase in the participation of poorer segments of society ultimately leads to better service results.
  • Institutions and context: The paper indirectly highlights how innovations are intrinsically linked to institutions and their context. For instance, as noted by Fujiwara, “the effect of EV is larger in the proportional representation races where a paper ballot requires writing down the name or number of the candidate (lower chamber of congress and state legislature) than in the plurality races where a paper ballot involves checking a box (senate, governor, and president).” In other words, the electoral system matters, and the Brazilian outcomes would be most likely to be replicated in countries with similar electoral processes (and levels of ballot complexity), rather than those adopting plurality voting systems. (If I remember well, this was one of the findings of a paper by Daniel Hidalgo (unpublished),  comparing the effects of e-voting in Brazil and India: the effects of e-voting for elections in the lower house in India [plurality vote] were smaller than in Brazil). In a similar vein, the effects of the introduction of similar technology would probably be lower in places with higher levels of educational attainment within poor segments of society.
  • Technology and elections: Much of the work on technology and accountability evolves around non-electoral activities that are insulated from existing processes and institutions, which tends to mitigate the chances of real-life impact. And, whether you like it or not, elections remain one of the most pervasive and consequential processes involving citizen participation in public affairs. There seems to be untapped potential for the use of technology to leverage electoral processes (beyond partisan campaigns). Finding ways to better inform voters (e.g. voting advice applications) and to lower the barriers for entry in electoral competition (why not a Rock the Vote for unlikely candidates?) are some of the paths that could be further explored. Fujiwara’s paper show how technology can enhance development outcomes by building on top of existing institutions.
  • Technology and inclusion: For a number of people working with development and public policy, a major concern with technology is the risk of exclusion of  marginalized groups. While that is a legitimate concern, this paper shows the opposite effect, reminding us that it is less about technology and more about the use that one makes of it.
  • Unintended effects: The use of technology in governance processes is full of stories of unintended effects. Most of them are negative ones, epitomized by the case of digitization of land records in Bangalore [PDF]: instead of transparency and efficiency, it led to increased corruption and inefficiencies. Fujiwara’s paper shows that unexpected benefits are also possible. While the primary goal of  the introduction of e-voting in Brazil was related to costs and time, another major unanticipated impact was better service outcomes. If unintended effects are often overlooked by practitioners and researchers alike, this paper highlights the need to look for effects beyond those originally intended.

All of these points, added to the methodological approach adopted by Fujiwara, are good reasons to read the paper. You can find it here [PDF].

Education, Information Credibility, and Control of Corruption

Cartoon by Winsor McCay (1930), archived by Alan Light on Flickr.

Here’s an interesting paper by Weitz-Shapiro and Winters (2014)  on the role of education in political control of corruption, which should be of interest to those working in the open government/transparency domains.

When are citizens most likely to hold politicians to account for wrongdoing? In a crowded information environment, political accountability can be achieved only if credible information is available and citizens are able to identify that information. In this paper, we argue that the ability to discern more from less credible information is increasing in citizen sophistication. Using data from an original survey experiment in Brazil, we show that all citizens react negatively to corruption allegations, but that highly educated respondents are more likely to punish credible accusations and to overlook less credible accusations. We then show, using municipal-level audit data, that voters are more likely to punish credible accusations of corruption in municipalities with high literacy rates. Our findings suggest a novel mechanism that may link increasing education with control of political corruption: educated citizens are better able to discern and therefore act on credible accusations.

And, from the conclusion, an important message on the credibility of institutions:

Our findings have interesting implications for our understanding of the relationship between education and political accountability. They suggest a new mechanism through which high educational attainment might decrease corruption—not through changes in preferences that may be associated with different education levels, but rather because more educated individuals are better able to discern more from less credible information and therefore are more likely to act on the former. These results should be heartening to governments, like Brazil’s, that have invested in the creation of reputable independent auditing and control units. As long as these agencies are able to maintain their reputation for high quality, we should expect their influence to grow as the population becomes increasingly educated.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that, indirectly, this paper is a good reminder of the validity of the principal-agent model of accountability. Even though it is now fashionable to criticize the model, despite its limitations, it is far from obsolete.

You can download 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].

Rethinking Why People Participate

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 9.08.46 PM

Having a refined understanding of what leads people to participate is one of the main concerns of those working with citizen engagement. But particularly when it comes to participatory democracy, that understanding is only partial and, most often, the cliché “more research is needed” is definitely applicable. This is so for a number of reasons, four of which are worth noting here.

  1. The “participatory” label is applied to greatly varied initiatives, raising obvious methodological challenges for comparative research and cumulative learning. For instance, while both participatory budgeting and online petitions can be roughly categorized as “participatory” processes, they are entirely different in terms of fundamental aspects such as their goals, institutional design and expected impact on decision-making.
  2. The fact that many participatory initiatives are conceived as “pilots” or one-off events gives researchers little time to understand the phenomenon, come up with sound research questions, and test different hypotheses over time.  The “pilotitis” syndrome in the tech4accountability space is a good example of this.
  3. When designing and implementing participatory processes, in the face of budget constraints the first victims are documentation, evaluation and research. Apart from a few exceptions, this leads to a scarcity of data and basic information that undermines even the most heroic “archaeological” efforts of retrospective research and evaluation (a far from ideal approach).
  4. The semantic extravaganza that currently plagues the field of citizen engagement, technology and open government makes cumulative learning all the more difficult.

Precisely for the opposite reasons, our knowledge of electoral participation is in better shape. First, despite the differences between elections, comparative work is relatively easy, which is attested by the high number of cross-country studies in the field. Second, the fact that elections (for the most part) are repeated regularly and following a similar design enables the refinement of hypotheses and research questions over time, and specific time-related analysis (see an example here [PDF]). Third, when compared to the funds allocated to research in participatory initiatives, the relative amount of resources channeled into electoral studies and voting behavior is significantly higher. Here I am not referring to academic work only but also to the substantial resources invested by the private sector and parties towards a better understanding of elections and voting behavior. This includes a growing body of knowledge generated by get-out-the-vote (GOTV) research, with fascinating experimental evidence from interventions that seek to increase participation in elections (e.g. door-to-door campaigns, telemarketing, e-mail). Add to that the wealth of electoral data that is available worldwide (in machine-readable formats) and you have some pretty good knowledge to tap into. Finally, both conceptually and terminologically, the field of electoral studies is much more consistent than the field of citizen engagement which, in the long run, tends to drastically impact how knowledge of a subject evolves.

These reasons should be sufficient to capture the interest of those who work with citizen engagement. While the extent to which the knowledge from the field of electoral participation can be transferred to non-electoral participation remains an open question, it should at least provide citizen engagement researchers with cues and insights that are very much worth considering.

This is why I was particularly interested in an article from a recently published book, The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy (Princeton). Entitled “Rethinking Why People Vote: Voting as Dynamic Social Expression”, the article is written by Todd Rogers, Craig Fox and Alan Berger. Taking a behavioralist stance, the authors start by questioning the usefulness of the rationalist models in explaining voting behavior:

“In these [rationalist] models citizens are seen as weighing the anticipated trouble they must go through in order to cast their votes, against the likelihood that their vote will improve the outcome of an election times the magnitude of that improvement. Of course, these models are problematic because the likelihood of casting in the deciding vote is often hopelessly small. In a typical state or national election, a person faces a higher probability of being struck by a car on the way to his or her polling location than of casting the deciding vote.”

(BTW, if you are a voter in certain US states, the odds of being hit by a meteorite are greater than those of casting the deciding vote).

Following on from the fact that traditional models cannot fully explain why and under which conditions citizens vote, the authors develop a framework that considers voting as a “self-expressive voting behavior that is influenced by events occurring before and after the actual moment of casting a vote.” To support their claims, throughout the article the authors build upon existing evidence from GOTV campaigns and other behavioral research. Besides providing a solid overview of the literature in the field, the authors express compelling arguments for mobilizing electoral participation. Below are a few excerpts from the article with some of the main takeaways:

  • Mode of contact: the more personal it is, the more effective it is

“Initial experimental research found that a nonpartisan face-to-face canvassing effort had a 5-8 percentage point mobilizing effect in an uncontested midterm elections in 1998 (Gerber and Green 2000) compared to less than a 1 percentage point mobilizing effect for live phone calls and mailings. More than three dozen subsequent experiments have overwhelmingly supported the original finding (…)”

“Dozens of experiments have examined the effectiveness of GOTV messages delivered by the telephone. Several general findings emerge, all of which are consistent with the broad conclusion that the more personal a GOTV strategy, the more effective. (…) the most effective calls are conducted in an unhurried, “chatty manner.”

“The least personal and the least effective GOTV communication channels entail one way communications. (…) written pieces encouraging people vote that are mailed directly to households have consistently been shown to produce a mall, but positive, increase in turnout.”

  • Voting is affected by events before and after the decision

“One means to facilitate the performance of a socially desirable behavior is to ask people to predict whether they will perform the behavior in the future. In order to present oneself in a favorable light or because of wishful thinking or both, people are generally biased to answer in the affirmative. Moreover, a number of studies have found that people are more likely to follow through on a behavior after they predicted that they will do so (….) Emerging social-networking technologies provide new opportunities for citizens to commit to each other that they will turnout in a given election. These tools facilitate making one’s commitments public, and they also allow for subsequently accountability following an election (…) Asking people to form a specific if-then plan of action, or implementation intention, reduces the cognitive costs of having to remember to pursue an action that one intends to perform. Research shows that when people articulate the how, when and where of their plan to implement an intended behavior, they are more likely to follow through.”

(Not coincidentally, as noted by Sasha Issenberg in his book The Victory Lab, during the 2010 US presidential election millions of democrats received an email reminding them that they had “made a commitment to vote in this election” and that “the time has come to make good on that commitment. Think about when you’ll cast your vote and how you’ll get there.”)

“ (…) holding a person publicly accountable for whether or not she voted may increase her tendency to do so. (…) Studies have found that when people are merely made aware that their behavior will be publicly known, they become more likely to behaving in ways that are consistent with how they believe others think they should behave. (…) At least, at one point Italy exposed those who failed to vote by posting the names of nonvoters outside of local town halls.”

(On the accountability issue, also read this fascinating study [PDF] by Gerber, Green & Larimer)

  • Following the herd: affinitive and belonging needs

“People are strongly motivated to maintain feelings of belonging with others and to affiliate with others. (…) Other GOTV strategies that can increase turnout by serving social needs could involve encouraging people to go to their polling place in groups (i.e., a buddy system), hosting after-voting parties on election day, or encouraging people to talk about voting with their friends, to name a few.”

“(…) studies showed that the motivation to vote significantly increased when participants heard a message that emphasized high expected turnout as opposed to low expected turnout. For example, in the New Jersey study, 77% of the participants who heard the high-turnout script reported being “absolutely certain” that they would vote, compared to 71% of those who heard the low-turnout script. This research also found that moderate and infrequent voters were strongly affected by the turnout information.”

  • Voting as an expression of identity

“(….) citizens can derive value from voting through what the act displays about their identities. People are willing to go to great lengths, and pay great costs, to express that they are a particular kind of person. (….) Experimenters asked participants to complete a fifteen-minute survey that related to an election that was to occur the following week. After completing the survey, the experimenter reviewed the results and reported to participants what their responses indicated. Participants were, in fact, randomly assigned to one of two conditions. Participants in the first condition were labeled as being “above-average citizens[s] … who [are] very likely to vote,” whereas participants in the second condition were labeled as being “average citizen[s] … with an average likelihood of voting. (….) These identity labels proved to have substantial impact on turnout, with 87% of “above average” participants voting versus 75% of “average” participants voting.”

For those working with participatory governance, the question that remains is the extent to which each of these lessons is applicable to non-electoral forms of participation. The differences between electoral and non-electoral forms of participation may cause these techniques to generate very different results. One difference relates to public awareness about participation opportunities. While it would be safe to say that during an important election the majority of citizens are aware of it, the opposite is true for most existing participatory events, where generally only a minority is aware of their existence. In this case, it is unclear whether the impact of mobilization campaigns would be more or less significant when awareness about an event is low. Furthermore, if the act of voting may be automatically linked to a sense of civic duty, would that still hold true for less typical forms of participation (e.g. signing an online petition, attending a community meeting)?

The answer to this “transferability” question is an empirical one, and one that is yet to be answered.  The good news is that while experiments that generate this kind of knowledge are normally resource intensive, the costs of experimentation are driven down when it comes to technology-mediated citizen participation. The use of A/B testing during the Obama campaign is a good example. Below is an excellent account by Dan Siroker on how they conducted online experiments during the presidential campaign.

Bringing similar experiments to other realms of digital participation is the next logical step for those working in the field. Some organizations have already started to take this seriously . The issue is whether others, including governments and donors, will do the same.

Italian Politics 2.0: The Multifaceted Effect of the Internet on Political Participation

We investigate the impact of the diffusion of high-speed Internet on different forms of political participation, using data from Italy. We exploit differences in the availability of ADSL broadband technology across municipalities, using the exogenous variation induced by the fact that the cost of providing ADSL-based Internet services in a given municipality depends on its relative position in the pre-existing voice telecommunications infrastructure. We first show that broadband Internet had a substantial negative effect on turnout in parliamentary elections between 1996 and 2008. However, we also find that it was positively associated with other forms of political participation, both online and offline: the emergence of local online grassroots protest movements, and turnout in national referenda (largely opposed by mainstream parties). We then show that the negative effect of Internet on turnout in parliamentary elections is essentially reversed after 2008, when the local grassroots movements coalesce into the Five-Star Movement (M5S) electoral list. Our findings are consistent with the view that: 1) The effect of Internet availability on political participation changes across different forms of engagement; 2) It also changes over time, as new political actors emerge who can take advantage of the new technology to tap into the existence of a disenchanted or demobilized contingent of voters; and 3) These new forms of mobilization eventually feed back into the mainstream electoral process, converting “exit” back into “voice”.

Read full paper here [PDF].