Civic Tech and Government Responsiveness

For those interested in tech-based citizen reporting tools (such as FixMyStreet, SeeClickFix), here’s a recent interview of mine with Jeffrey Peel (Citizen 2015) in which I discuss some of our recent research in the area.


What shapes citizens’ evaluations of their public officials’ accountability? Evidence from local Ethiopia


I just came across an interesting paper by Sebastian Jilke published in Public Administration and Development. on the effects of access to information and participatory planning on citizens’ perception of local public officials. Below the summary of the paper:

In this article, we study which institutional factors shape citizens’ views of the local accountability of their public officials. Our departing assumption is that evaluations of local accountability do not merely reflect citizens’ political attitudes and beliefs, but also whether local institutions contribute to an environment of mutual trust, accountability and ultimately democratic legitimacy. Combining public opinion data from a large-N citizen survey (N=10,651) with contextual information for 63 local governments in Ethiopia, we look at access to information, participatory planning and the publicness of basic services as potential predictors of citizens’ evaluations of local public officials. Our findings suggest that local context matters. Jurisdictions that provide access to information on political decision-making are perceived to have more accountable officials. Moreover, when local governments provide public fora that facilitate citizens’ stakes in local planning processes, it positively affects citizens’ evaluations of the accountability of their officials. Our study adds to the  empirical literature by showing that establishing local institutions that can foster citizen-government relations at the local level through inclusive processes is crucial for improving public perceptions of accountability.

And a few more excerpts from the conclusion:

We have presented an empirical test of local institutional factors – particularly access to information,  participatory planning and publicness of basic services – and their impact on citizens’ perceptions of local accountability in Ethiopian local governments. Our empirical results show that two out of the three factors matter. Once a jurisdiction adopts participatory planning and/or provides access to information on political decision-making, it positively affects the way in which citizens perceive the accountability of their officials. In sum, both factors are thought to improve the relationship between citizens and their respective local governments. Hence, our findings suggest that establishing local institutions that can foster citizen-government relations at the local level are crucial for improving public attitudes towards local government. Furthermore, positive attitudes towards local government, furthermore, strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the state at the local level. Thus development practitioners and policy-makers may take these institutional factors into account when reforming local governments.

You can read an ungated version of the paper here [PDF].

And you can read more about the benefits of citizen participation here. 

August 2013 Higher Education Engagement News

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Higher Education Engagement News is a periodic newsletter that responds to the request from many people for continuing updates and information about initiatives and groups associated with the American Commonwealth Partnership in 2012. It is edited by Harry C. Boyte.  This issue features a shortened version of the address that Adam Weinberg, incoming president of Denison University, just gave to Ohio Campus Compact. Weinberg is former president of World Learning, and served on the National Council of ACP. Here, he articulates themes animating the American Commonwealth Partnership.

A note on a new book by Thomas Ehrlich and Ernestine Fu on the related theme of “civic work” is at the end.

Preparing a Generation to do Public Work
Address to Ohio Campus Compact August 7, 2013
Adam Weinberg, President, Denison University

Over the last twenty years, I have been an active participant in Campus Compact in New York and Vermont. I am excited to join the Ohio Campus Compact community. Like many academics of my generation, I owe part of my career to Campus Compact. When I arrived at Colgate University in the early 1990s, it was difficult to get a service learning class approved by the faculty. It was the leadership of Campus Compact that paved the way.

As I scan the higher education landscape, I feel heartened by the civic education efforts that are underway. In many respects, higher education has re-found its civic roots. Still, I worry that our impact is not what it needs to be, that John Saltmarsh was right when he wrote, “While the movement [to date] has created some change, it has also plateaued.”

What do we need to do? For the last eight years, I have had a great adventure in civic education with World Learning, one of the largest global civic education and engagement organizations with about 10,000 people participating in its programs each year. Doing this work, I became struck by a tension between the possible and the likely. The possible is huge. We have the knowledge, methods, processes and physical tools, and the locally rooted assets to address climate change, human rights abuses, water shortages, lack of jobs, conflict and other critical global issues. What we lack is the capacity to come together as human beings and organize ourselves to use our social technology and assets to address the problems.

This is the central challenge of preparing a new generation to see civic opportunity and to engage in public work. Public work is the ability to move beyond seeing civic opportunity to actually working with others to create things of lasting social value, the essence of a free and democratic society. I would argue that public work is the defining outcome we are aiming for when we talk about civic education and community-engagement efforts.

Our students have the desire and ambitions, but lack the capacity to do public work. It is a creative generation that has great ideas for making change happen. It is a generation filled with citizens, social innovators and community activists. But too many aspiring young people lack the skills and habits to act on these passions.  For example: to be an effective citizen, one needs to be able to effectively work with people you don’t like. Modern institutions prepare our students to do the opposite. We use technology to interact with those who already agree with us. Our daily lives are shaped by social institutions that demonize those who hold different views. Higher education is going to have to fill that void.

Continue reading

Citizen Engagement Improves Access to Public Goods in Mexico

A paper recently published in World Development brings new and fascinating evidence from Mexico of the impact of participatory governance mechanisms on access to services.

Below are a few excerpts from the paper by Diaz-Cayeros, Malagoni, and Ruiz-Euler “Traditional Governance, Citizen Engagement, and Local Public Goods: Evidence from Mexico” (emphasis are mine):

The goal of this paper is to assess the effects of traditional governance on local public good provision. We ask whether poor indigenous communities are better off by choosing to govern themselves through “traditional” customary law and participatory democracy, versus delegating decisions concerning the provision of public goods to “modern” forms of representative government, structured through political parties. This is a crucial question for developing countries seeking to enhance accountability, and a central problem in the theory of participatory democracy.

Our research design takes advantage of an important institutional innovation in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, that in 1995 allowed indigenous communities to choose their forms of governance. The reform gave full legal standing to a form of traditional indigenous governance called usos y costumbres (usos hereafter), which entails electing individuals to leadership positions through customary law in non-partisan elections, making decisions through participatory democracy, and monitoring compliance through a parallel (and often informal) system of law enforcement and community justice. If they did not choose usos, municipalities could opt instead for party governance, which entails the selection of municipal authorities through electoral competition among political parties and the adjudication of conflicts only through the formal institutional channels, namely the state and federal judiciary.


Our results show that electricity provision increased faster in those municipalities governed by usos. They also suggest that traditional governance may improve the provision of education and sewerage. With respect to citizen engagement and elite capture, contrary to existing scholarly work, we find no evidence of entrenchment of local bosses (caciques) associated with the former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) in places ruled by usos. Our findings suggest that traditional participatory forms of governance do not handicap democratic development. Furthermore, municipalities governed by usos are more likely to hold open council meetings allowing citizens to participate in decisionmaking processes. We attribute better public goods coverage to differences in local governance and collective decisionmaking practices. We suggest three specific channels through which traditional governance affects local public good provision: the social embeddedness of municipal presidents, broader civic engagement in collective-decision making, and credible social sanctions. We argue that traditional governance practices (which include in our setting decision-making through direct participatory practices, the obligation to provide services for the community, and the establishment of a parallel system of justice), allow poor communities to better hold their political leaders accountable, prevent elite capture, and monitor and sanction non-cooperative behavior.


Systems of governance based on electoral competition among political parties differ essentially from usos because decisions are taken by politicians without an ongoing process of consultation with the citizenry. The monitoring and sanctioning dynamics that come into play when citizens gather in public assemblies are usually absent in party-run municipalities, and thus the allocation of resources for public goods seems sub-optimal.


Differences between the two types of governance that we presented in the paper point to a broader discussion of the organization of democracy. The delegated format of decision-making in electoral democracies dominated by political parties seems to bear a higher risk of agency loss than deliberative decision-making of what is often referred to as participatory democracy. (…) there are lessons to be extracted from the fact that, with regard to the provision of some basic services, a non-partisan political arrangement presented some advantages over the widespread electoral and party-based democratic organization. Participation and collective monitoring of authority are hugely important to maximize collective well-being.

Read the full paper here [PDF].