New Papers Published: FixMyStreet and the World’s Largest Participatory Budgeting

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Voting in Rio Grande do Sul’s Participatory Budgeting  (picture by Anderson Lopes)

Here are two new published papers that my colleagues Jon Mellon, Fredrik Sjoberg and myself have been working on.

The first, The Effect of Bureaucratic Responsiveness on Citizen Participation, published in Public Administration Review, is – to our knowledge – the first study to quantitatively assess at the individual level the often-assumed effect of government responsiveness on citizen engagement. It also describes an example of how the data provided through digital platforms may be leveraged to better understand participatory behavior. This is the fruit of a research collaboration with MySociety, to whom we are extremely thankful.

Below is the abstract:

What effect does bureaucratic responsiveness have on citizen participation? Since the 1940s, attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy have been used to explain participation. The authors develop a “calculus of participation” that incorporates objective efficacy—the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact—and test the model against behavioral data from the online application Fix My Street (n = 399,364). A successful first experience using Fix My Street is associated with a 57 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report, and the experience of bureaucratic responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.

An earlier, ungated version of the paper can be found here.

The second paper, Does Online Voting Change the Outcome? Evidence from a Multi-mode Public Policy Referendum, has just been published in Electoral Studies. In an earlier JITP paper (ungated here) looking at Rio Grande do Sul State’s Participatory Budgeting – the world’s largest – we show that, when compared to offline voting, online voting tends to attract participants who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users. Yet, one question remained: does the inclusion of new participants in the process with a different profile change the outcomes of the process (i.e. which projects are selected)? Below is the abstract of the paper.

Do online and offline voters differ in terms of policy preferences? The growth of Internet voting in recent years has opened up new channels of participation. Whether or not political outcomes change as a consequence of new modes of voting is an open question. Here we analyze all the votes cast both offline (n = 5.7 million) and online (n = 1.3 million) and compare the actual vote choices in a public policy referendum, the world’s largest participatory budgeting process, in Rio Grande do Sul in June 2014. In addition to examining aggregate outcomes, we also conducted two surveys to better understand the demographic profiles of who chooses to vote online and offline. We find that policy preferences of online and offline voters are no different, even though our data suggest important demographic differences between offline and online voters.

The extent to which these findings are transferable to other PB processes that combine online and offline voting remains an empirical question. In the meantime, nonetheless, these findings suggest a more nuanced view of the potential effects of digital channels as a supplementary means of engagement in participatory processes. I hope to share an ungated version of the paper in the coming days.


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

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.


The Newspaper Test for Twitter and Gyges’s Ring

Cover page of an old version of Plato's Republic.This week, while my Philosophy of Leadership class has been covering Plato’s Republic & the story of Gyges’s ring, I was presented with a Twitter-style version of the story. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates is talking with people about justice. People only act justly if they can’t get away with injustice, say Socrates’s friends. Well, in today’s world, it turns out that if you can get away with breaking the rules, you can get a lot of Twitter followers quickly. Some high profile people break those rules and get away with it. And, some don’t get away with it.

This is the full size of the image of the cover of Gyges' Ring, featuring a gold band with a red jewel.

I am convinced of the need for more public philosophy and feel compelled to contribute as best I can. I’d like to reach more people with the messages that I think need to be said and heard. Apparently you can reach more folks and more will follow you if you first pay a service to generate 10,000 fake followers for you over a few weeks’ time. Why? People with lots of followers are more likely to get followed in return. They’re also more likely to be proposed to other people as good candidates for following, speeding the cycle. What’s the catch? It goes against Twitter policy to pay for fake activity, including following or posting.

I’ve been told that Twitter does not police that, however. They don’t want spammers who sell stuff by automatic “fake” activity of messaging, and they clamp down on that. If that’s true — if they don’t police fake follower-buying — then it’s ok to do, right?

Highway sign reading "Speed Limit 55," with next to it a "Your Speed" sign reading "118." Yes, I faked this on purpose.

Yes, I photoshopped this.

Imagine that a stretch of highway is to be policed by an office that is underfunded. It can only police that stretch of highway from January to September. Does that mean that for three months it’s ok to drive 60 miles over the speed limit? There’s no policing, so what’s wrong with driving over 100 mph? My point is that the fact that something isn’t policed doesn’t mean that it’s thereby ok to do. Also, Plato’s Socrates would say that the policing factor only gets at the extrinsic value of just action, not the intrinsic.

Extrinsic consequences can tell you something, though, or so it seems, according to the modern-day idea of a newspaper test. The question is whether it would still be ok to do what you’re planning if it were to be featured on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow. That is an extrinsic test. It asks what would happen as a consequence if someone were to find you out. Your reputation could be damaged. You could go to jail. Other bad consequences could ensue from doing the wrong thing. BUT, what if you knew it couldn’t end up in the newspaper tomorrow?

A photo of the relevant passage in my book, which says that the corpse had nothing on but a ring.Plato tells us the story of Gyges’s ring. The story says that a man goes into a chasm in the ground and finds a hollow bronze horse in the chasm. In it, there is a dead man wearing nothing but a jeweled ring. That’s right, nothing but that. Philosophers I know have forgotten that there’s a naked guy in the story. A dead naked guy.

Anyway, the explorer, now a ring richer from taking from a corpse, finds out accidentally that when he turns the ring around, he becomes invisible and can do whatever he wants. He can get away with anything. In that case, the Devil’s advocates in Plato’s story tell Socrates that the invisible man would do whatever he wanted, whether just or not, if he could certainly get away with it.

Bust of Socrates.Socrates argues that justice is not only good for the extrinsic rewards that it brings when it does, but also for its intrinsic value. So, even if you had that ring, you should act justly if you want to be happy and live a good life. Your soul is healthy when you would act justly even if you could have gotten away with injustice.

The newspaper test today is partly about the threat that you will get caught, but it can also help to convince us about what is right and wrong even if you got away with it. If what you are planning to do would look terrible when detailed for the public in the newspaper tomorrow, that’s an indication that it’s the wrong thing to do. There are some unique exceptions to that, which I think deserve their own post, but for the most part, I think that the test is helpful. If you are looking to benefit personally and in a way that is unjust, don’t do it! If to do what is just comes with a cost to reputation, that’s a different story.

Sometimes people’s right to privacy means you can’t disclose information that would explain your actions or decisions. Or, revealing information might put one’s troops in danger. In those cases, you take the insults to your character because it’s the right thing to do, when necessary for justice.

What’s wrong with the Twitter story? At least three things, if not more: 1) If you are buying Twitter followers, you are violating Twitter’s policy, going against the stated norms of a social medium. 2) You are creating a deception, making yourself look like you have a reputation that you lack. 3) As there are legitimate and non-deceptive ways of growing your following quickly, through honest and open paid promotions, you are depriving Twitter of one of the few things that earn the company money.

Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista Gingrich.

Photo by Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons), 2012.

Buying Twitter followers is cheap, it turns out. $70 can buy you 10,000 “followers.” Why not do it? One answer is the newspaper test. What would it look like if people found out that’s what you did? What if it were on the front page?

Newt Gingrich knows the answer to that question. It’s not good.

In this case, I think we can safely say that if it would look terrible to do something that is a deception, it’s probably intrinsically a bad thing to do also — whether or not you can get away with it.

Oh, and by the way, follow me on Twitter and “like” my Facebook author page! 😉

 

One Amazing Benefit Social Media Brought this Scholar

This past week, I finally hung a light that I got as a gift last year over my favorite painting. The story is worth sharing, I believe, because it has to do with my most rewarding benefit I’ve received from social media activity as a scholar. Another reason it is personally meaningful is that it marks the conclusion of a promise I made.

Painting, 'Politician at a Podium,' by Ashley Cecil, http://AshleyCecil.com.

In late 2013, my book, Democracy and Leadership, was published. I had looked far and wide for the right image for the cover. My first publisher put out my first two books without giving me a choice about the cover. So, while I appreciate that one shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, I’ve heard enough people do it to be eager for a say in its design. I wanted to find just the right image to capture what I’m up to in the book. I’d hoped it could be a pretty painting somehow, featuring a context for leadership, but somehow highlighting the people more than the politician.

Cover for Democracy and Leadership.I did a ton of searching online and came across Ashley Cecil’s work. Check it out. When I found the painting above online, I loved it instantly. My publisher for the work, Lexington Books, had a cover template that would maximize space for a cover image, which is the one I picked. With that template, furthermore, I was able to frame the image such that you know there’s a “Politician at a Podium” (the title of the piece) — at least you see the podium — yet he isn’t the focus of the image on the cover.

I was delighted when Ashley permitted me to use the image on the cover of the book. Of course, I had only seen a high quality photo of the painting online. She had sold the painting a few years back. That said, I spread the word about the book a bit online, and per our agreement, I sent Ashley a copy of it. When she got it, Ashley put a post on her Web site about the book, as not every artist has his or her work on a book cover.

Social media offers us powerful tools. People who love Ashley’s work, as I do, follow her blog, and one collector saw the post where she announced that her painting was now cover art. The collector who bought that painting years ago saw her post. Kentucky attorney John Rogers contacted me, I believe via Twitter. He showed me a photo of the painting and said that he thought I should have it. I told him I’d obviously send him a copy of the book. All he asked was that I share with him a picture of the painting once I’d gotten it up on the wall. True story. It continues to mean a lot to me, every time I see it, in fact.

A puff pastry, to symbolize a "puff" piece.

A pastry-style puff piece. lol.

People can be very cynical about humanity sometimes, what with the news we hear about politics & violence. We sometimes call happy stories “puff” pieces, with little substance and thus little meaning. I think that this story resists that label for two reasons. The first is that while there are costs and reasons to worry about some elements of social media, it is easy to overlook how they can connect people with kindness and goodwill across distance. It helps to know that not everyone is a “troll” or a credit card predator. The second reason is that as a scholar who’s trying in modest ways to put work out there, to let people know what I’m doing, I’m so glad to know that some people see it and are encouraging.

Once again, I can’t thank you enough, John. The painting means a lot, and so does your kindness and encouragement.

 

On my old blog, which I’m putting out to pasture now that I have my new designed, I had written about this story, calling it “‘My Coolest Internet Experience,’ or ‘People Can Be Remarkably Kind’.” Here’s the content of that post:


 

‘My Coolest Internet Experience,’ or ‘People Can Be Remarkably Kind’

 Saturday, February 15, 2014

I’ve always been somewhat optimistic. There are limits to what we can control, which we need to be stoic about, but positive thinking makes a difference within those limits. When we see daily reports about crimes or read books and watch television shows about crooks and drug dealers, it’s no surprise that some folks come to feel cynical about people. I’m happy to report that this week I’ve had my coolest Internet experience ever, which confirmed my feeling that people can be profoundly kind.

With all of the silly and crazy Internet tools we have available (see the absurd variety hereabove), we can spend a lot of time spreading the word about issues we care about or projects we’re working on, while none of our individual tweets or posts seem to be particularly effectual. I’ll write about the several interesting opportunities and connections I’ve made through these channels in some other post, but I have to say something here about an amazing experience I’ve had this week.

Thumbnail photo of the cover of 'Democracy and Leadership,' bearing Ashley Cecil's painting, "Politician at a Podium."

My 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership: On Pragmatism and Virtue, came out with a publisher that permitted me to pick and design the cover, from a few possible form templates. The talented Ashley Cecil‘s beautiful painting is on the cover, as you may already know (it’s on right here). To spread the word about the book, I posted on these various Internet channels, including on a new Facebook Author page — why not?

I have friends with nearly 1,000 “likes” on their author pages, which is great. It’s a way of reaching lots of friends and interested audiences when you’ve got something you feel needs to be said. My own page today has a modest 247 “likes,” but I’m just getting started.

As I was spreading the word about the release of the book and creating the Facebook page, Ashley Cecil posted an announcement about the release of the book on her Web site. Some of Ashley’s fans and art collectors connected with my Facebook page. That’s how I came into contact with John Rogers, an attorney and art collector from Glasgow, Kentucky. It turns out that John was the art collector who had bought Ashley’s painting.

Obviously John and I have sympathetic taste, because when I was looking for cover art — and I searched quite a bit — I knew instantly that this was the painting I wanted for the cover, if I could make it work out. John asked me how I had come across the painting. Though I had looked through various databases of art (paintings and photographs), starting with works in the public domain, I eventually stumbled across Ashley’s painting by wading deep through search term results that I found on Images.Google.com.

While it’s fun to connect with an art collector with sympathetic taste, the story gets better. John wrote me (via Facebook message) to say that he thought that I should have the painting.

I couldn’t believe it.

Art collectors sometimes invest in works that they hope to sell later for a profit. For me, the painting has great sentimental value, because it’s the beautiful first artwork that I’ve been able to select for a book cover. In addition, the book was 4 years in the making and was a lot of hard work, so the artwork is seriously meaningful to me.

At the same time, my university has granted me a sabbatical to write my next book. You can either accept full-pay for one semester, or you can take the same funds divided over the course of a full year. More than a year ago, I discussed this with my wonderful wife Annie (yesterday was Valentine’s Day, I should note), and she agreed that time is the hardest thing to come by. So, we trimmed expenses, saved up for about a year, and now we’ve made it so that I can take this full year to write. It also means that I can’t get into art collection… Certainly not for a while, anyway.

I didn’t see John’s generosity coming. And remember, I’m one of the optimists out there.

Three days after John’s message, the painting arrived — on Valentine’s Day, no less. Here it is on our kitchen table:

This is a large photo of Ashley Cecil's original painting, "Politician at a Podium."

The painting is 8″ by 10″ and is going to go up in my office at work. It is not only the artwork that an artist first gave me permission to use on a book cover. It is also the first such work that I also now own. I’m still somewhat in disbelief about John’s magnanimity. I believe that people are largely very good and sympathetic with others when not conditioned otherwise in some way. That doesn’t capture just how friendly and giving people can be, though.

Therefore, this blogpost — and a copy of Democracy and Leadership soon to be in the mail — is dedicated to John Rogers of Glasgow, Kentucky, for showing me just how remarkably kind people can be, especially to a stranger several states away. Thank you so much, John, for your generous gift, and thanks to Ashley for creating this piece and allowing me to use it for the book.

I can’t thank you enough, John.

DemocracySpot’s Most Read Posts in 2014

Glasses for reading (1936) – Nationaal Archief

(I should have posted this on the 31st, but better late than never)

Below are some of the most read posts in 2014. While I’m at it, I’ll take the opportunity to explain the reduced number of posts in the last few months. Since mid-2014 I have been working with a small team of political and data scientists on a number of research questions at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement (I presented a few preliminary findings here). Following the period of field work, data collection and experiments, we have now started the drafting and peer-review stage of our research. This has been an extremely time-consuming process, which has taken up most of my weekends, when I generally write for this blog.

Still, one of my new year’s resolutions is precisely to better discipline myself to post more regularly. And I am hopeful that the publication of our upcoming research will make up for the recent reduction in posts. We will start to disseminate our results soon, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s a selection of the five most read posts in 2014.

The Problem with Theory of Change

Technology and Citizen Engagement: Friend or Foe? 

A Brilliant Story of Participation, Technology and Development Outcomes

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

Social Accountability: What Does the Evidence Really Say?