The Effect of SMS on Participation: Evidence from Uganda

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I’ve been wanting to post about this paper for a while. At the intersection of technology and citizen participation this is probably one of the best studies produced in 2013 and I’m surprised I haven’t heard a lot about it outside the scholarly circle.

One of the fundamental questions concerning the use of technology to foster participation is whether it impacts inclusiveness and, if it does, in what way. That is, if technology has an effect on participation, does it reinforce or minimize participation biases? There is no straightforward answer, and the limited existing evidence suggests that the impact of technology on inclusiveness depends on a number of factors such as technology fit, institutional design and communication efforts.

If the answer to the question is “it depends”, then the more studies looking at the subject, the more we refine our understanding of how it works, when and why. The study, “Does Information Technology Flatten Interest Articulation? Evidence from Uganda” (Grossman, Humphreys, & Sacramone-Lutz, 2013), is a great contribution in that sense. The abstract is below (highlights are mine):

We use a field experiment to study how the availability and cost of political communication channels affect the efforts constituents take to influence their representatives. We presented sampled constituents in Uganda with an opportunity to send a text-message to their representatives at one of three randomly assigned prices. This allows us to ascertain whether ICTs can “flatten” interest articulation and how access costs determine who communicates and what gets communicated to politicians. Critically, contrary to concerns that technological innovations benefit the privileged, we find that ICT leads to significant flattening: a greater share of marginalized populations use this channel compared to existing political communication channels. Price matters too, as free messaging increase uptake by about 50%. Surprisingly, subsidy-induced increases in uptake do not yield further flattening since free channels are used at higher rates by both marginalized and well-connected constituents. More subtle strategic hypotheses find little support in the data.

But even if the question of “who participates” is answered in this paper, one is left wondering “as to what effect?”. Fortunately, the authors mention in a footnote that they are collecting data for a companion paper in which they focus on the behavior of MPs, which will hopefully address this issue. Looking forward to reading that one as well.


Also read

Mobile phones and SMS: some data on inclusiveness 

Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

Mobile Connectivity in Africa: Increasing the Likelihood of Violence?

Taxation and Accountability: Experimental Evidence for Taxation’s Effect on Citizen Behavior

A paper by Lucy Martin (Yale)

In sub-Saharan Africa, low taxes co-exist with even lower government accountability, seen in high levels of corruption and low public goods provision. While there are existing theories of why taxation might be linked to better governance, many of the microfoundations of this effect remain unclear. I argue that taxation impacts governance by altering the expressive benefit citizens receive from sanctioning corrupt officials, making those who pay taxes more likely to hold leaders accountable. I provide new cross-national evidence that taxation and corruption are linked; I then formalize the theory and test the proposed mechanism using a set of laboratory-in-the-field experiments in Uganda. I find evidence that taxation activates a stronger fairness norm, leading citizens to demand more from leaders. This effect is strongest among adult, wage-earning men – exactly the group who has the most experience, historically, paying taxes in Uganda. I then propose additional tests, to be carried out in 2013, to strengthen and expand my findings.

And a tip for development professionals from the conclusion:

(…) aid professionals should seriously consider the role of formal taxation, as well as more informal community contributions, when designing development interventions. Adding some sort of community contribution to external aid programs could encourage give aid beneciaries more ownership over projects and, this paper suggests, make them more likely to hold local leaders accountable for how development funds are spent.

Read the full paper here [PDF].