New Book on 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting

Tiago Peixoto at Democracy Spot: “A little while ago I mentioned the launch of the Portuguese version of the book organized by Nelson Dias, “Hope for Democracy: 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting Worldwide”.

The good news is that the English version is finally out. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

This book represents the effort  of more than forty authors and many other direct and indirect contributions that spread across different continents seek to provide an overview on the Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the World. They do so from different backgrounds. Some are researchers, others are consultants, and others are activists connected to several groups and social movements. The texts reflect this diversity of approaches and perspectives well, and we do not try to influence that.
The pages that follow are an invitation to a fascinating journey on the path of democratic innovation in very diverse cultural, political, social and administrative settings. From North America to Asia, Oceania to Europe, from Latin America to Africa, the reader will find many reasons to closely follow the proposals of the different authors.

The book can be downloaded here [PDF]. I had the pleasure of being one of the book’s contributors, co-authoring an article with Rafael Sampaio on the use of ICT in PB processes: “Electronic Participatory Budgeting: False Dilemmas and True Complexities” [PDF]...”

Democracy and open data: are the two linked?

Molly Shwartz at R-Street: “Are democracies better at practicing open government than less free societies? To find out, I analyzed the 70 countries profiled in the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Data Index and compared the rankings against the 2013 Global Democracy Rankings. As a tenet of open government in the digital age, open data practices serve as one indicator of an open government. Overall, there is a strong relationship between democracy and transparency.
Using data collected in October 2013, the top ten countries for openness include the usual bastion-of-democracy suspects: the United Kingdom, the United States, mainland Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
There are, however, some noteworthy exceptions. Germany ranks lower than Russia and China. All three rank well above Lithuania. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Nepal all beat out Belgium. The chart (below) shows the democracy ranking of these same countries from 2008-2013 and highlights the obvious inconsistencies in the correlation between democracy and open data for many countries.
There are many reasons for such inconsistencies. The implementation of open-government efforts – for instance, opening government data sets – often can be imperfect or even misguided. Drilling down to some of the data behind the Open Data Index scores reveals that even countries that score very well, such as the United States, have room for improvement. For example, the judicial branch generally does not publish data and houses most information behind a pay-wall. The status of legislation and amendments introduced by Congress also often are not available in machine-readable form.
As internationally recognized markers of political freedom and technological innovation, open government initiatives are appealing political tools for politicians looking to gain prominence in the global arena, regardless of whether or not they possess a real commitment to democratic principles. In 2012, Russia made a public push to cultivate open government and open data projects that was enthusiastically endorsed by American institutions. In a June 2012 blog post summarizing a Russian “Open Government Ecosystem” workshop at the World Bank, one World Bank consultant professed the opinion that open government innovations “are happening all over Russia, and are starting to have genuine support from the country’s top leaders.”
Given the Russian government’s penchant for corruption, cronyism, violations of press freedom and increasing restrictions on public access to information, the idea that it was ever committed to government accountability and transparency is dubious at best. This was confirmed by Russia’s May 2013 withdrawal of its letter of intent to join the Open Government Partnership. As explained by John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation:

While Russia’s initial commitment to OGP was likely a surprising boon for internal champions of reform, its withdrawal will also serve as a demonstration of the difficulty of making a political commitment to openness there.

Which just goes to show that, while a democratic government does not guarantee open government practices, a government that regularly violates democratic principles may be an impossible environment for implementing open government.
A cursory analysis of the ever-evolving international open data landscape reveals three major takeaways:

  1. Good intentions for government transparency in democratic countries are not always effectively realized.
  2. Politicians will gladly pay lip-service to the idea of open government without backing up words with actions.
  3. The transparency we’ve established can go away quickly without vigilant oversight and enforcement.”

The Universe Is Programmable. We Need an API for Everything

Keith Axline in Wired: “Think about it like this: In the Book of Genesis, God is the ultimate programmer, creating all of existence in a monster six-day hackathon.
Or, if you don’t like Biblical metaphors, you can think about it in simpler terms. Robert Moses was a programmer, shaping and re-shaping the layout of New York City for more than 50 years. Drug developers are programmers, twiddling enzymes to cure what ails us. Even pickup artists and conmen are programmers, running social scripts on people to elicit certain emotional results.

Keith Axline in Wired: “Everyone is becoming a programmer. The next step is to realize that everything is a program.

The point is that, much like the computer on your desk or the iPhone in your hand, the entire Universe is programmable. Just as you can build apps for your smartphones and new services for the internet, so can you shape and re-shape almost anything in this world, from landscapes and buildings to medicines and surgeries to, well, ideas — as long as you know the code.
That may sound like little more than an exercise in semantics. But it’s actually a meaningful shift in thinking. If we look at the Universe as programmable, we can start treating it like software. In short, we can improve almost everything we do with the same simple techniques that have remade the creation of software in recent years, things like APIs, open source code, and the massively popular code-sharing service GitHub.
The great thing about the modern software world is that you don’t have to build everything from scratch. Apple provides APIs, or application programming interfaces, that can help you build apps on their devices. And though Tim Cook and company only give you part of what you need, you can find all sorts of other helpful tools elsewhere, thanks to the open source software community.
The same is true if you’re building, say, an online social network. There are countless open source software tools you can use as the basic building blocks — many of them open sourced by Facebook. If you’re creating almost any piece of software, you can find tools and documentation that will help you fashion at least a small part of it. Chances are, someone has been there before, and they’ve left some instructions for you.
Now we need to discover and document the APIs for the Universe. We need a standard way of organizing our knowledge and sharing it with the world at large, a problem for which programmers already have good solutions. We need to give everyone a way of handling tasks the way we build software. Such a system, if it can ever exist, is still years away — decades at the very least — and the average Joe is hardly ready for it. But this is changing. Nowadays, programming skills and the DIY ethos are slowly spreading throughout the population. Everyone is becoming a programmer. The next step is to realize that everything is a program.

What Is an API?

The API may sound like just another arcane computer acronym. But it’s really one of the most profound metaphors of our time, an idea hiding beneath the surface of each piece of tech we use everyday, from iPhone apps to Facebook. To understand what APIs are and why they’re useful, let’s look at how programmers operate.
If I’m building a smartphone app, I’m gonna need — among so many other things — a way of validating a signup form on a webpage to make sure a user doesn’t, say, mistype their email address. That validation has nothing to do with the guts of my app, and it’s surprisingly complicated, so I don’t really want to build it from scratch. Apple doesn’t help me with that, so I start looking on the web for software frameworks, plugins, Software Developer Kits (SDKs) — anything that will help me build my signup tool.
Hopefully, I’ll find one. And if I do, chances are it will include some sort of documentation or “Readme file” explaining how this piece of code is supposed to be used so that I can tailor it to my app. This Readme file should contain installation instructions as well as the API for the code. Basically, an API lays out the code’s inputs and outputs. It shows what me what I have to send the code and what it will spit back out. It shows how I bolt it onto my signup form. So the name is actually quite explanatory: Application Programming Interface. An API is essentially an instruction manual for a piece of software.
Now, let’s combine this with the idea that everything is an application: molecules, galaxies, dogs, people, emotional states, abstract concepts like chaos. If you do something to any these things, they’ll respond in some way. Like software, they have inputs and outputs. What we need to do is discover and document their APIs.
We aren’t dealing with software code here. Inputs and outputs can themselves be anything. But we can closely document these inputs and their outputs — take what we know about how we interface with something and record it in a standard way that it can be used over and over again. We can create a Readme file for everything.
We can start by doing this in small, relatively easy ways. How about APIs for our cities? New Zealand just open sourced aerial images of about 95 percent of its land. We could write APIs for what we know about building in those areas, from properties of the soil to seasonal weather patterns to zoning laws. All this knowledge exists but it hasn’t been organized and packaged for use by anyone who is interested. And we could go still further — much further.
For example, between the science community, the medical industry and the billions of human experiences, we could probably have a pretty extensive API mapped out of the human stomach — one that I’d love to access when I’m up at 3am with abdominal pains. Maybe my microbiome is out of whack and there’s something I have on-hand that I could ingest to make it better. Or what if we cracked the API for the signals between our eyes and our brain? We wouldn’t need to worry about looking like Glassholes to get access to always-on augmented reality. We could just get an implant. Yes, these APIs will be slightly different for everyone, but that brings me to the next thing we need.

A GitHub for Everything

We don’t just need a Readme for the Universe. We need a way of sharing this Readme and changing it as need be. In short, we need a system like GitHub, the popular online service that lets people share and collaborate on software code.
Let’s go back to the form validator I found earlier. Say I made some modifications to it that I think other programmers would find useful. If the validator is on GitHub, I can create a separate but related version — a fork — that people can find and contribute to, in the same way I first did with the original software.

This creates a tree of knowledge, with giant groups of people creating and merging branches, working on their small section and then giving it back to the whole.

GitHub not only enables this collaboration, but every change is logged into separate versions. If someone were so inclined, they could go back and replay the building of the validator, from the very first save all the way up to my changes and whoever changes it after me. This creates a tree of knowledge, with giant groups of people creating and merging branches, working on their small section and then giving it back to the whole.
We should be able to funnel all existing knowledge of how things work — not just software code — into a similar system. That way, if my brain-eye interface needs to be different, I (or my personal eye technician) can “fork” the API. In a way, this sort of thing is already starting to happen. People are using GitHub to share government laws, policy documents, Gregorian chants, and the list goes on. The ultimate goal should be to share everything.
Yes, this idea is similar to what you see on sites like Wikipedia, but the stuff that’s shared on Wikipedia doesn’t let you build much more than another piece of text. We don’t just need to know what things are. We need to know how they work in ways that let us operate on them.

The Open Source Epiphany

If you’ve never programmed, all this can sound a bit, well, abstract. But once you enter the coding world, getting a loose grasp on the fundamentals of programming, you instantly see the utility of open source software. “Oooohhh, I don’t have to build this all myself,” you say. “Thank God for the open source community.” Because so many smart people contribute to open source, it helps get the less knowledgeable up to speed quickly. Those acolytes then pay it forward with their own contributions once they’ve learned enough.
Today, more and more people are jumping on this train. More and more people are becoming programmers of some shape or form. It wasn’t so long ago that basic knowledge of HTML was considered specialized geek speak. But now, it’s a common requirement for almost any desk job. Gone are the days when kids made fun of their parents for not being able to set the clock on the VCR. Now they get mocked for mis-cropping their Facebook profile photos.
These changes are all part of the tech takeover of our lives that is trickling down to the masses. It’s like how the widespread use of cars brought a general mechanical understanding of engines to dads everywhere. And this general increase in aptitude is accelerating along with the technology itself.
Steps are being taken to make programming a skill that most kids get early in school along with general reading, writing, and math. In the not too distant future, people will need to program in some form for their daily lives. Imagine the world before the average person knew how to write a letter, or divide two numbers, compared to now. A similar leap is around the corner…”

The promise and perils of giving the public a policy ‘nudge’

Nicholas Biddle and Katherine Curchin at the Conversation: “…These behavioural insights are more than just intellectual curiosities. They are increasingly being used by policymakers inspired by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s bestselling manifesto for libertarian paternalism, Nudge.
The British and New South Wales governments have set up behavioural insights units. Many other governments around Australia are following their lead.
Most of the attention so far has been on how behavioural insights could be employed to make people slimmer, greener, more altruistic or better savers. However, it’s time we started thinking and talking about the impact these ideas could have on social policy – programs and payments that aim to reduce disadvantage and narrow divergence in opportunity.
While applying behavioural insights can potentially improve the efficiency and effectiveness of social policy, unscrupulous or poorly thought through applications could be disturbing and damaging. It would appear behavioural insights inspired the UK government’s so-called “Nudge Unit” to force job seekers to undergo bogus personality tests – on pain of losing benefits if they refused.
The idea seemed to be that because people readily believe that any vaguely worded combination of character traits applies to them – which is why people connect with their star sign – the results of a fake psychometric test can dupe them into believing they have a go-getting personality.
In our view, this is not how behavioural insights should be applied. This UK example seems to be a particularly troubling case of the use of “nudges” in conjunction with, rather than instead of, coercion. This is the worst of both worlds: not libertarian paternalism, but authoritarian paternalism.
Ironically, this instance betrays a questionable understanding of behavioural insights or at the very least a very short-term focus. Research tells us that co-operative behaviour depends on the perception of fairness and successful framing requires trust.
Dishonest interventions, which make the government seem both unfair and untrustworthy, should have the longer-term effect of undermining its ability to elicit cooperation and successfully frame information.
Some critics have assumed nudge is inherently conservative or neoliberal. Yet these insights could inform progressive reform in many ways.
For example, taking behavioural insights seriously would encourage a redesign of employment services. There is plenty of scope for thinking more rigorously about how job seekers’ interactions with employment services unintentionally inhibit their motivation to search for work.

Beware accidental nudges

More than just a nudge here or there, behavioural insights can be used to reflect on almost all government decisions. Too often governments accidentally nudge citizens in the opposite direction to where they want them to go.
Take the disappointing take-up of the Matched Savings Scheme, which is part of New Income Management in the Northern Territory. It matches welfare recipients’ savings dollar-for-dollar up to a maximum of A$500 and is meant to get people into the habit of saving regularly.
No doubt saving is extremely hard for people on very low incomes. But another reason so few people embraced the savings program may be a quirk in its design: people had to save money out of their non-income-managed funds, but the $500 reward they received from the government went into their income-managed account.
To some people this appears to have signalled the government’s bad faith. It said to them: even if you demonstrate your responsibility with money, we still won’t trust you.
The Matched Savings Scheme was intended to be a carrot, not a stick. It was supposed to complement the coercive element of income management by giving welfare recipients an incentive to improve their budgeting. Instead it was perceived as an invitation to welfare recipients to be complicit in their own humiliation.
The promise of an extra $500 would have been a strong lure for Homo economicus, but it wasn’t for Homo sapiens. People out of work or on income support are no more or less rational than merchant bankers or economics professors. Their circumstances and choices are different though.
The idiosyncrasies of human decision-making don’t mean that the human brain is fundamentally flawed. Most of the biases that we mentioned earlier are adaptive. But they do mean that policy makers need to appreciate how we differ from rational utility maximisers.”
Real humans are not worse than economic man. We’re just different and we deserve policies made for Homo sapiens, not Homo economicus.

Democracy in Retreat

Book by Joshua Kurlantzick (Council on Foreign Relations) on “The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government”: “Since the end of the Cold War, most political theorists have assumed that as countries develop economically, they will also become more democratic—especially if a vibrant middle class takes root. The triumph of democracy, once limited to a tiny number of states and now spread across the globe, has been considered largely inevitable.
In Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, CFR Fellow for Southeast Asia Joshua Kurlantzick identifies forces that threaten democracy and shows that conventional wisdom has blinded world leaders to a real crisis. “Today a constellation of factors, from the rise of China to the lack of economic growth in new democracies to the West’s financial crisis, has come together to hinder democracy throughout the developing world,” he writes. “Absent radical and unlikely changes in the international system, that combination of antidemocratic factors will have serious staying power.”
Kurlantzick pays particular attention to the revolt of middle class citizens, traditionally proponents of reform, who have turned against democracy in countries such as Venezuela, Pakistan, and Taiwan. He observes that countries once held up as model new democracies, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, have since curtailed social, economic, and political freedoms. Military coups have grabbed power from Honduras to Thailand to Fiji. The number of representative governments has fallen, and the quality of democracy has deteriorated in many states where it had been making progress, including Russia, Kenya, Argentina, and Nigeria.
The renewed strength of authoritarian rule, warns Kurlantzick, means that billions of people around the world continue to live under repressive regimes.”

The GovLab Index: Open Data

Please find below the latest installment in The GovLab Index series, inspired by Harper’s Index. “The GovLab Index: Open Data — December 2013” provides an update on our previous Open Data installment, and highlights global trends in Open Data and the release of public sector information. Previous installments include Measuring Impact with Evidence, The Data Universe, Participation and Civic Engagement and Trust in Institutions.
Value and Impact

  • Potential global value of open data estimated by McKinsey: $3 trillion annually
  • Potential yearly value for the United States: $1.1 trillion 
  • Europe: $900 billion
  • Rest of the world: $1.7 trillion
  • How much the value of open data is estimated to grow per year in the European Union: 7% annually
  • Value of releasing UK’s geospatial data as open data: 13 million pounds per year by 2016
  • Estimated worth of business reuse of public sector data in Denmark in 2010: more than €80 million a year
  • Estimated worth of business reuse of public sector data across the European Union in 2010: €27 billion a year
  • Total direct and indirect economic gains from easier public sector information re-use across the whole European Union economy, as of May 2013: €140 billion annually
  • Economic value of publishing data on adult cardiac surgery in the U.K., as of May 2013: £400 million
  • Economic value of time saved for users of live data from the Transport for London apps, as of May 2013: between £15 million and £58 million
  • Estimated increase in GDP in England and Wales in 2008-2009 due to the adoption of geospatial information by local public services providers: +£320m
  • Average decrease in borrowing costs in sovereign bond markets for emerging market economies when implementing transparent practices (measured by accuracy and frequency according to IMF policies, across 23 countries from 1999-2002): 11%
  • Open weather data supports an estimated $1.5 billion in applications in the secondary insurance market – but much greater value comes from accurate weather predictions, which save the U.S. annually more than $30 billion
  • Estimated value of GPS data: $90 billion

Efforts and Involvement

  • Number of U.S. based companies identified by the GovLab that use government data in innovative ways: 500
  • Number of open data initiatives worldwide in 2009: 2
  • Number of open data initiatives worldwide in 2013: over 300
  • Number of countries with open data portals: more than 40
  • Countries who share more information online than the U.S.: 14
  • Number of cities globally that participated in 2013 International Open Data Hackathon Day: 102
  • Number of U.S. cities with Open Data Sites in 2013: 43
  • U.S. states with open data initiatives: 40
  • Membership growth in the Open Government Partnership in two years: from 8 to 59 countries
  • Number of time series indicators (GDP, foreign direct investment, life expectancy, internet users, etc.) in the World Bank Open Data Catalog: over 8,000
  • How many of 77 countries surveyed by the Open Data Barometer have some form of Open Government Data Initiative: over 55%
  • How many OGD initiatives have dedicated resources with senior level political backing: over 25%
  • How many countries are in the Open Data Index: 70
    • How many of the 700 key datasets in the Index are open: 84
  • Number of countries in the Open Data Census: 77
    • How many of the 727 key datasets in the Census are open: 95
  • How many countries surveyed have formal data policies in 2013: 55%
  • Those who have machine-readable data available: 25%
  • Top 5 countries in Open Data rankings: United Kingdom, United States, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway
  • The different levels of Open Data Certificates a data user or publisher can achieve “along the way to world-class open data”: 4 levels, Raw, Pilot, Standard and Expert
  • The number of data ecosystems categories identified by the OECD: 3, data producers, infomediaries, and users

Examining Datasets

AU: Govt finds one third of open data was "junk"

IT News: “The number of datasets available on the Government’s open data website has slimmed by more than half after the agency discovered one third of the datasets were junk.
Since its official launch in 2011 grew to hold 1200 datasets from government agencies for public consumption.
In July this year the Deaprtment of Finance migrated the portal to a new open source platform – the Open Knowledge Foundation CKAN platform – for greater ease of use and publishing ability.
Since July the number of datasets fell from 1200 to 500.
Australian Government CTO John Sheridan said in his blog late yesterday the agency had needed to review the 1200 datasets as a result of the CKAN migration, and discovered a significant amount of them were junk.
“We unfortunately found that a third of the “datasets” were just links to webpages or files that either didn’t exist anymore, or redirected somewhere not useful to genuine seekers of data,” Sheridan said.
“In the second instance, the original 1200 number included each individual file. On the new platform, a dataset may have multiple files. In one case we have a dataset with 200 individual files where before it was counted as 200 datasets.”
The number of datasets following the clean out now sits at 529. Around 123 government bodies contributed data to the portal.
Sheridan said the number was still too low.
“A lot of momentum has built around open data in Australia, including within governments around the country and we are pleased to report that a growing number of federal agencies are looking at how they can better publish data to be more efficient, improve policy development and analysis, deliver mobile services and support greater transparency and public innovation,” he said….
The Federal Government’s approach to open data has previously been criticised as “patchy” and slow, due in part to several shortcomings in the website as well as slow progress in agencies adopting an open approach by default.
The Australian Information Commissioner’s February report on open data in government outlined the manual uploading and updating of datasets, lack of automated entry for metadata and a lack of specific search functions within as obstacles affecting the efforts pushing a whole-of-government approach to open data.
The introduction of the new CKAN platform is expected to go some way to addressing the highlighted concerns.”

Why This Company Is Crowdsourcing, Gamifying The World's Most Difficult Problems

FastCompany: “The biggest consultancy firms–the McKinseys and Janeses of the world–make many millions of dollars predicting the future and writing what-if reports for clients. This model is built on the idea that those companies know best–and that information and ideas should be handed down from on high.
But one consulting house, Wikistrat, is upending the model: Instead of using a stable of in-house analysts, the company crowdsources content and pays the crowd for its time. Wikistrat’s hundreds of analysts–primarily consultants, academics, journalists, and retired military personnel–are compensated for participating in what they call “crowdsourced simulations.” In other words, make money for brainstorming.

According to Joel Zamel, Wikistrat’s founder, approximately 850 experts in various fields rotate in and out of different simulations and project exercises for the company. While participating in a crowdsourced simulation, consultants are are paid a flat fee plus performance bonuses based on a gamification engine where experts compete to win extra cash. The company declined revealing what the fee scale is, but as of 2011 bonus money appears to be in the $10,000 range.
Zamel characterizes the company’s clients as a mix of government agencies worldwide and multinational corporations. The simulations are semi-anonymous for players; consultants don’t know who their paper is being written for or who the end consumer is, but clients know which of Wikistrat’s contestants are participating in the brainstorm exercise. Once an exercise is over, the discussions from the exercise are taken by full-time employees at Wikistrat and converted into proper reports for clients.
“We’ve developed a quite significant crowd network and a lot of functionality into the platform,” Zamel tells Fast Company. “It uses a gamification engine we created that incentivizes analysts by ranking them at different levels for the work they do on the platform. They are immediately rewarded through the engine, and we also track granular changes made in real time. This allows us to track analyst activity and encourages them to put time and energy into Wiki analysis.” Zamel says projects typically run between three and four weeks, with between 50 and 100 analysts working on a project for generally between five and 12 hours per week. Most of the analysts, he says, view this as a side income on top of their regular work at day jobs but some do much more: Zamel cited one PhD candidate in Australia working 70 hours a week on one project instead of 10 to 15 hours.
Much of Wikistrat’s output is related to current events. Although Zamel says the bulk of their reports are written for clients and not available for public consumption, Wikistrat does run frequent public simulations as a way of attracting publicity and recruiting talent for the organization. Their most recent crowdsourced project is called Myanmar Moving Forward and runs from November 25 to December 9. According to Wikistrat, they are asking their “Strategic community to map out Myanmar’s current political risk factor and possible futures (positive, negative, or mixed) for the new democracy in 2015. The simulation is designed to explore the current social, political, economic, and geopolitical threats to stability–i.e. its political risk–and to determine where the country is heading in terms of its social, political, economic, and geopolitical future.”…

The Age of Democracy

Xavier Marquez at Abandoned Footnotes: “This is the age of democracy, ideologically speaking. As I noted in an earlier post, almost every state in the world mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” in its constitutional documents today. But the public acknowledgment of the idea of democracy is not something that began just a few years ago; in fact, it goes back much further, all the way back to the nineteenth century in a surprising number of cases.
Here is a figure I’ve been wanting to make for a while that makes this point nicely (based on data graciously made available by the Comparative Constitutions Project). The figure shows all countries that have ever had some kind of identifiable constitutional document (broadly defined) that mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” (in any context – new constitution, amendment, interim constitution, bill of rights, etc.), arranged from earliest to latest mention. Each symbol represents a “constitutional event” – a new constitution adopted, an amendment passed, a constitution suspended, etc. – and colored symbols indicate that the text associated with the constitutional event in question mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic”…
The earliest mentions of the word “democracy” or “democratic” in a constitutional document occurred in Switzerland and France in 1848, as far as I can tell.[1] Participatory Switzerland and revolutionary France look like obvious candidates for being the first countries to embrace the “democratic” self-description; yet the next set of countries to embrace this self-description (until the outbreak of WWI) might seem more surprising: they are all Latin American or Caribbean (Haiti), followed by countries in Eastern Europe (various bits and pieces of the Austro-Hungarian empire), Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain), Russia, and Cuba. Indeed, most “core” countries in the global system did not mention democracy in their constitutions until much later, if at all, despite many of them having long constitutional histories; even French constitutions after the fall of the Second Republic in 1851 did not mention “democracy” until after WWII. In other words, the idea of democracy as a value to be publicly affirmed seems to have caught on first not in the metropolis but in the periphery. Democracy is the post-imperial and post-revolutionary public value par excellence, asserted after national liberation (as in most of the countries that became independent after WWII) or revolutions against hated monarchs (e.g., Egypt 1956, Iran 1979, both of them the first mentions of democracy in these countries but not their first constitutions).

Today only 16 countries have ever failed to mention their “democratic” character in their constitutional documents (Australia, Brunei, Denmark, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Monaco, Nauru, Oman, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tonga, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Vatican City).[2] And no country that has ever mentioned “democracy” in an earlier constitutional document fails to mention it in its current constitutional documents (though some countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries went back and forth – mentioning democracy in one constitution, not mentioning it in the next). Indeed, after WWII the first mention of democracy in constitutions tended to be contemporaneous with the first post-independence constitution of the country; and with time, even countries with old and settled constitutional traditions seem to be more and more likely to mention “democracy” or “democratic” in some form as amendments or bills of rights accumulate (e.g., Belgium in 2013, New Zealand in 1990, Canada in 1982, Finland in 1995). The probability of a new constitution mentioning “democracy” appears to be asymptotically approaching 1. To use the language of biology, the democratic “meme” has nearly achieved “fixation” in the population, despite short-term fluctuations, and despite the fact that there appears to be no particular correlation between a state calling itself democratic and actually being democratic, either today or in the past.[3]
Though the actual measured level of democracy around the world has trended upwards (with some ups and downs) over the last two centuries, I don’t think this is the reason why the idea of democracy has achieved near-universal recognition in public documents. Countries do not first become democratic and then call themselves democracies; if anything, most mentions of democracy seem to be rather aspirational, if not entirely cynical. (Though many constitutions that mention democracy were also produced by people who seem to have been genuinely committed to some such ideal, even if the regimes that eventually developed under these constitutions were not particularly democratic). What we see, instead, is a broad process in which earlier normative claims about the basis of authority – monarchical, imperial, etc. – get almost completely replaced, regardless of the country’s cultural context, by democratic claims, regardless of the latter’s effectiveness as an actual basis for authority or the existence of working mechanisms for participation or vertical accountability. (These democratic claims to authority also sometimes coexist in uneasy tension with other claims to authority based on divine revelation, ideological knowledge, or tradition, invented or otherwise; consider the Chinese constitution‘s claims about the “people’s democratic dictatorship” led by the CCP).
I thus suspect the conquest of ideological space by “democratic” language did not happen just because democratic claims to authority (especially in the absence of actual democracy) have proved more persuasive than other claims to authority. Rather, I think the same processes that resulted in the emergence of modern national communities – e.g. the rituals associated with nationalism, which tended to “sacralize” a particular kind of imagined community – led to the symbolic production of the nation not only as the proper object of government but also as its proper active agent (the people, actively ruling itself), regardless of whether or not “the people” had any ability to rule or even to exercise minimal control over the rulers.[4] There thus seems to have been a kind of co-evolution of symbols of nationality and symbols of democracy, helped along by the practice/ritual of drafting constitutions and approving them through plebiscites or other forms of mass politics, a ritual that already makes democratic assumptions about “social contracts.” The question is whether the symbolic politics of democracy eventually has any sort of impact on actual institutions. But more on this later….”

Britain’s Ministry of Nudges

in the New York Times: “A 24-year-old psychologist working for the British government, Mr. Gyani was supposed to come up with new ways to help people find work. He was intrigued by an obscure 1994 study that tracked a group of unemployed engineers in Texas. One group of engineers, who wrote about how it felt to lose their jobs, were twice as likely to find work as the ones who didn’t. Mr. Gyani took the study to a job center in Essex, northeast of London, where he was assigned for several months. Sure, it seemed crazy, but would it hurt to give it a shot? Hayley Carney, one of the center’s managers, was willing to try.

Ms. Carney walked up to a man slumped in a plastic chair in the waiting area as Mr. Gyani watched from across the room. The man — 28, recently separated and unemployed for most of his adult life — was “our most difficult case,” Ms. Carney said later.

“How would you like to write about your feelings” about being out of a job? she asked the man. Write for 20 minutes. Once a week. Whatever pops into your head.

An awkward silence followed. Maybe this was a bad idea, Mr. Gyani remembers thinking.

But then the man shrugged. Why not? And so, every week, after seeing a job adviser, he would stay and write. He wrote about applying for dozens of jobs and rarely hearing back, about not having anything to get up for in the morning, about his wife who had left him. He would reread what he had written the week before, and then write again.

Over several weeks, his words became less jumbled. He started to gain confidence, and his job adviser noticed the change. Before the month was out, he got a full-time job in construction — his first.

An Idea Born in America

Did the writing exercise help the man find a job? Even now it’s hard for Mr. Gyani to say for sure. But it was the start of a successful research trial at the Essex job center — one that is part of a much larger social experiment underway in Britain. A small band of psychologists and economists is quietly working to transform the nation’s policy making. Inspired by behavioral science, the group fans out across the country to job centers, schools and local government offices and tweaks bureaucratic processes to better suit human nature. The goal is to see if small interventions that don’t cost much can change behavior in large ways that serve both individuals and society.

It is an American idea, refined in American universities and popularized in 2008 with the best seller “Nudge,” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. Professor Thaler, a contributor to the Economic View column in Sunday Business, is an economist at the University of Chicago, and Mr. Sunstein was a senior regulatory official in the Obama administration, where he applied behavioral findings to a range of regulatory policies, but didn’t have the mandate or resources to run experiments.

But it is in Britain that such experiments have taken root.  Prime Minister David Cameron has embraced the idea of testing the power of behavioral change to devise effective policies, seeing it not just as a way to help people make better decisions, but also to help government do more for less.

In 2010, Mr. Cameron set up the Behavioral Insights Team or nudge unit, as it’s often called. Three years later, the team has doubled in size and is about to announce a joint venture with an external partner to expand the program.

The unit has been nudging people to pay taxes on time, insulate their attics, sign up for organ donation, stop smoking during pregnancy and give to charity — and has saved taxpayers tens of millions of pounds in the process, said David Halpern, its director. Every civil servant in Britain is now being trained in behavioral science. The nudge unit has a waiting list of government departments eager to work with it, and other countries, from Denmark to Australia, have expressed interest.

In fact, five years after it arrived in Washington, nudging appears to be entering the next stage, with a new team in the White House planning to run policy trials inspired in part by Britain’s program. “First the idea traveled to Britain and now the lessons are traveling back,” said Professor Thaler, who is an official but unpaid adviser to the nudge unit. “Britain is the first country that has mainstreamed this on a national level.”

See also: A Few Findings of Britain’s Nudge