Foreign Policy by Canadians: a unique national experiment

Blogpost by James Fishkin: “…Foreign Policy by Canadians was a national field experiment (with a control group that was not invited to deliberate, but which answered the same questions before and after.) The participants and the control group matched up almost perfectly before deliberation, but after deliberation, the participants had reached their considered judgments (while the control group had hardly changed at all). YouGov recruited and surveyed an excellent sample of deliberators, nationally representative in demographics and attitudes (as judged by comparison to the control groups). The project was an attempt to use social science to give an informed and representative input to policy. It was particularly challenging in that foreign policy is an area where most of the public is less engaged and informed even than it is on domestic issues (outside of times of war or severe international crises). Hence, we would argue that Deliberative Polling is particularly appropriate as a form of public input on these topics.

This project was also distinctive in some other ways. First, all the small group discussions by the 444 nationally representative deliberators were conducted via our new video based automated moderator platform. Developed here at Stanford with Professor Ashish Goel and “Crowdsourced Democracy Team” in Management Science and Engineering, it facilitates many small groups of ten or so to self-moderate their discussions. It controls access to the queue for the microphone (limiting each contribution to 45 seconds), it orchestrates the discussion to move from one policy proposal to the next on the list, it periodically asks the participants if they have covered both the arguments in favor and against the proposal, it intervenes if people are being uncivil (a rare occurrence in these dialogues) and it guides the group into formulating its questions for the plenary session experts. This was only the second national application of the online platform (the first was in Chile this past year) and it was the first as a controlled experiment.

A second distinctive aspect of Foreign Policy by Canadians is that the agenda was formulated in both a top-down and a bottom-up manner. While a distinguished advisory group offered input on what topics were worth exploring and on the balance and accuracy of the materials, those materials were also vetted by chapters of the Canadian International Council in different parts of the country. Those meetings deliberated about how the draft materials could be improved. What was left out? Were the most important arguments on either side presented? The meetings of CIC chapters agreed on recommendations for revision and those recommendations were reflected in the final documents and proposals for discussion. I think this is “deliberative crowdsourcing” because the groups had to agree on their most important recommendations based on shared discussion. These meetings were also conducted with our automated deliberation platform….(More)”.

Why don’t they ask us? The role of communities in levelling up

Report by the Institute of Community Studies: “We are delighted to unveil a landmark research report, Why don’t they ask us? The role of communities in levelling up. The new report reveals that current approaches to regeneration and economic transformation are not working for the majority of local communities and their economies.

Its key findings are that:

  • Interventions have consistently failed to address the most deprived communities, contributing to a 0% average change in the relative spatial deprivation of the most deprived local authorities areas;
  • The majority of ‘macro funds’ and economic interventions over the last two decades have not involved communities in a meaningful nor sustainable way;
  • The focus of interventions to build local economic resilience typically concentrate on a relatively small number of approaches, which risks missing crucial dimensions of local need, opportunity and agency, and reinforcing gaps between the national and the hyper-local;
  • Interventions have tended to concentrate on ‘between-place’ spatial disparities in economic growth at the expense of ‘within-place’ inequalities that exist inside local authority boundaries, which is where the economic strength or weakness of a place is most keenly felt by communities.
  • Where funds and interventions have had higher levels of community involvement, these have typically been disconnected from the structures where decisions are taken, undermining their aim of building community power into local economic solutions…(More)”.

Text Your Government: Participatory Cell Phone Technology in Ghana

Article by Emily DiMatteo: “Direct citizen engagement can be transformed with innovative technological tools. As communities search for new ways to connect citizens to democratic processes, using existing technological devices such as cell phones can reach a number of citizens—including those typically excluded from policy processes. This occurred in Ghana when a technology startup and social enterprise called VOTO Mobile (now Viamo) created polling and information sharing software that uses mobile phone SMS texts and voice calls. Since its founding in 2010, the Ghana-based company has worked to use mobile technology to advance democratic engagement and good governance through new communication channels between citizens and their government.

Previous methods to overcome public participation challenges in Ghana include using public radio. However, when VOTO Mobile evaluated technological capabilities in several districts, cell phones offered a new way to engage. The option to contact citizens via text or voice call also helped remove certain barriers to participation in political processes, including distance, language and literacy. In 2012-2013, VOTO Mobile facilitated a project called the, “Mobile for Social Inclusive Government,” to increase citizen engagement and participation. The project used the company’s software to disseminate local information and conduct citizen surveys in four Ghanaian districts: Tamale, Savelugu, Wa and Yendi. VOTO Mobile partnered with civil society organizations including Savana Signatures, GINKS and Amplify Governance, as well as District Assemblies in local district governments.

Participant selection for the project utilized pre-existing District Assembly membership data across the four districts to contact citizens to participate. This outreach also was supplemented by the project’s partner organizations and ultimately involved more than 2,000 participants. In using VOTO Mobile’s technological platform of interactive text and voice call surveys, the project gathered feedback from citizens as they shared concerns with their local government. There was a large focus on input from marginalized populations across the districts including women, young people and people with disabilities. In addition to the cell phone surveys, the platform enabled online consultations between citizens and local district officials in place of face-to-face visits.

As a result, local district governments were able to crowdsource information directly from citizens, leading to increased citizen input in subsequent policy formulation and planning processes….(More)”.

Small-Scale Deliberation and Mass Democracy: A Systematic Review of the Spillover Effects of Deliberative Minipublics

Paper by Ramon van der Does and Vincent Jacquet: “Deliberative minipublics are popular tools to address the current crisis in democracy. However, it remains ambiguous to what degree these small-scale forums matter for mass democracy. In this study, we ask the question to what extent minipublics have “spillover effects” on lay citizens—that is, long-term effects on participating citizens and effects on non-participating citizens. We answer this question by means of a systematic review of the empirical research on minipublics’ spillover effects published before 2019. We identify 60 eligible studies published between 1999 and 2018 and provide a synthesis of the empirical results. We show that the evidence for most spillover effects remains tentative because the relevant body of empirical evidence is still small. Based on the review, we discuss the implications for democratic theory and outline several trajectories for future research…(More)”.

Public Administration and Democracy: The Virtue and Limit of Participatory Democracy as a Democratic Innovation

Paper by Sirvan karimi: “The expansion of public bureaucracy has been one of the most significant developments that has marked societies particularly, Western liberal democratic societies. Growing political apathy, citizen disgruntlement and the ensuing decline in electoral participation reflects the political nature of governance failures. Public bureaucracy, which has historically been saddled with derogatory and pejorative connotations, has encountered fierce assaults from multiple fronts. Out of theses sharp criticisms of public bureaucracy that have emanated from both sides of the ideological spectrum, attempts have been made to popularize and advance citizen participation in both policy formulation and policy implementation processes as innovations to democratize public administration. Despite their virtue, empowering connotations and spirit-uplifting messages to the public, these proposed practices of democratic innovations not only have their own shortcomings and are conducive to exacerbating the conditions that they are directed to ameliorate but they also have the potential to undermine the traditional administrative and political accountability mechanisms….(More)”.

Engaging with the public about algorithmic transparency in the public sector

Blog by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (UK): “To move the recommendation that we made in our review into bias in algorithmic decision-making forward, we have been working with the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) and BritainThinks to scope what a transparency obligation could look like in practice, and in particular, which transparency measures would be most effective at increasing public understanding about the use of algorithms in the public sector. 

Due to the low levels of awareness about the use of algorithms in the public sector (CDEI polling in July 2020 found that 38% of the public were not aware that algorithmic systems were used to support decisions using personal data), we opted for a deliberative public engagement approach. This involved spending time gradually building up participants’ understanding and knowledge about algorithm use in the public sector and discussing their expectations for transparency, and co-designing solutions together. 

For this project, we worked with a diverse range of 36 members of the UK public, spending over five hours engaging with them over a three week period. We focused on three particular use-cases to test a range of emotive responses – policing, parking and recruitment.  

The final stage was an in-depth co-design session, where participants worked collaboratively to review and iterate prototypes in order to develop a practical approach to transparency that reflected their expectations and needs for greater openness in the public sector use of algorithms. 

What did we find? 

Our research validated that there was fairly low awareness or understanding of the use of algorithms in the public sector. Algorithmic transparency in the public sector was not a front-of-mind topic for most participants.

However, once participants were introduced to specific examples of potential public sector algorithms, they felt strongly that transparency information should be made available to the public, both citizens and experts. This included desires for; a description of the algorithm, why an algorithm was being used, contact details for more information, data used, human oversight, potential risks and technicalities of the algorithm…(More)”.

Mass, Computer-Generated, and Fraudulent Comments

Report by Steven J. Balla et al: “This report explores three forms of commenting in federal rulemaking that have been enabled by technological advances: mass, fraudulent, and computer-generated comments. Mass comments arise when an agency receives a much larger number of comments in a rulemaking than it typically would (e.g., thousands when the agency typically receives a few dozen). The report focuses on a particular type of mass comment response, which it terms a “mass comment campaign,” in which organizations orchestrate the submission of large numbers of identical or nearly identical comments. Fraudulent comments, which we refer to as “malattributed comments” as discussed below, refer to comments falsely attributed to persons by whom they were not, in fact, submitted. Computer-generated comments are generated not by humans, but rather by software algorithms. Although software is the product of human actions, algorithms obviate the need for humans to generate the content of comments and submit comments to agencies.

This report examines the legal, practical, and technical issues associated with processing and responding to mass, fraudulent, and computer-generated comments. There are cross-cutting issues that apply to each of these three types of comments. First, the nature of such comments may make it difficult for agencies to extract useful information. Second, there are a suite of risks related to harming public perceptions about the legitimacy of particular rules and the rulemaking process overall. Third, technology-enabled comments present agencies with resource challenges.

The report also considers issues that are unique to each type of comment. With respect to mass comments, it addresses the challenges associated with receiving large numbers of comments and, in particular, batches of comments that are identical or nearly identical. It looks at how agencies can use technologies to help process comments received and at how agencies can most effectively communicate with public commenters to ensure that they understand the purpose of the notice-and-comment process and the particular considerations unique to processing mass comment responses. Fraudulent, or malattributed, comments raise legal issues both in criminal and Administrative Procedure Act (APA) domains. They also have the potential to mislead an agency and pose harms to individuals. Computer-generated comments may raise legal issues in light of the APA’s stipulation that “interested persons” are granted the opportunity to comment on proposed rules. Practically, it can be difficult for agencies to distinguish computer-generated comments from traditional comments (i.e., those submitted by humans without the use of software algorithms).

While technology creates challenges, it also offers opportunities to help regulatory officials gather public input and draw greater insights from that input. The report summarizes several innovative forms of public participation that leverage technology to supplement the notice and comment rulemaking process.

The report closes with a set of recommendations for agencies to address the challenges and opportunities associated with new technologies that bear on the rulemaking process. These recommendations cover steps that agencies can take with respect to technology, coordination, and docket management….(More)”.

Sandwich Strategy

Article by the Accountability Research Center: “The “sandwich strategy” describes an interactive process in which reformers in government encourage citizen action from below, driving virtuous circles of mutual empowerment between pro-accountability actors in both state and society.

The sandwich strategy relies on mutually-reinforcing interaction between pro-reform actors in both state and society, not just initiatives from one or the other arena. The hypothesis is that when reformers in government tangibly reduce the risks/costs of collective action, that process can bolster state-society pro-reform coalitions that collaborate for change. While this process makes intuitive sense, it can follow diverse pathways and encounter many roadblocks. The dynamics, strengths and limitations of sandwich strategies have not been documented and analyzed systematically. The figure below shows a possible pathway of convergence and conflict between actors for and against change in both state and society….(More)”.

sandwich strategy

Living in Data: A Citizen’s Guide to a Better Information Future

Book by Jer Thorp: “To live in data in the twenty-first century is to be incessantly extracted from, classified and categorized, statisti-fied, sold, and surveilled. Data—our data—is mined and processed for profit, power, and political gain. In Living in Data, Thorp asks a crucial question of our time: How do we stop passively inhabiting data, and instead become active citizens of it?

Threading a data story through hippo attacks, glaciers, and school gymnasiums, around colossal rice piles, and over active minefields, Living in Data reminds us that the future of data is still wide open, that there are ways to transcend facts and figures and to find more visceral ways to engage with data, that there are always new stories to be told about how data can be used.

Punctuated with Thorp’s original and informative illustrations, Living in Data not only redefines what data is, but reimagines who gets to speak its language and how to use its power to create a more just and democratic future. Timely and inspiring, Living in Data gives us a much-needed path forward….(More)”.

Need Public Policy for Human Gene Editing, Heatwaves, or Asteroids? Try Thinking Like a Citizen

Article by Nicholas Weller, Michelle Sullivan Govani, and Mahmud Farooque: “In a ballroom at the Arizona Science Center one afternoon in 2017, more than 70 Phoenix residents—students, teachers, nurses, and retirees—gathered around tables to participate in a public forum about how cities can respond to extreme weather such as heat waves. Each table was covered in colorful printouts with a large laminated poster resembling a board game. Milling between the tables were decisionmakers from local government and the state. All were taking part in a deliberative process called participatory technology assessment, or pTA, designed to break down the walls between “experts” and citizens to gain insights into public policy dilemmas involving science, technology, and uncertainty.

Foreshadowing their varied viewpoints and experiences, participants prepared differently for the “extreme weather” of the heavily air conditioned ballroom, with some gripping cardigans around their shoulders while others were comfortable in tank tops. Extreme heat is something all the participants were familiar with—Phoenix is one of the hottest cities in the country—but not everyone understood the unequal way that heat and related deaths affect different parts of the Valley of the Sun. Though a handful of the participants might have called themselves environmentalists, most were not regular town-hall goers or political activists. Instead, they represented a diverse cross section of people in Phoenix. All had applied to attend—motivated by a small stipend, the opportunity to have their voice heard, or a bit of both.

Unlike typical town hall setups, where a few bold participants tend to dominate questioning and decisionmakers often respond by being defensive or vague, pTA gatherings are deliberately organized to encourage broad participation and conversation. To help people engage with the topic, the meeting was divided into subgroups to examine the story of Heattown, a fictionalized name for a real but anonymized community contending with the health, environmental, and economic impacts of heat waves. Then each group began a guided discussion of the different characters living in Heattown, vulnerabilities of the emergency-response and infrastructure systems, and strategies for dealing with those vulnerabilities….(More)”.