The July 7th Technology Salon in New York City focused on the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Public Consultation. Our lead discussants were Tiago Peixoto, Team Lead, World Bank Digital Engagement Unit; Michele Brandt, Interpeace’s Director of Constitution-Making for Peace; and Ravi Karkara, Co-Chair, Policy Strategy Group, World We Want Post-2015 Consultation. Discussants covered the spectrum of local, national and global public consultation.
We started off by delving into the elements of a high-quality public consultation. Then we moved into whether, when, and how ICTs can help achieve those elements, and what the evidence base has to say about different approaches.
Elements and principles of high quality public participation
Our first discussant started by listing elements that need to be considered, whether a public consultation process is local, national or global, and regardless of whether it incorporates:
- Sufficient planning
- Realistic time frames
- Education for citizens to participate in the process
- Sufficient time and budget to gather views via different mechanisms
- Interest in analyzing and considering the views
- Provision of feedback about what is done with the consultation results
Principles underlying public consultation processes are that they should be:
Public consultation process should also be accompanied by widespread public education processes to ensure that people are prepared to a) provide their opinions and b) aware of the wider context in which the consultation takes place, she said. Tech and media can be helpful for spreading the news that the consultation is taking place, creating the narrative around it, and encouraging participation of groups who are traditional excluded, such as girls and women or certain political, ethnic, economic or religious groups, a Salon participant added.
Technology increases scale but limits opportunities for empathy, listening and learning
When thinking about integrating technologies into national public consultation processes, we need to ask ourselves why we want to encourage participation and consultation, what we want to achieve by it, and how we can best achieve it. It’s critical to set goals and purpose for a national consultation, rather than to conduct one just to tick a box, continued the discussant.
The pros and cons of incorporating technology into public consultations are contextual. Technology can be useful for bringing more views into the consultation process, however face-to-face consultation is critical for stimulating empathy in decision makers. When people in positions of power actually sit down and listen to their constituencies, it can send a very powerful message to people across the nation that their ideas and voices matter. National consultation also helps to build consensus and capacity to compromise. If done according to the above-mentioned principles, public consultation can legitimize national processes and improve buy-in. When leaders are open to listening, it also transforms them, she said.
At times, however, those with leadership or in positions of power do not believe that people can participate; they do not believe that the people have the capacity to have an opinion about a complicated political process, for example the creation of a new constitution. For this reason there is often resistance to national level consultations from multilateral or bilateral donors, politicians, the elites of a society, large or urban non-governmental organizations, and political leaders. Often when public consultation is suggested as part of a constitution making process, it is rejected because it can slow down the process. External donors may want a quick process for political reasons, and they may impose deadlines on national leaders that do not leave sufficient time for a quality consultation process.
Polls often end up being one-off snapshots or popularity contests
One method that is seen as a quick way to conduct a national consultation is polling. Yet, as Salon participants discussed, polls may end up being more like a popularity contest than a consultation process. Polls offer limited space for deeper dialogue or preparing those who have never been listened to before to make their voices heard. Polling may also raise expectations that whatever “wins” will be acted on, yet often there are various elements to consider when making decisions. So it’s important to manage expectations about what will be done with people’s responses and how much influence they will have on decision-making. Additionally, polls generally offers a snapshot of how people feel at a distinct point in time, but it may be important to understand what people are thinking at various moments throughout a longer-term national process, such as constitution making.
In addition to the above, opinion polls often reinforce the voices of those who have traditionally had a say, whereas those who have been suffering or marginalized for years, especially in conflict situations, may have a lot to say and a need to be listened to more deeply, explained the discussant. “We need to compress the vertical space between the elites and the grassroots, and to be sure we are not just giving people a one-time chance to participate. What we should be doing is helping to open space for dialogue that continues over time. This should be aimed at setting a precedent that citizen engagement is important and that it will continue even after a goal, such as constitution writing, is achieved,” said the discussant.
In the rush to use new technologies, often we forget about more traditional ones like radio, added one Salon participant, who shared an example of using radio and face to face meetings to consult with boys and girls on the Afghan constitution. Another participant suggested we broaden our concept of technology. “A plaza or a public park is actually a technology,” he noted, and these spaces can be conducive to dialogue and conversation. It was highlighted that processes of dialogue between a) national government and the international community and b) national government and citizens, normally happen in parallel and at odds with one another. “National consultations have historically been organized by a centralized unit, but now these kinds of conversations are happening all the time on various channels. How can those conversations be considered part of a national level consultation?” wondered one participant.
Aggregation vs deliberation
There is plenty of research on aggregation versus deliberation, our next discussant pointed out, and we know that the worst way to determine how many beans are in a jar is to deliberate. Aggregation (“crowd sourcing”) is a better way to find that answer. But for a trial, it’s not a good idea to have people vote on whether someone is guilty or not. “Between the jar and the jury trial, however,” he said, “we don’t know much about what kinds of policy issues lend themselves better to aggregation or to deliberation.”
For constitution making, deliberation is probably better, he said. But for budget allocation, it may be that aggregation is better. Research conducted across 132 countries indicated that “technology systematically privileges those who are better educated, male, and wealthier, even if you account for the technology access gaps.” This discussant mentioned that in participatory budgeting, people tend to just give up and let the educated “win” whereas maybe if it were done by a simple vote it would be more inclusive.
One Salon participated noted that it’s possible to combine deliberation and aggregation. “We normally only put things out for a vote after they’ve been identified through a deliberative process,” he said, “and we make sure that there is ongoing consultation.” Others lamented that decision makers often only want to see numbers – how many voted for what – and they do not accept more qualitative consultation results because they usually happen with fewer people participating. “Congress just wants to see numbers.”
Use of technology biases participation towards the elite
Some groups are using alternative methods for participatory democracy work, but the technology space has not thought much about this and relies on self-selection for the most part, said the discussant, and results end up being biased towards wealthier, urban, more educated males. Technology allows us to examine behaviors by looking at data that is registered in systems and to conduct experiments, however those doing these experiments need to be more responsible, and those who do not understand how to conduct research using technology need to be less empirical. “It’s a unique moment to build on what we’ve learned in the past 100 years about participation,” he said. Unfortunately, many working in the field of technology-enabled consultation have not done their research.
These biases towards wealthier, educated, urban males are very visible in Europe and North America, because there is so much connectivity, yet whether online or offline, less educated people participate less in the political process. In ‘developing’ countries, the poor usually participate more than the wealthy, however. So when you start using technology for consultation, you often twist that tendency and end up skewing participation toward the elite. This is seen even when there are efforts to proactively reach out to the poor.
Internal advocacy and an individual’s sense that he or she is capable of making a judgment or influencing an outcome is key for participation, and this is very related to education, time spent in school and access to cultural assets. With those who are traditionally marginalized, these internal assets are less developed and people are less confident. In order to increase participation in consultations, it’s critical to build these internal skills among more marginalized groups.
Combining online and offline public consultations
Our last discussant described how a global public consultation was conducted on a small budget for the Sustainable Development Goals, reaching an incredible 7.5 million people worldwide. Two clear goals of the consultation were that it be inclusive and non-discriminatory. In the end, 49% who voted identified as female, 50% as male and 1% as another gender. Though technology played a huge part in the process, the majority of people who voted used a paper ballot. Others participated using SMS, in locally-run community consultation processes, or via the website. Results from the voting were visualized on a data dashboard/data curation website so that it would be easier to analyze them, promote them, and encourage high-level decision makers to take them into account.
Some of the successful elements of this online/offline process included that transparency was a critical aspect. The consultation technology was created as open source so that those wishing to run their own consultations could open it, modify it, and repackage it however they wanted to suit their local context. Each local partner could manage their own URL and track their own work, and this was motivating to them.
Other key learning was that a conscious effort has to be made to bring in voices of minority groups; investment in training and capacity development was critical for those running local consultations; honesty and transparency about the process (in other words, careful management of expectations); and recognize that there will be highs and lows in the participation cycle (be sensitive to people’s own cycles and available time to participate).
The importance of accountability
Accountability was a key aspect for this process. Member states often did not have time to digest the results of the consultation, and those running it had to find ways to capture the results in short bursts and visually simple graphics so that the consultation results would be used for decision making. This required skill and capacity for not only gathering and generating data but also curating it for the decision-making audience.
It was also important to measure the impact of the consultation – were people’s voices included in the decision-making process and did it make a difference? And were those voices representative of a wide range of people? Was the process inclusive?
Going forward, in order to build on the consultation process and to support the principle of accountability, the initiative will shift focus to become a platform for public participation in monitoring and tracking the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Political will and responsiveness
A question came up about the interest of decision-makers in actually listening. “Leaders often are not at all interested in what people have to say. They are more concerned with holding onto their power, and if leaders have not agreed to a transparent and open process of consultation, it will not work. You can’t make them listen if they don’t want to. If there is no political will, then the whole consultation process will just be propaganda and window dressing,” one discussant commented. Another Salon participant what can be done to help politicians see the value of listening. “In the US, for example, we have lobbyists, issues groups, PACs, etc., so our politicians are being pushed on and demanded from all sides. If consultation is going to matter, you need to look at the whole system.” “How can we develop tools that can help governments sort through all these pressures and inputs to make good decisions?” wondered one participant.
Another person mentioned Rakesh Rajani’s work, noting that participation is mainly about power. If participation is not part of a wider system change, part of changing power structures, then using technology for participation is just a new tool to do the same old thing. If the process is not transparent and accountable, or if you engage and do not deliver anything based on the engagement, then you will lose future interest to engage.
Responsiveness was also raised. How many of these tech-fueled participation processes have led to governments actually changing, doing something different? One discussant said that evidence of impact of ICT-enabled participation processes was found in only 25 cases, and of those only 5 could show any kind of impact. All the others had very unclear impact – it was ambiguous. Did using ICTs make a difference? There was really no evidence of any. Another commented that clearly technology will only help if government is willing and able to receive consultation input and act on it. We need to find ways to help governments to do that, noted another person.
As always, conversation could have continued on for quite some time but our 2 hours was up. For more on ICTs and public consultations, here is a short list of resources that we compiled. Please add any others that would be useful! And as a little plug for a great read on technology and its potential in development and political work overall, I highly recommend checking out Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology from Kentaro Toyama. Kentaro’s “Law of Amplification” is quite relevant in the space of technology-enabled participation, in that technology amplifies existing human behaviors and tendencies, and benefits those who are already primed to benefit while excluding those who have been traditionally excluded. Hopefully we’ll get Kentaro in for a Tech Salon in the Fall!
Thanks to our lead discussants, Michele, Tiago and Ravi, and to Thoughtworks for their generous hosting of the Salon! Salons are conducted under Chatham House Rule so no attribution has been made in this post. Sign up here if you’d like to receive Technology Salon invitations.