The Role of Praising and Shaming in Civic Tech

Until now, behavioral economics in public policy has been mainly about nudging citizens toward preferred choices. It's time to start also working in the opposite direction, nudging governments to be more responsive to citizens.


Drawing attention to potholes (Source: Gazeta.ru)

Drawing attention to potholes (Source: Gazeta.ru)

The other day during a talk with researcher Tanya Lokot I heard an interesting story from Russia. Disgusted with the state of their streets, activists started painting caricatures of government officials over potholes.

In the case of a central street in Saratov, the immediate response to one of these graffiti was this:

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The cover up (Source: Vzsar.ru)

Later on, following increased media attention—and some unexpected turnarounds—the pothole got fixed.

That reminded me of a recurrent theme in some conversations I have: Does praising and shaming matters to civic tech and, if so, to which extent? To stay with two classic examples, think of solutions such as FixMyStreet and SeeClickFix, through which citizens publicly report problems to the authorities.

When the government takes action, what prompts them to do so? At a very basic level, three hypotheses are possible:

  1. Governments take action based on their access to distributed information about problems (which they supposedly are not aware of)
  2. Governments take action due to the “naming and shaming” effect, so as not to be perceived as unresponsive—and seeking praise for responsiveness
  3. Governments take action for both of the reasons above

Some could argue that hypothesis three is the most likely to be true, with some governments leaning more towards one reason to respond than others. Yet, the problem is that we know very little about these hypotheses, if anything. In other words—to my knowledge—we do not know whether making reports through these platforms public makes any difference whatsoever when it comes to governments’ responsiveness.

Some might consider this as a useless academic exercise: as long as these tools work, who cares? But I would argue that the answer to that questions matters a lot when it comes to the design of similar civic tech initiatives meant to prompt government to action.

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Let’s suppose that, all else equal, governments are significantly more responsive to citizen reports when these are publicly displayed. This would have importance both in terms of process and technological design. In terms of process, for instance, civic tech initiatives would probably be more successful if they devoted part of their resources to amplify the visibility of government action and inaction (e.g. through local media). Conversely, from a technological standpoint, designers should devote substantive more effort on interfaces that maximizes praising and shaming of governments based on their performance (e.g. rankings, highlighting pending reports). Conversely, we might find that publicizing reports have very little effect in terms of responsiveness. In that case, more work would be needed to figure out which other factors—beyond will and capacity—play a role in government responsiveness (e.g. quality of reports).

Most likely, praising and shaming would depend on a number of factors such as political competition, bureaucratic autonomy, and internal performance routines. But a finer understanding of that would not only bear an impact on the civic tech field, but across the whole accountability landscape. To date, we know very little about it. Yet one of the untapped potentials of civic technology is precisely that of conducting experiments at lowered costs. For instance, conducting randomized controlled trials on the effects on the publicization of government responsiveness should not be so complicated (e.g effects of rankings, amplifying visibility of unfixed problems). Add to that analysis of existing systems’ data from civic tech platforms, and some good qualitative work, and we might get a lot closer at figuring out what makes politicians and civil servants “tick.”

Until now, behavioral economics in public policy has been mainly about nudging citizens toward preferred choices. Yet it may be time to start also working in the opposite direction, nudging governments to be more responsive to citizens. Understanding whether praising and shaming works (and if so, how and to what extent) would be an important step in that direction.

Tiago Peixoto (Ph.D.) is a Team Lead at the World Bank’s Digital Engagement Unit. Featured in TechCrunch as one of the “20 Most Innovative People in Democracy,” Tiago is an internationally recognized expert working at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement. A version of this post was originally published on Tiago’s blog, DemocracySpot.net.