How to tap the power of the people

Named alongside Barack Obama and a Google founder as one of the most innovative people in democracy, Tiago Peixoto is at the forefront of finding ways to make citizens' voices shape what government actually does.

Named alongside Barack Obama and a Google founder as one of the most innovative people in democracy, Tiago Peixoto is at the forefront of finding ways to make citizens’ voices shape what government actually does. Originally from Brazil, he now works in more than a dozen countries for the World Bank.

His work encompasses three things: participatory budgeting, such as in Brazil, where millions vote every year on how to allocate state funds; participatory policymaking, where citizens are involved from the first moment government thinks about how to tackle a problem; and engaged services, such as FixMyStreet-style websites or text-message feedback, where people can comment immediately on the quality of the services government has provided.

Citizens’ comments and feedback can then be collected into the vast data sets that governments all over the world are excited about using. Peixoto, in the context of the Zika virus, gives the example of digital medical records: it is now possible to pull up the name of every woman in a particular part of the country who is at a particular stage of pregnancy, and hence vulnerable to the disease. You can use your citizen-feedback system to first find out how much they know about it, and then give them information about how to keep themselves safe.

But for all that, Peixoto does not talk up the potential of new technology to transform the relationship between what government does and the needs of the people it represents. He spoke to Apolitical about what will allow people to truly steer their governments, the invention of the optical telegraph in 18th century France, and what government can learn from Burger King.

Almost everyone we talk to now mentions the importance of listening to citizens, whether through feedback or human-centred design. Are we living through a fundamental change in how government does business?
I think there is a change, but there’s – shall we say – a certain hype. There are going to be cycles of excitement about leveraging collective intelligence. You had that at the end of the 18th century, when the optical telegraph was invented. People said, now Paris can get in touch with citizens and provinces directly, which of course never happened.

We’re trying to look back at these initiatives and see why they failed.

With cable TV in the Seventies, everyone thought, now we can have what they called tele-democracy. We can broadcast city council sessions and citizens can call in and tell the council what they want. Then at the end of the Nineties, beginning of the 2000s, you have e-democracy and e-participation, particularly in Europe, where you had lots of participation initiatives. And despite the generous funding, the favourable institutional conditions and so on, many of these projects are not there any more. And now, in the open government era, it’s a second wave.

Every time there’s a jump in technology, people expect that that will be reproduced in government. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that that doesn’t happen. So what we’re trying to do in our work is to learn from history and look back at these initiatives and try to see why they failed.

Optical Telegraph Apolitical

Signalling with an optical telegraph (Wikipedia)

But isn’t there a difference in that smartphones, social media and raw computing power have created an unprecedented amount of data that could revolutionise government?
I think that anything that calls itself a revolution is likely not to be one. And what you find is that people tend to overestimate the power of information to influence decision making. People and governments take decisions for a number of reasons and when you think about a data revolution, you’re thinking that the decision makers are perfectly rational actors who maximise utility for the common good. There are too many things that go wrong for that to be the case.

And more data in itself might actually make it more difficult to separate the signal from the noise. So instead of getting more data from citizens to governments, the first challenge is to get governments to make good use of the data they already have.

What does good use of data look like?
For instance, in a health system, you can know every person a patient interacted with, the person who checked her in, which nurse saw her, which doctor, and so on and so on. So if you call these people and ask, did you pay a bribe, and you do that with 200,000 people, you can do frequency analysis and see where certain individuals are more present. So I don’t have to call the citizen and ask them to name the person. You can start to bring some intelligence to this process. It’s not just a complaint phone number, it’s how you can use the data to understand the problem.

Government without citizen engagement is like a restaurant without a menu

The underlying concern is to make sure that the citizens’ voice has teeth. Because creating citizen participation is very easy, but what is really difficult is to make sure those things are not tokenistic, or that when citizens say something, the government does something about it.

How do you make sure government listens?
It sounds extremely boring, but what you try to do is link it to management processes. Many states have what is called results-based management, where teams and individuals are evaluated against a set of indicators. And many times this has consequences: units lose their budgets if they don’t do well, people’s promotions depend on it. There are both sticks and carrots. Now in Brazil, for instance, the feedback we collect is going to be added to the performance indicators. So the citizens’ feedback is going to have a very consequential impact within the government. And that is what is missing out there.

So people’s budgets and careers will depend on how satisfied citizens are with the service they receive?
It’s not just about satisfaction, because there are areas where satisfaction is extremely complicated, for instance waiting times in hospitals. People wait longer because their case is not so serious, and that makes people deeply unsatisfied. This is why you want to ask other questions, based not so much on perception but on facts. Did the doctor take your blood pressure? Did you get the results of your tests? You can measure things that have a deep impact on the wellbeing of the citizen and the society as a whole.

Porto Alegre Apolitical

Porto Alegre, Brazil, which has been using participatory budgeting since 1989 (Wikimedia Commons)

It sounds like Zubair Bhatti’s work using pro-active citizen feedback. He, too, talks about the need to ask objective, yes/no questions, such as: did the police arrive within half an hour of your call? Did you pay a bribe?
Yes, that’s the thing. It’s better to ask about experiences than perceptions or sentiments. Those can be valid, but particularly in sectors like health, people’s emotions are often overwhelmed.

Aside from giving information on how well services are being provided, what value can feedback hold for government?
What citizen engagement does is provide new information about needs. The idea is to leverage an expertise that is dispersed.

And in the countries where you have participatory systems, is there a noticeable difference in policies?
Oh yes, totally. One difference is that you don’t have a guy who’s five hundred kilometres away trying to decide to where to dig a hole for water. The other day, I was in a country where they put in a participatory programme and people asked for a water reservoir that they had been asking for since the 1960s, and never got it. And the participatory process got them that. That was what they’d needed for fifty years. Even though they were getting lots of other stuff. So you do see a better alignment of what people need and what they get. I mean, government without citizen engagement is like a restaurant without a menu.

The private sector is extremely good at leveraging interaction for more than a single purpose.

You mentioned earlier that there were waves of enthusiasm about citizen engagement, and that all had more or less failed. How do you rate the chances of this one?
I think the chances are slightly better [laughs], because governments are more constrained, and have to do more and more with less. But governments have always had to do more with less. What’s new under the sun? Maybe this time the hype is being met with some constructive criticism, and that makes it stand a better chance. It’s not the hype, it’s the constructive criticism. The historical awareness – or the common sense.

How do you think citizen engagement could develop to become more effective?
I’m not one of those people who think that government has lots to learn from the private sector, but one thing the private sector does extremely well is this idea of cross-selling or up-selling. When you go to Amazon to buy a book, it says, ‘People who liked this also liked’ or when you ask for a burger, they offer you fries and a coke. The private sector is extremely good at leveraging forms of interaction for more than a single purpose. So one thing I think government could be doing – of course in a less annoying method – is, when you’re having an election, why don’t you consult people about other things? Or if you call to complain about a broken lamp in your street, why not let people know that by the way there’s a community meeting in your area. Or when you’re filling out your taxes, why not get feedback on where they’d like to see your money going.

There’s a good example in the UK, with the Nudge Unit’s work on organ donation.
Yes, when you apply for your driving licence, you’re asked to become a donor.

Ah, you already know the example.
Yes, and it’s precisely that. Government is already asking people about what they want to do with bodies when they’re dead, but they could be asking about what they want to do with their community while they’re still alive.

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