There is unequal access to political power everywhere. One striking regularity is that in many areas women and poorer voters have fewer channels to access their political representatives. In a project with Guy Grossman, Gaby Sacramone Lutz, we have been working with NDI and the parliament of Uganda to see whether SMS technology can increase and flatten access to politicians and whether changing access has structural changes on the types of demands facing politicians.
At the heart of our study is an examination of a pilot SMS communication platform set up in the Uganda parliament. 100 Ugandan MPs were selected in a public lottery for the pilot from a pool of 200 volunteers. Then over 6 months radio campaigns were launched throughout the country encouraging Ugandan voters to reach out o their MPS. These radio campaigns varied the prices for using the system and the feedback they receive on the ways that the system is being used by voters in their constituency.
In our pilot work for this project we found good evidence that this kind of system can flatten access to politicians — women and marginalized voters used the system at higher rates than more traditionally connected voters (at at significantly higher rates relative to traditional modes of communication). They were also less responsive to price.
In our scale up we found under field conditions things look very different: we find much lower take up and we do not find this flattening. Patterns of engagement revert to traditional patterns. We ran a follow up “mechanisms” experiment to try to figure out whether the key issue was the absence of a personal invitation to engage in politics from the mass campaign, but did not find support for that hypothesis. Survey evidence suggests that citizens did not engage in the scale up because they — rightly— expected that politicians would not listed to our respond to their communications. Our current understanding for the absence of a flattening effect points to persistent inequalities: women and marginalized groups are less likely to even hear the media campaigns in the first place. Overall this suggests systemic failures rather than failures of demand.
This study integrates three related field experiments to learn about how information communications technology (ICT) innovations can affect who communicates with politicians. We implemented a nationwide experiment in Uganda following a smaller-scale framed field experiment that suggested that ICTs can lead to significant “flattening”: marginalized populations used short message service (SMS) based communication at relatively higher rates compared to existing political communication channels. We find no evidence for these effects in the national experiment. Instead, participation rates are extremely low, and marginalized populations engage at especially low rates. We examine possible reasons for these differences between the more controlled and the scaled-up experiments. The evidence suggests that even when citizens have issues they want to raise, technological fixes to communication deficits can be easily undercut by structural weaknesses in political systems.
How does access to information communication technology (ICT) affect who gets heard and what gets communicated to politicians? On the one hand, ICT can lower communication costs for poorer constituents; on the other, technological channels may be used disproportionately more by the already well connected. To assess the flattening effects of ICTs, we presented a representative sample of constituents in Uganda with an opportunity to send a text message to their representatives at one of three randomly assigned prices. Critically, and contrary to concerns that technological innovations benefit the privileged, we find evidence that ICT can lead to significant flattening: a greater share of marginalized populations use this channel compared to existing political communication channels. Price plays a more complex role. Subsidizing the full cost of messaging increases uptake by over 40%. Surprisingly however, subsidy-induced increases in uptake do not yield further flattening since free channels are not used at higher rates by more marginalized constituents.