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Brief 49: Information Technology and Political Engagement in Uganda

This study examines conflicting outcomes between a successful small-scale SMS-based field experiment to increase political engagement in Uganda, and the scaled-up, nationwide intervention. The authors also present a third experiment to help understand rival explanations for the different outcomes. Findings from these three related field experiments suggest that although mobile technology has genuine potential to increase levels of political engagement, especially among marginalized populations, inequalities and weaknesses in the broader political system must be addressed for information communication technology (ICT) to work when brought to scale.

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Category: Public Service Provision

Tags: Uganda, mobile, technology, voting

Date of Publication: Saturday, October 1, 2016

EGAP Researcher: Guy Grossman, Macartan Humphreys

Other Authors: Gabriella Sacramone-Lutz

Partners: The PIs gratefully acknowledge support from National Science Foundation Grant number 1260631

Geographical Region: Africa

Research Question:

How can information technology be harnessed to improve political communication in low-income countries?

Preparer: Goldie Negelev



There is growing interest to understand how technology will change politics, particularly in developing democracies where marginalized groups face higher barriers in communicating with their political representatives. Weak political communication channels have important implications for the health of a country's democratic institutions: with poor information on their constituents' preferences and policy priorities, elected representatives have a hard time representing, and political parties cannot differentiate themselves in meaningful ways. Can mobile technology help? There are obvious reasons why it could, but there are also fears that information communication technology (ICT) will only better connect those that are already well connected. This study reports findings from a multi-year research project, involving three related field experiments designed to test if mobile technology can improve communication between elites and their constituents, and marginalized groups in particular. In an initial pilot, or “framed field experiment”, the authors found that introducing SMS as a way to send messages to government elicited a significant amount of new communication and improved the rate at which marginalized groups communicate to their representatives. Following the result of the framed field experiment, the authors worked with the Parliament of Uganda and The National Democratic Institute (NDI) to scale-up the intervention to 100 constituencies. This “natural field experiment” was structured as a randomized controlled trial and took place over a 6 month period.

Research Design:

In the initial stage of the nationwide field experiment, the researchers held a series of public lotteries to select the Members of Parliament (MPs) who would be treated and receive access to the uSpeak system - a platform that allowed MPs to log onto a dashboard where they could read tagged SMS messages from constituents, reply, and see simple descriptive statistics about the messages they received, such as what the priority issues in their constituency were within a selected time-frame. Of 186 volunteer MPs (the study population), 100 were randomly selected to access the uSpeak program (treatment group). The remaining 86 MPs made up a control group. Note then, that the study population involves the group of MPs who, at least initially, expressed clear interest in participating in the program. Because the uSpeak program involved treating both voters and their MPs, the unit of analysis is the constituency, which is made up of both voters and their representative. The uSpeak platform was advertised over the radio in treated constituencies. The radio advertisements were played twice daily on local radio stations over the course of the six-month study period.  On the voter side, this meant that individuals in treated constituencies (at least those with access to radio) had knowledge of the program broadly, knew that that their MP was participating, and were able to send messages via SMS to their MP.

Data for testing the effects of the uSpeak program came from four sources: (1) a baseline survey of Ugandan adults randomly drawn from all constituencies in Uganda, conducted immediately following the 2011 Parliamentary election, (2) the SMS messages sent by constituents to the uSpeak system, tagged with the date and time they were received, (3) a callback phone survey we conducted with uSpeak users, and (4) an end line survey of a nationally-representative sample of Ugandan adults. In addition, the study authors conducted an additional follow up experiment with about 3,000 experimental subjects in Arua district to help adjudicate some of the conflicting endings between the natural field experiment and the framed field experiment.
In contrast to the earlier framed field experiment, uptake rates in the scaled-up program were much lower. MPs in the uSpeak program received a total of 1964 messages over 6 months. The radio ads were played over an area where roughly 10 million people live, so the uptake the authors observed was extremely low relative to the framed field experiment. A key finding from the earlier study was that SMS tools for political communication were used more frequently by marginalized people—the authors found that the share of marginalized people in the SMS user group (.54) was significantly higher than the share of marginalized people among those who use traditional means of communication to reach their MP. Conversely, in the national program, users of uSpeak were wealthier and more educated than the general population, and a majority were male.

The authors assessed three hypotheses that could explain why these two sets of results differed so drastically:

  1. In the framed field experiment the authors contacted around 7,500 randomly-sampled individuals, but in the scaled-up version the authors advertised the program over the radio to over 1/3 of the country. Did the scale of the second program alter its effect by inducing collective action problems that were not present in our earlier study?
  2. In the framed field experiment, the authors clearly signaled to the participants that a research team was carrying out a study and would deliver their messages to MPs. In the natural field experiment, constituents were exposed to a project run by NDI and the Parliament of Uganda. Did the change of partners alter the expectations of would-be participants?
  3. The authors also considered that two key features of the newer design might have led to differential uptake.
  • The mode of treatment delivery may have induced a treatment compliance effect. If Ugandans were less likely to internalize appeals delivered via radio than those delivered in person, then this effect could explain low uptake in the national experiment but not the pilot.
  • Related, the mode of treatment delivery may have had different effects on different types of subjects. Invitation effects may have been more powerful for marginalized individuals, who felt empowered in receiving an individual invitation to contact their MP in the framed experiment.
Policy Implications:
Findings from these three related field experiments suggest that the disappointing results of the uSpeak program are not driven by weak demand. Instead, the analysis points to both weaknesses in the marketing of the system, but also to an expectation on the part of voters that MPs would not respond. In Uganda, as in many electoral authoritarian regimes (the most common regime type in Africa), low levels of political efficacy discourage political action; ICT innovations, by themselves,cannot force non-responsive politicians to become responsive. This was also reinforced in the data from the uSpeak platform in Parliament—few MPs checked their messages, and even fewer answered their constituents. Voters were rational in deciding to send fewer messages when communication was direct and not through a trusted intermediary (as in the framed experiment). This suggests that citizens are more encouraged to engage in political communication by the presence of NGOs.