William & Mary

Pickering Co-Authors Study on Mobile Phones and Political Accountability

Pickering, an associate professor of Government at W&M, and her co-authors conducted a large study of more than 16,000 voters around the 2016 Ugandan district elections. Working with Twaweza, a Ugandan-based organization that promotes good governance, the research team used mobile phone text messages to inform voters about official information on budget mismanagement by local government councils. The results, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that voters who confirmed receiving messages and who learned that suspected fraud was greater than they expected were 6 percentage points less likely to vote for incumbent district councillors, who are often the first level of officials that citizens contact. Meanwhile, voters who learned that mismanagement was less than expected were 5 percentage points more likely to vote for incumbent district councillors. Pickering and her colleagues found the messages had no effect in higher profile district chair elections. The study suggests conditions that allow for information to empower voters to make better informed choices in local elections in developing democracies. Factual Information should be salient, locally tailored, and attributable to particular politicians.

The project was part of a larger initiative of Evidence in Governance and Politics called “Metaketa I”, which sponsored research teams to study the effects of information on voter behavior in six developing countries. Most other studies found mixed or inconclusive results, highlighting the challenges in designing effective information interventions. 

“SMS Texts on Corruption Help Ugandan Voters Hold Elected Councillors Accountable at the Polls” by Mark T. Buntaine (University of California, Santa Barbara), Ryan Jablonski (London School of Economics and Political Science), Daniel L. Nielson (Brigham Young University), and Paula M. Pickering was published on 11 June 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The complete article can be accessed here.