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E-participation Opportunities and the Ambiguous Role of Corruption: A Model of Municipal Responsiveness to Socio-political factors"

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Municipalities ostensibly scale the ladder of e-participation opportunities to gain legitimacy. However, research has not yet addressed how cities develop e-participation opportunities in the face of the serious legitimacy concern of corruption. Analysis of data from 104 municipal websites in S. Africa reveals support for two moderating affects of social capital and accountability. The research finds a positive remedial response to corruption in the presence of strong social capital and a negative avoidance response to corruption in the presence of high demand for accountability.
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Abstract: Municipalities ostensibly scale the ladder of e-participation improvement to gain legitimacy. However,
research has not yet addressed how e-participation initiatives are affected by serious legitimacy concerns such as
corruption. One municipal response to corruption is to use e-participation offerings as a remedial effort to gain citizen
trust, but window-dressing strategies might also be used. In this article, the authors attempt to make sense of this
ambiguity by hypothesizing that the effects of perceived corruption on e-participation offerings depend on the type of
e-participation as well as the level of local social capital and local public accountability demand. Analysis of data from
104 municipal websites in South Africa between 2013 and 2017 reveals support for two moderation mechanisms: (1)
a positive remedial response to corruption in the presence of strong social capital and (2) a negative avoidance response
to corruption in the presence of high demand for accountability.
Evidence for Practice
E-participation tools are a viable way for municipal managers to tackle corruption.
Selection of tools for one-way or two-way interaction should be based on careful consideration of citizen
capacity and demand rather than a blanket approach.
High levels of e-participation offerings depend not only on physical resources such as financial resources and
internet access but also on social capital and public demand for accountability.
Building social capital is a good long-term strategy for preventing corruption and creating sustainable
e-participation engagement.
Alex Ingrams
Tilburg University
Hindy Lauer Schachter
New Jersey Institute of Technology
E-participation Opportunities and the Ambiguous Role of
Corruption: A Model of Municipal Responsiveness to
Sociopolitical Factors
This article explores the role of corruption as
a factor in local government e-participation
development. Today, government interest
in citizen participation is growing across the globe
(Bingham, Nabatchi, and O’Leary 2005; Lee, Chang,
and Berry 2011; Vigoda 2002). Some of the debates
on the merits and challenges of participation have
moved into electronic territory as jurisdictions have
adopted information and communication technologies
(ICTs) both to inform and to interact with citizens
(Barber 1998; Bovens and Zouridis 2002; Kakabadse,
Kakabadse, and Kouzmin 2003). Scholars have tried
to find out what variables explain e-participation
adoption, but so far studies do not convincingly show
which variables are important (Borge, Colombo, and
Welp 2009; Zheng, Schachter, and Holzer 2014).
Further, scholars have yet to solve the problem posed
by Arnstein (1969) in her theory of the “ladder of
participation”: that a jurisdiction’s motivations for
participation adoption can range from remedial (to
help address policy problems) to inauthentic. Arnstein
describes the latter motivations as nonparticipation—
manipulation and therapy—and tokenism—the
placation of citizens’ wishes or consultation without
ceding power. The problem created by jurisdictions
offering empty participation rituals rather than
opportunities to affect outcomes remains acute and
gains further urgency as policy makers continue to
embrace new forms of online participation.
So far, however, researchers addressing Arnstein’s
theory have not empirically examined which variables
correlate with jurisdictions seeking to manipulate
citizens and which correlate with governments
offering authentic involvement opportunities.
Instead, many studies have offered normative advice
on how administrators who want to offer authentic
participation should proceed (e.g., Bryson et al. 2013;
King, Felty, and Susel 1998). Others have tried to
revise the ladder to include additional concepts such
as collaboration (Cooper and Bryer 2007). This article
is one of the first to offer an analysis exploring how
several social variables affect where a jurisdiction’s
offerings fall on the ladder of participation—that is,
whether these opportunities constitute some type
of nonparticipation or tokenism or actually offer an
authentic participation opportunity.
Hindy Lauer Schachter is professor in
the Martin Tuchman School of Management
at New Jersey Institute of Technology. In
addition to articles in academic journals, she
has authored
Reinventing Government or
Reinventing Ourselves
(State University of
New York Press, 1997),
Frederick Taylor and
the Public Administration Community
(State
University of New York Press, 1989), and
Public Agency Communication
(Nelson Hall,
1983). With Kaifeng Yang, she coedited
The State of Civic Participation in America
(Information Age, 2012).
E-mail: hindy.l.schachter@njit.edu
Alex Ingrams is assistant professor
in the Institute of Governance at Tilburg
University. He earned his PhD in public
administration at Rutgers University–
Newark in 2017. His research focuses on
digital government transformations, theory
of public information, and government
transparency and accountability. His recent
work has focused on government adoption
of big data and algorithmic decision-making
and its impact on public sector performance.
E-mail: a.ingrams@uvt.nl
Research Article
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 4, pp. 601–611. © 2019 The
Authors. Public Administration Review
published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of
The American Society for Public Ad ministration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13049.
602 Public Administration Review July | Aug ust 20 19
According to a systematic literature review by Savoldelli,
Codagnone, and Misuraca (2014), efforts to understand
e-government offerings have largely neglected social and political
explanatory factors. Ingrams et al. (2018) recently provided some
clues as to how we may investigate the environmental context of
e-participation offerings. They argued that ambiguous results in
e-government research might be explained by the sensitivity of
models to particular types of e-government tools as well as to the
specific political conditions of a government. Political context
becomes more important for participative types of e-government
(Ingrams et al. 2018). Indeed, Ganapati (2011) found that
normative and political motivations may be even more important
than technical capacity in understanding a jurisdiction’s ICT
development. This underlines both Arnstein (1969) and King, Felty,
and Susel’s (1998) earlier claims about how we should understand
divergent motivations underlying participation initiatives.
When considering remediation versus manipulation approaches,
the phenomenon of corruption is an especially important and, in
a sense, puzzling aspect of the political context for e-participation,
as e-participation is supposed to help address legitimacy problems
in a remedial way (Jun and Weare 2010). Some studies have shown
that citizen participation can counteract organizational pathologies
in local government programs (e.g., Kim and Schachter 2013)
and prevent corruption (e.g., Bertot, Jaeger, and Grimes 2010).
However, research by Grimmelikhuijsen and Meijer (2015) found
that the connection between online communication and legitimacy
in the eyes of citizens is quite weak. Indeed, other research shows
that e-participation may be responsive to citizens only in some
circumstances because of the inherent disadvantages of online
formats (e.g., Berry 2005; Kim and Lee 2012; Schatteman 2012;
Yetano and Royo 2015). Such problems include that municipalities
tend to focus e-participation initiatives on one-way communication
involving news and statutory information, while participation
should involve two-way processes demonstrated by online contact
opportunities, e-deliberation tools, and social media (Chadwick
and May 2003; Coursey and Norris 2008; Scott 2006).
Under conditions of perceived corruption, the consequence of
this complicated scenario for Arnstein’s ladder of participation is
a catch-22 for municipalities. Because of the endogenous factors
that lead to corruption in the first place, rather than addressing the
problem by becoming more accountable (a remedial approach),
a municipality might proactively limit the participative capacities
of its online offerings in order to create a positive public face (a
window-dressing approach) and/or hide corruption (an avoidance
approach). Because of the role of such endogenous factors,
municipalities in this predicament are expected to make different
strategic moves depending on the role of external social and political
factors that are countervailing to corruption, such as social capital
and public accountability demand in the jurisdiction. Further, we
expect the response from the municipality to vary depending on
the level of citizen responsiveness that the online tools allow—
that is, e-information tools require relatively little responsiveness,
whereas e-participation tool are much more demanding in terms of
responsiveness.
To address this question, this article uses a website content analysis
and secondary data from the Afrobarometer in South African
municipalities to explore which sociopolitical interactions with
corruption determine whether a municipality is more likely to
respond in terms of remediation, window dressing, or avoidance
in its e-participation adoption. We define responsiveness,
following Powell (2004), to mean the way in which political and
civic processes induce governments to implement policies that
citizens want. According to Powell, such responsiveness is vital for
democracy, so although it is sometimes difficult to trace the path
between citizen demands and government responses, it is important
to do so.
We look to the case of South Africa because it serves as an important
example of e-participation development and the challenge of
corruption. South Africa is in a phase of rapid e-government growth
and has demonstrated intense interest in e-government innovation,
some of which has been successful (Heeks 2002; Kaisara and Pather
2009). For example, the country now uses electronic voting booths
in elections, even in very remote areas. Additionally, South Africa
serves as a critical test of whether theory and practice diverge in the
participation opportunities that municipal websites offer because
it has a commitment to citizen participation enshrined in its
constitution. The South African constitution states that the “people’s
needs must be responded to, and the public must be encouraged to
participate in policy-making” (section 195[1][e]). The Municipal
Systems Act No. 32 (2000) reiterates these principles for the local
government level. South Africa is one of six African countries with
an e-government development index above the global average
(United Nations 2014). Despite this background, research on South
Africa highlights incongruence between theory and practice (Kaisara
and Pather 2009), and the country continues to battle widespread
government corruption (Bratton 2012; Cameron and Tapscott
2000).
There are obvious generalizability shortcomings in relying on
data from one country. However, Gerring (2004) has argued for
the utility of case studies in examining subjects about which little
is yet known, and there are excellent reasons to use the case of
South Africa to highlight the legitimacy-corruption conundrum
of e-participation. South Africa represents quite a useful case of
government corruption in terms of the possibility of comparing
lessons learned in this jurisdiction to participation patterns in a
range of other geographic contexts. South Africa shares features with
Western democratic systems, being highly religiously and ethnically
diverse and having a relatively free press, a vibrant civil society, and a
strong democratic constitution. However, because of the prevalence
of poverty, disease, kleptocracy, and economic instability, it also
shares dysfunctional attributes with emerging or nondemocratic
countries (Heller 2012; von Holdt 2013). While it is often difficult
to know which features of one case will have generalizable attributes
(Gerring 2004), South Africa’s position suggests that governments in
a wide range of development niches could learn something from an
analysis of how corruption influences its e-government offerings.
This article first reviews the scholarly literature on the relationship
of sociopolitical factors and corruption to a jurisdiction’s developing
e-participation opportunities. The review provides a frame to
the arguments for deducing empirical hypotheses regarding the
sociopolitical factors involved in the relationship. We then detail
the measurement of survey items used to test the hypotheses and
E-participation Opportunities and the Ambiguous Role of Corruption: A Model of Municipal Responsiveness to Sociopolitical Factors 603
estimate parameters for our model using panel data. We discuss the
findings and draw our conclusions for research and practice.
Theoretical Background
Corruption is the “misuse of public position for private gain,
and it plays a central role in government legitimacy in the eyes
of citizens (Brinkerhoff 2000). When it comes to e-participation
offerings, ideally speaking, policy makers would address citizen
perceptions of corruption by trying to make online tools more
participative and accountable. Under this remedial approach,
e-participation could help control corruption because participation
brings the public closer to monitoring government decision
making, and it becomes more difficult for personnel to manipulate
decisions for their own interests (Bohara, Mitchell, and Mittendorff
2004). Following a similar line of thinking about the remedial
potential of e-participation, Shim and Eom (2009) argue that
e-government can reduce corruption because the digitization
of street-level services increases public involvement, thereby
preventing arbitrary diversions of public resources. A large body
of empirical findings in different countries supports this idea that
municipalities are driven by citizen expectations that government
should be trustworthy and accountable by providing better avenues
for participation, including through ICTs (e.g., Bruszt, Vedres, and
Stark 2005; Saxena 2005).
On the other hand, other evidence suggests that perceived
corruption may have the opposite effect on e-participation. Control
mechanisms for corruption are vulnerable to spin, so governments
may try to address the problem of perceived corruption by ramping
up their ability to control public opinion to protect their own
reputation (Bovaird and Löffler 2009; Larbi 2007). This is especially
true in more authoritarian governments, where corruption is more
likely to occur in the first place and its beneficiaries are more likely
to be able to exert internal resistance to plans for remediation
(Jiang and Xu 2009; Maerz 2016). Control of online tools is one
avenue available to policy makers for political control (Ahn and
Bretschneider 2011; Bussell 2010). Therefore, in governments
where corruption is a common occurrence, it might better serve the
interests of the city government to offer less or very little in the way
of online participation tools.
Both of these mechanisms are plausible, and it is difficult to predict
a priori the effect of perceived corruption on e-participation or
e-information adoption without knowledge of the sociopolitical
context or a more specific understanding of the types of
e-participation tools. To help us address this ambiguity, we look
to a body of literature that posits a conditional relationship
between sociopolitical variables such as social capital and public
accountability demand and e-information and e-participation
development (e.g., Ahn and Bretschneider 2011; Chen and Hsieh
2009; Jiang and Xu 2009; Torres, Pina, and Acerete 2006). Social
and political characteristics strengthen the responsiveness of political
leaders to citizen demands (Araujo and Tejedo-Romero 2016).
According to Torres, Pina, and Acerete, technology behaves “as an
enabler within pre-existing social and political structures” (2006,
277). According to Brinkerhoff (2000), there is a complex range of
social and political characteristics of citizens that contribute to the
political will to address corruption. Sociopolitical variables are likely
to moderate the explanation for the effect of perceived corruption
on a municipality’s e-participation opportunities. So, it is to these
variables that the theoretical discussion turns.
Social Capital
In this research, we look specifically at social capital as a form of
social trust and bonding. Social capital is the primary bonding
agent underlying many political and economic processes in society.
It can be defined as “social networks and norms of reciprocity and
trustworthiness that arise from them” (Putnam 2000, 19). Trust
“arises out of networks of civic engagement and norms of reciprocity”
(Gregory 1999, 64), and it is one of the main components of social
capital (Brewer 2003; Newton 2001; Yang 2005). Societies with
higher trust in civic institutions are more likely to have responsive
governments because trust facilitates cooperation and understanding
(Brewer 2003; Rothstein and Uslaner 2005). If citizens have high
levels of social capital, they are likely to have stronger bonds with core
public institutions such as membership associations and community
and cultural organizations. It seems plausible, then, that because
municipal governments are part of these local institutions, they would
reciprocate by offering new online forms of participation to citizens.
On the other hand, there may be a negative relationship between
social capital and e-participation because if citizens with high social
capital are trusting and satisfied with traditional forms of civic
participation, they do not need online innovations in participation
(Goldfinch, Gauld, and Herbison 2009). In their theory of “stealth
democracy,” Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (2002) argue that citizens
are least likely to demand greater participation in government when
they are already trusting and there are high levels of government
legitimacy. In this situation, it is unlikely that there will be any
response to e-participation adoption. In fact, it is equally possible
that e-participation levels will go down because there is less
incentive for municipalities to adopt new engagement tools.
How can we determine which of these opposite mechanisms
holds in the relationship between social capital and e-participation
adoption? In itself, it seems unclear what effect social capital will
have on e-participation adoption in local government. However,
what happens to this equation under conditions of perceived
corruption? Corrupt governments are less responsive to citizens
than noncorrupt governments (Noesselt 2014; Shim and Eom
2009). Municipalities that suffer from a perception of corruption
and already have moderate to high levels of social capital among
citizens might have a lot to lose in terms of credibility if citizens
begin to disengage. On the government supply side, then, high
levels of social capital may convince policy makers that engagement
with citizens is feasible and necessary—that e-participation efforts
can win back legitimacy from citizens. Therefore, we hypothesize
that there will be a positive moderating effect of high perception of
corruption and high social capital on local e-participation.
The same bid for legitimacy is not realistic for e-information, which
offers static, one-way information formats. However, withdrawing
e-information tools (avoidance) also does not seem plausible given
that e-government can help municipalities save money and the
political costs of appearing to be behind the technology adoption
curve are also quite high (Chadwick and May 2003; Tolbert and
Mossberger 2006). For e-information, the expectation is unclear,
but for e-participation we can hypothesize the following:
604 Public Administration Review July | Aug ust 20 19
Hypothesis 1: Social capital positively moderates the effect of
corruption perception on e-participation level.
Public Accountability Demand
According to Gil-Garcia and Martinez-Moyano (2006), citizen
demands are linked to decisions to implement e-government
reforms and to hold public officials accountable as such through
sociotechnical norms embedded in technologies and in expectations
of how to use those technologies. Indeed, prior research has
confirmed that both implicit and explicit citizen pressure to
enact change is one of the most important factors shaping
the development of e-government (Chadwick and May 2003;
Rodríguez Domínguez, García Sánchez, and Gallego Álvarez 2011).
High accountability and participation norms pressure government
into offering improved channels for online participation (Bertot,
Jaeger, and Grimes 2010).
But what happens when high public accountability demand
meets a perception of corruption? It should invigorate demand
for legitimacy, but it might also cause public officials to hide. The
connection between citizen demand for accountability and the
consequences or impacts on behavior by public officials is achieved
through complex sociopolitical structures (Berliner 2017; Bovens
2007). Corruption would be expected to influence this complex
dynamic in some way. For citizens to have the ability to act on their
demand for accountability, they need to have the technical tools for
access to participation (Dauda 2006). Seeing this need, the easiest
route for municipalities when perception of corruption is high
and the level of public demand for accountability is also high is to
create obstacles to these technical tools by reducing participation
and accountability levels online. In other words, they are likely to
anticipate invigorated demand and seek ways to hide.
These kinds of mechanisms have been observed in empirical
research showing that accountability demand can be effective
at tackling corruption so long as the demand is embedded in
broader accountability relationships (Schatz 2013). But in online
relationships, these accountability structures are unlikely to
have strong control over bureaucratic behavior. In the face of
public demand for accountability, but in the absence of broader
accountability relationships, government officials can easily
withdraw or manipulate information online. Therefore, we expect
that when perception of corruption is high, the effect of strong
public accountability demand on e-participation development will
be negative for e-participation opportunities. From the point of
view of the municipal government, the self-interested solution to
this combination of strong accountability attitude and perceived
corruption is to preempt online interactions. For e-information,
however, a window-dressing reaction is more convincing: one-way
types of information provision can window dress the municipality’s
online offerings to strengthen the appearance of legitimacy without
fear that these will create entryways for citizens that risk demand for
accountability on corruption. Window dressing is a more rational
approach than providing no e-information because, in the age of the
internet, no provision is likely to lead to a citizen backlash.
Hypothesis 2: High public accountability demand
negatively moderates the effect of perceived corruption on
e-participation level.
E-informationE-participation
Strong social
capita
l
No change
(Redundancy)
High adoption
(Remedial efforts)
High
accountability
demand
High adoption
(Window dressing)
Low adoption
(Avoidance)
Figure 1 Typology of E-participation Adoption According to
Social Capital and Accountability Demand under Conditions of
Perceived Corruption
Hypothesis 3: High public accountability demand positively
moderates the effect of perceived corruption on e- information
level.
Figure 1 shows the outcome of interactions of high levels of social
capital and public accountability demand under conditions of
perceived corruption. We do not find any convincing reason to
expect that social capital will moderate the effect on e-information
level, so we have termed this set of conceptual relationships redundant
or irrelevant. But remedial efforts are expected, and e-participation
offerings increase. In the case of public accountability demand, when
corruption is high, there are expected outcomes: window dressing to
create a positive public image for e-information and avoidance to
close interaction possibilities in terms of e-participation.
Data and Methods
As this study’s aim is to examine relationships between sociopolitical
variables and e-participation opportunities, we needed data on
municipal website offerings and sociopolitical context. Accordingly,
the data used to test the propositions on e-participation and
democratic responsiveness come from three sources. The first source
is the 2011 Census conducted by Statistics South Africa (SSA). The
SSA supplied the data for control variables of population size and gross
domestic product (GDP) (see table 2 later in this article). The second
data source is the 2011 and 2016 Afrobarometer surveys of South
Africa. The Afrobarometer is an in-person, in-country survey using
a nationally representative probability sample of citizens of African
countries. The Afrobarometer data were used to create mean indicators
by year and by municipality for the political and civic engagement
variables in the study. Individual-level data were aggregated at
the municipal level by taking the individual means grouped by
municipality. The aggregated variables include three variables:
perception of corruption, public accountability demand, and social capital,
as well as a control variable measuring internet access (see table 2).
This study tests the effect of sociopolitical variables on municipal
adoption of various types of e-participation tools. However, this
effect can take months or years from input to output because of
lengthy bureaucratic and technical processes (Norris and Reddick
2013). Previous research has found that policy and program changes
resulting from government decision making tend to be slow (e.g.,
Christensen and Lægreid 2007; Lindblom 1959). Therefore,
the use of five years of e-participation initiatives is intended to
account for the chronological realities of program development and
implementation.
Typical Likert five-step response questions operationalized the
variables for public accountability demand: “It is more important
E-participation Opportunities and the Ambiguous Role of Corruption: A Model of Municipal Responsiveness to Sociopolitical Factors 605
for citizens to be able to hold government accountable, even if
that means it makes decisions more slowly” (agree very strongly
with 1 [better government gets things done]; agree with 1 [better
government gets things done]; agree with neither; agree with 2
[better citizen participation] agree very strongly with 2 [better
citizen participation]). For social capital, a five-part Likert scale
detailing levels of membership addressed the question “Are you a
member of a voluntary association or community group?”
The third source of data, used to construct the dependent variable
of municipal e-participation and e-information level, is an index
developed by the authors from a series of dummy variables that
were generated from a content analysis of 104 municipal websites
in South Africa. To increase the internal validity of this sample, we
selected the websites of the two most populous municipalities in
South Africa’s 52 districts. In the case of South Africa, it is necessary
to take into account the incidence of absent or unmaintained
websites in less populated rural municipalities. We found that in a
sample of the 30 smallest municipalities, 17 (57 percent) either were
nonexistent, were not functioning, or had not been in existence long
enough for measurements to be taken over three years.
The country has 278 municipalities, but our sampling method
follows the methodology of previous municipal e-governance survey
instruments by selecting within population brackets and excluding
the smallest municipalities when small population makes drawing
inferences about citizen and governmental characteristics less valid
(Moon 2002). According to Scott, the municipality must be “large
enough to assume the cost of maintaining and developing its web
presence” (2006, 346). There is significant size variation in our
sample from the largest (Johannesburg, 4.5 million) to the smallest
(Pixley Ka Seme, 83,200) (SSA 2016) municipalities. Our model
includes population size as a control variable.
To measure the participation levels of the websites across time,
the 104 websites were analyzed in the last quarter of each of five
years, 2013–17. The website archiving tool https://web.archive.
org/ provides snapshots of the websites including all the site’s
subpages and live hyperlinks for a given period during the life of
the websites. Thus, the website archive tool allowed us to gather
website data from versions of the sites with active links exactly as
they would have appeared in prior years. The content analysis used
an additive index for analyzing e-participation websites adapted
from Borge, Colombo, and Welp’s (2009) study of e-participation
in Catalonia.
To identify website functions for the index, we also follow the
measuring tool used by Scott (2006), including information
about events and services, generic and personal phone and email
contact information, feedback forms, and social media. Also
following Scott (2006), we separate the index into two levels: (1)
one-way information tools that provide one-way information on
how to participate, such as news and events pages, a FAQ page,
and a statement of information rights of citizens in the presence
or absence of an access to information policy on the website; and
(2) two-way participation with the individuals and programs of
the municipality, including the availability of types of contact
information for personnel as well as online portals where citizens
can request or process information.
Table 1 E-participation Tool Averages (N = 470)
Website Tool Percentage Use
E-information
News page 67.7
Events page 44.0
FAQ page 7.80
Statutory and legal documents 84.0
Services information 0.14
Access to information policy statement 7.09
Multiple languages setting 3.20
E-participation
Reception desk contact phone number 84.4
Department phone numbers 51.4
Named official phone number 33.3
General email address 70.6
Department email addresses 30.9
Named official email addresses 23.8
Facebook 39.4
Twitter 30.9
Other type of social media 11.3
The index combined 16 such features in total (e-information, 7;
e-participation, 9). We entered a 0 or 1 depending on whether the
feature was present. Three coders carried out the content analysis,
and 20 (19.2 percent of the total) of the websites were evaluated
twice by two different coders in order to create a reliability sample.
A Cohen’s kappa intercoder reliability score was calculated at 0.79,
and a Pearson’s correlation was also 0.79. A Cohen’s kappa score
in the range of 0.60 to 0.79 is considered a sign of substantial
agreement between the coders and is a good indication of the
reliability of our coding method (Landis and Koch 1977).
As table 1 shows, the common observation by e-government
scholars that e-participation tools remain predominantly
informational or focused on low email or phone access rather
than promoting deliberation holds in the case of municipal
government websites in South Africa. While large majorities of
websites have generic phone numbers (84.4 percent) and email
addresses (70.6 percent) for communication between citizens and
government, fewer numbers give contact information for specific,
named government officials (phone, 33.3 percent; email, 23.8
percent). Such contact information or transparency about internal
management matters not just because it provides more detailed
information for citizens, but also because the features are a channel
for municipality-citizen interaction that enable responsiveness to
citizen complaints, contact for communication and dialogue, or,
potentially, a tool for criticism. A histogram of the distribution
of e-participation scores showed that the scores were normally
distributed. The descriptive statistics for the dependent and
independent variables are reported in table 2.
The study used a time series model because such models estimate
the most accurate parameters for data with repeated measures over
several years. An insignificant chi-squared result for a Hausman test
suggested that a random effects model is a more efficient model than
fixed effects. Three additional reasons for random effects support
this decision: (1) there is no reason to believe that the explanatory
variables would vary much over the three years; (2) unobserved
heterogeneity is not expected to correlate with the observed
variables; and (3) we wish to extrapolate the findings of the model
beyond the sample of municipalities in the study (Greene 2003; Zhu
606 Public Administration Review July | Aug ust 20 19
Table 2 Descriptive Statistics and Measurement Items
Variable Measure Obs. Mean SD Min. Max.
Dependent variables
E-information Derived from author content analysis.Continuous (0–7, 7 = high) 461 3.22 0.98 1 7
E-participation Derived from author content analysis.Continuous (0–9, 9 = high) 461 3.39 1.79 0 7
Independent variables
Social capital Afrobarometer survey item: “Are you a member of a voluntary association or community
group?”Ordinal (0–4, 4 = high)
460 0.36 0.20 0.03 0.98
Public accountability attitude Afrobarometer survey item: “Do you agree with the statement that it is more important for
citizens to be able to hold government accountable, even if that means it makes decisions
more slowly?”Ordinal (0–4, 4 = high)
456 2.42 0.23 0.18 2.89
Perception of corruption Afrobarometer survey item: “How likely is it that your local government councilors are involved
in corruption?” (0–4, 4 = very likely)
470 1.61 0.29 0.88 2.27
Control variables
GDP per capita Source: Statistics South AfricaContinuous (natural log) 470 19.67 1.37 17.6 24.36
Population size Source: Statistics South AfricaContinuous (natural log) 470 13.39 0.78 11.17 15.33
Internet access Afrobarometer survey item: “How often do you use the internet?”Ordinal (0–4, 4 = high access) 470 1.61 0.37 1.00 2.64
Table 3 Correlation Matrix
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
1. E-information 1
2. E-participation ***0.17 1
3. Social capital 0.04 –0.04 –1
4. Accountability demand 0.07 –0.07 –0.04 –1
5. Perception of corruption 0.07 –0.04 0.01 ***–0.17 1
6. GDP per capita **0.16 –0.02 0.08 0.04 –0.08 1
7. Population size ***0.25 *0.12 ***0.30 **0.20 **–0.14 ***0.46 1
8. Internet access ***0.17 ***0.24 0.00 *–0.14 *–0.11 ***0.29 ***0.36 1
Table 4 Regression Results
E-information E-participation
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Independent variables
Social capital –0.012
(0.459)
–4.637
(2.803)
–0.576
(0.812)
*–11.773
(5.334)
Public accountability demand *0.659
(0.324)
1.113
(2.261)
0.241
(0.676)
**14.775
(4.755)
Perception of corruption *0.601
(0.303)
0.318
(3.416)
0.221
(0.749)
**19.576
(7.403)
Moderation variables
Social capital * Corrupt 2.781
(1.717)
*6.836
(3.172)
Accountability * Corrupt –0.330
(1.435)
**–9.319
(2.985)
Control variables
GDP per capita 0.169
(0.091)
0.164
(0.089)
–0.239
(0.194)
–0.237
(0.189)
Population size 0.039
(0.102)
0.051
(0.104)
0.138
(0.201)
0.244
(0.193)
Internet access 0.363
(0.245)
0.340
(0.251)
**1.320
(0.482)
***1.434
(0.451)
Constant –1.462
(1.482)
**–24.701
(8.816)
0.302
(2.721)
**–31.341
(12.095)
Observations 437 437 437 437
Groups 104 104 104 104
Between R20.11 0.13 0.11 0.23
Overall R20.09 0.11 0.08 0.20
Wald Chi-squared **19.85 **21.80 *15.38 ***37.09
Note: Robust standard errors in parentheses.
* p< .05; ** p< .01; *** p< .001.
2012). Estimates were performed with standard errors clustered by
municipality to control for the fact that the three time observations
within each municipality are not independent of each other.
We included three control variables that previous empirical analyses
have identified as important to e-participation development. The
first control is population size, for reasons discussed earlier. The
second control variable is access to the internet. Governments today
seek to take advantage of e-participation tools, but they can only do
this if citizens have the necessary access and skills to use technology
(Lee, Chang, and Berry 2011). The third control variable is GDP
per capita. Previous global comparative studies have found that
development of public programs such as e-participation is positively
associated with GDP per capita (e.g., Pollitt and Bouckaert 2004).
Results
We tested the levels of correlation among the variables and found
that many have low to moderate levels of correlation, meaning that
they are distinct, though related, constructs and therefore suitable for
regression analysis (table 3). The e-information and e-participation
dimensions are moderately and positively correlated. There is a
small negative correlation between public accountability demand
and social capital. The control variables have moderate correlations
ranging from 0.29 for GDP and internet access to 0.46 for GDP
and population size. The low correlations among the survey items
suggest that they are unlikely to capture other underlying municipal
characteristics that explain e-participation level.
Table 4 shows the results of the panel data analysis. There are
437 observations across all the models. A variance inflation factor
(VIF) test found that all variables have VIF scores under 4, which
is well below the conventional threshold of 10 indicating low and
acceptable levels of multicollinearity (Kennedy 2003). The model
shows broad support for the study’s hypotheses, but there are also
important null findings. For the direct effects (models 1 and 3),
estimates are significant only for the e-information dimension.
Social capital has no direct effect on either e-information or
e-participation level. Although we did not put forward any
E-participation Opportunities and the Ambiguous Role of Corruption: A Model of Municipal Responsiveness to Sociopolitical Factors 607
hypotheses for direct effects because there are no clear grounds
for theoretical expectations, perception of corruption is positively
associated with e-information level. Public accountability demand
is also positively associated with the e-information level. However,
the positive effect is not statistically significant for e-participation
level. The moderation hypotheses are both confirmed, but only for
e-participation level.
It is notable that the moderation effects are only significant
for e-participation because it underlines how important these
sociopolitical factors are as moderating conditions of higher
participative levels of website development. The variables do not
directly predict adoption of e-participation tools, but when they
interact with perception of corruption, they make a difference for
e-participation responsiveness. As hypothesized, social capital and
public accountability demand work in opposite directions. High
levels of perceived corruption combined with high social capital
are associated with higher levels of e-participation opportunities
(hypothesis 1), while high levels of perceived corruption combined
with higher levels of public accountability demand are associated
with lower levels of such opportunities (hypothesis 2).
Table 5 shows the predicted probabilities of the moderated effect
of perception of corruption on e-information and e-participation
level at varying levels of social capital and public accountability
norms. The marginal effects confirm the mirrored effects of the
two independent variables for e-participation, with perception
of corruption having a negative association at low levels of social
capital but a positive association at high levels of social capital.
Moreover, the directions of the e-information effects match the
e-participation effects rather than working in opposite ways, as we
expected. None of these marginal effects is significant at p < .05
for e-information level, again confirming the low salience of
interaction effects for e-information compared with e-participation.
As predicted, perception of corruption has a negative association
with the e-participation level at high levels of public accountability
norms. Hypothesis 3 concerned window-dressing effects when
e-information levels rise in response to low public accountability
demand under conditions of high perception of corruption, but
this hypothesis is not supported by the results. In fact, while not
affecting e-information levels, low public accountability demand
and high perception of corruption appear to actually raise the level
of e-participation opportunities.
Discussion
Theoretical Implications
This article develops empirical evidence explaining Arnstein’s ladder
of participation when the decision-making strategies supporting
Table 5 Marginal Effects of Corruption on E-participation under Low, Medium,
and High Levels of Social Capital and Public Accountability Norms
E-information E-participation
Moderator effects dy/dx SE p > zdy/dx SE p > z
Low public accountability 1.639 2.343 0.484 15.975 4.933 0.001
Medium public accountability 0.307 0.701 0.661 4.213 1.453 0.004
High public accountability –1.024 3.575 0.775 –24.401 7.453 0.001
Low social capital –4.390 2.630 0.095 –10.869 5.331 0.041
Medium social capital 0.862 0.747 0.249 1.726 1.211 0.154
High social capital 6.114 3.839 0.111 14.321 7.399 0.053
the steps on the ladder are founded on e-information and
e-participation offerings in the context of corruption. The article
has three main findings that add a new dimension to scholarly
perspectives on e-information and e-participation adoption and
sociopolitical factors. The first dimension is the finding that social
capital is associated with higher e-information levels and that
social capital positively moderates the associated effect of perceived
corruption on the e-participation opportunities that municipalities
offer. As discussed in the literature review and the theoretical
arguments of the article, social capital is related to trust and, like
corruption, has a rather ambiguous theoretical status with regard to
e-government development (Shim and Eom 2009). Our findings
support prior studies that suggest a more complex or contextual
relationship between dimensions of trust and e-government
(Horsburgh, Goldfinch, and Gauld 2011; Porumbescu 2016).
This presents a time-sensitive target for e-participation advocates
who seek to build participative institutional capacities in the face
of corruption problems. If e-participation efforts are truly being
offered in a remedial way designed to be responsive to sociopolitical
environment, municipalities ideally would achieve a certain level of
social capital capacity before e-participation opportunities are used
to advance to a level of meaningful, two-way online interaction
between public officials and citizens.
The findings in this study add further coherence to these
conditionalities of the link between social capital and e-government.
Previously, Sæbø, Flak, and Sein (2011) used the lens of stakeholder
theory to suggest that citizens can trigger e-participation efforts
depending on their power, legitimacy, and sense of urgency. They
argued that trust plays the role of a relationship and solidarity-
building mechanism that facilitates the adoption of e-participation
tools. The contribution of our study on these citizen capacities is
to further show how a related construct, social capital, acts as an
innovation-shaping mechanism in the sphere of e-participation.
The results of this research suggest that if social capital is high, high
corruption can nevertheless be addressed through remedial efforts
to improve two-way forms of e-participation. On the other hand,
the results echo the wide finding in prior research that social capital
and other correlates of trust have no clear direct relationship with
e-government development. By considering the effects of social
capital in a moderated model, this analysis provides a different way
of understanding the ways that trust influences the sociopolitical
landscape of government responsiveness.
The second main contribution of this article is the finding that
public accountability norms negatively moderate the effect of
perceived corruption on e-participation opportunities. Our finding
suggests that if public accountability demand is strong and,
conjointly, underlying problems with legitimacy exist, government
might actually choose to withdraw from participation. This seems
more in line with research that considers the different ways that
weakly democratic governments can be responsive to sociopolitical
conditions while avoiding accountability. For example, Noesselt
(2014) found that an authoritarian government like China was
slowly becoming more responsive to citizen values and beliefs
expressed online while remaining insulated from democratic reforms
from the inside. External pressures such as citizen demand for public
accountability may have a negative effect on e-participation levels
because corrupt governments fear the repercussions of scrutiny and
608 Public Administration Review July | Aug ust 20 19
accountability. Rather, to build effective e-participation responses to
public accountability demand, internal structures of accountability
along the lines described by Ahn and Bretschneider (2011) that
deliver checks, balances, and reward or punitive repercussions for
officials may also be necessary. Otherwise, public officials can easily
pursue avoidance strategies.
Separately, our theory did not anticipate the finding that the
interaction of high corruption and low public accountability
demand is associated with higher e-participation levels. This might
be evidence of a different type of window-dressing strategy involving
a gamble by municipalities to build e-participation tools to enhance
legitimacy even though it risks higher levels of interaction and
responsiveness to citizens. Perhaps when public accountability
demand is low, the gamble is viewed by municipalities to be low
risk. However, this possibility requires further investigation.
Third, a central finding of this research is that the interactions of
sociopolitical factors are more important for understanding how
jurisdictions provide interactive forms of e-participation, while
the sociopolitical effects for e-information tend to be simpler
and more direct. That municipalities give more attention to
providing e-information tools is reflected in prior research. For
example, Mossberger, Wu, and Crawford (2013) found that push
strategies when governments use one-way types of communication
dominate at the local level, while pull strategies aiming to draw
citizens into two-way participation occupy a smaller slice of
the landscape of e-participation offerings. The results of our
work provide a sociopolitical explanation for why jurisdictions
may provide different tools in different political circumstances.
Municipalities seeking public legitimacy are faced with a range
of citizen characteristics such as social capital, accountability
demand, and perceived corruption, and the municipalities decide
strategically whether to “turn up” or “turn down” offerings
depending on how they will affect legitimacy in each case. These
main findings are not only important in their own right but
offer exploratory evidence of how social factors can impact where
jurisdictions situate their participation efforts on Arnstein’s ladder
of participation, one of the most highly cited studies in citizen
participation research.
The work contributes valuable findings to this area of strategic
governmental behavior in the context of a country that suffers
from serious issues of legitimacy and regularly deals with the
problem of corruption in a way that the Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development countries studied in most prior
public administration research do not have. South Africa is
therefore a useful lens to understand the sociopolitical dynamics
involved in e-participation development in countries with deep
challenges for legitimacy. Prior work by Maerz (2016) suggested
that governments with low levels of democracy either approach
online offerings through noncompetitive or competitive mechanisms.
In the former, websites are used for gaining legitimacy, particularly
on the international stage. For the latter, the goal of legitimacy is
complemented by a goal of galvanizing political support from local
citizens (Maerz 2016). As South Africa has used multiparty elections
since 1994 it has more of a competitive approach to municipal
governance. Therefore, it makes sense that the present research has
uncovered ways that e-participation offerings may be driven by
political strategies to gain support from local citizens depending on
their sociopolitical profile.
Limitations and Weaknesses
While South Africa shares political traits with both democratic
and nondemocratic countries, and this makes it an ideal case
for exploring the topic of low legitimacy and e-participation
responsiveness, researchers cannot necessarily generalize the findings
of the study to municipal government behavior in other national
contexts. Further studies are needed to show similarities and
differences under different political regimes.
Another limitation is that because of the kinds of estimation
models used in the article, the findings on the relationships
between variables should not be construed as proof of causation.
The estimated parameters suggest that key constructs are associated
and that they may interact in causal ways. However, we can only
infer correlations from the statistics. The persuasiveness of the
theoretical explanations depends on the internal and external validity
of the operationalizations, as well as the internal logic. However,
rival explanations could justifiably be held up for consideration.
For example, it is possible that the quality of a municipality’s
e-information or e-participation offering influences social capital
and citizen public accountability norms, rather than vice versa.
However, we would argue that social capital and citizen values
such as accountability are deeply embedded in social and civic
institutions and created over a long period of time. It is unlikely that
e-participation offerings, which are a relatively recent phenomenon,
would have influenced the shape of such historic sociopolitical trends.
Conclusion
This article explored a pervasive ambiguity in e-participation
adoption literature regarding how governments respond to citizens
in situations of low legitimacy stemming from corruption. The lens
of sociopolitical determinants was used to explore how perception
of corruption interacts with sociopolitical factors to trigger online
actions from municipalities in South Africa. A literature review
considered the extent to which prior research supports different
types of relationships. Logical frameworks were developed to
explain the possible relationships and hypotheses were put forward.
Typologies conceptualized possible municipal e-participation
responses as window dressing, avoidance, redundancy, and remedial
efforts.
As expected, the results showed that effects vary depending on
whether the online offerings are of a one-way informational or a
two-way participative type. Social capital moderates the effect of
perceived corruption on e-participation opportunities suggesting a
remedial impact of high social capital on e-participation offerings
but an avoidance strategy by municipalities when perceived
corruption is high but social capital is low.
The second sociopolitical variable, public accountability demand,
acted in an opposite way to social capital: at high levels, public
accountability demand, negatively moderated the effect of
perceived corruption, which is indicative of an avoidance strategy.
We hypothesized a window-dressing strategy for e-information
opportunities when perception of corruption is high but social
capital and public accountability demand are low. However, we
E-participation Opportunities and the Ambiguous Role of Corruption: A Model of Municipal Responsiveness to Sociopolitical Factors 609
found no evidence of window-dressing effects. The direct effects
of accountability demand and perception of corruption may be
evidence of window-dressing effects, but other mechanisms not
tested here are needed to be explored in future research to explain
why those factors would lead to window-dressing responses. Instead
of window-dressing effects, we find that avoidance effects, whereby
municipalities choose to neglect e-participation opportunities, or
remedial efforts effects, whereby municipalities choose to improve
e-participation opportunities, are more likely to occur.
The results add a new sociopolitical perspective to our
understanding of contradictory effects in the ambiguous
relationship between the motivation of government for legitimacy
and adoption of government website tools. Different effects
are mutually consistent so long as the sociopolitical context
of government is taken into account. The treatment of social
capital as an important sociopolitical factor alongside previously
addressed dimensions of trust is a valuable step forward for the
field. The findings are particularly useful for our understanding of
e-participation in governments with low democratic performance
where the link between democracy and e-government is less clear.
Despite these interesting findings, there are limitations in the
generalizability of the findings from the case of South Africa.
Moreover, the causal relationships between the study’s variables
should be further explored in qualitative analyses to establish why
such associations exist between the variables, and to build better
understanding of the psychological motivations of public officials,
and the underlying mechanisms in the online citizen-government
interface.
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