Transparency is the principles and practices that enable organization insiders and outsiders to obtain accurate information about organizational activities
Transparency in public administration is a concept that describes the principles and practices that enable organization insiders and outsiders to obtain accurate information about organizational activities. The principles and practices of transparency involve different types of information which lend themselves to different types of transparency. Transparent information can be detailed data such as accounting figures; it can be aggregated metainformation about policy plans or forecasting; alternatively, it can be information about the rules or laws that govern the system of organizing information.
One characterization of transparency by Albert Meijer (2014) moves beyond the information components of transparency to the behavioral facts: Transparency is a behavioral virtue of governments or politicians, a style of relationship between a political actor and a public forum, and a system of formal and informal rules. Lack of transparency may result from deliberate concealment of information or functional, systematic, failure to communicate the relevant information. Transparency can be revealed with different mechanisms. Within a governmental system, transparency can be passive, proactive, or forced. That is, it can be brought about by mechanisms such as freedom of information (FOI) (passive), organized through public websites and open data (proactive), or initiated anomalously through the system in whistle-blowing or leaking (forced).
Transparency is also viewed as a practical matter of efficiency that arises when public policy makers seek to share information for better decision-making and coordination. An approach to transparency that underlies decision-making or metaphors about abstract ideas such as “public value” or “democracy” is a modernist or rational approach to transparency. The rationalist approach takes information as the building block of conscious goal setting by actors in government. However, transparency underlies other types of metaphors of public organizations. For example, the premodern and postmodern metaphors of Meijer (2009). The premodern metaphor emphasizes the immediate, person-to-person openness of the citizen-government relationship and is exemplified by the affective and cognitive attributes of citizen trust of government. On the other hand, the postmodern transparency metaphor accepts the mere simulation of truth often resulting from transparency. The postmodern approach focuses on the aesthetic dimensions of computer-mediated systems and platforms of transparency.
Within the broadly modern perspective of transparency as rational design, the process of transparency may be divided into three kinds: (1) informational transparency where the new data used to inform policy making is transparent; (2) decision-making transparency when the content and the actors involved in making policy decisions are known and identified; and (3) policy outcome transparency where the actual policy consequences and their causal dependency is transparent to public and other decision makers. Each of these stages in the transparency process may have a different set of professional, legal, and administrative contexts with attendant organizational tasks and challenges.
History of Transparency
Historically, transparency emerged as a principle of democratic government in the British liberal school of philosophy in the 1800s frequently under the term “publicity.” Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) can probably lay claim to being the first author to use the word “transparency” in its modern sense. However, related ideas abound in political thought from much earlier dates. Christopher Hood (2006) traces the history of transparency to ancient Athens and Sparta (c. 500 BC–c. 400 BC) in the West and Shen Pu-Hai (400 BC–c. 337 BC) in China. In both worlds, the ideal functioning of government was viewed as adherence to clear and fixed rules. Theories about the virtues of open public discussion and the inner workings of political power can be found in the works of John Locke (1632–1704), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and were influential in the Republican revolutions in Europe and the American colonies. Rousseau believed that lack of transparency, or “opacity” as he called it, was the root of political evil, while James Madison (1822) famously wrote that “popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both.”
With these varying influences, theory about transparency has become a contested arena. Transparency can at once be a self-evident good and a multifaceted concept with vague boundaries. Different disciplines view transparency differently. Economists view it as a condition for open markets, political scientists view it as a condition for public participation, and legal scholars view it as a condition for administrative legality (Meijer 2014). In the area of public administration, the most far-reaching transparency reforms were the freedom of information laws created in the 1960s and 1970s in North American and European countries. However, today, transparency policies extend to many different levels of government and program areas as well as procedural or metaphorical aspects. Thus transparency can be seen as a public good in public choice economics or as a regime value in the sense of a formal practice of government in the way that John Rohr put forward (Piotrowski 2014). To the extent that transparency is viewed as a public value, it also suffers from challenges associated with public management of traditional public values such as equality or security. That is, alternative public sector goals such as efficiency may overshadow them. The tension is apparent in the new public management (NPM) reform initiative of which transparency policies have been a part. NPM aimed to achieve greater customer satisfaction, market competition, and decentralized decision-making through more open information systems.
Antecedents of Transparent Practices
A further barrier to the attempts of researchers to grasp the practical purposes and principles of transparency is the complexity of causal theory linking antecedents to the practice of transparency. Varying antecedents and causal explanations accompany the stages of the transparency process in policy decision-making. These causal influences relate to different areas of external pressure that emerge during the stages of the transparency process. Thus policy information transparency is engendered through dependency on the main agent of information production in society: the media. The decision-making process transparency often depends on the political environment, and, notably, the influence of left leaning political parties. The transparent outcomes of the policy making and implementation of policies may be given open disclosure by sustained pressure from actors and actor networks that are most interested in such consequences, namely, organized citizens and civil society organizations (CSOs). While there is not much difference in levels of transparency between conservative and progressive countries, one consistent predictor of higher levels of transparency is lower dependence on foreign aid.
External environments are not the only drivers of transparency as internal resources and decisions must also be taken into account. Transparency must be managed and given adequate resources, and it requires a strong internal organizing capacity. In general, strong transparency policies are found in governments that already have strong democratic institutions. If government is plush with resources and has reliable tax income streams, the government is more likely to open itself up to more internal transparency and scrutiny. Further, to the corollary of left leaning political environments, left leaning politicians are also associated with more transparent regimes. Though, it should be noted that transparency is not a uniquely left wing policy approach and is often advocated by rightist or centrist politicians. The political stripe of decision-makers is therefore not as important as the general democratic persuasion of political institutions. The explanation for the association of democracy and transparency is that in democracies public officials have the incentives and institutionalized accountability culture to promote transparency by providing credible information to the public.
As transparency is a process mediating between a government that is transparent and an observer (the citizen, CSO, or other third party), the role of third parties is a dual one. That is, the third party is both a driver of transparency adoption and an ongoing participant in monitoring and scrutiny. For this reason, transparent political regimes while requiring a necessary level of economic, professional, and technological input rise or fall depending on the density and energy of the CSO sector. Transparency is coextensive with the rise of civil society and the growth of democracies as forums of informal and publically engaged citizens. CSOs and informed members of the public demand greater transparency. Given the right incentives, politicians are likely to comply. However, while third parties play an important role in delivering or supporting transparency, the boundaries between the government and the third parties must be clear for transparency policies to be functionally sustainable. A clear demarcation between the private and public sectors is necessary for transparency.
Such third party analysis is often provided by principal-agent theory. In research on transparency, the organizational mechanism of principal-agent dynamics is political competition. In representative democracies, elected politicians choose to adopt transparent administrations to capitalize on political superiority provided that party political competitors are also subject to such transparency. Here, transparency creates both the cost of greater scrutiny and the possible cost of negative publicity. However, the alternative risk of being viewed as an antidemocratic government or party is viewed as a greater cost than accepting (and championing) such transparency. Political antecedents of government transparency therefore also involve the trade-offs of secrecy and monitoring in competitive party politics. However, such a principal-agent analysis does not hold in all country contexts. In authoritarian regimes increased transparency laws do not necessarily lead to improved accountability because local decision-making is strongly centrally controlled and a weakened civil society can make very little difference.
Another important antecedent in internal organizational capacity is technological capacity as transparency is increasingly reliant on digital forms of information disclosure. Today, as a result of technological development and political will, transparency policies are proliferating all over the world.
International Organizations, CSOs, and Other Third Parties Involved in Transparency
Networks of CSOs that advocate for increased transparency cross over national boundaries and have established a global sphere of influence. Such global influence is leading to a convergence of transparency regimes and practices between countries. Once transparency policies have been adopted, CSOs play a key role in supporting accountability through transparency, especially when there are existing deficiencies of accountability in government administrative systems. CSOs fill this gap by accessing and distributing information as well as demanding accountability and creating an environment to monitor public officials and politicians.
Another third sector pressure at the global scale is effected by multinational regulatory organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The pressure on governments to raise transparency levels has been strongest in the area of financial transparency where global regulation is tightest. Financial stabilizing agencies such as the IMF make opening the accounting books of governments to public scrutiny a condition of funding often at the expense of other governmental priorities such as political development, public faith in legitimacy, and data privacy concerns. Indeed, multilateral organizations can themselves be conspicuous in their lack of transparency. International organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) are much more likely to open up on areas that are relevant to economic liberalization but not on other areas of organizational transparency. MDBs, while open to information flows with the public that help to foster support, are internally conflicted because they have different agreements of diplomatic confidentiality with different countries.
Further, there are inherent shortcomings in the extent and quality of the reach that CSOs have over government transparency. While CSOs play an important role in the transfer of transparency policies, they are frequently incentivized to promote the lowest common denominator of transparency policy standards in order to increase the chances of the government actually adopting the policies. The government is reluctant to adopt increased transparency and therefore, as pragmatic advocates, CSOs enter into strategies of complicity and gradual change in the form of “iron triangle” politics. Transparency policy change typically happens incrementally.
Benefits and Costs
The benefits of transparency cover a wide gamut of important governmental domains. Countries with transparent governments tend to have higher GDP and lower levels of corruption. Transparency alleviates information asymmetry in public-private partnerships and is therefore a strong predictor of government contracting success. Budget transparency in particular has become a prerequisite for fiscal balance, fewer electoral cycles, and long-term economic development. One growing area that recognizes the benefits of transparency is evidence-based policymaking, where policy development is enhanced by taking advantage of the increase in governmental data and information.
The benefits of transparency are such that it is unlikely that any modern democracy would not have the core features of transparent regimes such as FOI and public participation. However, despite the numerous benefits of transparency, scholars widely recognize that transparency can be a double-edged sword. Transparent government regimes have the benefit of increased third party involvement in policymaking, but as a result the policymaking process itself is sometimes slow and ineffectual. Internal processes of deliberation are sluggish, hampered by red tape and political and media interference. Privacy can be endangered which both adds to the potential for costly legal delays and breaches of citizen confidence. Further, citizen confidence can be damaged by the perception that difficult government decisions about confidentiality and publicity are simply evidence of government duplicity and hypocrisy.
While the pressure to bring about transparent policy reform may lead to politicians being accused of selective release of controversial information, there are logical reasons to hypothesize that transparency may itself bring about certain sorts of undesirable behavior. In particular, the healthy habit of politicians to act properly in order to avoid blame may be turned into a game of tinkering and spinning of information in order to generate favorable public opinion. Similarly, politicians might be less likely to make decisions in the interests of their constituents if their policy choices and information are completely transparent because politicians will inevitably be attracted by the need of spending time and resources convincing of their own (the politician's) credibility.
Another unintended consequence of transparency is that perceptions of political ineptitude or corruption magnified to the collective level of public opinion may trigger unpredictable political reactions. Minor misdemeanors may blow up to catastrophic proportions or false information may become ingrained in the social consciousness. A further danger is that citizens or civil society actors may decide to withdraw, resign, and disengage from politics as a response to political dysfunction rather than producing the behavior of remedial political action that theorists of transparency assume.
Considering these problematic aspects of transparent information and communication costs, researchers are almost unanimous in their conclusion that transparency should not be viewed as an unalloyed administrative good, political panacea, or intrinsic public value. Indeed, as the capacity of governments to gather information on citizens and foreign citizens grows through IT innovation, the principle of government transparency becomes ever more fraught with the challenge of balancing good kinds of transparency such as political accountability and public participation with dangerous kinds of transparency such as surveillance and invasions of personal privacy. Some scholars have identified a critical tipping point in this balance with the arrival of nonstate actors into the delivery of political transparency (e.g., Roberts 2006). Notably, the evolution of one perspective on organizational transparency represented by the organization known as WikiLeaks is about immediate transparency of large amounts of information that circumvents the separation of public and security interests shown in FOI kinds of transparency.
Citizen Views of Transparency and Effects on Trust
Perhaps the most contentious topic of transparency costs and benefits is the impact of transparency on citizen trust and attitudes towards the legitimacy of government action. The relationship between transparency and government legitimacy in the eyes of citizens is complicated. It is conditional on several different factors and is accompanied by several mediating variables relating to individual and social differences (Grimmelikhuijsen and Meijer 2014). The relationship between transparency and perceived trustworthiness is mediated by a person’s existing level of trust of the government and their knowledge of the given policy or information area. More specifically, citizens who believe that they can have a positive influence on decision-making tend to have more favorable views of government transparency, and in public services decision-making that uses citizen engagement, citizens are enabled to draw positive inferences about the responsiveness and legitimacy of government activities.
Another important variable in the relationship between transparency and trust is culture. Different administrative cultures take different policies towards types of information sharing. Culture shapes how people perceive and interpret the results of transparency. Some recent research shows that the level of information that citizens require to make favorable assessments of transparency is low. Citizens seem to value the quality of information rather than quantity. From the general citizen perspective, it is sufficient that policy makers justify their decisions even if the proceedings and protocols involved in the decision-making are themselves not known to the public. Such meta-information is viewed as superfluous in practical terms by citizens, but citizens are reassured by proactive attempts to explain and justify the political, economic, and legal background of decisions (Licht 2014).
Practices of transparency can be seen in many different principles and practices of government. Transparency fundamentally changes the governmental landscape of accountability and has wide ranging impacts on third party organizations such as CSOs and citizens. Transparency practices are deeply rooted in history and are today growing worldwide. However, while scholars and public administrators alike herald its advantages in democracy systems of government, the empirical research about the benefits and costs of transparency is mixed. It is clear that there are conditions under which transparency is most effective. Moreover, there must be limits placed on the availability of public information.
The lack of a clear consensus on scientific knowledge of transparency is also evident in the evidence of its long-term effects on government and society. Transparency may shift patterns of discourse and enable organizations to be more open to the public in the long term. However, distinguishing the desirable effects of transparency from the undesirable effects is a difficult task especially in a rapidly shifting environment of information and technological innovation. The further to the future that researchers set the scope of their empirical analyses, the more difficult the analysis becomes. Nevertheless, longitudinal studies of transparency regimes have started to raise the importance of addressing questions and testing hypotheses regarding long-term effects. As transparency policies become more widespread around the globe, such effects will become an increasingly important area of public administration and public policy research.
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