Does transparency lead to trust? Some evidence on the subject.

As open government gains traction in the international agenda, it is increasingly common to come across statements that assume a causal relationship in which transparency leads to trust in government. But to what extent are claims that transparency leads to trust backed up by evidence?

Judging from some recent publications on the subject, such a relationship is not as straightforward as sadvocates would like. In fact, in a number of cases, the evidence points in another direction: that is, transparency may ultimately decrease trust.

Below is a brief overview of research that has been carried out on the subject:

Transparency has been trumpeted by many as the key to trust in government. The assumption is that if government organisations open up and show the public what decisions are made, how they are made and what the results are, people will automatically have more trust in government. But does transparency really lead to more trust? Or will it only provide critical citizens with more information to blame government again and again for small mistakes? Transparency and Trustexamines the effects of transparency on trust in a government organisation. By using an experimental method this study moves beyond normative or correlational research on transparency. In doing so, causal inferences regarding the relation between transparency and trust are allowed. Several objects of transparency and dimensions of information are being put to the test in three experiments. The experiments show that transparency is merely a ‘hygiene factor’: it does not contribute to higher levels of trust and it can even lead to lower levels of trust if people are disappointed with the degree to which government is transparent. This conclusion challenges current overly optimistic assumptions concerning the effect of transparency on trust.

Building on the notion of transparency as a strong democratic value and theories of procedural justice, this article reports an explorative experimental test whether transparency in decision making may lead to increased perceived legitimacy in terms of decision acceptance and trust. This is done in a context of difficult decisions of high importance for citizens – namely priority setting in public health care. An experiment was designed in which ordinary citizens were presented with a description of a case of priority setting between two groups with different health care needs. One group was given no information at all on the decision-making procedure, as an example of non-transparent decision making, and six groups were presented with different descriptions of the decision-making procedure, as examples of transparency in decision making. The transparent procedures were derived from three basic forms of democratic decision making: representation, direct participation and expert decision making. A second manipulation framed the decision-making procedure alternatively in positive or negative terms in order to capture media framing effects as well. According to the findings of the study, transparent decision-making procedures tend to weaken rather than strengthen general trust in health care – a finding that might reveal obstacles to attempts to strengthen the legitimacy of health care by employing transparent procedures. The results also show that while the form of decision making had no significant impact on perceived legitimacy, positive or negative framing of a decision-making procedure influences public perceptions of both the procedure and the decision outcome.

Of course, the impact of transparency on trust may vary according to the context:

 Transparency is considered a key value for trustworthy governments. However, the effect of transparency on citizens’ trust across national cultures is overlooked in current research. This article compares the effect of transparency on trust in government in the Netherlands and South Korea. The effect is investigated in two similar series of three experiments. The authors hypothesize that the effect of transparency differs because the countries have different cultural values regarding power distance and short- and long-term orientation. Results reveal similar patterns in both countries: transparency has a subdued and sometimes negative effect on trust in government. However, the negative effect in South Korea is much stronger. The difference in the magnitude of transparency’s effect suggests that national cultural values play a significant role in how people perceive and appreciate government transparency.

But some evidence goes even further, suggesting that transparency may have a demobilizing effect on citizens. And, if context matters, such a demobilizing effect might be particularly strong in the context of developing countries:

International organizations, policy experts, and nongovernmental organizations promote greater governmental transparency as a crucial reform to enhance accountability and curb corruption. Transparency is predicted to deter corruption in part by expanding the possibilities for public or societal accountability, that is, for citizens and citizens associations to monitor, scrutinize, and act to hold public office holders to account. Although the societal accountability mechanism linking transparency and good government is often implied, it builds on a number of assumptions seldom examined empirically. This article unpacks the assumptions of principal-agent theories of accountability and suggests that the logic of collective action can be used to understand why exposure of egregious and endemic corruption may instead demobilize the demos (i.e., resignation) rather than enhance accountability (i.e., indignation). We explore these theoretical contentions and examine how transparency affects three indicators of indignations versus resignation—institutional trust, political involvement, and political interest—given different levels of corruption. The empirical analyses confirm that an increase in transparency in highly corrupt countries tends to breed resignation rather than indignation.

Democratic theory often assumes that offering more information to voters will enhance electoral accountability. However, it is unclear whether corruption information translates into higher political participation and increased support for challengers. For example, information on corruption could lower the utility one gets from participating in elections at all. We provide experimental evidence that such information not only decreases incumbent support in local elections in Mexico, but also decreases voter turnout and challengers’ votes, as well as erodes partisan attachments. Our results suggest that while information clearly is necessary to improve accountability, corruption information is not necessarily suficient, since voters may respond to it by withdrawing from the political process.

Surely, transparency remains an essential – although quite insufficient – ingredient of accountability. On the trust issue, one could easily think of a number of scenarios in which it is actually better that citizens do not trust their governments. In fact, systems of checks and balances and oversight institutions are not specifically conceived under the logic of trust. Quite on the contrary, such institutional designs assume some level of suspicion vis-à-vis governments: as put in the Federalist Paper No. 51, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Granted, in some cases a perfect world in which citizens trust their governments may well be desirable. It may even be that transparency leads – in the long run – to increased trust: a great way to sell transparency to governments. But if we want to walk the talk of evidence-based policymaking, we may consider dropping the trust rhetoric. At least for now.

The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability

My article in response to Yu and Robinson’s recent paper on open data has just been published in the UCLA Law Review Discourse: The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability: A Response to Yu and Robinson’s The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”

Below is the abstract:

By looking at the nature of data that may be disclosed by governments, Harlan Yu and David Robinson provide an analytical framework that evinces the ambiguities underlying the term “open government data.” While agreeing with their core analysis, I contend that the authors ignore the enabling conditions under which transparency may lead to accountability, notably the publicity and political agency conditions. I argue that the authors also overlook the role of participatory mechanisms as an essential element in unlocking the potential for open data to produce better government decisions and policies. Finally, I conduct an empirical analysis of the publicity and political agency conditions in countries that have launched open data efforts, highlighting the challenges associated with open data as a path to accountability.

As I wrote the article, it became even more evident to me that the challenges for open data resemble those of democracy. To be successful, both depend on free press, fair elections, and multiple avenues of citizen participation. The resemblance goes one step further: both are most needed where they are least likely to thrive. On democracy and challenging environments, political scientist Robert Dahl wrote:

Democracy, it appears, is a bit chancy.  But its chances also depend on what we do ourselves.  Even if we cannot count on benign forces to favor democracy, we are not mere victims of blind forces over which we have no control. With adequate understanding of what democracy requires and the will to meet its requirements, we can act to preserve and, what is more, to advance democratic ideas and practices

May Dahl’s call resonate with the open data movement.

Open Government and Democracy

The International Budget Partnership (IBP) has recently released the results of the Open Budget Survey 2012, which measures “the state of budget transparency, participation and oversight in 100 countries around the world”. In the survey report, the authors highlighted the positive relationship between budget transparency and democracy:

A democratic political system is a significant factor that supports budget transparency (…) In fact, a switch from autocracy to democracy is typically associated with an improvement in a country’s OBI score by almost 20 points, after controlling for other variables. In addition, transparency seems to depend much more on current levels of democracy than on how long a country has been a democracy: for countries in transition, this means that rapid improvements in transparency can be achieved without having to wait for slow processes of learning and adaptation.

This adds to a growing body of literature showing that democracies (and electoral competition) are indeed more transparent than other types of regime. If the relationship between democracy and openness comes across as obvious, it also opens space for some questions about the open government movement and its strategy to promote transparency.

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Political Rights and Civil Liberties in 2013 – Freedom House

Transparency, it seems, is one of the vital signs of well-functioning democracies. Chronic lack of transparency, on the other hand, emerges as the symptom of flawed democracies or authoritarian regimes. If this logic is correct (and the evidence suggests it is) advocating for transparency would correspond to treating the symptoms of a disease, rather than preventing it in the first place.

This is not to say that promoting transparency reforms (e.g. open data, open budgets) is a useless act. Treating a symptom is not a problem in itself: it alleviates the pain and may even prevent further complications. But neglecting to treat the cause of the symptom is surely a bad practice.

This begs a fundamental question: are open government advocates efficiently channelling their energy and resources when asking for more transparency from governments that have little or no inclination to democracy? Or are they failing to strike a balance which combines a focus on transparency with more fundamental reforms that promote, for instance, free, fair and competitive elections?

Granted, transparency and democracy are mutually reinforcing: it is difficult to think of a democracy without informed consent. And even well-established democracies still have a long way to go towards more transparency. But, for instance, going as far as considering that open government may blossom in non-democracies seems questionable to me. All the technology and transparency in the world is unlikely to realize its full potential in the absence of fundamental political rights and civil liberties.

It might be time to start focusing on the role that political regimes play in promoting values that are dear to the open government movement, such as transparency, participation and collaboration. And democracy – or lack thereof – is the elephant in the room.


Further reading

Alt, J. E., Lassen, D. D., & Rose, S. (2005). “The causes of fiscal transparency: Evidence from the US States.” IMF Staff Papers, 53(Special Issue), 30–57.

Alt, J. E., & Lowry, R. C. (2010). “Transparency and accountability: Empirical results for US States.” Journal of Theoretical Politics, 22(4), 379–406.

Hollyer, J. R., Rosendorff, B. P., & Vreeland, J. R. (2011). “Democracy and transparency.” Journal of Politics, 73(4), 1191–1205.

Rosendorff, B. Peter, and James Raymond Vreeland. (2004). “Democracy and Data Dissemination: The Effect of Political Regime on Transparency.” Working Paper, Yale. 

Rosendorff, B. Peter and Doces, John A. (2006). “Democracy and Transparency”. Swiss Political Science Review, 12 (3), 99-112.

Wehner, J. and de Renzio, P. (2013) “Citizens, Legislators, and Executive Disclosure: The Political Determinants of Fiscal Transparency.” World Development, 41, 96-108.

13 New Articles on Participatory Budgeting

A band inaugurates a public work selected through participatory budgeting in Brazil (picture by Prefeitura de Olinda on Flickr).

The new issue of the Journal of Public Deliberation (Volume 8, Issue 2 – 2012) presents 13 new articles on participatory budgeting. Edited by Janette Hartz-Karpz (Curtin University) and Brian Wampler (Boise State University) “This special issue of the Journal of Public Deliberation brings together leading scholars expand our conceptual tools to understand why PB programs are being adopted, how governments are adapting the rules and principles to meet different policy and political goals, and the impact of PB on civil society, state reform, and social well-being.”

Below links to the articles:

Transnational Models of Citizen Participation: The Case of Participatory Budgeting
Yves Sintomer, Carsten Herzberg, Anja Röcke, and Giovanni Allegretti

The Effects of Participatory Budgeting on Infant Mortality in Brazil

picture by Blog do Mílton Jung on Flickr

Adding pieces of evidence to the ROI of citizen participation. Highlights are mine:

Participatory budgeting, via which the common citizen is given the ability to interact with the elected politicians in the drafting of the local budget, became a popular political reform in Brazilian municipalities in the 1990s and attracted widespread attention across the world. This paper investigates whether the use of participatory budgeting in Brazilian municipalities in the period 1991-2004 has affected the pattern of municipal expenditures and had any measurable impact on living conditions. I show that the municipalities that made use of this participatory mechanism favoured an allocation of public expenditures that closely matched the ìpopular preferences and channeled a larger fraction of their total budget to key investments in sanitation and health services. I also found that this change in the composition of municipal expenditures is associated with a pronounced reduction in the infant mortality rates for municipalities which adopted participatory budgeting. This suggests that promoting a more direct interaction between service users and elected officials in budgetary design and implementation can affect both how local resources are spent and associated living standard outcomes.

You can read the full paper here [PDF].

Update:  The paper has been published in the World Development Journal. You can read the final version here [PDF].

Directory of Online Budget Simulators / Games

Obviously it is not participatory budgeting, but this rather short list that I have compiled provides an idea of the variety of online initiatives type budget simulators / games. This might be useful to some of those interested in the use of ICTs in Participatory Budgeting experiences.

If you know of other similar initiatives please let me know.

(originally posted in Facebook’s Participatory Budgeting group)

The Budget Allocator: 

Budget Simulator

Croatian state budget calculator

Calgary iPhone Budget App

Stabilize the Debt


The Maryland Budget Game 

Hamburg (Germany)

Federal Budget Challenge

Colorado Backseat Budgeter

California Budget Challenge

Cyber-Budget (France)

Minnesota Budget Balancer

Kansas T-Link Calculator

M assachussets Budget Game

Spending Public Money

Budget Hero:

Montgomery County Budget Game (Washington Post)

Budget Explorer:

The New York City Budget Game

The Guardian Budget Game,4263,675654,00.html

Stateman’s Budget Game

National Budget Simulation

Council for Economic Education Budget Simulation

Cumbria County Council Budget Simulator

City of Austin FY2010 Budget Simulation Exercise

Leveraging e-Government at a Time of Financial and Economic Crisis

For those interested in the use of ICT tools in budget monitoring (a component of the PB process) I would like to draw your attention to the United Nations e-Government Survey document, which has just been released: “Leveraging e-Government at a Time of Financial and Economic Crisis”

In chapter 1 “Stimulus Funds, Transparency and Trust”, of which I am the author, I try to present some cases and analysis of ICT usage in the allocation of crisis response funds around the world during the economic downturn.

Chapter 1: Stimulus funds, transparency and public trust 9

1.1 Crisis response websites 10
1.2 From transparency to participation 14
1.3 Data access and civil society 16
1.4 Conclusions 19

I also make a quick mention to some interesting e-PB initiatives.

New Data: Democrats and Republicans, Who Shows us the Stimulus Online?

A few days ago I posted the results of an assessment of a report from July 2009 by Good Jobs First, a study on the effectiveness and transparency of state websites devoted to tracking stimulus money. The results of my analysis showed that states with lower houses controlled by Democrats are statistically more likely to have more transparent and open stimulus websites.

Right after I posted, I found out that a new version of the report had just been released. The report consists of an updated evaluation of state recovery websites based on data collected in January 2010. Moreover, it deploys a renewed methodology, given the fact that recovery efforts “are further along and the federal government’s website now contains extensive recipient data”.

The overall results of the report demonstrate that considerable improvements have been made by many states since their recovery websites were first created in spring 2009. At the same time, the report shows a persistence of the discrepancies in the quality and quantity of information offered by the different states.

However, of particular interest for the purpose of my analysis, which looks at the factors that influence levels of transparency, are the “ups and downs” that have been identified in the study. In other words, in the new report, several states reached considerably higher scores if compared to the previous report and vice-versa, leading to a reconfiguration of the rankings.

In this respect, it is pertinent to question to what extent this reconfiguration alters the pattern previously identified by my analysis, which shows a statistically significant correlation between the number of Democrats in the lower house of a state and the transparency of that state’s recovery website.

The scatter plot below illustrates the results based on the newest report (January 2009). The horizontal line inside the diagram indicates the average (mean) transparency score of each state, with the points above the horizontal line representing the states scoring above the average and vice-versa. The vertical line divides those states with Republican (left side) and Democrat (right side) majorities in each lower house.

If in July 2009 only two websites from the Republican side scored above the average, in January 2010 four websites score above the average. On the Democrat side, the effects are similar, with some websites significantly increasing their scores, such as Kentucky – which climbed from 47th place in 2009 to 2nd place in 2010 – and Minnesota that rose from 34th to 4th place in the overall ranking.

In fact, the pattern remains unaltered and statistically significant: the more seats held by Democrats in the lower house, the more transparent the state recovery website is likely to be, even when controlling for other factors such as e-government readiness and unemployment levels. The analysis indicates that there is a less than 0.2% chance of the results being random. That is, this new data strengthens the previous findings.

To put it in less technical terms, it seems like citizens living in states with a Democrat majority in the lower house are more likely to know where the recovery money is going in their state. Well, at least for the moment.

Just released: Open Budget Index

(Originally posted here)

The International Budget Partnership released today the Open Budget Index (OBI). The UK scores first on the provision of budget information to its public, followed by South Africa, France, New Zealand and the United States. On the other hand, 80% of the surveyed governments fail to provide sufficient information on the budget to its public.

The study takes into account an important aspect which is the release of a simplified and accessible version of the budget (citizen’s budget). In this case, only 17 countries provided such budget information in a format accessible to the broader population.

A major finding of the survey is the fact that, even though most governments produce budget information that would be crucial to public involvement in the budget process, these same governments fail enormously when it comes to releasing the information: 51 out of 85 governments surveyed produce at least one major document that is not released to the public.

This is particularly striking given that governments could easily – and with low costs – improve their transparency by releasing this information through the Internet. As the report shows, even though most governments (68) disclose their enacted budget on the Internet, the majority fails to provide other relevant information such as a pre-budget statement. In fact, as has been pertinently underlined, much of the information considered to be “publicly available” (criteria of the study) can be obtained only upon request or the payment of a fee.

An interesting remark concerns how civil society organizations specialized in budget issues can enhance the performance of legislatures in the budgeting process. The OBI report also provides examples of good practices in the processes of budget formulation, approval, execution and audit.

Given the magnitude of the report, the study has its limits: the OBI index evaluates publicly available information on the budget issued by central governments only, leaving aside the subnational level where, in many cases, much of the action takes place.

Nonetheless, it is still a monumental work of the International Budget Partnership.

To access the full report and other relevant information click here.