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.

Italian Politics 2.0: The Multifaceted Effect of the Internet on Political Participation

We investigate the impact of the diffusion of high-speed Internet on different forms of political participation, using data from Italy. We exploit differences in the availability of ADSL broadband technology across municipalities, using the exogenous variation induced by the fact that the cost of providing ADSL-based Internet services in a given municipality depends on its relative position in the pre-existing voice telecommunications infrastructure. We first show that broadband Internet had a substantial negative effect on turnout in parliamentary elections between 1996 and 2008. However, we also find that it was positively associated with other forms of political participation, both online and offline: the emergence of local online grassroots protest movements, and turnout in national referenda (largely opposed by mainstream parties). We then show that the negative effect of Internet on turnout in parliamentary elections is essentially reversed after 2008, when the local grassroots movements coalesce into the Five-Star Movement (M5S) electoral list. Our findings are consistent with the view that: 1) The effect of Internet availability on political participation changes across different forms of engagement; 2) It also changes over time, as new political actors emerge who can take advantage of the new technology to tap into the existence of a disenchanted or demobilized contingent of voters; and 3) These new forms of mobilization eventually feed back into the mainstream electoral process, converting “exit” back into “voice”.

Read full paper here [PDF].

How effective are whistleblower laws in combating corruption?

A new discussion paper by Rajeev Goel and Michael Nelson looks at the effectiveness of US whistleblower laws in combating corruption. The abstract is below:

Whistleblower laws are becoming important governance tools in both the public and private sectors. To examine the effectiveness of whistleblower laws and their awareness, this study creates a unique internet-based measure of awareness about whistleblower laws and provisions, focusing on the United States. Placing the analysis within the larger corruption literature, our results show that greater whistleblower awareness results in more observed corruption and this holds across specifications. Internet awareness of whistleblower laws appears to be more effective at exposing corruption than the quantity and quality of whistleblower laws themselves.

And a few excerpts from the conclusion, which highlights the role of the internet:

Couching the empirical analysis within the extant literature on the causes of corruption, our results show that greater internet awareness about whistleblower laws results in more corruption coming to light and being successfully prosecuted. In terms of magnitude, an increase in whistleblower hits by one sample standard deviation would increase average corruption convictions per million population by nearly thirty over a decade-long period. Interestingly, the internet awareness about corruption seems relatively more effective at exposing corruption than the quantity and quality of whistleblower laws themselves. Further, the direct government resources allocated to controlling crime and the indirect efforts via whistleblower awareness are found to be complementary. These findings are generally robust to alternate specifications, including an allowance for potential endogeneity of whistleblower awareness, and to broader measures of internet whistleblower awareness. (…)

The results for the United States in terms of the effectiveness of whistleblower laws in exposing corruption should be of interest to policy makers everywhere, especially in other nations that do not have adequate protections for whistleblowers. As internet diffusion grows and the digital divide narrows, it would be interesting to see a further impact of whistleblower awareness and, more generally, of the internet.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

12 Papers on Social Media and Political Participation

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I just came across the website of the Social Media and Political Participation conference, which took place in Florence this May.

Below is the presentation by Henry Farrel (from the Monkey Cage) on Cognitive Democracy and the Internet, followed by links to the papers.

Cognitive Democracy and the Internet Henry Farrell, George Washington University

Politics 2.0: The Multifaceted Effect of Broadband Internet on Political Participation Francesco Sobbrio, European University Institute

Birds of the Same Feather Tweet Together: Bayesian Ideal Point Estimation Using Twitter Data Pablo Barbera, New York University

Politicians Go Social. Estimating Intra-Party Heterogeneity (and its Effects) through the Analysis of Social Media Andrea Ceron, University of Milan

Connective Action in European Mass Protest  Eva Anduiza, Autonomous University of Barcelona

The Bridges and Brokers of Global Campaigns in the Context of Social Media Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, Oxford Internet Institute

Every Tweet Counts? How Sentiment Analysis of Social Media Can Improve our Knowledge of Citizens’ Policy Preferences: An Application to Italy and France Stefano Iacus, University of Milan

The Rise and Decline of the “Occupy Wall Street” Movement from a Digital Perspective Alessandro Flammini, University of Indiana

Is the Internet Good or Bad for Politics? Yes. Let’s talk about How and Why Zeynep Tufekci, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Follow the leader! Dynamics and Patterns of Activity among the Followers of the Main Italian Political Leaders during the 2013 General Election Campaign Cristian Vaccari, New York University and University of Bologna

Social Networks, Peer Pressure and Protest Participation Alexey Makarin, New Economic School, Moscow

Mobilizing Online Data to Understand Offline Mobilization: Two Attempts at Online Observational Research in Russia   Sam Greene, King’s College London

Petition Growth and Success Rates on the UK No. 10 Downing Street Website


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This is the kind of research that should be informing the design of ICT mediated initiatives. It also a good example as to why policymakers  and practitioners should reach out more to scholars (and vice-versa).

Now that so much of collective action takes place online, web-generated data can further understanding of the mechanics of Internet-based mobilisation. This trace data offers social science researchers the potential for new forms of analysis, using real-time transactional data based on entire populations, rather than sample-based surveys of what people think they did or might do. This paper uses a ‘big data’ approach to track the growth of over 8,000 petitions to the UK Government on the No. 10 Downing Street website for two years, analysing the rate of growth per day and testing the hypothesis that the distribution of daily change will be leptokurtic (rather than normal) as previous research on agenda setting would suggest. This hypothesis is confirmed, suggesting that Internet-based mobilisation is characterized by tipping points (or punctuated equilibria) and explaining some of the volatility in online collective action. We find also that most successful petitions grow quickly and that the number of signatures a petition receives on its first day is a significant factor in explaining the overall number of signatures a petition receives during its lifetime. These findings have implications for the strategies of those initiating petitions and the design of web sites with the aim of maximising citizen engagement with policy issues.

Read more here [PDF].


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.

The Foundations of Motivation for Citizen Engagement

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Discussions about incentives to participate are increasingly common, but they are as shallow as most conversations nowadays about the subject of “feedback loops”. And very little reflection is actually dedicated to questions such as why, when and how people participate.

This is why this talk by Judd Antin, User Experience Researcher at Facebook, is one of the best I’ve heard lately. He goes a step further than making commonsensical assumptions, and examines the issue of motivations to participate in a more critical and systematic manner. When it comes to technology mediated processes, Judd is actually one of the few people looking seriously at the issue of incentives/motivations to participate.

In the talk Judd begins by arguing that “(…) the foundations of motivation in the age of social media, they are kind of the same as the foundations of motivation before the age of social media.” I cannot help but agree and sympathize with the statement. It is particularly annoying to  hear on a daily basis claims suggesting that individual and social processes are fundamentally altered by technologies, and “how new” this field is. “I don’t fool myself into thinking that this is a brand new world”, remarks Judd. Too bad so many are fooling themselves these days.

Judd’s take on incentives to participate is particularly sobering for some cheerleaders of gamification,  highlighting the limits of instrumental rewards and the need to focus on issues such as group identification, efficacy and – importantly – simplicity.

Finally, and on a more anecdotal note, it is interesting to see how some issues are similar across different spaces. At some point Judd points out that the “dislike” button is one of the features most requested by Facebook users. In a similar vein, one of the most requested features for e-Petitions platforms is the possibility to sign “against” a petition.

In both cases, these requests have been largely ignored. My feeling is that the implications for these choices of design for collective action are far from neutral, and these are issues that we should be looking at more closely.

In any case, Judd’s talk is great, and so are his articles: you can find a list of his most recent ones below.

Title / Author Year
J Antin, EF Churchill, DA Shamma, M De Sa
US Patent 20,130,086,484
Social desirability bias and self-reports of motivation: a study of amazon mechanical turk in the US and India
J Antin, A Shaw
Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference on Human Factors in Computing …
Profanity use in online communities
S Sood, J Antin, E Churchill
Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference on Human Factors in Computing …
Using Crowdsourcing to Improve Profanity Detection
SO Sood, J Antin, E Churchill
AAAI Spring Symposium Series, 69-74
Local experts and online review sites
J Antin, M de Sa, EF Churchill
Proceedings of the acm 2012 conference on computer supported cooperative …
Some of all human knowledge: gender and participation in peer production
A Forte, J Antin, S Bardzell, L Honeywell, J Riedl, S Stierch
Proceedings of the ACM 2012 conference on Computer Supported Cooperative …
Apples to Oranges?: Comparing across studies of open collaboration/peer production
J Antin, EH Chi, J Howison, S Paul, A Shaw, J Yew
Proceedings of the 7th International Symposium on Wikis and Open …
Gender differences in Wikipedia editing
J Antin, R Yee, C Cheshire, O Nov
Proceedings of the 7th International Symposium on Wikis and Open …
Mobile augmented reality: video prototyping
M de Sá, J Antin, D Shamma, EF Churchill
Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference extended abstracts on Human …
My kind of people?: perceptions about wikipedia contributors and their motivations
J Antin
Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference on Human factors in computing …
Workshop on online reputation: context, privacy, and reputation management
J Antin, EF Churchill, BC Chen
Proceedings of the 20th international conference companion on World wide web …
Technology-Mediated Contributions: Editing Behaviors Among New Wikipedians
J Antin, C Cheshire, O Nov
Automatic identification of personal insults on social news sites
SO Sood, EF Churchill, J Antin
Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology
Badges in social media: A social psychological perspective
J Antin, E Churchill
Human Factors, 1-4
Toy Psychology-Using gaming tactics to shape our online behavior may not be as effective as some have hoped.
J Antin
Technology Review-Massachussets Institute ofTechnology-English Edition, 11
General and Familiar Trust in Websites
C Cheshire, J Antin, KS Cook, E Churchill
Knowledge, Technology & Policy, 1-21
Everyday favors: A case study of a local online gift exchange system
E Suhonen, A Lampinen, C Cheshire, J Antin
Proceedings of the 16th ACM international conference on Supporting group …
Behaviors, adverse events, and dispositions: An empirical study of online discretion and information control
C Cheshire, J Antin, E Churchill
Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61 (7 …
C Cheshire, J Antin
Information, Communication & Society 13 (4), 537-555
With a little help from my friends: Self‐interested and prosocial behavior on MySpace Music
J Antin, M Earp
Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61 (5 …

ITU releases latest global technology development figures

The ITU released its latest numbers on global technology development. Here’s a snapshot of some of them:

ICT Facts and Figures report predicts that there will soon be as many mobile-cellular subscriptions as people inhabiting the planet, with the figure set to nudge past the seven billion mark early in 2014. More than half of all mobile subscriptions are now in Asia, which remains the powerhouse of market growth, and by the end of 2013 overall mobile penetration rates will have reached 96% globally, 128% in the developed world, and 89% in developing countries.With many markets saturated, and penetration at over 100% in four of the six ITU world regions, mobile-cellular uptake is already slowing substantially, with growth rates falling to their lowest levels ever in both the developed and developing worlds.

ITU estimates that 2.7 billion people – or 39% of the world’s population – will be using the Internet by end 2013.

Internet access, however, will remain limited in the developing world, with only 31% of the population forecast to be online at the end of 2013, compared with 77% in the developed world. Europe will remain the world’s most connected region with 75% Internet penetration, largely outpacing Asia and the Pacific (32%) and Africa (16%).

Household Internet penetration – often considered the most important measure of Internet access – continues to rise. By end 2013, ITU estimates that 41% of the world’s households will be connected to the Internet.

Over the past four years, household access has grown fastest in Africa, with an annual growth rate of 27%. But despite a positive general trend, 90% of the 1.1 billion households around the world that are still unconnected are in the developing world.

Gender Gap

The report also reveals for the first time global figures on the number of women (1.3 billion) and men (1.5 billion) using the Internet. The figures represent 37% of all women, compared with 41% of all men – but the gender gap is more pronounced in the developing world, where 16% fewer women than men use the Internet, compared with only 2% fewer women than men in the developed world. However, despite the disparities, the gender gap continues to close, with access to mobile technology increasingly within reach of women worldwide.

The full report can be accessed here [PDF].