What shapes citizens’ evaluations of their public officials’ accountability? Evidence from local Ethiopia

 

I just came across an interesting paper by Sebastian Jilke published in Public Administration and Development. on the effects of access to information and participatory planning on citizens’ perception of local public officials. Below the summary of the paper:

In this article, we study which institutional factors shape citizens’ views of the local accountability of their public officials. Our departing assumption is that evaluations of local accountability do not merely reflect citizens’ political attitudes and beliefs, but also whether local institutions contribute to an environment of mutual trust, accountability and ultimately democratic legitimacy. Combining public opinion data from a large-N citizen survey (N=10,651) with contextual information for 63 local governments in Ethiopia, we look at access to information, participatory planning and the publicness of basic services as potential predictors of citizens’ evaluations of local public officials. Our findings suggest that local context matters. Jurisdictions that provide access to information on political decision-making are perceived to have more accountable officials. Moreover, when local governments provide public fora that facilitate citizens’ stakes in local planning processes, it positively affects citizens’ evaluations of the accountability of their officials. Our study adds to the  empirical literature by showing that establishing local institutions that can foster citizen-government relations at the local level through inclusive processes is crucial for improving public perceptions of accountability.

And a few more excerpts from the conclusion:

We have presented an empirical test of local institutional factors – particularly access to information,  participatory planning and publicness of basic services – and their impact on citizens’ perceptions of local accountability in Ethiopian local governments. Our empirical results show that two out of the three factors matter. Once a jurisdiction adopts participatory planning and/or provides access to information on political decision-making, it positively affects the way in which citizens perceive the accountability of their officials. In sum, both factors are thought to improve the relationship between citizens and their respective local governments. Hence, our findings suggest that establishing local institutions that can foster citizen-government relations at the local level are crucial for improving public attitudes towards local government. Furthermore, positive attitudes towards local government, furthermore, strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the state at the local level. Thus development practitioners and policy-makers may take these institutional factors into account when reforming local governments.

You can read an ungated version of the paper here [PDF].

And you can read more about the benefits of citizen participation here. 

Transparency & Trust: an Experimental Study of Online Disclosure

Washington-20130820-00261

 

A big thank you to Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen for sending me two copies of his book overseas: Transparency and trust: an experimental study of online disclosure and trust in government. You can download a version of it (dissertation) here.

Stephan’s work is, in my opinion, extremely important reading for those working in the field of transparency and accountability.

As it turns out, whether we like it or not, claims that transparency leads to more trust are not supported by the existing evidence. Still not convinced? Read a short review of the evidence here.

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.

New Book on Open Parliaments

Brazilian House of Representatives

Cristiano Faria’s book on Open Parliaments has finally been translated from its original Portuguese to English. There are many reasons to read Cristiano’s piece, one of them being the scarcity of literature dealing with the usage of ICT by the legislative branch. I was honoured to be invited to write the preface to this book, in which I list a few other reasons why I think this book is very worthwhile reading. I have reproduced the preface below, with the addition of some hyperlinks.

***

Towards the end of the 18th Century, not long after the French Revolution, engineer Claude Chappe invented the optical telegraph. Also known as the Napoleonic Telegraph, this technological innovation enabled the transmission of messages over great distances at unprecedented speeds for its time. This novelty did not go unnoticed by the intellectuals of the period: the possibility of establishing a telegraph network that could connect individuals at high speed and lowered costs was seen as a unique opportunity for direct democracy to flourish.

The difficulties associated with direct democracy, so eloquently expressed by Rousseau just a few years earlier, no longer seemed relevant: simply opening the code used by the telegraph operators would suffice for a whirlpool of ideas to flow between citizens and government, bringing a new era of participatory decision-making. Events, however, took a different turn, and as time went by the enthusiasm for a democratic renewal faded away.

In the course of the centuries that followed, similar stories abounded. The emergence of each new ICT gave rise to a period of enthusiasm surrounding a renewal in politics and government, only to be followed by bitter disillusionment. While the causes of these historical experiences are multiple, it is safe to say that the failure of these technologies to deliver their much-heralded potential is underscored by a lack of understanding of the role of political institutions. These institutions are, inexorably, sources of obstacles and challenges that go beyond the reach of technological solutions.

Indeed, one could argue that despite the historical evidence, even today a certain amount of ingenuity permeates the majority of academic works in the domain of electronic democracy and open government, overestimating technological innovation and neglecting the role of institutions, actors, and their respective strategies.

Not falling prey to the techno-determinist temptation but rather carrying out an analysis grounded in institutions, organizational processes and actors’ strategies, is one of the many strengths of Cristiano Faria’s work. His experience as a civil servant in the Brazilian House of Representatives and his academic rigour bring together qualities that are rarely combined in the literature about the public sector. The result is a work that offers an unusual vision, taking into account a wide range of factors involved in processes of technological enactment and institutional innovation.

While underpinning the book as a whole, this encompassing perspective is most prominent in Chapters 4 and 5, in the case studies on the experiences from Brazil (e-Democracy) and Chile (Virtual Senator). Motivating factors, constraints, and institutional and organizational arrangements are brought to light. The reader encounters elements and processes that often go unperceived by even the most attentive observers and experienced academics.

For instance, while analysing the Brazilian case, Cristiano underscores the essential role played by legislative consultants in channelling citizens’ input into the formal decision-making processes of the House of Representatives. Only an individual who is viscerally familiar with the functioning of the public institutions in question is capable of such an insight – one of many throughout the book.

Even for this reason alone, this work is of inestimable value to the Brazilian and international literature in the fields of electronic democracy and open government. Numerous other characteristics, however, further add to its worth for researchers, politicians, civil servants and ordinary citizens with an interest in these subjects.

The object of study is relevant in itself. There is a disproportionate shortage of literature about the role of technologies with regard to the legislative branch. An incomplete understanding of how public institutions operate and interact among themselves has led an increasing number of academics and observers to focus their attention on the executive branch. Furthermore, in the limited literature that is available about the use of technologies by the legislative, the majority of studies are disappointingly superficial or excessively descriptive.

Cristiano’s text, although rich in detail, never loses sight of the major theoretical and normative perspectives that inform the state of the art in the electronic democracy debate. The literature that guides this piece is impeccable. This is a text that brings the reader into contact with the main theories and arguments relating to issues of transparency, participation, actors’ strategies, and processes of institutional and technological innovation.

Lastly, by presenting cases ranging from New Zealand to the Catalan Parliaments, this book has the inestimable worth of being a historical record, immune to temporal and technological changes. Cristiano Faria captures the state of the art in electronic democracy experiences in the legislative at the beginning of the 21st century. To ensure that the destiny of these experiences differs from that of the Napoleonic Telegraph, a realistic and perspicacious reflection is necessary, to which this book makes its contribution.

Infotopia – Unleashing the Democratic Power of Transparency

Archon Fung has just published a new paper in Politics & Society, “Infotopia: Unleashing the Democratic Power of Transparency”.

Abstract

In Infotopia, citizens enjoy a wide range of information about the organizations upon which they rely for the satisfaction of their vital interests. The provision of that information is governed by principles of democratic transparency. Democratic transparency both extends and critiques current enthusiasms about transparency. It urges us to conceptualize information politically, as a resource to turn the behavior of large organizations in socially beneficial ways. Transparency efforts have targets, and we should think of those targets as large organizations: public and civic, but especially private and corporate. Democratic transparency consists of four principles. First, information about the operations and actions of large organizations that affect citizens’ interests should be rich, deep, and readily available to the public. Second, the amount of available information should be proportionate to the extent to which those organizations jeopardize citizens’ interests. Third, information should be organized and provided in ways that are accessible to individuals and groups that use that information. Finally, the social, political, and economic structures of society should be organized in ways that allow individuals and groups to take action based on Infotopia’s public disclosures.

Read the full paper here [PDF] / ht Alex Howard.

Towards Open Government in Nepal

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On March 28-29, 2011, Freedom Forum, in collaboration with the World Bank, organized Nepal’s first National Convention on the Right to Information in Kathmandu in an effort to draw high level attention to issues affecting implementation of the RTI law and to build broad consensus to strengthen the RTI regime. The convention brought together over 150 practitioners, including senior Government of Nepal officials, members of the Constituent Assembly, and civil society leaders. (…) These discussions were anchored in a series of thematic papers prepared for the Convention focusing on the challenges facing the NIC, public agencies, and information officers in implementing the new law; the role of the press, citizens, and local government in activating the demand for information across society; the legal regime governing the RTI particularly the classification and exemptions regime and the nature of the constitutional guarantee for RTI; and the role of RTI in curbing corruption and democratising political parties. These papers constitute the centre-piece of this volume

Read the full volume here [PDF].

Promise and Pitfalls of Targeted Transparency: A Light-handed Approach to Social Policy

The book “Full Disclosure” is a must read for anybody working with transparency policies.

In this brief new paper, the authors (David Weil, Archon Fung and Mary Graham) discuss the concept of targeted transparency, and shed light on how and when it works.

Targeted transparency represents a more focused approach to public information in which government compels companies or public service agencies to disclose information in standardized formats in order to reduce specific risks or improve services. Such policies are more light-handed than conventional regulation because they rely on the power of information rather than on enforcement of rules and standards or financial inducements to alter choices.

Targeted transparency is frequently used to introduce new scientific evidence of public risks into market choices. As targeted transparency takes a prominent place beside standard-setting and financial incentives as a tool of social policy, it becomes more important to understand when and how it works. Ineffective disclosure requirements can be costly. Forcing companies to collect and disclose information can require substantial resources. Mandated disclosure of incomplete or ou-tof-date information can mislead consumers and create new risks.

Read the full paper here [PDF]

In the video below you can watch a panel discussion on “Full Disclosure” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on April 11, with Elena Fagotto, Archon Fung, Mary Graham, and David Weil.