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.