THE IDEA THAT TRANSPARENCY can make institutions more effective and provide greater accountability and better results for the public seems uncontroversial on the surface.
But scholars and officials who have been involved in the wave of transparency initiatives over the past decade continue to debate the particular merits of various approaches. And the many types of transparency initiatives around the globe are often confused, making sharp distinctions all the more essential. 

In a May 2014 study published in the Annual Review of Political Science, “Does Transparency Improve Governance?” Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship, and co-author Stephen Kosack of the University of Washington set out to review the state of the field, focusing specifically on initiatives that aid development in areas such as health and education. They note that that the research literature on transparency programs “has thus far yielded frustratingly mixed conclusions: some studies conclude that transparency has huge effects; others show little or no effect.”

Although transparency is often associated with things such as the Freedom of Information Act, consumer campaigns, and government regulatory data, Fung and Kosack focus on the area of “transparency for accountability,” or “T/A,” which has increasingly become an area of focus for policymakers, foundations, scholars, and other interested parties. This type of transparency aims to provide a “tool for dealing with increasingly practical and specific concerns of government performance,” such as improving schools or health care services. 

Examples range from the use of school “report cards” in a place such as Punjab, Pakistan, to the monitoring of infrastructure spending in Indonesia.

Fung and Kosack identified 66 studies on transparency and development outcomes and then selected the 16 studies that were based on empirical data from experiments. With this data, they set out to offer insights both on best practices and avenues for further research.

Eleven of the 16 transparency initiatives studied were deemed successful. This evidence furnishes “reason for enthusiasm about the power of information to catalyze meaningful governance reforms,” the scholars write. Overall, the specific societal context mattered greatly in terms of outcomes. In particular, situations where consumers had competitive options or where public officials were willing to act were more likely to yield positive results for transparency initiatives.

Further, Fung and Kosack pinpoint a fundamental “action cycle” that tends to characterize successful initiatives. This basic pattern is: (1) Users are provided with information that is important and speaks to them and their needs; (2) they act on that information by, for example, changing their health care provider or school, or engaging in some modified behavior; (3) providers begin to see these actions as consequential; (4) providers respond constructively.

Overall, interventions are more likely to achieve their goals, Fung and Kosack conclude, when “they provide information that is clearly understandable and salient to citizens (e.g., by showing problems with inputs clearly related to the performance of their providers, and how this performance stacks up against their neighbors’ or against their rights to service.)” Further, transparency programs should illuminate “problems with the inputs into services, not simply with the performance of the service, which may have myriad causes,” and they should imply or directly recommend a “clear course of action to improve those problems.”

Archon Fung is Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship. His research examines the impacts of civic participation, public deliberation, and transparency upon public and private governance. He is the incoming Academic Dean at Harvard Kennedy School, beginning July 1.

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