Does Transparency Lead to Legitimacy and Trust?

Does greater transparency in government translate into greater citizen legitimacy and trust for government action? It depends, concludes a new study by a Swedish scholar.

The Open Government movement has captured the imagination of many around the world as a way of increasing transparency, participation, and accountability. In the US, many of the federal, state, and local Open Government initiatives have been demonstrated to achieve positive results for citizens here and abroad. In fact, the White House’s science advisers released a refreshed Open Government plan in early June.

However, a recent study in Sweden says the benefits of transparency may vary, and may have little impact on citizens’ perception of legitimacy and trust in government. This research suggests important lessons on how public managers should approach the design of transparency strategies, and how they work in various conditions.

Jenny de Fine Licht, a scholar at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden, offers a more nuanced view of the influence of transparency in political decision making on public legitimacy and trust, in an article in the current issue of Public Administration Review. Her research challenges the assumption of many in the Open Government movement that greater transparency necessarily leads to greater citizen trust in government.

Her conclusion, based on an experiment involving over 1,000 participants, was that the type and degree of transparency “has different effects in different policy areas.” She found that “transparency is less effective in policy decisions that involve trade-offs related to questions of human life and death or well-being.”

The Background. Licht says there are some policy decisions that involve what are called “taboo tradeoffs.” A taboo tradeoff, for example, would be making budget tradeoffs in policy areas such as health care and environmental quality, where human life or well-being is at stake. In cases where more money is an implicit solution, the author notes, “increased transparency in these policy areas might provoke feeling of taboo, and, accordingly, decreased perceived legitimacy.”

Other scholars, such as Harvard’s Jane Mansbridge, contend that “full transparency may not always be the best practice in policy making.” Full transparency in decision-making processes would include, for example, open appropriation committee meetings. Instead, she recommends “transparency in rationale – in procedures, information, reasons, and the facts on which the reasons are based.” That is, provide a full explanation after-the-fact.

Licht tested the hypothesis that full transparency of the decision-making process vs. partial transparency via providing after-the-fact rationales for decisions may create different results, depending on the policy arena involved.

The Experiment. In her experiment, she tested the use of varying levels of transparency with 1,032 participants who were surveyed about their responses to different hypothetical cases – one involving policy setting in routine culture and leisure decisions (closing a library to fund a non-profit), and the other involving policy setting affecting the safety and well-being of people (building crosswalks instead of traffic barriers).

In each case, participants were asked to respond to different scenarios used to make decisions in each of these two areas. The scenarios ranged from no transparency, to partial transparency (where the rationale for decisions is explained after the fact), to full transparency (where the public was involved in the decision-making process, as the decisions were being made).

Participants were asked to rate how fairly the decisions were made, in each scenario, and whether they would voluntarily obey and accept the decisions made, or if they would instead protest the decision.

Interestingly, in the scenario of where a high degree of transparency existed, in the library closing decision, participants accepted the results even if they disagreed, but the same was not true when the high transparency scenario was used in the decision to not fund traffic dividers in lieu of funding cross walks. In that scenario, participants were more willing to protest the tradeoff decision. However, they were less likely to protest if the scenario was the use of limited transparency – that is, where a post-hoc rationale was provided instead.

Licht concludes: “To the extent that policy decisions, at least implicitly, weigh human life or health against money, there is a risk that increased transparency will have negative effects on public perceptions of legitimacy.” However, she notes, that “transparency in political decision making can increase public perceptions of legitimacy – even in situations that involve difficult decisions.”

Implications for the U.S. Open Government advocates have generally assumed that full and open transparency is always better. Licht’s conclusion is that “greater transparency” does not necessarily increase citizen legitimacy and trust. Instead, the strategy of encouraging a high degree of transparency requires a more nuanced application in its use. While the she cautions about generalizing from her experiment, the potential implications for government decision-makers could be significant.

To date, many of the various Open Government initiatives across the country have assumed a “one size fits all” approach, across the board. Licht’s conclusions, however, help explain why the results of various initiatives have been divergent in terms of citizen acceptance of open decision processes.

Her experiment seems to suggest that citizen engagement is more likely to create a greater citizen sense of legitimacy and trust in areas involving “routine” decisions, such as parks, recreation, and library services. But that “taboo” decisions in policy areas involving tradeoffs of human life, safety, and well-being may not necessarily result in greater trust as a result of the use of full and open transparency of decision-making processes.

While she says that transparency – whether full or partial – is always better than no transparency, her experiment at least shows that policy makers will, at a minimum, know that the end result may not be greater legitimacy and trust. In any case, her research should engender a more nuanced conversation among Open Government advocates at all levels of government. In order to increase citizens’ perceptions of legitimacy and trust in government, it will take more than just advocating for Open Data!

IBM Center for The Business of Government

Graphic credit: courtesy of pakorn via FreeDigitalPhotos

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Mark Hammer

Also, see Grimmelikhuijsen & Meijer in Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 2012, Vol 24,

p137–157 “Effects of Transparency on the Perceived Trustworthiness of a Government Organization: Evidence from an Online Experiment”.

They found that prior knowledge, and degree of predisposition to trust, moderated the effect of transparency, and also strongly suggested a “nuanced” approach to transparency.

Some selected clips from their discussion section:

“…we argued that people with high prior knowledge are less likely to be persuaded by new information. Their trust is “cognition based”: once (perceived) prior knowledge is high, it becomes the primary driver for perceived trustworthiness of a government organization and citizens are not persuaded (negatively or positively) by the outcome information disclosed through Web sites. By contrast, for individuals with low prior knowledge trust is more “affection based.” This group was persuaded by transparency: new information changed their attitudes.

….We found that people with high predisposition to trust were disappointed in the competence of the government organization when they saw a Web site with low usable information and people with a low predisposition to trust and low prior knowledge had enhanced perceptions of perceived benevolence after seeing the Web site with highly usable policy outcome information. This means that people’s predisposition to trust government in general does not result in confirmation bias.

…People expect local government to be transparent and if their expectations are fulfilled, this at best does not lead to dissatisfaction. For citizens with a high predisposition trust, being transparent only meets the expectation that this is part of a normally functioning government….Those with a high general predisposition to trust are only disappointed in the competence of a specific government organization if policy outcomes are not that transparency, whereas low predisposed citizens are positively surprised and perceived the municipality to be acting in the citizens’ interest (i.e., benevolence).”

Mark Hammer

Here’s another I was just informed about to add to the stack. Comes to a very similar conclusion as the other reports – transparency, by itself has no necessarily beneficial impact:

Are Informed Citizens More Trusting? Transparency of Performance Data and Trust Towards a British Police Force, D. Mason, C. Hillenbrand, & K. Money, Journal of Business Ethics June 2014, Volume 122, Issue 2, pp 321-341

Peter Sperry

Old saying on Capital Hill — Anyone who likes law or sausage should not watch either being made. Legislatures are orders of magnitude more transparent than they were before television. They are also orders of magnitude less respected. The average citizen cares deeply about results but tend to get very squeamish about the process used to produce them. We might actually get better public policy if our leaders had the ability to meet in private, cut some deals, keep their mouths shut about what goes on behind closed doors and take responsibility for outcomes rather than posture about process.

Mark Hammer

There IS “process”, which Peter correctly identifies as being dull as dishwater, and more tasteless than anything John Waters could ever imagine. But I think what many citizens and other stakeholders want from “transparency” is not so much seeing it all go down, but rather understanding what choices were made and why. In other words, transparency is not an end in itself, but a path en route to plausibility and acceptability. One could still hold meetings in camera, and cut deals behind closed doors, if that facilitates cutting deals that work in the public interest. People might not like that, but at the end of it, if those who represent them come out and say “THESE are the priorities we felt needed to be balanced. We retreated a little on this in order to achieve 85% of that. It may look like we gave up this, for the time being, but we actually end up getting more of that, down the line.”, we would easily overlook the fact that doors were ever closed. The transparency of the underlying logic is what matters. It has to feel like the choice WE would have made, if it were ours to make.

I might add that if we look at the research on parental disciplinary strategies, we see that children (whom we can legitimately substitute for anyone subject to the decisions of others who hold more power or authority) are more likely to accept, and internalize, rules of conduct, when those rules are conveyed in a manner that makes the child feel like it is the very rule they would have created themselves in that same situation.

This is not to frame transparency as simply a means to gain passive acceptance by those whom we wish to control. Rather, if the public, national, or global interest is to be served, buy-in is required, and transparency gets you buy-in…assuming that what is “up for sale” is plausible and acceptable.