Transparency and Trust are not the Same Thing


The other day I heard an ad for an airline that caught my attention. They were promoting “transfarency” and defined it as their philosophy in which customers are treated honestly and fairly and low fares actually stay low.  While clearly a play on words, it got me thinking about the definition of transparency, and how it has become synonymous with openness, honesty and accountability in government.

The White House has an initiative called Transparency and Open Government that is based on the three tenants that government should be transparent, participatory and collaborative. Under the “transparent” bucket, the Administration explains that transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing. Information is viewed as an “asset” to be shared with the citizens, and government should use new technologies to make it more accessible to citizens. We (meaning those of us who work in government) should solicit feedback to ask the public what information is most useful to them.

This is also the era of “open data” where everything is put online for the public to view. Here in California, and presumably in other states, you can look up every state employee’s salary – the website is labeled Transparent California. Citizens want to know where their tax dollars are going and whether employees are paid appropriately. The state’s open data portal has information on buildings, grants and contracts, economy and demographics, fleet and transportation, recycling, water and more. At the local level where I work, we have open data on city services, our own employee salaries, crime reports, library checkouts, and quality of streets among our data sets. But, do citizens really use this data?  Has the availability of data and transparency of government information led to greater trust?

A Pew Research study on American’s views about open government data suggests there is a relationship between data and trust, but perhaps not the one you might expect.  The study found that most citizens are using open data and open government initiatives for “transaction” purposes such as paying a bill or routine information gathering. Fewer Americans – less than one quarter – use government data to monitor how government is doing its job. Americans also have mixed views about whether open data will improve things. When asked specifically whether open data will allow journalists to cover government more thoroughly, 56% said yes. People also believe that government data will make government officials more accountable to the public (53%), improve the quality of government services (49%), allow citizens to have more impact on government (48%) and result in better decisions by government officials (45%).

When it comes to trust, the study found that people’s level of trust in government strongly shapes their view on the usefulness of open government data. In other words, if somebody already has a high degree of trust in government, they are much more likely to think there are benefits to such information.

The most recent Gallup poll on trust in government shows it at a new low, a trend that has continued steadily since 2004.  Only 42% said they had even a fair amount of trust in political leaders.  However, the picture at the local government level is more hopeful. For the past 15 years, Americans have expressed more confidence in their local government than their state government to handle problems.  About 72% of Americans say they have a “great deal” or “fair” amount of trust in local government compared with 62% at the state level. Trust in local government has been fairly steady since Gallup first polled Americans in 1972, with the only significant increase or decrease correlating with economic boom and bust cycles. This confidence in local government cuts across party lines as well, most likely due to the more direct interaction citizens have with local governments in their everyday lives. In this case, familiarity contributes to higher trust levels.

Remember the poll that said those with more trust in government see more benefits from data?  This would seem to point to opportunities for local government to provide data to its citizens to foster greater participation and collaboration. Local government can continue to build on this foundation of trust and become the center for change and civic participation that is missing at the state and federal levels.

Claudia Keith is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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