AuthorSzabo, Septimiu
  1. Introduction

    Ostensibly, government cannot go wrong when it comes to enhancing transparency. In the best-case scenario, enhancing transparency can induce a host of tangible benefits--it can impede corruption, improve trust in government, and, more broadly, engender greater accountability and responsive public organizations. On the other hand, even if attempts to enhance transparency do not result in concrete benefits, citizens will still have access to more information about their government than ever before. Perhaps it is for this reason that most see transparency as 'one of those banal ideas (...) that are taken as unexceptionable in discussions of governance and public management' (Hood, 2007 pp. 192).

    Yet, today many empirical studies are beginning to challenge this long held view of transparency. These studies tend to demonstrate that transparency is not as benign as conventional public administration wisdom suggests. For example, these studies have uncovered scenarios whereby greater transparency can actually lead to lower trust in government, detract from accountability, and foster greater dissatisfaction with public services (Grimmelikhuijsen et al., 2013; Bauhr and Grimes, 2014; Porumbescu, 2015). To this end, many are now beginning to question just whether investments in transparency are worthwhile (Roberts, 2015).

    All told, these studies are helpful in that they speak about a need for scholars and practitioners of public administration to think more carefully and more broadly about the implications stemming from greater transparency. In order to do so, research must make an effort to develop a more systematic approach to thinking about transparency and its relationship to the good governance outcomes commonly assigned to it. In particular, it is necessary to consider in greater detail just what transparency means and to identify the mechanisms responsible for linking transparency to good governance.

    With these points in mind, the purpose of this paper is to establish a preliminary framework that provides a more nuanced understanding of just what transparency is and just how it relates to different aspects of government performance. To do so, the intention of this study is to address three key objectives. The first objective is to provide a deeper understanding of just what transparency means and of the forms and features of information that contribute to enhancing transparency. Our second objective is to explore ways in which these various forms of information may contribute to the quality of governance. In closing, we address the third objective of this study, which is to show that transparency is dependent on strong political leadership and needs to be integrated into the organizational strategic planning if it wants to achieve the broad objective of improving the quality of governance.

    The arguments outlined in this study are important in that they offer a more systematic perspective on an area of public administration that has historically been of great importance, yet, by many accounts remains poorly understood, not because of a lack of valuable literature on the subject, but rather because of its complexity. In this way, this study contributes to the extant body of transparency literature by deriving an initial framework that offers preliminary insights into ways of making effective use of this potentially powerful administrative tool.

  2. Defining transparency

    In this study, we define transparency as a routine provision of information to external stakeholders that serves the purpose of improving their understanding of what their government is doing (Meijer, 2013; Porumbescu, 2015b). The OECD (2001) describes it as openness on policy intentions, formulation and implementation while Piotrowski and Bertelli (2010) understand it as the degree to which access to government information is available. De Fine Licht et al. (2011) make a distinction between transparency in rationale, which refers to information on the substance of the decision and of the facts and reasons on which it was based, and transparency in process, which refers to information on actions such as deliberations, negotiations and votes that take place among and between the decision-makers.

    To this end, the transparency of government is heavily contingent upon the quality and types of information government publicly discloses. The objective of fostering greater transparency is one that requires attention to detail, as simply ensuring that citizens' access to government information will not only do little to contribute to enhancing transparency, but, in some instances, may actually detract from citizens' ability to understand what their government is doing. Moreover, a further challenge is to ensure that the information that government does make public, aside from touching on all of the dimensions needed to obtain a comprehensive understanding of an issue, is also delivered in a way that is not misleading.

    When talking about transparency, one can have different understandings. Cucciniello and Nasi (2014) and Grimmelikhuijsen (2012; see also Heald, 2003) provide different dimensions of the process, presented in Table 1. These frameworks, in large part, can be considered complementary in that they offer a picture of the different forms of information that government must make public in order to bolster citizens' understanding of what government is doing.

    Cucciniello and Nasi's (2014) design and Grimmelikhuijsen's (2012) first framework serve the purpose of fostering a comprehensive understanding of the complex, yet interrelated functions of government. Cucciniello and Nasi (2014) refer to transparency using four dimensions. The first dimension which deals with institutional transparency is used to describe the extent to which information outlines the structure and responsibilities of public organizations. Political transparency is used to foster greater awareness among citizens of what their elected officials are doing and at what cost. As such, this dimension details information related to items such as elected officials participation in legislative meetings and their salaries. Financial transparency focuses upon explaining how the government is using key resources assigned to it--what is the government spending money on, and how much is it spending based on what criteria? Public service transparency highlights just how government is responding to the needs to citizens through the provision of different public services. Cumulatively, information on each of these dimensions serves the purpose of fostering a comprehensive understanding of the complex, yet interrelated functions of government.

    Grimmelikhuijsen's (2012) second framework, on the other hand, focuses upon the qualities of government information. The first quality he mentions, completeness, refers to whether or not all of the relevant information needed to understand a particular issue has been publicly disclosed. However, it is important to note that completeness is not synonymous with exhaustiveness, in the sense that it does not mean that all of the information pertaining to a particular policy has been publicly disclosed. In fact, as some studies have suggested, exhaustiveness can actually be used as a tactic to overload the public with information and, as such, detract from citizens' ability to understand what their government is doing (O'Neill, 2002). The second quality is color, which is used to explain the extent to which the information is objective. The color of the information a government publicly discloses as overly positive portrayals of government actions can result in a biased or incomplete understanding of just what the government is doing. The third quality of information is comprehensibility. This dimension is used to account for the extent to which information being made public is understandable to the general public. Here, the key is to ensure that the information being publicly disclosed is presented in a straightforward and readily accessible way so as to ensure that the information is contributing to enhancing understanding equally across all segments of the population.

  3. Exploring the link between transparency and quality of government

    The links between transparency and the quality of government, while often assumed to exist, are not readily apparent. As we argue, difficulties in seeing how transparency contributes to the quality of government may be a result of a lack of clarity over just what transparency means. Based upon the understanding of transparency that we have provided in the preceding section, we now offer a general discussion of just how different facets of government transparency may translate into improved governance. In exploring these arguments, we focus upon two broad audiences for the government information being publicly disseminated--public organizations and the general public.

    3.1. Public organizations as the audience for transparency

    Similar to the results observed almost 100 years ago through the Hawthorne experiments undertaken in the USA, Jung and Lee (2015) notice a tendency for individuals, or groups of individuals to perform better when they know they are being observed. These results confirm Hood's (2007) view that the more closely government is watched, the better it behaves.

    This broad assumption translates into practice in two ways. First, governments are frequently pressured to publicly disclose more and more information guided by a belief that doing so would improve monitoring, and thereby engender greater...

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