Today's Question Blog

What are the consequences of governmental transparency?

In a recent assessment of transparency and accountability among state governments, The Center for Public Integrity gave Minnesota a "D-" grade, ranking 28th in its 2015 State Integrity Investigation. Particularly, the investigation found that Minnesotan's right to access information is largely ineffective. Last week, Pew Research Center released a poll in which only 19 percent of Americans said they trust their government always or most of the time. Yet while transparency is typically considered a political ideal, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach to all forms of governance.

James Hollyer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, whose research focuses on the relationship between government transparency and things like accountability, political instability, or democracy. He contributes to the HRV Transparency Project, which aims to provide a credible measure of governmental transparency, specifically, through how countries report their national economic data to international organizations. He writes to MPR:

Transparency has, in recent years, become a mantra for advocates of good government. However, the benefits of transparency vary by context -- it should not be seen as a universal ideal. Work in political science and economics suggests that publicizing deliberative processes in legislatures may lead representatives to pander to the public; or may cause potentially beneficial negotiations between countries or legislators to be derailed. Clearly, transparency in certain matters related to national security may have deleterious effects.

In recent work, with Peter Rosendorff (New York University) and Jim Vreeland (Georgetown University), I examine the effects of a very specific form of transparency: government's collection and dissemination of credible information on the economy. Both businesses and citizens rely on such information in determining where and whether to invest and in assessing the economic performance of governments. We might therefore expect such the effects of such disclosure to be relatively benign.

However, even the effects of this form of transparency hinge critically on political context. In democracies, greater economic transparency is indeed beneficial. Transparent democracies are less likely to collapse -- revert to autocracy -- than their opaque counterparts. Where information is readily available, citizens are better able to hold their leaders to account, and less able to castigate their fellow citizens as ill-informed or irrational. Thus, the electoral process gains legitimacy. Where transparency is lacking, citizens may find that the electoral process is unable to hold politicians to account. They therefore appear to be more willing to turn to the streets or back coups against failing leaders.

In non-democracies, transparency plays a different role. More readily available information implies that individual citizens are better able to infer the level of dissatisfaction their fellows feel for the government. This knowledge facilitates the coordination of protest. Transparent autocracies experience more frequent protests and strikes than opaque autocracies, and are thus more likely to collapse. On the one hand, this may be a good thing, as it increases the probability democratic institutions replace autocratic ones. However, this need not always be the case -- one autocratic regime may simply follow another. And political instability brings its own, substantial, costs.

Today's Question: What are the consequences of governmental transparency?