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What transparency means and why it matters: lessons from around the world

by Jean-Patrick Villeneuve

About the author

Jean-Patrick Villeneuve is an associate professor in Public Communication and Management at the University of Lugano, Switzerland. He is Director of the Institute for Public Communication and Co-Director of the Master programme Public Management and Policy

In recent years, transparency and anti-corruption policies – often held up as examples of “good governance” – have become an indispensable part of sound public management. This shift has come about, in part, because today’s citizens expect government to be more transparent. This article looks at the conceptual frameworks behind transparency and anti-corruption policies in different parts of the world, how these policies are implemented, and what lessons we can learn from them.

 

In many parts of the world, government transparency has become a major vote-winning policy and a flagship feature of political leaders’ manifestos. In 2013, US President Barack Obama claimed to be running the most transparent administration in history. In the run-up to Canada’s 2015 federal elections, the eventual winner Justin Trudeau promised to form the most open and transparent government the country had ever seen. In France, transparency has enjoyed a spectacular rise to the top of the political agenda, with the creation of the High Authority for Transparency in Public Life in 2013, the country joining the Open Government Partnership in 2014, the launch of the French Anti-Corruption Agency in 2016, and the enactment of the Act on Confidence in Political Life in 2017.

In many cases, however, we still know little about the conceptual frameworks behind government transparency and anti-corruption policies, the complex relationship between them, and their combined impact on public policy coherence and consistency. The benefits of openness and transparency are well-publicised. But can they actually frustrate governance and thwart government negotiation and decision-making?

This article explores practical examples of openness and transparency policies from around the world, along with research insights on the subject, in an attempt to shed light on these questions. It also looks at the drawbacks of such policy measures, as well as how transparency initiatives have helped to shape anti-corruption policies that work.

 

 

What is transparency?

The idea of transparency as a value came to prominence in the Age of Enlightenment. It was Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) proposed Panopticon that transformed transparency – and visibility – into a tool for management and organisational control. The Panopticon is a form of prison design in which light and shadow are arranged in such a way that a single officer can see what every prisoner is doing. Because detainees are aware that their every movement might be observed at any moment, the opportunity cost of misbehaviour becomes greater. It is only a short step from this form of institutional design to transparency. In both cases, the person being observed – be it a prisoner, a civil servant or a politician – tends to be on their best behaviour because they know they are being watched.

This self-same idea – using visibility as a means of control – underpins Michael C. Jensen and William H. Meckling’s(1) “principal-agent theory”, an idea that was quickly transposed from the private to the public sectors. In the public sphere, the “principal” (the citizen) delegates authority to an “agent” (the government), yet the two parties have conflicting interests and asymmetric information. Consequently, good governance involves giving outsiders (citizens) the means to access all the information that is normally reserved for insiders (such as civil servants and politicians) so they can monitor and control what the authorities are doing.

In recent decades, the emergence of organisations like Transparency International and the Open Government Partnership have turned transparency in public life into an international standard(2) by which government performance is measured. Bodies such as these publish global rankings that add to domestic and regional pressure for more robust transparency policies. The Open Data Charter, founded in 2015 and currently adopted by 54 national and local governments including France, is a case in point. The Charter’s six principles state that data should be published in a format that is: (1) open by default, (2) timely and comprehensive, (3) accessible and usable, (4) comparable and interoperable, (5) for improved governance & citizen engagement, and (6) for inclusive development & innovation3.

This way of conducting government business, and the many forms that it takes, is often described as “Open Government” – a movement that seeks to recast the government-citizen relationship, hand more power to citizens, and give them a greater say in monitoring and controlling what government does. Seen from this angle, transparency draws heavily on the ideas of deliberative democratic theorists such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, who advocated for citizen participation and engagement in public life and argued that the public’s “right to know” is vital to building a strong democracy while ensuring that the all-important checks and balances are in place.

Citizen empowerment has three key objectives. First, the fact that organisations are forced to publish details of what they have (and have not) done strengthens accountability. Second, improved internal information flows lead to better management. And third, publishing information about public task performance has a more direct influence on how individuals and organisations behave. Proponents of this model argue that it helps to build trust in the machinery of government and, by allowing citizens to see how the public sector operates, better equips them to assess how well public services are delivered. In this sense, transparency is more a means to an end than an end in itself.

What about corruption?

Good governance in public institutions relies on officials carrying out their duties without corruption – defined by the OECD as “the abuse of public or private office for personal gain”.4

Conventional wisdom dictates that corruption in public office only happens when certain conditions are met. First, the organisation must have individuals in positions of authority with discretionary powers (in other words, they must have the power to independently allocate resources or provide goods and services as they see fit). Second, these individuals must abuse or misuse the powers entrusted to them. And third, they must do so for personal gain (either for themselves or for a third party). These gains may be tangible (goods) or intangible (promotion), and come in many different forms, from cash payments (bribery) to benefits in kind such as meals or travel.5.

While transparency is often associated with principal-agent theory, corruption tends to be viewed through the prism of rational choice theory. In other words, engaging (or not engaging) in corruption is viewed as the rational outcome of a cost-benefit analysis made by a given individual when conditions are right.6 And it stands to reason that conditions are more likely to be right for corruption when surveillance – and therefore transparency – are weaker.

A distinction is traditionally drawn between petty corruption (bribery) and grand corruption (embezzlement, misappropriation or other diversion of property by a public official). A separate distinction is made between passive corruption (whereby a public official solicits or accepts an undue advantage in order to act or refrain from acting in the exercise of his or her official duties) and active corruption (whereby a citizen promises, offers or gives a public official an undue advantage in order that the official act or refrain from acting in the exercise of his or her official duties). There is also a dividing line between so-called “legal” corruption (erecting legal barriers to hide or facilitate corruption) and illegal corruption (criminal behaviour that breaches national and international conventions).7. The question, therefore, is whether effective anti-corruption policies can be founded on transparency alone, or whether something more is needed.

Transparency in practice

The contours of transparency are in constant flux, shaped by political will, public pressure and technological progress. Policy measures vary markedly from one part of the world to the next as the relative weight of these factors changes. Here, we look at what governments in different countries are doing on the transparency front in order to shed light on research insights. The examples outlined below show that, while the law still has a role to play, citizens are playing an increasingly vital part in designing, developing and implementing public transparency policies.

Governments themselves decide where the boundaries of transparency lie. For instance, they determine what information is classified as sensitive and which public bodies are subject to freedom of information requests. But there are other forces shaping what the public expects to know and how transparent governments really are. News leaks, open data movements and radical transparency initiatives like WikiLeaks are moving the boundary between what is legal and what is illegal, and between what the public does and does not have a right to know.

The “right to know” is often cited as an integral part of transparency and accountability – two values that underpin the freedom of information laws that now exist in more than 190 countries around the world, giving citizens the legal right to access open, unclassified government documents unless the law states otherwise.

The first 10 countries to pass freedom of information laws8
Sweden 1766
Finland 1952
United States 1966
Denmark 1970
Norway 1970
France 1978
Netherlands 1978
Australia 1982
New Zealand 1982
Canada 1983

In the past, the rule of thumb was that all information was confidential except for what governments chose to disclose, under various pretences. But that reasoning has been turned on its head, and governments now have to justify why certain documents and information are kept confidential.

The world’s oldest freedom of information law was passed by Sweden in an effort to curb the monarch’s power. These days, as elsewhere, it is primarily a tool for scrutinising the work of parliament and government. National and regional freedom of information laws share many common features. They set out which bodies the law covers, what kinds of information can be accessed, the legal grounds on which the authorities can deny disclosure requests (classified information, privacy, etc.), and the administrative arrangements around freedom of information requests, such as how long institutions have to respond, what fee is payable by the requesting party, and what legal avenues are available if the request is denied. Governments are increasingly embracing open data policies – a move that implies a shift in their relationship with citizens towards an arrangement in which information is developed jointly by both sides.9.

United States : Proactive transparency and Back-office nudges

Proactive transparency

 

Freedom of information requests are expensive to process and generate substantial human resources and information management costs for public bodies.

One way to reduce these costs and to improve government transparency more generally is to pursue a policy of “proactive” transparency. This practice is particularly widespread in the United States, where any information that the government feels may be of interest to citizens is routinely published online and made freely accessible. Such an approach has several benefits: it avoids all-but inevitable and costly freedom of information requests, it deflects criticism around government secrecy, and it allows the authorities to frame the debate on potentially controversial subjects from the outset.

 

Back-office nudges

 

Crisis hit the state government of Georgia in 2016 when it was discovered that a senior finance department official responsible for monitoring purchasing had racked up more than $87,000 in personal spending – a sizeable portion with Amazon – on a government credit card.

The administrative department brought in a series of reforms to fix issues with the system and stop something similar happening again, including reducing the number of people authorised to use government credit cards, redesigning the payment system, and bringing Amazon into the government procurement system under a new partnership.

The reformed payment system includes a number of “nudges” to influence user behaviour. Fields such as the delivery address are now populated by default and cannot be altered, users see three warnings and reminders alerting them to the fact that the purchase they are making is connected to a government contract, and the new streamlined interface simplifies the whole process and means that buyers can access the Amazon Prime catalogue just as easily as government procurement catalogues.10

Canada : Managing image in parliamentary broadcasting

Managing image in parliamentary broadcasting

 

Broadcasting parliamentary proceedings on TV or online is now common practice, giving citizens and journalists a glimpse into the day-to-day work of politicians at the national, regional and local levels. Although parliamentary broadcasting is nothing new, there has been a recent move towards better managing public perceptions. For instance, strict rules mean that broadcasts of proceedings in Canada’s federal parliament can only show the speaker and viewers cannot see other MPs, not all of whom give the speaker their undivided attention.

Singapore : Paying high salaries to tackle corruption

Paying high salaries to tackle corruption

 

After Singapore attained self-government in 1959, the new administration signalled its intent to crack down on corruption by introducing tough laws and setting up the independent Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

As part of sweeping public sector reforms in the 1980s, the civil service salary structure was revamped and variable bonuses were introduced to build more flexibility into the system. The vast majority of Singaporean civil servants enjoy a job for life – known in Chinese as an “iron rice bowl” occupation – with bonuses for performance, length of service, and other criteria.

In 1993, senior civil servants were awarded a pay rise of between 20% and 34% in an effort to tackle recruitment and retention problems. In 1994, new comparative indicators were brought in to index-link senior civil servants’ pay to traditionally high private-sector salaries. Both measures were part of a deliberate civil service salary hike policy designed to attract and retain the best talent and limit corruption risk associated with poor public-sector pay.

Poland: A mandatory public register of lobbyists

A mandatory public register of lobbyists

 

EU lobbying rules have changed markedly in recent years, with new measures designed to make lobbying more transparent and to restrict interaction between lobbyists and government representatives, among others.

Although many countries maintain an official register of lobbyists, registering is not mandatory in most EU Member States. One of the few exceptions to this rule is Poland, where all lobbyists are required to register and where each public authority produces and publishes an annual report listing all lobbying aimed at their institution.12.

Austria : Teaching transparency in college

Une éducation à la transparence dès le lycée

 

In 2012, Austria’s Federal Bureau of Anti-Corruption began running corruption awareness events for 14-18-year-olds, including 45-minute workshops where pupils work through questionnaires, take part in role plays, talk to corruption investigators and engage in other activities. The aim of the sessions is to teach them what corruption looks like, so they are prepared to encounter it when they enter the workforce11.

Mexico : Naming and shaming fraudsters

Naming and shaming fraudsters

 

Mexico’s tax authority has taken the initiative on using open data to combat corruption and financial fraud, publicly naming and shaming taxpayers who flout the rules to deter others from following suit. The authority uses its website and the Official Federal Gazette to publish lists of taxpayers who set up false businesses, issue fake invoices, fail to pay their taxes, or have been convicted of tax fraud.14.

India : A right to information website

Une plateforme de droit à l'information

 

Building on the mandate to foster greater transparency established by the 2005 Right to Information Act, the Indian authorities launched a central web portal, spanning government-to-government and government-to-citizen services, in order to better manage freedom of information requests received by public sector institutions.

The e-government portal is designed to make it easier for citizens to request information and track the status of their access requests, while at the same time ensuring that public institutions provide citizens with appropriate information. The platform was designed with two key principles of digital transformation in mind: digital inclusion and digital by default.13

Is transparency always a good thing?

Transparency is seen as a positive force and examples of successful initiatives abound. Yet transparency as a tool for citizen control has its drawbacks – both for citizens themselves and for public institutions.

More information does not always equal greater transparency

Proponents of transparency see the public as a watchdog, actively exercising democratic control over the government. Yet this is perhaps a rose-tinted view of how citizens access and use information.

In reality, members of the public often fail to read the information at their disposal or are ill-equipped to analyse it. The rise of “e-transparency” – using technology to foster greater transparency – only magnifies the problem because, as well as being short on technical and political expertise, citizens often lack vital computer skills.

Information overload can also leave citizens feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes, a public body will respond to a freedom of information request with thousands – or even millions – of pages of information, thinking it has fulfilled its duty. Yet the sheer volume of information makes it difficult, even impossible, for the recipient to understand, contravening both the spirit of the law and the authority’s stated aims. Simply providing information is not enough. The authority must also ensure that the information is properly structured, fit for purpose, and easy to understand.

Another drawback of these new transparency arrangements, this time affecting society as a whole, stems from the fact that powerful, well-organised lobbies – with their own aims and interests that sometimes run counter to what is in the public interest – tend to be their biggest users. In other words, they seek to “capture” transparency arrangements for their own goals15.

Releasing critical information about public sector events and processes does not, therefore, automatically build public trust in the state and its institutions. Moreover, while rising numbers of prosecutions for corruption and embezzlement show that the system is working, there is a real risk that democratic fatigue syndrome might set in and that citizens might disengage from a process that was designed with precisely the opposite aim in mind.

Organisational barriers to transparency

Public officials attempt to get around transparency requirements in a number of ways, from actively lobbying for exemption from the rules, to flatly disobeying the law (refusing to release or even destroying information) or deliberately misapplying it.16 One of the best-known ploys is for officials to use an external email address, to avoid having records of their correspondence archived and subsequently disclosed. Other commonplace tactics include affixing post-it notes to documents that can be removed before they are released, and refusing to take notes or produce minutes that might one day enter the public domain. Actions such as these naturally have significant implications for the organisations in question, from poor management to institutional memory loss.

Officials also deliberately delay releasing information – a strategy that works especially well in a system where information is time-sensitive17. Other problems stem from the quality of the information that organisations hold, as well as how that information is structured and categorised.

There are many reasons why public officials might be resistant to releasing information. Some operate in a defensive bureaucratic culture where secrecy is deeply embedded in the psyche. Others put up barriers to shield themselves from blame and criticism. These barriers can only be broken down if the political will and resources to do so are there18.

Can opacity be a good thing?

Government secrecy exists for good reason. For instance, it allows officials to discuss and address problems without fearing a public backlash. Transparency is seen as problematic in some quarters because it stifles innovation – something that, by definition, is a process of trial and error. Officials who are constantly weighing up what the public might think are less likely to make bold decisions.

Proponents of this line of reasoning posit that transparency has caused the standard of public debate to decline. They argue that, while fully transparent decisions can claim legitimacy, the fact that they are made so openly causes a switch in emphasis away from the decision itself and towards image management and spin. Conversely, they claim, being more opaque would improve the standard of debate because it would give all sides more freedom to share their comments, questions and suggestions and, ultimately, achieve a compromise that keeps everyone happy.

Some critics of full transparency argue that it makes compromise impossible and deadlock often inevitable. Others claim that its greatest downfall is to conceal the many and varied excesses that occur inside an organisation. Either way, it is clear that its drawbacks are at odds with its purported benefits, and that those drawbacks can erode the extent to which citizens and organisations trust transparency as a management and social development tool.

Public institutions must therefore take stock of the challenges that these questions pose, come up with adequate answers and solutions, and ensure that transparency remains a force for better governance.

 

Towards transparency in moderation?

Having transparent public institutions is vitally important. But transparency has not yet gone far enough to stamp out corruption, whether real or perceived. There are several ways in which existing transparency policies and systems can be improved.

Mediation

The mismatch between the promise of full transparency and how it plays out in reality – and the role of the media in particular – sheds light on the ambivalences inherent to transparency.19 Citizens do not see reality, but rather different representations of reality. That is why it is so important for information to be mediated and for raw data to be contextualised and processed. That said, transparency alone cannot fix ineffective communication. Governments that communicate well must also consider their target audience.20 Transparency can only fulfil its regulatory function if the information that governments publish is interpreted for public consumption by the media, civil society organisations, public institutions or other go-betweens.

Data quality

Freedom of information rules will prove toothless if governments fail to produce documents or index them properly. That is why, in the interest of data quality, governments must adopt standardised document creation, storage and management procedures – a move that comes at a significant cost, even when documents are managed electronically.

Sanctions

Transparency can only deliver greater political accountability if it works in tandem with other measures. Some observers criticise the widely held belief that surveillance is an effective way to instil discipline and hold officials to account, arguing that transparency is a pointless exercise without appropriate sanctions. Some even go so far as to argue that transparency without sanctions does more harm than good21 because the veneer of openness that it lends actually allows excessive practices to flourish.

Can transparency stamp out corruption?

The relationship between transparency and corruption is a complex one. Understanding the two phenomena does not always lead to coherent, consistent policy-making. For all of transparency’s benefits, excessive openness can complicate governance, weaken a government’s negotiating hand and thwart decision-making.

Corruption is often defined as a situation in which an official abuses public office for personal gain. One way around this problem is to publish details of their decisions and actions – a clear deterrent designed to discourage officials from breaking the rules in pursuit of their personal interests.

Understanding personal interest is vital to understanding corruption. But all too often, personal interest is wrongly conflated with financial interest. This narrow-minded view goes some way to explaining why anti-corruption efforts have enjoyed limited success. A recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimate put the annual cost of bribery at around $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion – roughly 2% of global GDP22.

Further research could provide a more nuanced picture of corruption and explain why transparency can only go so far in tackling this complex phenomenon. Aside from officials’ personal interests, other factors – norms, culture and context – that drive individual behaviour and erect moral barriers (sense of ethics, civic duty, etc.) must be given due weight. After all, human beings cannot be reduced to homo economicus.

A cultural approach such as this stresses the importance of moral and normative barriers, which are typically shaped “in an inter-subjective and relational dimension” and are “slowly developed through a socialization process”»23. Officials with different normative worldviews could therefore respond differently in similar sets of circumstances – one choosing to act, and the other choosing to refrain from acting. This observation calls for a rethink of one-size-fits-all solutions that fail to take local contexts into account.

At the same time, the transparency pursuit could be seen as a rejection of the established representation of reality 24, implying that some representations are intrinsically more truthful than others, or that the way reality is represented can be stage-managed. Information is never neutral. It is a strategic weapon used in power struggles25. And it is always deployed with an ulterior motive in mind.

Sources

(1) Michael C. Jensen and William H. Meckling (1976). “Theory of the firm : Managerial behaviour, agency costs and ownership structure”,  Journal of Financial economics, vol. 3, n°4, p. 308

(2) Grimmelikhuijsen, S. and G. Porumbescu (2013). The Effect of Transparency on Trust in Government: A Cross-National comparative experiment. Public administration review, 73(4), 575-586.

(3) Charte internationale sur les données ouvertes. Disponible à https://opendatacharter.net/principles-fr/ (consulté le 24/08/2018).

(4) OCDE (2008), Corruption: A Glossary of International Standards in Criminal Law. Disponible à http://www.oecd. org/corruption (consulté le 24/08/2018).

(5) UNODC (2011). “Corruption in the western Balkans: Bribery as experienced by the Population”. Disponible à https:// www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/statistics/corruption/Western…. pdf (consulté le 24/08/2018).

(6) Vannucci, a. (2015). “Three paradigms for the analysis of corruption”. Labour & law issues 1(2).

(7) Kaufmann d. and P.c. Vicente (2005). “Legal corruption”. mPra Paper no. 8186, posted 10. april 2008

(8) UNESCO (2013). « Vers un droit d’accès à l’information publique ». Disponible à http://www.unesco.org/new/en/com­munication-and-information/resourc (consulté le 24/08/2018). (9) OCDE, “Compendium of good practices on the use of open data for anti-corruption : towards data-driven public sector integrity and civic auditing”. Disponible à : http://www.oecd.org/corruption/g20-oecd-compendium-open-data-an­ti-corruption.htm (consulté le 24/08/2018).

(10) Leadership for a networked World (2017). “The 2017 Public Sector for the Future Summit : citizen-driven by design”. Disponible à https://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=US42880817 (consulté le 24/08/2018).

(11) OCDE (2017). “Education for Public integrity”. Disponible à http://www.oecd.org/gov/ethics/integrity-education.htm (consulté le 24/08/2018).

(12) OCDE (2012). “Lobbyists, Governments and Public trust, Volume 2: Promoting integrity through Self-regulation.” Disponible à http://www.oecd.org/corruption/ (consulté le 24/08/2018).

(13) OCDE, “Compendium of good practices on the use of open data for anti-corruption : towards data-driven public sector integrity and civic auditing”. Disponible à : http://www.oecd.org/corruption/g20-oecd-compendium-open-data-an­ti-corruption.htm (consulté le 24/08/2018).

(14) Ibid

(15) Mol, A.P. (2010). « The future of transparency: Power, pitfalls and promises”. Global environmental Politics, 10(3), 132-143

(16) Pasquier, M. and J.-P. Villeneuve (2007). “Organizational Barriers to transparency: a typology and analysis of organizational Behaviour tending to Prevent or restrict access to information”. International review of administrative Sciences, 73(1), pp.147-162.

(17) Gingras, A.-M. (2012). “Access to information: An asset for democracy or ammunition for political conflict, or both?”.  Canadian Public administration 55(2), 221-246.

(18) Hood, C. (2007). “What happens when Transparency meets Blame-Avoidance?”. Public Management Review 9(2), 191-210.

(19) Teurlings, J. and M. Stauff (2014). “Introduction: The Transparency Issue”. Cultural Studies - Critical Methodologies, 14(1), 3-10

(20) Heald, D. (2006) “Varieties of transparency” in Heald, D. and C. Hood transparency: the Key to Better Governance?. Oxford University Press, Oxford

(21) Bauhr, m. and m. Grimes (2014). “Indignation or resignation: the implications of transparency for societal accountability”. Governance 27(2), 291-320

(22) FMI (2016). “Rapport annuel 2016 du Fmi”, p 116 . Disponible à https://www.imf.org/external/french/pubs/ft/ ar/2016/pdf/ar16_fra.pdf (consulté le 24/08/2018).

(23) Vannucci, A. (2015). “Three paradigms for the analysis of corruption”. Labour & law issues 1(2), 2015.

(24) Christensen, L.T. and G. Cheney (2015). “Peering into transparency: challenging ideals, Proxies, and organizational Practices”. Communication theory, 25, 70-90.

(25) Murray, a. (2011). “Transparency, Scrutiny and responsiveness: Fashioning a Private Space within the information Society”. The Political Quarterly 82(4), 509-514.

 

 

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