Transparency Researchers Gather at Rutgers Conference

24 May 2011

With 130 research papers presented in 30 sessions over two days, The First Global Conference on Transparency Research showcased an emerging area of research.

Some 160 participants from many countries attended the meeting, held May 19-20 at Rutgers University-Newark, N.J., engaged in multidisciplinary exchanges and networking.

Roughly one–third came from civil society groups, international governmental bodies, and funding organizations, and the rest were academics. The presenters hailed from many countries and many disciplines: including public administration, law, political science, economics, accounting, sociology, international studies and journalism.

The multiplicity of offerings presented difficulty for attendees, who often had to choose between one of six sessions going on simultaneously. The first-morning’s menu, for example, covered: local e-government, evaluating FOI reforms, budget transparency, corruption, the roles of transparency advocates, and the media’s role.

The 130 papers — culled from 270 submissions — included case studies, theoretical constructs, legal analysis and statistical evaluations. There were power points charts with squares and arrows and others with intersecting ovals.

The outpouring of research from many disciplines, and the participation of many doctoral students, was seen an indicator of energy in the area of transparency research. The conference chair was Suzanne Piotrowski, associate professor at the School of Public Affairs and Administration.

The goal of encouraging more transparency was an undercurrent, with many papers addressing various promoting or inhibiting factors, but also some challenging assumptions.

At one session, the director of a joint research effort by eight leading funders in the transparency advocacy realm called for more research, not only to understand the impact of FOI laws, but to evaluate how change occurs. (See related FreedomInfo.org report.)

The conference wrapped up with a general discussion of future directions, with comments focused on new technology, evaluation and implementation issues. (See related FreedomInfo.org report.)

The papers will remain online indefinitely.

Broad Strokes

Some papers examined transparency in relatively sweeping terms.

An historical review of transparency advocacy came from University of Florida law professor Mark Fenster, in a paper called “Transparency Advocacy – From Rights to Bits.”

He described a shifting focus — “from imposing broad democratic norms on political institutions through the creation of legal rights to an emphasis on information technology and the administrative consequences of transparency….”

Fenster said that “contemporary advocates have not abandoned the midcentury ideal of a visible state … But their different understanding of the state, civil society, and the public‘s engagement in politics offers an important window into transparency‘s current meaning and possibilities.”

Another broadly framed article, by Patrick Schmidt of Macalester College,  St. Paul, Minn., suggested that transparency may cause distrust and then desensitization, weakening political and social norms.

New Directions Identified

On the less statistical side, the case for paying special attention to the information needs of women, put forward by Laura Neuman, Associate Director of The Americas Program at the Carter Center, Atlanta, Ga., generated discussion and support.

Pointing out things such as a the low percentage of FOI requests made by women, Neuman developed the theme that many constraints inhibit women’s access of information, including societal norms, religion and illiteracy.

In addition, she said, official government information sources often fail to provide information that women are seeking, particularly about topics including education and health care.

Another paper looking at the horizon called for attention to the international Green Climate Fund.

The authors — Patricia Jonason, of Sodertorn University, and  Richard Calland, of the University of Cape Town – point to “the urgent imperative for the fund to be effective for the benefit of the whole of humankind” and “the corruption risks inherent to this kind of complex multi-actor system.”  They conclude, however, that “mechanisms to ensure that the financial resources will be `spent wisely’ and in a appropriate and accountable manner, are conspicuously lacking.”

Many Subjects Addressed

The conference included panels on many topics and including numerous case studies.

Among these were:

-   The theory and philosophy of transparency. (See related FreedomInfo.org report.)

-   The influences on passage of FOI laws. (See related FreedomInfo.org report.)

-   Why Africa lacks FOI laws. (See related FreedomInfo.org report.)

-   New studies on transparency in Korea. (See related FreedomInfo.org report.)

-   A new study on FOI implemention in Mexico. (See related FreedomInfo.org report.)

-   E-government at the municipal level. (See related FreedomInfo.org report.)

-   The Open Data movement in Latin America.  (See related FreedomInfo.org report.)

-   Transparency and corruption. (See related report in FreedomInfo.org.)

-   Trust in government and transparency. (See related report in FreedomInfo.org.)

-   The development of government transparency in China. (See related report in FreedomInfo.org.)

The conference keynote address on WikiLeaks was provided by Christopher Hood, the Gladstone Professor of Government and Fellow at All Souls, Oxford, U.K. (See related report in FreedomInfo.org.)

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