Transparency, Trust Dynamic Explored in New Studies

24 May 2011

Whether more transparency generates trust in government was examined in several studies presented at The First Global Conference on Transparency Research held May 19-20 at Rutgers University-Newark, N.J. (See overall report in

Exploring “the relationship between transparency and power,” three Danish researchers stated, among other findings: “While transparency is often seen as a panacea to problems of democracy, accountability and ethics, the actual pursuit of transparency tends to have complex, layered, ambiguous and even contradictory effects. To capture its subtle operations, we need a much more dynamic understanding of transparency than those on offer in the normative and managerial literature.”

Part of their conclusion states:

Rather than thinking of transparency as the simple transmission of information – directly or via proxies – we propose that transparency research must pay attention to the organizing properties of communication, and replace a trust in the ‘knowing subject’, ‘objective measures’ and ‘direct knowledge’ with sociological and other empirical investigations of the techniques and rationalities at work in transparency practices.

Two researchers from the University of Utrecht, exploring the relationship of transparency and trust in government, concluded “that transparency can enhance trust when citizens have little knowledge and low trust but it can undermine trust when citizens have little knowledge and high trust.”

Access Professionals Not Hostile

A study of “access professionals” – government officials who handle FOIA requests – in the United States, found that although they “complained at length about recordsrequesters, their foundational belief in the philosophy of open government must not be overlooked.” Michele Bush Kimball, a professor at the University of South Alabama, noted that previous research “made it seem as if custodians were at odds with, or not supporting of open government philosophies,” but that her research “resoundingly showed that is not the case.

UK Local Level Improvements Seen

Ben Worthy, of the Constitution Unit, University College London, looked the impact of FOI on local and central government in England, and found “that FOI has made local authorities slightly more transparent, having been given an extra push by recent innovations in online disclosure of data. It has also created greater accountability and had some impact on public understanding, particularly over small issues.

On the other hand:  “It has had no effect on decision-making except occasionally in particularly sensitive issues. It has not increased participation and has had no impact upon trust. In terms of how authorities work, sources of tension concern requests for information held by businesses working on behalf of authorities and requests from the media. The study highlights the importance of context in determining impact and the role of political leadership in promoting openness.”

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