Citizen engagement matters for transparency initiatives. What makes it happen?


As we begin to think about how to evaluate the impact of technology-driven transparency policies, we are keenly aware of the need to be honest and open about the challenges of implementation.

This post is an attempt to practice the transparency we believe in by discussing one of the most formidable challenges facing organizations engaged in this work: Getting people to care.

Our jumping off point here is a recent post from the engine room about 11 new initiatives that recently received an award from the Transparency International People Engagement Programme. As laid out by the engine room’s Susannah Vila, the challenges facing all of them sound remarkably similar.

  • Shedding Light on Political Party Funding in Sweden?  “Their biggest obstacle will be building a critical mass of engagement around the project”
  • Monitoring Local Councils in Chile?  “Munidatos’ main challenges include finding ways to drum up enough interest to ensure that people know about it.”
  • Rewarding Doctors that Don’t Ask For Bribes in Ukraine, “Aybolit’s biggest challenge lies in running a strong community engagement effort.”

And so on down the list.  Whether it’s monitoring anti-corruption courts in Indonesia, monitoring infrastructure in Cambodia, or strengthening crowd-sourced corruption in Malaysia (three other projects), success or failure clearly depends on the same thing: will enough citizens participate?

This is an important question . For transparency policies to be most effective, there has to be at least some citizen buy-in and engagement – at least enough to make political actors feel the heat necessary to change behavior (and/or to get elites to care enough to carry the cause forward).

There are a few ways to think about this, all of which can help us think not just about these 11 new initiatives, but about transparency policies and initiatives generally.

The civil society resource question

The most straightforward and most obvious question to ask is whether groups involved in a project have the resources – or the networks or relationships — to get the word out. Put simply, if Proética (the group working to monitor public works projects in Peru) or Open Funds (the group putting pressure on Swedish political parties to be transparent about their funding) have the resources to publicize their work, they will be more likely to reach a broader audience. If citizens don’t know about the work, it’s hard for them to engage on it.

To give an example close to home for us, Sunlight used a combination of partnerships and outreach to promote engagement with Political Ad Sleuth, a partially crowd-sourced tool for tracking political advertising expenditures. We reached out to news organizations, students in classrooms and to other like-minded organizations to get the word out and to recruit volunteers. The results were encouraging but far from an overwhelming success. We’re still getting far more information from programmatic scraping of data made on federal websites than we are from volunteers going to stations that aren’t required to make their data available electronically.

From our reading of the existing work in transparency impact evaluation, as well as our own experience, it’s a pretty well understood that a vibrant advocacy community is crucial to get citizens involved.

But we want to explore two other dynamics that are also likely be key variables in calculating the likelihood of citizen engagement.

No. 1: The salience/immediacy question: how much will citizens care?

Caring matters because caring is the first step to engagement. Put simply, if you don’t care about an issue, you are not going to educate yourself about it. It doesn’t matter how much information is available. If it seems remote, boring, inaccessible, you will not spend your time reading and thinking about it.

We all tend to think that the issues we work on are super-important. Of course people should care about them. But most people are generally a) busy; b) deluged with information; and c) limited when it comes to attention spans. So there’s a lot that people should care about, but simply don’t have the time and energy to address.

Generally, people care most about issues that are salient and immediate.

By salient, we mean issues that are top of mind, usually because they are the topic of news and debate, like the national economy or, more recently in the United States, guns and immigration. By immediate, we mean issues that directly affect one’s well being, like whether or not you can get a job.

By this standard, two of the 11 new initiatives seem likely to engage citizens because they have higher levels immediacy: rooting out bribery among Ukranian doctors and monitoring infrastructure in Cambodia. Presumably, most Ukranians are concerned about their own access to health care and most Cambodians are concerned with the safety of their roads. Websites that encourage people to report bribes that they pay are catching on, and probably one reason is that there is an immediacy to being asked for a bribe.  By contrast, the transparency of party financing in Sweden is probably the least immediate and salient of all the issues. Then again, a smart campaign or a major financing scandal in Sweden could change all that.

The point is not overly complicated, but important nonetheless. Most people, most of the time, think most about their daily lives experiences and what is in the news. So, since most people rely on doctors and roads, they are going to understand how corrupt doctors and poor roads impact them, and will thus likely be more motivated to pay attention. By contrast, while party financing issues (and other political process issues) certainly resonate, it is not always as easy to connect such concerns to the everyday lived experiences.

No. 2: Is engagement easy and meaningful?

Another question is whether citizens feel that there is anything meaningful for them to do with the information.

One critique that has been leveled against transparency policy is that more information is not necessarily better. Information also needs to coupled with the potential for meaningful action. Otherwise, it just makes citizens even more cynical/overwhelmed.

Certainly, it’s hard to respond to a problem if you don’t know you have a problem. And the only way you can know you have a problem is if you have the data to describe it. Still, simply calling a problem into focus is not always enough to get citizens to engage, even if that problem is salient and/or immediate.

The most meaningful thing for citizens to do is to make clear, informed choices. This is why the A-B-C restaurant cleanliness restaurant rating system in cities like New York and Los Angeles tends to work well – research shows that it reduces foodborne illnesses. Diners are presented with information at the time of decision, and can make clear decisions based on that information. It’s also why programs like See-Click-Fix are generating excitement. If you spot a pothole, it’s easy to take out your smartphone and tell the city about that pothole. Engagement is meaningful, clear, and efficient.

One could argue that the reason that it is often hard to make progress on issues related to the influence of money on politics (something we at Sunlight care about very much) is that while polls consistently show that a majority of citizens disapprove of the current campaign finance system, there is no obvious high-impact action that they can take. The issue is salient, and most people care about it and understand the harmful distorting impact campaign finance has. But rarely do voters face a straightforward choice between two candidates who are primarily distinguished by their stances on campaign finance issues.

Sticking with Transparency International’s 11 initiatives, the points so far lead us to expect that certain initiatives will have simpler and more meaningful engagement opportunities than others. In the Ukraine, a mobile platform that allows citizens to report doctors who solicit bribes would is a relatively straightforward engagement mechanism. Crowdsourcing projects in Malaysia and Macedonia also offer opportunities for easy engagement. The question in all three is whether citizens will feel like engaging makes a difference. This will likely depend on whether or not they expect results. And this will probably be some consequence of the general culture around civic participation and feedback.

Again, these are not easy questions to answer. But we can at least posit a general expectation: initiatives and policies where engagement is straightforward and easy and/or involves meaningful choices are going to have more citizen engagement than those that don’t.


If we take what we’ve written seriously, it tells us that we’re most likely to see transparency policies and initiatives working most impressively under the following circumstances:

1)    There is a vibrant civil society

2)    The policy issue is salient/immediate to people

3)    Engagement is straightforward and meaningful.

As we move further away from this ideal, the challenges of transparency policies and citizen engagement initiatives increase, and our expectations might be more measured. But just because a policy doesn’t have an immediate large impact does not mean that it won’t pay dividends down the road. Predicting which issues will become salient at which times is very hard to do – one never knows when some scandal will make a particular issue salient. Often change is slow, accretive, and non-linear.

Consider a contracting disclosure requirement. At first, it might not be clear who will use the information or how. But as the old saw goes, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. The information may not seem salient or immediate at the time the law is passed. But groups may emerge to analyze the information down the road, and a particular analysis may raise the salience by uncovering a scandal, and that scandal may become an issue in a particular election or campaign. The information doesn’t guarantee this will happen. Other factors also need to come into play, as we’ve suggested. But without the information, nothing happens at all.

All of this is admittedly a first cut, and we look forward to reactions. We write in the spirit of working through these questions, trying to hone our own expectations so that we can better choose our cases for the case study project.