OpenGov Conversations: Alexander Furnas on Creating Effective Transparency Policies

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This post is part of our series, OpenGov Conversations, an ongoing discourse featuring contributions from transparency and accountability researchers and practitioners around the world. zfurnas

This post, by Sunlight Foundation Research Fellow Alexander Furnas, responds to the following questions:

What are the three most important conditions that make transparency policies effective? And must these conditions precede effective transparency interventions, or can transparency policies actually positively bring about these conditions? Read the other responses here.

Change is hard, and slow in coming. As Weber famously said, “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” When things do change, they change for a reason. They key for us is figuring out why, and what role transparency plays in that process. The theory of change that I subscribe to is one in which outcomes change when incentives change for key stakeholders. In this light, we must evaluate transparency against its ability to alter the incentives for actors within a system.

This happens in a couple of ways: either through formal/legal or informal/norm-based mechanisms. Formal/legal mechanisms change incentives when the rule of law is strong and there are strenuously enforced anti-corruption and accountability laws that have tangible sanctions. These sanctions must be large enough to alter the self-preservation calculus of political actors despite the low probability of detection (this is essentially Bentham’s take on punishment). However, many, if not most, transparency interventions rely on informal/ norm-based mechanisms. These mechanisms – often referred to as ‘naming and shaming’ – involve exposing wrongdoing, and relying on pressure from the public, watchdogs, NGOs, activists and the media to enforce good-governance norms. Fundamentally, this often translates to electoral pressure as the enforcement mechanism, although certainly public norms also serve as an important bulwark to the existing legal channels.

Transparency is used to help address a range of problems, from service provisioning to undue political influence. I think various features of the issue to which transparency is being applied can make the path to changing incentives significantly easier or harder. When it comes to activating the public (and triggering informal enforcement mechanisms), various features of an issue are likely to matter a great deal. We can imagine a set of (related) related dimensions along which a particular issue area might vary (shown below). My expectation (one which my colleague Lee Drutman wrote some about here), is that the farther an issue is to the left on these various scales, the more suitable and successful a transparency intervention will be. The farther to the right, the more difficult the path to success.

Concrete

Measurable

Salient (Cognitive immediacy)

Resource Driven

Simply corrupted (e.g. bribes)

Local

High Traceability (causal path)

←→

←→

←→

←→

←→

←→

←→

Abstract

Hard to Measurable

Distant

Idea Driven

Complexly corrupted (e.g. undue influence)

Supra-national

Low Traceability

Public engagement based enforcement mechanisms are likely to work better when infractions are concrete, measurable, and have a direct effect on people’s lives that they can appreciate and understand. For example, far to the left on many of these dimensions, we might find things service level provisioning like seeclickfix, or direct and salient corruption reporting like ipaidabribe. If people routinely get squeezed to pay a bribe, or the roads are falling apart, they feel it. Conversely we expect this to be harder for issues which are abstract, complex, and without clear causality. The notion of undue influence by corporations over regulatory processes, for example, might be near the other end of these scales.

The notion that the ease of activating norm-based mechanisms is likely to vary considerably across the issue space usefully focuses our question about preconditions: How does context interact with issue space dimensions in ways that make triggering public engagement and public norm-based enforcement mechanisms easier or harder? Contexts that are likely to be helpful are ones which raise public tolerance for — and interest in engaging in — issues farther to the right of the issue space scales. Alternately, they are contexts that make it easier to shift the public perception of an issue towards the left side of the scales. The more favorable the contextual factors, the more it will be possible to bring transparency to bear on ‘difficult’ issues.

Economic development

This factor, essentially, is a stand-in for a range of highly correlated positive attributes. There is a rich body of economic and political science literature on the material determinants of democracy that I expect is highly relevant to any discussion of conditions conducive to transparency effectiveness. Researchers have found that “increases in various measures of the standard of living forecast a gradual rise in democracy. In contrast, democracies that arise without prior economic development … tend not to last.”(Barro, 1999) Endogeneity is a notoriously difficult problem here, particularly because the sample of countries is so small; it is unclear the extent to which democracy breeds economic development, economic development helps lead to democracy or some third lurking factor (history, culture, geography etc.) that causes one tends to cause the other as well (Acemoglu, Johnson, Robinson & Yared, 2008). What we do know is that all sorts of positive human development factors tend to be highly correlated.

I expect, specifically, that broad-based economic development, where wealth distribution is fairly equitable is more favorable to effective transparency than high-inequality growth. The norm-based enforcement discussed above requires broad public engagement. This means a literate and politically active populace, with enough leisure time to expend energy on the heady work of civic life. The larger the percentage of the population that can engage in this way the better.

Growth itself, rather than an absolute level of development, may be a key triggering factor here as well. As Samuel Huntington noted in Political Order in Changing Societies, when economic freedoms and opportunities begin to expand a populace’s political aspirations and demands tend to increase in tandem. Although Huntington highlights instability concerns, this can be thought of as a virtuous cycle where the growth of opportunity begets further good governance aspirations.

Civil Society Maturity

There are two facets of civil society that I think are particularly illustrative as we think through when transparency interventions are most likely to affect change. The first is civil society’s role as information processing intermediaries. The second is the ability of civil society organizations to help represent diffuse interests.

On the first count, well resourced civil societies (this is related to the level of economic development as well, because it requires high human capital labor) can engage in research and analysis of complex, distant and abstract issues. Civil society organizations can engage with topics which fall in the ‘difficult’ region of the issue space. The output of their work, including fact-sheets, score-cards, and advocacy materials can help simplify these complex materials. By filtering, packaging and redistributing information about complex issues, civil society organizations shift the public perception of those issues – making them more concrete and salient. This increases the effectiveness of norm-based enforcement mechanisms.

The second important feature here is civil society’s role addressing the power imbalance between diffuse vs. concentrated interests. Corruption can be thought of as capture of concentrated benefits (by the recipient of a sweetheart deal, or a politician receiving a bribe) at the expense of diffuse costs borne by the public at large, in the form of inefficient, wasteful and illegitimate governance. The economic thinking on collective action (Mancur Olsen etc.) advises that unless those facing the diffuse costs can organize to advocate together effectively, we should expect concentrated interest groups to prevail, as they have the stronger incentive to push for their favored outcome.

Arnold (1992), in the context of legislative action, argues that there are two types of publics – attentive ones and inattentive ones. Attentive publics, are those who are highly motivated and have a lot of skin in the game; for them, benefits are quite concentrated. Such a ‘public’ might be anything from an industry seeking undue influence and legislative capture or a firm providing kickbacks for a no-bid contract. Inattentive publics tend to be those who bear the diffuse costs. For any individual member, the impact is comparatively small, and so they find organizing in opposition less pressing than other matters.

The hope, then, in curtailing such capture, is in ‘activating’ these dormant publics, and flipping them from inattentive to attentive. This requires public education, community organizing and significant activism. Essentially, publics can be activated when they begin to view an issue as salient. Raising peoples’ estimation of the real costs and impacts of corruption, for example, can change how they allocate their attention and increase the benefit they see in organizing as a group. But the work of activating an inattentive public is one not easily undertaken.

A civil sector, with a broad base of support, existing community networks and relationships and proven skills in advocacy and awareness campaigns are well positioned to do this work. The more depth in the civil sector roster exists on the ground, the more that diffuse interests are represented, and the more that they push public perception of difficult issues into a simpler portion of the issue space, the more effective I would expect a transparency intervention to be.

Support for transparency and good governance within the government

Above I have discussed the importance of public participation in enforcing good governance norms. But engagement is a two way street. Buy-in to transparency interventions on behalf of the populace requires, to some degree, buy in on behalf of those in the government as well. People want to feel like the things they spend their time and energy on matter and make a difference. When this is not the case, it is easier to fall back into a place of “rational ignorance” (Downs, 1957). When the government signals support for transparency policies, and responds to (and applauds) reports of abuse uncovered by disclosure regimes, it encourages citizens and watchdogs to keep up the good work. Indeed, a piece of work I did a few years ago analyzing a handful of citizen participation mechanisms indicated that citizens don’t tend to take these platforms seriously unless it is clear that governments take them seriously too. Put another way, the demand (from citizens) for engagement opportunities and accountability practices, is deeply linked to the state-side supply.

“On the state (or supply) side of the relationship, key factors include: a) the level of democratization or space for accountability demands to be made; b) the degree of ‘political will’ or support from the inside for accountability and transparency demands and initiatives; c) the broader political economy, including enabling legal frameworks, incentives and sanctions which affect the behaviors of public official” (Transparency and Accountability Initiative 2010)

In addition to the “supply creates demand” kind of logic of civic engagement (this is far closer Say’s Law than anything I would be willing to argue about other kinds of markets), political will for transparency to succeed also bolsters legal enforcement regimes.

Conclusion

Each transparency intervention will be aided or hampered by different aspects of its context. In some cases the structure of a governmental institution might matter more, while in others a the role of an opposition political party might be critical. Transparency policies need to be deeply aware of these contexts to be effective. But the factors noted above, I think, are fundamental ones. In all cases I can think of, broad-based development, a civil sector that represents diffuse interests, and political will behind transparency within government will make transparency a more useful and effective tool.

References:

Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, James Robinson, and Pierre Yared. Income and democracy. No. w11205. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2005.

Arnold, R. Douglas. The logic of congressional action. Yale University Press, 1992.

Barro, Robert J. “Determinants of democracy.” Journal of Political economy107, no. S6 (1999): S158-S183.

Downs, Anthony. “An economic theory of democracy.” (1957): 260-276.

Furnas, Alexander Charles, “e-Pluribus Unum: Direct Democracy through Peer Production” (2011). Honors Theses – All. Paper 689. Available

McGee, Rosemary, John Gaventa. “Synthesis Report: review of impact and effectiveness of transparency and accountability initiatives.” Transparency and Accountability Initiative, 2010.

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