In-Depth: Government Transparency May be Harmful Without Other Reforms

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We often think transparency will always improve a society’s trust in government and grow democracy, but in highly corrupt countries, the opposite may be the case.

In countries that rated high in political corruption, more transparency came with lower political interest, lower political involvement and lower trust in government, according to a study by political scientists at the University of Gothenburg.

In countries with low corruption, more transparency had almost no effect.

“There’s some indication from other studies that, when corruption is exposed, rather than becoming indignant and deciding to be more involved in politics, people actually vote to a lesser extent,” said Marcia Grimes, one of the researchers.

The study is correlational, meaning we don’t know which causes which: transparency or political detachment. But the researchers can theorize why the correlation is there.

“When ordinary citizens get information about how corrupt the government is, it kind of gives you the feeling that the entire society is rotten throughout,” Grimes said. “If you find out that the police, the judicial system and the politicians are all engaged in strange things, what we argue is that you really don’t have much idea how you could possibly go about tackling it.”

It’s something Grimes has witnessed personally teaching English in Ecuador. Talking to the average Ecuadorian gave her the impression that people were overwhelmed by their political situation, feeling that nothing they can do could help.

Social science offers some reasons why they might feel this way, Grimes said.

“It’s a dynamic that exists in almost every single collaborative effort that humans engage in. If you were going to a potluck and you suspect that everyone else was just going to stop by the grocery store and buy a ready-made dish, then you probably wouldn’t be super-inspired to cook an expensive meal to bring. We call this a ‘collective action problem,’ and we think it’s what we’re observing here.”

Citizens' perception of corruption across the world. Dark red means highly corrupt, yellow means very clean. Image: Transparency International

Citizens’ perception of corruption across the world. Dark red means highly corrupt, yellow means very clean. Image: Transparency International

If you think most other people are going to do the right thing, then most people (most of the time) are willing to do that as well, she said. But if you feel like everyone else is not going to contribute to the common good, then most people are not willing to do so either.

From the individual’s perspective, it takes a lot of time and energy to be politically active, and if you think the system is set up against you, you end up feeling like the sucker.

“The reason we find it’s important to study this is because – in a democratic system – if the citizenry is not at all interested in politics, then you have a fairly substantial problem,” she said. “Democracy presumes that people are at least moderately interested in what’s going on since it is the electorate that will hold the representatives accountable.”

Similar experimental findings were reported by Alberto Chong at the University of Ottawa. Studying local elections in Mexico, Chong and his colleagues found that information on corruption didn’t increase support for the incumbents’ challengers.

Instead, it “decreases voter turnout and challengers’ votes, as well as erodes partisan attachments,” Chong et. al. wrote.

But researchers stressed transparency isn’t a bad thing – far from it. Rather, it should be accompanied by meaningful reforms, including avenues citizens know they can use to reliably get things done.

An anti-corruption billboard in Mauritania. Image: c.hug.

An anti-corruption billboard in Mauritania. Image: c.hug.

“Sometimes it feels like there’s this idea, that if you get transparency in the country, then so many other things will sort themselves out,” Grimes said. “You have to make sure there are offices of oversight, that there are ombudsmen, citizen hotlines, things in place where citizens know who to contact if they actually observe any malfeasance.”

You can increase openness but you also have to make sure that you have these accountability mechanisms in place – because if you don’t have those, citizens may quickly learn that they can’t trust those channels.

The basic importance of transparency, clarity and openness is still there, Grimes said.

Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen, a Dutch researcher at Utrecht University, agreed.

Conducting an experiment in the Netherlands – a high transparency, low corruption country – he found more transparent government messages had almost no effect on the participants’ trust in government, consistent with Grimes findings.

And yet, transparency was still necessary for trust at all.

“If transparency is lacking, and quality of information is not that good, then you can see declined interest,” he said. “So transparency by itself is not very useful to increase trust, but you do need it to maintain this kind of basic level of trust.”

So “yes” to transparency, but not just by itself, Grimes said. Because, if anything, it might actually reinforce this feeling that corruption is the only game in town.

The study, “Indignation or Resignation: The Implications of Transparency for Societal Accountability,” was published in the journal Governance.

Featured Image: An Iraqi woman attesting documents to verify she received humanitarian assistance. Credit: Spc. Daniel Stoutamire.