Transparency, legitimacy and trust

John Kamensky at Federal Times: “The Open Government movement has captured the imagination of many around the world as a way of increasing transparency, participation, and accountability. In the US, many of the federal, state, and local Open Government initiatives have been demonstrated to achieve positive results for citizens here and abroad. In fact, the White House’s science advisors released a refreshed Open Government plan in early June.
However, a recent study in Sweden says the benefits of transparency may vary, and may have little impact on citizens’ perception of legitimacy and trust in government. This research suggests important lessons on how public managers should approach the design of transparency strategies, and how they work in various conditions.
Jenny de Fine Licht, a scholar at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden, offers a more nuanced view of the influence of transparency in political decision making on public legitimacy and trust, in a paper that appears in the current issue of “Public Administration Review.” Her research challenges the assumption of many in the Open Government movement that greater transparency necessarily leads to greater citizen trust in government.
Her conclusion, based on an experiment involving over 1,000 participants, was that the type and degree of transparency “has different effects in different policy areas.” She found that “transparency is less effective in policy decisions that involve trade-offs related to questions of human life and death or well-being.”

The background

Licht says there are some policy decisions that involve what are called “taboo tradeoffs.” A taboo tradeoff, for example, would be making budget tradeoffs in policy areas such as health care and environmental quality, where human life or well-being is at stake. In cases where more money is an implicit solution, the author notes, “increased transparency in these policy areas might provoke feeling of taboo, and, accordingly, decreased perceived legitimacy.”
Other scholars, such as Harvard’s Jane Mansbridge,contend that “full transparency may not always be the best practice in policy making.” Full transparency in decision-making processes would include, for example, open appropriation committee meetings. Instead, she recommends “transparency in rationale – in procedures, information, reasons, and the facts on which the reasons are based.” That is, provide a full explanation after-the-fact.
Licht tested the hypothesis that full transparency of the decision-making process vs. partial transparency via providing after-the-fact rationales for decisions may create different results, depending on the policy arena involved…
Open Government advocates have generally assumed that full and open transparency is always better. Licht’s conclusion is that “greater transparency” does not necessarily increase citizen legitimacy and trust. Instead, the strategy of encouraging a high degree of transparency requires a more nuanced application in its use. While the she cautions about generalizing from her experiment, the potential implications for government decision-makers could be significant.
To date, many of the various Open Government initiatives across the country have assumed a “one size fits all” approach, across the board. Licht’s conclusions, however, help explain why the results of various initiatives have been divergent in terms of citizen acceptance of open decision processes.
Her experiment seems to suggest that citizen engagement is more likely to create a greater citizen sense of legitimacy and trust in areas involving “routine” decisions, such as parks, recreation, and library services. But that “taboo” decisions in policy areas involving tradeoffs of human life, safety, and well-being may not necessarily result in greater trust as a result of the use of full and open transparency of decision-making processes.
While she says that transparency – whether full or partial – is always better than no transparency, her experiment at least shows that policy makers will, at a minimum, know that the end result may not be greater legitimacy and trust. In any case, her research should engender a more nuanced conversation among Open Government advocates at all levels of government. In order to increase citizens’ perceptions of legitimacy and trust in government, it will take more than just advocating for Open Data!”