Transparency Research Paper

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The use of the concept of transparency has become widespread across multiple fields and subfields in the social sciences. In most instances, it is used to describe the ability of one actor to access information from another actor. More simply, transparency can be understood as the opposite of secrecy. “Government transparency” refers to the ability of societal actors to access government-held information. Democratic theory has long emphasized that an accountable, truly democratic polity must make its decisions public to its citizens. Such arguments can be traced as far back as the writings of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who used the concept of “publicity” rather than “transparency,” and James Madison (1751-1836), who argued that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy” (Madison 1973, p. 473).

Some authors differentiate between the “openness” of a political system and the transparency of the government. Openness is a reflection of the free flow of information among societal actors (e.g., through a free press). Transparency, on the other hand, reflects the flow of information from governments to society.

The need for government transparency has become part of the broader social science debates on the “principal-agent problem.” Government officials are seen as “agents” who need to act on behalf of citizens (their “principals”). Their actions need to be known and approved by the public. The main opposition to government transparency comes from government bureaucrats, because greater public access to information about bureaucrats’ work increases the likelihood for their mistakes to become visible. Also, lack of transparency sometimes allows government officials to reap “rents” by disclosing information only to individuals friendly to them or their organizations.

Transparency is closely related to the concept of accountability. Accountable governments need first to inform the public of their actions and intentions and, second, to offer mechanisms through which they can be punished for not being representative. Transparency is thus considered a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for accountability.

Transparent political systems are considered to be more effective economically and more stable politically; governments that are not transparent are generally more corrupt. Whether corruption is present or not, a secretive political system leads people to assume that government officials have something to hide, so lack of transparency reduces citizens’ faith in the performance of democratic governments and slows down democratic consolidation. Lack of government transparency in many new democracies is one of the factors that can lead to incomplete consolidation or even reversals to authoritarianism.

Transparency is best assured through the adoption of “freedom of information” (FOI) laws. The few existing gauges of government transparency are in fact based on the existence and completeness of such laws. In 1766 Sweden was the first country to adopt freedom of information legislation, as part of its press freedom act. Finland (in the 1950s) and the United States (in the 1960s and 1970s) were the next countries to adopt such laws. In 1990 only fourteen countries had legislation pertaining to citizens’ access to information. From 1991 to 2000, during what Thomas Blanton in “The World’s Right to Know” (2002) called the “decade of transparency,” that number more than doubled. While many of the countries adopting freedom of information laws in the 1990s were new democracies, some consolidated democracies such as the United Kingdom, Italy, and Japan also adopted FOI legislation.

The literature suggests two possible reasons for the increased transparency in the post—cold war era: the emergence of a general “norm of transparency” and technological advances such as the development of personal computers, word processing, photocopying, and, especially, the Internet. Such technologies have led to an increased ability to generate, store, and, more importantly, disseminate information to a large number of citizens. The costs of offering information to the public—one of the long-standing problems associated with government transparency—have been reduced substantially due to such new technologies. But even with the improvements brought by new information technology, many government agencies still struggle with the implementation of freedom of information legislation. In the United States, for example, more than half a million requests for information are made every year under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA offices that deal with such requests in individual agencies do not have the necessary funds and staff to deal with them, and therefore become backlogged.

Transparency is limited not only because it is costly and time-consuming for government officials, but also because there are limits to the kinds of information that can be made available. Virtually all the countries that allow public access to government information have some restrictions on that access, such as exempting from scrutiny information that endangers national security or individual privacy. Yet a truly transparent government is one that

  1. makes clear that access to information is the norm and exemptions are to be resorted to only in exceptional cases;
  2. has legislation with precise definitions of the exemptions to the right of access;
  3. provides for an independent review of denials of access to information; and
  4. requires minimal or no fees for the requested information.

While the literature on transparency still focuses overwhelmingly on the relationship between governments and citizens, the concept is now also used increasingly to describe the ease with which information flows between other types of actors. For example, during international negotiations a state can be characterized as transparent if it offers information about its preferences and intentions to another state; a corporation is transparent when it allows investors access to financial data; an international organization is transparent if states or the public can access information about its workings. This implies that, when discussing transparency, one needs to specify the actor that is offering information and the one who is receiving such information.

The relationship between information and power has long been acknowledged. In the contemporary information age it is only natural that there is a growing interest in who controls information and how they control it. The increased focus on transparency is a reflection of such interests in multiple disciplines in the social sciences.


  1. Blanton, Thomas. 2002. The World’s Right to Know. Foreign Policy 131: 50–54.
  2. Finel, Bernard, and Kristin Lord, eds. 2000. Power and Conflict in the Age of Transparency. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Florini, Ann. 1998. The End of Secrecy. Foreign Policy 111: 50–63.
  3. Florini, Ann. 2003. The Coming Democracy: New Rules for Running a New World. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  4. Madison, James. 1973. The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison, ed. Marvin Meyers. Indianapolis, IN: Macmillan.

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