Accountability and Transparency: A Nuanced Response to Etzioni

Date01 January 2015
Published date01 January 2015
Laurence Ferry has held senior roles in
the British civil service, municipalities, and
consultancy, including as head of f‌i nance
and resources and special advisor to chief
executive off‌i cers. A qualif‌i ed chartered
accountant, he now lectures in accounting
at Newcastle University in the United
Peter Eckersley worked for the United
Kingdom’s Chartered Institute for Public
Finance and Accountancy in various roles
from 2001 to 2012. He is now a doctoral
student in political science at Newcastle
University focusing on public policy,
performance management, accountability,
and local government.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited,
the use is non-commercial and no modif‌i cations or adaptations are made.
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 1, pp. 11–12. © 2014
The Authors. Public Administration Review
published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
on behalf of The American Society for Public
Administration. DOI: 10.1111/puar.12303.
citizens has enabled them to bypass questionable audit
processes and actually increase the accountability of
public bodies. After grassroots organizations demanded
that the details of f‌i nancial transactions be published
outside public buildings in the spirit of transpar-
ency, they taught groups of young people (many of
whom had little education) to interpret the data and
to telephone colleagues in outlying areas to determine
whether the promised goods and services had actually
been delivered and used. In this way, they were able to
challenge the results and formal audits as a means of
combatting corruption, leading to signif‌i cant amounts
of rupees being returned to the area.
e second example illustrates how informal transpar-
ency processes enabled Chinese citizens to call time on
corrupt of‌f‌i cials.  e issue of governance underpinned
with accountability and transparency is often discussed
as important to China’s ongoing economic success and
social cohesion. However, although corruption has led
to the downfall of senior f‌i gures such as Bo Xilai, the
Communist Party’s attempts to tackle the issue have
been largely unsuccessful (Saich 2011). In response
to this, members of the public have sought to take
the matter into their own hands and posted images
and videos on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter,
to highlight these abuses of position and try to set the
news agenda (Jiang 2014). One memorable example
of this concerns Yang Dacai, a government of‌f‌i cial who
was pictured at the scene of a fatal bus crash wearing an
expensive watch and grinning widely. Weibo users sub-
sequently found and posted numerous other pictures
of the individual online, in which he sported a range of
dif‌f erent expensive designer watches, and questioned
how such a lavish lifestyle could be af‌f orded on a gov-
ernment “iron rice bowl” salary. Yang was subsequently
removed from his position and imprisoned for 14 years
after admitting to charges of corruption and “possess-
ing a huge amount of property of unclear origin” (BBC
News 2013).  erefore, informal transparency and data
publication processes can enable members of the public
to hold public f‌i gures to account—even in a relatively
authoritarian state such as China.
Transparency and accountability are key issues
of our times, especially in the way that they
relate to good governance and anticorruption.
However, in the November/December 2014 issue
of this journal, Amitai Etzioni, in “ e Limits of
Transparency,” criticized the U.S. government’s
reliance on transparency as a substitute for regula-
tion. He argued that most citizens do not have the
skills, time, or energy to evaluate data pertaining to
public institutions, with the result “that transparency
provides users with the illusion of openness while
actually serving to obfuscate.”
We concur with Etzioni in our own analysis of how
the U.K. government’s transparency agenda has
af‌f ected the accountability of English local authori-
ties. As part of this agenda, ministers have replaced
formal performance audits with the requirement that
councils publish various data sets (including details
of all transactions worth £500 or more), ostensibly so
that “armchair auditors” can analyze public spending
and hold of‌f‌i cials to account. Yet, as Etzioni suggests,
it is very dif‌f‌i cult for most citizens to analyze these
data because they are presented in a raw format with
very little contextual information. As Member of
Parliament Margaret Hodge, chair of the inf‌l uential
House of Commons Public Accounts Committee,
has pointed out, this has weakened accountability for
local public services (see  atcher 2014).
However, as the following examples illustrate, trans-
parency initiatives are helping to reduce corruption
in non-Western jurisdictions because they represent
an important mechanism through which citizens can
access information that has not been edited or shaped
by powerful political actors.
e f‌i rst example shows how demands for formal
transparency in rural India led to greater public account-
ability. In 2012, the lead author discussed the shortcom-
ings of the U.K. government’s transparency agenda with
the political and social activist Aruna Roy.  is revealed
that making public data freely available to Indian
Accountability and Transparency: A Nuanced
Response to Etzioni
Laurence Ferry
Peter Eckersley
Newcastle University, United Kingdom

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