Gauging the Impact of Transparency Policies

Published date01 January 2019
Date01 January 2019
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 1, pp. 136–139. © 2018 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13011.
136 Public Administration Review Januar y | Fe brua ry 201 9
Gauging the Impact of Transparency Policies
Abstract: To what extent do transparency policies generate positive impacts? This seemingly rhetorical question has
become the subject of increasing contention, partly because of two research-based biases. First, researchers have been
blinded by metrics and method. Using tools that are often ill suited to gauging the gradual, diffuse, and indirect effects
of most transparency policies, research has found—unsurprisingly—spotty evidence of impact. Transparency studies
would benefit from greater use of complementary approaches, such as careful tracing of impact processes and indicators,
combined with sensible counterfactual reasoning. Second, researchers have been looking for impact with blinkered
vision. In particular, a thematic fixation on accountability and participation has monopolized attention. Key
preconditions—such as compliance with and implementation of transparency policies—remain relatively neglected, as
do other areas of potential impact, including capacity building, how actors are leveraging previously restricted streams
of information, and transparency’s role in improving policy coordination and communication.
Do governmental transparency policies
generate net positive impacts? What once
might have seemed a rhetorical question
has now become a point of contention. Scholars and
pundits increasingly caution against the unanticipated
consequences of transparency and the dangers of too
much transparency. Several have even questioned
transparency’s positive transformative impact more
generally. To a degree, this questioning is as healthy
as it is consistent with attitudes and research: from
enthusiasm to growing awareness of unanticipated
consequences and, now, introspection surrounding
transparency’s worth.
It is clear that unbounded transparency can trigger
negative externalities, such as stifled deliberation
and hefty bureaucratic burdens. Yet questioning
the overall positive impact of transparency policies
seems excessive in several respects, not the least of
which is buoying proponents of opacity in an age of
exclusionary politics and democratic retrenchment.
This article takes to task prevailing understandings
of transparency’s impact. It proposes that current
understandings reflect distorted views of what
impact means and where researchers seek to find it.
Two problems stand out. First, dominant approaches
to measuring “transparency’s impact” tend to
employ direct, quantifiable evidence of causality,
even though most transparency policies produce
diffuse and indirect impacts. Second, assessments of
transparency’s impact have fixated on a handful of
political and social outcomes—most prominently,
accountability and participation—to the exclusion
of others.
In sum, this article argues that evaluators of
transparency’s impact should contemplate a pair
of implicit biases—one methodological, the other
thematic—and it points to directions forward.
The argument serves as a primer for the Sixth
Global Conference on Transparency Research,
“Measuring Transparency: Impact, Compliance, and
Implementation.”1 However, the implications of the
argument go beyond transparency, speaking to a
challenge that is common to all social sciences—how
to adequately measure impact.
Measuring Impact: Blinded by Metrics
Most transparency policies generate gradual,
indirect, and diffuse impacts. These characteristics
render impacts difficult to measure using standard
methodological toolboxes and demand greater use
of qualitative and mixed methods. Useful here are
methods such as process tracing, as in the tracing
of causal processes (see, e.g., Bennett and Checkel
2014), counterfactual reasoning (e.g., what, in
the absence of transparency?), and focusing on
indicators and context. This advice clashes with more
fashionable micro approaches, most prominently,
experimental interventions (e.g., randomized trials,
survey experiments). This advice has also found few
adherents; a relatively small number of scholarly
works have attempted to map the causal pathways
generated by transparency policies.
Gregory Michener
Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration,
Getulio Vargas Foundation
Gregory Michener is assistant
professor of government in the
Brazilian School of Public and Business
Administration, Getulio Vargas Foundation
(FGV-EBAPE), Rio de Janeiro. His research
focuses on the politics, policy, measurement,
and evaluation of transparency, freedom of
information, and open data policies, with
a focus on Brazil and Latin America. At
the FGV, he leads the Public Transparency
Program and the Transparency Evaluation
Network, a regional research project
sponsored by the Open Society Foundations.
Stephen E. Condrey
andTonya Neaves,
Associate Editors

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT