Transparency Is Not Enough

Aug 09, 2010

A new article in the International Political Science Review, entitled “Transparency is not enough,” argues that to get from increased transparency to reduced corruption, societies must meet two additional conditions.  First, transparent information must be publicized in a way that makes it accessible at low mental and economic cost to citizens (the publicity condition).  Second, citizens must actually have some way to hold officials accountable for any misdeeds revealed by transparency (the accountability condition).

Common sense?

Indeed.  But what does it actually mean?  The authors, Catharina Lindstedt and Daniel Naurin, use some proxy variables to get at these issues. (Proxy variables are indicators that are similar to an underlying concept we are interested in, but are preferable for purposes of analysis because they can be measured directly, unlike the underlying concept.)  In order to measure publicity, they divide it into two parts: wide access to information, and citizen capacity to analyze that information.  They consider freedom of the press a proxy for accessibility.  Average years of education proxies for citizen capacity.  With respect to accountability, this is proxied by a measure of free elections, and another of the strength and impartiality of the legal system.

A rough version of their underlying theory looks like this: when governments are transparent, this can reduce corruption… if society is well-informed by the media about cases of corruption, educated enough to understand what they are reading or hearing, and has mechanisms, such as elections and lawsuits, that can punish officials who abuse their positions.

This seems reasonable enough, but it leaves out one key component of how real politics actually work: organizations.  The model assumes atomized citizens who absorb media and vote as individuals, and atomized politicians who steal and maintain impunity or are punished as individuals.

In real life, politicians and citizens belong to parties, communities and civic associations.  It is these organizations which have been recognized, at least since the time of Alexis de Tocqueville, as essential to the processing of information by individuals, and the holding of politicians accountable by citizens. (To be fair, Lindstedt and Naurin do mention NGOs in passing, but they do not make organizations of any kind, other than the media, central to their theory.)

Even if there is a vigorous media, and even if people have access to information through the media, and even if they understand what they read, and even if the media opts to pursue complex and time-consuming investigative stories, and even if they find evidence of corruption, someone still has to put the issue on the political agenda and keep it there, sustaining the interest of citizens and dedicating continuing resources to the pursuit of justice as other issues crowd the public mind.  This work is rarely done by media alone, and is more often taken up by civic and professional associations.  These same associations, as well as political parties, channel citizen frustrations and ensure that they are converted into electoral and legal accountability, where these exist.

The importance of organizational life as a mediator between increased transparency and reduced corruption is not inconsistent with Lindstedt and Naurin’s model.  However, just as they observe that a simple-minded link between transparency and corruption can lead to a misplaced faith in the power of transparency alone– without recognizing the importance of equally essential conditions like publicity and accountability–, so too does their atomistic model potentially fail to account for still other important conditions.

The existence of a vibrant civil society, including political parties, is not easy to quantify, and is therefore difficult to incorporate into their regression model, but it is no less important for that. Societies that lack strong associational life with ties to the political system are likely to find it difficult to convert transparent information into reduced corruption.  Transparency, publicity and accountability are not enough.

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