Old and New: Government Transparency

Increasing the transparency of the functions and processes of government is now a mainstay of both the public policy agenda and administrative practices in liberal democracies. The April 2018 issue features five articles touching on this subject. The first two offer conceptual frameworks for understanding the use of freedom of information laws and assessing political and administrative transparency, respectively, while the remaining three articles examine the factors influencing levels of government transparency or the variable effects of transparency in three different contexts.

Apart from a passing mention of transparency in some of the earliest articles published, transparency as a research object did not appear in Administration & Society until March 2001. Christopher Hood and Henry Rothstein (2001) examined the “organizational responses to external pressure for change” toward more transparency in risk regulation across six policy domains. Their primary aim was to further develop theory about institutional responses to “environmental disturbance,” and they chose to focus on such disturbance in the particular form of “increased pressures for openness.” Because the pressure for openness that the authors examine across the six cases was in important respects the result of failures in managing risk, they find considerable evidence of what they call “blame-prevention engineering” in the six cases. In other words, they found evidence of attempts to deflect rather than embrace demands for transparency. One policy-oriented conclusion they offered was that risk regulation regimes seeking to respond adeptly to pressures for transparency might find it advantageous to follow the “institutional-design equivalent of the well-known precautionary principle” (p. 43), that is, to operate more openly to begin with.

Research on government transparency has appeared with increasing frequency in the pages of A&S since 2001. As the articles in the current issue attest, scholars are gaining greater traction in understanding the forms and scope of government transparency, what explains variations in transparency behavior across governments and policy regimes, and what effects transparency practices have on democratic governance.

Brian J. Cook
Virginia Tech

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