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What We Know about the Effects of Policy Transparency

06 October 2017 Bocconi University

Twentyfive years of research on government transparency have taught that it works only under certain conditions. Maria Cucciniello, with an experiment, finds that it’s effective in improving policy understanding, but it doesn’t affect citizens’ compliance when policies pertain to ‘sacred values’

The idea that greater policy transparency translates into better citizens’ understanding and eventually in a higher willingness to comply (paying, for example, a tax necessary to cover the policy’s expenses) could seem a no brainer. In fact, it is based on two untested assumptions: that transparency contributes to understanding and that understanding contributes to voluntary compliance.

Maria Cucciniello, an Assistant Professor at Bocconi’s Department of Policy Analysis and Public Management) tests those assumptions in a paper with Gregory Porumbescu (Rutgers University), Meghan Lindeman and Erica Ceka (both Northern Illinois University), forthcoming in Public Administration Review. Using a survey experiment, the authors conclude that transparency actually fosters understanding, but the effect of understanding on the intention to comply depends on the policy domain. In particular, when the proposed policy affects secular values (pertaining quality of life) the relation between understanding and intention to comply proves to stand, but when it affects sacred values, such as safety, security and health, citizens’ intentions are unaffected by better understanding.

In a survey experiment the authors manipulate two variables of a policy presentation: the policy domain (the first policy affects secular values, proposing to convert two shopping plazas into green space, the second pertains to sacred values, proposing to build a new facility for recently released convicts) and information usability, which is one of the components of transparency (in one case the information is presented in block paragraphs, in the other with bullet points, thus improving its readability). A sample of 296 citizens is randomly and evenly exposed to one of the four scenarios (sacred values/high transparency, sacred values/low transparency, secular values/high transparency, secular values low transparency) and then tested about their policy understanding and their willingness to pay a tax in order to reach the policy’s goal.

While higher transparency always leads to better understanding, only the group exposed to a policy regarding secular values shows a higher intention to comply.

“Our experiment proves that the way information is presented is as important as the content itself”, Prof. Cucciniello says, “and that subtle differences, such as the message format, have important consequences. But citizens’ ability to act rationally varies considerably across policy domains, so that the effects of transparency on intentions to comply are not universal”.

Interestingly, even if a better format always improves citizens’ understanding, also the level of understanding varies across policy domains, with understanding of sacred values policies being lower than understanding of secular values policies both in the low transparency and in the high transparency scenario. “One possible interpretation is that citizens may be more open-minded when it comes to policy areas dealing with secular values, whereas they are less receptive to information pertaining to sacred values policies”, concludes Prof. Cucciniello.

In a previous paper recently published in the same journal and co-authored with Porumbescu and Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen (Utrecht School of Governance), Prof. Cucciniello analyzed 25 years of scholarly research on transparency. Their analysis suggests that government transparency works under certain conditions and for certain goals, but is not cure-all and calls for further investigation on these conditions and goals – that’s what the latest paper does.

Attached files

  • Maria Cucciniello

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