In modern democracies, governmental transparency is thought to have great value. When it comes to addressing administrative corruption and mismanagement, many would agree with Justice Brandeis’s observation that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Beyond this, many credit transparency with enabling meaningful citizen participation.
But even though transparency appears highly correlated with successful governance in developed democracies, assumptions about administrative transparency have remained empirically untested. Testing effects of transparency would prove particularly helpful in developing democracies where transparency norms have not taken hold or only have done so slowly. In these contexts, does administrative transparency really create the sorts of benefits attributed to it? Transparency might grease the gears of developed democracies, but what good is grease when many of the gears seem to be broken or missing entirely?
This Article presents empirical results from a first-of-its-kind field study that tested two major promises of administrative transparency in a developing democracy: that transparency increases public participation in government affairs and that it increases government accountability. To test these hypotheses, we used two randomized controlled trials.
Surprisingly, we found transparency had no significant effect in almost any of our quantitative measurements, although our qualitative results suggested that when transparency interventions exposed corruption, some limited oversight could result. Our findings are particularly significant for developing democracies and show, at least in this context, that Justice Brandeis may have oversold the cleansing effects of transparency. A few rays of transparency shining light on government action do not disinfect the system and cure government corruption and mismanagement. Once corruption and mismanagement are identified, it takes effective government institutions and action from civil society to successfully act as a disinfectant.