[RESEARCH] The relation between transparency and accountability

As part of our research efforts, here’s the another update on the most important research on FOI and open data all over the world, by our intern Alexandre Salha, a researcher who worked on access to information in his native Lebanon.

transparencyaccountability

In his chapter of Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability, Pr. Meijer defines the relation between Transparency and Accountability – globally known as T/A – which he can resume in three cause-and-effect equations:

  • Transparency for horizontal accountability

  • Transparency for vertical accountability

  • Transparency for less accountability

However, these three levels are most probably applied in a proper context of availability of information, which people can process in order to have an impact on the government and public institutions.

Before tackling this issue, he starts with a theoretical and historical approach of the topic showing how the idea of openness and therefore transparency became a universal acknowledgement.

Although it is a basic requirement for democracies, government transparency – especially with the Freedom of Information Act – is moving from liberal to new democracies and even non-democratic countries as stated by Meijer. Enhancing transparency increases accountability, helps curbing corruption and connects citizens with the government and the decision-making process.

According to Meijer, “both the eye of God and the public eyes convey the idea that we are being watched and, therefore, we should behave.”

This was one of the outcomes of the French revolution – concretized years later with the Freedom of Information Act – against philosophers claiming that “the integrity of the state would be undermined by transparency”. Even though the FOIA became popular, it should shift from a passive to a proactive legislation, with the assistance of new technologies introduced in public institutions.

In order to do so and to have an efficient impact, Pr. Meijer defined three perspectives on transparency:

  • As a virtue

  • As a relation

  • As a system

These three perspectives are essential for accountability as they form a complete triangle of interaction, as mentioned in this chapter: “Transparency is defined as the availability of information about an actor allowing other actors to monitor the workings or performance of this actor.”

And now a question to you: Under which circumstances transparency leads to accountability without distorting the public trust, the democratization process and the people’s engagement in public affairs?

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