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Transparency in government refers to the ability of citizens to "see through" its workings, and to be able to learn exactly what goes on when public officials transact public business.

(Nadler and Schulman Markula Center for Applied Ethics.


Transparency is considered a crucial dimension of good government because where government is not transparent, it is more prone to corruption and undue influence because there is no oversight of decision making by the public.
Several analysts have begun to distinguish different dimensions of, or approaches to, transparency.

Like so many good-governance catchwords in public management, transparency is more often invoked than defined. At the most general level the word can be said to denote “government according to fixed and published rules, on the basis of information and procedures that are accessible to the public, and (in some usages) within clearly demarcated fields of activity”

The roots of the idea can be traced far back in time, and the term itself has been used at least since the eighteenth century, for instance in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jeremy Bentham. Three of the different pre-twentieth-century forms of the doctrine include the notion of government according to stable and known rules, the notion of maximum social openness and exposure to public scrutiny from every quarter and the notion of freedom of information in the sense of public access to government documents. One strain of this long-standing idea is Immanuel Kant’s opposition to secret treaties as a method of conducting international relations, echoed by US President Woodrow Wilson over a hundred years later in his famous if problematic aspiration for “open covenants of peace . . . openly arrived at”.

Several analysts have begun to distinguish different dimensions of, or approaches to, transparency. For instance, David Heald contrasts event transparency (open information about inputs, outputs and outcomes) and process transparency (open information about the transformations that take place between inputs, outputs and outcomes). He also distinguishes real-time transparency (information that is released as soon as it is created) and retrospective transparency (information available only after embargoes or time-delays), and four different ‘directions’ transparency can take (downwards, upwards, inwards and outwards).

We can also distinguish between what might be called direct and indirect transparency. By direct transparency is meant the sort of openness that comes from activities or results that are directly observable by the public at large, or from face-to-face encounters between officeholders and those they serve, as in the town meeting tradition of the Eastern United States. By indirect transparency is meant the sort of information or reporting procedure that makes activity or results visible or verifiable, but only to agents or technical experts.

Even more broadly, we can distinguish between general and more particularized transparency. By general transparency is meant the sort of society in which no-one can be anonymous, privacy is impossible and everyone is subject to scrutiny from everyone else. Jean-Jacques Rousseau approximated to this vision of transparency in his 1772 plans for the government of Poland. That plan required all public officeholders to operate ‘in the eyes of the public’ and even to wear a form of uniform so they could never be anonymous as they went about their daily life (see Rousseau 1772/1985: 72; Putterman 2001: 489; Bentham and Spinoza both put forward similar ideas.) Indeed, the former German Democratic Republic has been claimed by some to have been a transparent society in this sense, given the extent to which citizens observed each other and reported their observations to the state authorities. The opposite of this version of social transparency is a more particularized version, meaning the sort of society in which there are sharp divisions between ‘private’ and ‘public’ life, with transparency applying only to the latter.

The four different variants of transparency identified the combination of the direct/indirect and the particular/general distinctions are labelled as ‘open mutual scrutiny’, ‘general surveillance’, ‘public forums’ and ‘bureaucratic transparency’. By open mutual scrutiny is meant a world, usually found only in ‘total institutions’ or organizations that approximate to them, in which (almost) everyone’s doings are directly observable by everyone else. By general surveillance is meant a world in which all our doings are under scrutiny, but only by expert observers via their watchtowers or phone bugs or CCTV cameras. By public forums is meant a set of ways in which citizens can observe and scrutinize officeholders (through public meetings, freedom of information laws and the like). And by bureaucratic transparency is meant the various processes by which officeholders are watched by experts or agents such as auditors, regulators or tutelary bureaucracies of various kinds.


Hood, Christopher. (2007). What Happens When Transparency Meets Blame-Avoidance? Public Management Review 9(2), p.192-210.

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School of Public Policy and Governance