Exploring Determinants of Governmental Transparency: The Case of Municipal Websites as a Tool for Proactive Dissemination

Exploring Determinants of Governmental Transparency: The Case of Municipal Websites as a Tool for Proactive Dissemination

Erin L. Borry (University of Kansas, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-083-5.ch002
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“Transparency” has recently become a popular buzzword in the United States while its normative value has been revered for decades. However, scholarly research of antecedents and effects of transparency—the ability to “see inside” government—has arisen only recently. Transparency can provide residents with information that can promote more fruitful citizen participation and engagement. This chapter looks into one of the lesser studied of the five avenues of transparency, as presented by Piotrowski (2007): proactive dissemination. It reports on the proactive dissemination behaviors of New Jersey’s 566 municipalities resulting from a content analysis of their websites. Model results are reported to provide understanding of various factors that are found to impact a municipality’s posting behavior. Lastly, the author encourages future research to consider other ways to measure proactive dissemination, to include more governmental determinants for transparent behavior, and to explore whether or not transparency translates into greater citizen participation.
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Governmental transparency—the ability to see what government is doing—has been freshly placed on the agenda in the United States. Recently, the Obama administration began pushing for more transparency at the federal level, arguing that government should be transparent, participatory, and collaborative (Obama, 2009). But, why is transparency so valuable? To start, government accountability (Romzek and Dubnick, 1987; Dicke and Boonyarak, 2005) can be fostered by transparent government practices: citizens who have access to information can be better informed and hold governments accountable for their actions. Secondly, participation can be enhanced with transparency and access to information, particularly in the case of public meetings. Citizen participation is said to be one of the “ideals” of democratic morality (Redford, 1969), meaning it is a critical component to decision making at all levels of government in a democratic society. Richard Box (1998, p. 23) notes that “the ‘best’ public policy decisions are those resulting from public access to information and free and open discussion.” We can reasonably expect, then, that citizen participation and engagement are enhanced with access to government information. Lastly, some argue that transparency can deter or help to uncover—and possibly deter—unethical behavior, particularly corruption (Anechiarico, 2005; Denhardt and Gilman, 2005). Denhardt and Gilman (2005, p. 267) posit that transparency’s value “addresses issues of corruption and/or conflicts of interest through mechanisms that make the actions of government… open to inspection.” In sum, transparency provides a mechanism for citizens to be informed participants in the decision making process and to hold governments accountable.

In practice, the 20th century saw considerable gains for putting the idea of transparency into law. The Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 (APA) requires governmental agencies to publish proposed rule changes in order to solicit comments from the public; the Government in the Sunshine Act of 1976 (GSA) requires that federal agencies hold their meetings publicly. These pieces of legislation provide transparency and mechanisms for participation in that it allows for citizens to see potential changes to rules and provide feedback if necessary. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have APA- and GSA-style laws. The 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies and departments to release public documents upon request. The FOIA has seen several changes and updates over the years, including the 1996 E-FOIA amendments, which requires federal agencies to make certain types of documents available online. Each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia has open public meetings and freedom of information laws, albeit of varying degree (Piotrowski and Borry, 2010). The passage of these and other statutes indicate that transparency is on the agenda for democratic government.

Christopher Hood states that “transparency denotes government according to fixed and published rules, on the basis of information and procedures that are accessible to the public…” (2006, p. 5). David Heald (2006) presents four directions of transparency. Transparency upwards refers to the ability of subordinates within an organization to see what their superiors are doing. Transparency outwards refers to the ability of those inside an organization to assess what others are doing on the outside of that organization. The final two directions best relate to governmental transparency as we know it: transparency inwards allows an organization to be observed by those on the outside and transparency downwards allows for the “ruled” to observe the actions of their “rulers” (Heald, 2006, p. 27). Most simply stated, transparency is the ability to see what government is doing and creates a way for political accountability to be achieved (see Romzek and Dubnick, 1987, for discussion of types of accountability). Suzanne J. Piotrowski postulates that transparency can be achieved “through avenues such as access to government records, open meetings, and whistleblower protections” (Piotrowski, 2007, p. 10).

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