… a core concept in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M

Transparency1Concept description

Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman (reference below) define transparency in government as 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.

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” (Hood, reference below).

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.”

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.

Hood notes that 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.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Ethics in Public Policy and Management (core topic) in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M Ethics.


Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman (2015), Open Meetings, Open Records, and Transparency in Government, Markula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University, at, accessed 31 May 2016.

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

Page created by: Ben Eisen, last modified by Ian Clark on 31 May 2016.

Image: GovLoop, at, accessed 31 May 2016.