Transparent, Open Government: What It Takes, What It Delivers,  And How It Actually Helps Governments

Greg Brooks & Patrick Tuohey 

W​e all understand that transparency in government is an unalloyed good, but that doesn’t mean it’s welcome or easy.  Open government is more than assigning the information technology officer to build—or hiring a consultant to build—a web-portal showcasing every financial transaction.  And transparency is more than a public information officer fielding open-records requests.  Genuinely open and transparent government—from Congress all the way down to City Hall—has some common hallmarks: 

Open government isn’t transactional, it’s cultural.  It’s the result of elected officials and civil servants agreeing that openness and transparency are important values, and that everyone in the organization will adopt a policy of defaulting to it.  Done correctly, open-government initiatives activate and engage the citizenry, creating a virtuous cycle of better-informed and more-involved citizens who can, in turn, provide input that supports thoughtful and responsive policymaking. 

Open government starts with a simple presumption that complete, timely information should be available to all interested parties for use without restriction.  Once a culture of transparency is instituted, everyone understands how they can contribute to the whole. 

While open, transparent government allows citizens to keep tabs on their representatives, it’s more than just one more burden on the public sector.  Broad, ongoing public participation increases the responsiveness and effectiveness of government, which benefits from people’s knowledge, ideas, and ability to provide oversight.  Transparency helps public officials do their job more effectively, creates an important public record of how they and their colleagues worked to meet the public need, and increases public confidence in government. 


In the 2012 report, Recovery Act Transparency: Learning from States’ Experience, researchers found that while data was used widely if unevenly by journalists and activists, “State officials were the principal users of Recovery Act data as it allowed them to manage and track federal spending in near-real time.”  The researchers went on to conclude that state officials’ ability to manage the disbursement of funds was the most significant impact of transparency. 

How much more effective and accountable would public officials be if there was a place where they (And you!) could go to see if these policies were having the desired effect?  Tracking and sharing information on business openings, licensing applications, inspections, approvals and the like helps the city facilitate business growth.  If things are moving too slowly, good data collection helps identify obstacles and address them in real time.  Transparency helps public officials do their job. 

The 2012 Recovery Act study affirmed Louis Brandeis’s 1913 statement that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”  It concluded the mere presence of openness standards was itself a positive: “Transparency requirements served as a deterrent, which contributed to low rates of fraud, waste, and abuse of funds.” 

We all work better when we know we’re accountable.  Clear and open data can help state and local governments, protecting good initiatives and even defending against strongly held bad ideas. 


The impacts of open government go beyond policy; they’re a matter of fundamental trust as well. A 2014 study by Stephan G. Grimmelikhuijsen and Albert J. Meijer published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory makes it clear that transparency is not a panacea.  Those knowledgeable about public policy are not necessarily swayed by transparency, but: 

Strong transparency policies result in a rise in the perceived benevolence of government among participants with little prior knowledge and a low level of general trust in government.  In contrast, weak transparency policies result in a decline in the perceived competence of participants with little prior knowledge and a high level of general trust in government. 

The public is more likely to give the government the benefit of the doubt if it believes officials are being forthright.  That store of reputational capital, particularly in an age of declining trust in institutions, is an important asset for the public sector. 

Transparency and openness are not just goals in and of themselves.  States and local governments that adopt financial transparency programs, collect and share information related to their basic functions, and open up their collective bargaining process not only improve outcomes, but engender favorable opinions among residents.  And perhaps most importantly, demonstrate that they are willing, honest partners with the public. 

Greg Brooks is president of Better Cities Project (BCP) and Patrick Tuohey is the organization’s co-founder and director of policy.  BCP is a public-policy nonprofit focused on practical, principled solutions for local governments.