Public Integrity, Fall 2009, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 293–307.
© 2009 ASPA. All rights reserved.
ISSN 1099-9922/2009 $9.50 + 0.00
This article examines the evolving deﬁ nition of transparency from a postmodernist
approach. It traces the meaning of transparency from its use by nongovernmental
and supranational organizations to its use in the international relations, nonproﬁ t,
public policy, and administration literature. It ﬁ nds that the deﬁ nition of transpar-
ency reveals three metaphors: transparency as a public value embraced by society
to counter corruption, transparency synonymous with open decision-making by
governments and nonproﬁ ts, and transparency as a complex tool of good governance
in programs, policies, organizations, and nations. In the ﬁ rst metaphor, transparency
is subtly intertwined with accountability. In the second, as transparency encourages
openness, it increases concerns for secrecy and privacy. In the third, policymakers
create transparency alongside accountability, efﬁ ciency, and effectiveness. The
analysis concludes that these meanings affect the way organization members con-
duct and will conduct their day-to-day activities and how policies are and will be
created. Transparency is becoming an unofﬁ cial mandate by the public and is often
a legal mandate.
The words “transparent” and “transparency” are creeping into the public’s vocabu-
lary and into political and policy academic writing. Over the years, particularly in
the aftermath of Watergate in the 1970s, new laws and administrative rules have
given the public greater access to governmental information, increasing the account-
ability of businesses, civil servants, and politicians for their actions, and making
decisions more open (Vaughn 2000). These include the Freedom of Information
Act (FOIA) (1966, amended in 1974), the Sunshine in Government Act (1976), and
the Presidential Records Act (1978), which together give the press and the public
access to many government documents on request, to most meetings, and to many
presidential materials. The Whistleblower Protection Act (1989) provides protection
against termination for federal civil servants and contract employees who report
illegal activities in the federal government or its contractors. The Foreign Corrupt
Practices Act (1977) prohibits corporations from seeking to inﬂ uence foreign govern-
ments with bribes. Other laws and regulations similarly increase the accountability
of government programs by requiring the measurement and reporting of outcomes
(e.g., the 1982 Job Training Partnership Act). State and local governments have
passed comparable legislation.
PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009
Today these pieces of legislation might be described as creating transparency.
Presidential candidates call for greater transparency and accountability in govern-
ment when in the past they might simply have called for greater accountability (Karp
2005; Obama 2006). The Federal Funding
Accountability and Transparency Act of
2006 and the Legislative Transparency and
Accountability section of the Honest Lead-
ership and Open Government Act of 2007
use the word “transparency” side by side
with “accountability.” The purpose of the
former is to require increased disclosure by
entities receiving federal contracts. The purpose of the latter is to control activities
of lobbyists and require greater disclosure of earmarked legislation by members of
Why add the word “transparency” to the names of these recent legislative acts or
use it to describe earlier acts, such as the FOIA? Would not “accountability” convey
the same purpose and value? This article explores the way in which “transparency”
has become part of common parlance. The approach taken to this topic is to trace
the use of the term “transparency” in the lexicon of the public and academicians
from a postmodernist perspective. Postmodernists posit that words take on mean-
ing from the way they are used and their incorporation into the workplace and
society (Weick 1995, 4–16; Yanow 2003, ix). Words become more than parts of
speech; they become symbols of ideas or metaphors. This happens in organizations
through the interaction of employees as they make sense of a word over time. In
the public arena, agenda setters begin using words that become part of the public’s
vocabulary. They may press for legislation as an understanding of an idea develops.
Policymaking becomes the expressive act conﬁ rming a particular belief held by a
public (Yanow 2003, 23). Stone ﬁ nds that the words chosen may have paradoxical
properties (2002, 8). For example, “transparency” conveys openness but also gener-
ates secrecy. If a word becomes value laden and an accepted norm of behavior, it
leads to certain actions and behaviors (Holzner and Holzner 2006, 12–13; Lakoff
and Johnson 1980). Further, the choice of a word (in this case “transparency”)
may create a perception of a problem that heretofore has not been readily apparent
and may offer a solution or strategy to resolve a problem (Stone 2002, 261–262).
Using Weick’s vocabulary (1995, 30), this process of enactment is occurring with
the word “transparency.”
To describe the process, the ﬁ rst section below discusses the origins and mean-
ings of transparency in the international arena. It shows the role of an international
nongovernmental organization (NGO), Transparency International, and its inﬂ uence
in spreading the idea of transparency. Then the meaning of transparency in the ﬁ elds
of international relations, nonproﬁ t, public policy, and administration research is
examined. Finally, the analysis concludes with a discussion of the meanings of
transparency from a postmodernist perspective, proposing that three transparency
metaphors exist. Understanding these metaphors is important because language
itself is important. People make sense of their environment through progressive
clariﬁ cation of the sense of the words they use, resolving ambiguities and modify-
ing their writing and actions (Weick 1995, 15). An organization is much more than
an organizational chart and a leader, just as a policy is much more than a legal or
The evolution of the use and meaning
of transparency has much to do with
supranational organizations and
What Is Transparency?
PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009
administrative mandate. Both convey and use metaphors of language. These meta-
phors shape what managers, policymakers, and politicians do and what the public
The present analysis does have a limitation. It is not a study of lexicography,
but rather a study of the evolving use of “transparency” rather than other words.
Further, it relies largely upon information available in English and in the United
States. Admittedly, this is a gap in the analysis, since the use of the term probably
has international and not American roots.
The Idea of Transparency Begins
The evolution of the use and meaning of the word “transparency” has much to do
with supranational organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Of
course, the Oxford English Dictionary records many early uses and meanings of
the word and its adjective, from transmitting light to something that is apparent or
understood. With a few sporadic exceptions (discussed later), its presence in orga-
nizational documents begins in the 1990s surrounding the creation of the European
Union (Lodge 1994), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Qureshi 1990),
and activities of other European institutions and NGOs (Cooper and Yoder, 2002;
Holzner and Holzner 2006; McIntosh as cited in Roberts 2006, 187). But probably
the choice of the name “Transparency International” for a newly created NGO and
the subsequent activities of this organization helped deﬁ ne the word for the broader
public and the academic world.
The story begins in the early 1990s, when Peter Eigen, a manager at the World
Bank, became increasingly distressed by the bank’s failure to address corruption
in its loan-giving to nations. The bank’s so-called politically neutral position led to
little economic progress, high costs for the citizens of developing countries because
of the siphoning off of money, and mass protests. Eigen, a German, joined with
Michael Hershman, an American, Kamal Hossein, a Bangladeshi, and Laurence
Cockcroft, a Briton, in a series of informal talks on how to reduce government and
As the discussion progressed, Eigen became convinced that
he could not address corruption from his position within the World Bank, and the
group decided to form a new organization, Transparency International (TI), with
Eigen at its head (Eigen 2003; Holzner and Holzner 2006, 188–189). The organiza-
tion would examine the effects and consequences of corruption for citizens, report
on its ﬁ ndings across nations, and advocate policy changes in global institutions to
address corrupt practices. By not singling out a particular institution or nation, the
group hoped that TI could remain politically neutral but in a different way from the
World Bank. During these discussions of TI’s mission, the group came up with a
name for the new organization. Hershman suggested Integrity International, others
suggested Honesty International, but Transparency International won out because
the word’s meaning had long been understood by Europeans and others throughout
the world as conveying the idea of openness. For Hershman and, for that matter,
most Americans, a transparency is a ﬁ lm used on an overhead projector or, even less
appealing, a condom, and not an organizational value (Eigen 2003, 38–39; Michael
Hershman, personal communication, August 14, 2008).
One of TI’s ﬁ rst projects was to advocate against corruption and for transparency
through its Latin American chapters working with the Organization of American
States (OAS). The OAS placed corruption on its 1994 Summit agenda. It ratiﬁ ed a
PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009
convention calling on member states to criminalize the taking or receiving of bribes
by businesses and governments (OAS 1996). Although the convention did not contain
the word “transparency,” it was the forerunner to additional OAS forums and con-
ferences in which the word began to be used regularly along with “accountability”
and “good governance.” The use of the word spread to the World Bank’s policies
to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) conventions (2001a, 2001b, 2002),
and to congressional directives to the Inter-
national Monetary Fund (Toby McIntosh, as
cited by Roberts 2006, 187). The documents
of these organizations provided policy
recommendations for countries to adopt
to ensure transparency through credible
conﬂ ict-of-interest policies, open prepara-
tion and execution of budgets, freedom of
information and participation of citizens in
the formulation and implementation of public policies, and accountability of state-
Transparency International also began to work on an index that would measure
perceptions of corruption across speciﬁ c countries. Prior to completion of the project,
TI accidentally released the ﬁ rst Corruption Perceptions Index before it was ready,
causing a stream of controversy, albeit raising media and political awareness of TI
and the idea of transparency (Alisdair Roberts, personal communication, September
5, 2008). It also developed what came to be known as the National Integrity System
(TI 1995, 2000). Systems of integrity include more than transparent ofﬁ cial structures
that are open; they also require a free media, an honest private sector unwilling to
use or take bribes, and a civil society of citizens who use information and expect
business and government to act openly and honestly.
In addition, TI spread its anti-corruption message by gathering together well-
known and respected international ﬁ gures to serve on its advisory board. Fritz
Heimann, the chair of Transparency International (from its founding in 1993 to
2005), raised awareness of transparency when he spoke to the U.S. Senate Foreign
Relations Committee on the need to ratify the OECD convention against bribery
and corruption (U.S. Congress 1998). Writing in 2006, Ben Heineman and Fritz
Heimann opined that the global changes taking place in “rules [anti-corruption
laws], rhetoric, and awareness” had occurred across nations, much to the credit of
The interconnectedness of the many supranational organizations and NGOs
popularized transparency (Eigen 2003, 35–42). “Transparency,” rather than meaning
a clear ﬁ lm for an overhead or something that is visible, is a metaphor or symbol
for a host of ideas. First, it indicates that a problem exists: corruption (Stone 2002,
5). And it offers a solution: information provided to the public by open decision-
making, meetings, and actions creating ofﬁ cial accountability. In its adjectival
form, “transparent,” rather than describing a material that one can see through, is a
synonym for honest and accountable ofﬁ cials and decisions.
As Stone (2002, 305–306) notes, the use of facts and information, seemingly
neutral, conveys a particular viewpoint. TI addresses corruption and undemocratic
rule in a seemingly neutral way by advocating greater access to information for the
[T]he evolving deﬁ nition in
international relations contains the
seeds of a paradox. At the same time
that government actors support greater
openness, they also may wish privacy
What Is Transparency?
PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009
public. It does not attack undemocratic rulers but seeks changes in the organization
of government agencies and business itself. It seeks greater oversight by govern-
mental and non-governmental bodies. Transparency is value laden as the opposite
of secrecy; that is, if transparency occurs, it conveys honesty and integrity.
Transparency International and other NGOs and supranational organizations
helped set the public or systemic agenda (Cobb and Elder 1971) for ﬁ ghting corrup-
tion through its choice of a name for itself. The agenda setters in TI, while attacking
corruption, created a metaphor for openness, honesty, and accountability. Beﬁ tting
its goal, TI provides an archetype of the transparent organization; TI places its latest
audit, annual report, governance process, code of conduct, and ethics policy on its
Web site (www.transparency.org).
TI, in short, helped make transparency part of
the language of political ofﬁ cials and the public.
As scholars became aware of transparency, they, in turn, interpreted, reinterpreted,
and expanded its meaning from a means to battle corruption to a means to encourage
open decision-making and public disclosure, to increase accountability, and as a
value to incorporate in policies and by which to evaluate policies. The next section
discusses the academic notions of transparency, beginning with the international
literature, followed by the ﬁ ndings of nonproﬁ t, public policy, and American politics
and administration research.
Academic Notions of Transparency
International Relations Research
The international relations ﬁ eld has routinely addressed the politics and strategy
of negotiations, the power struggles among nation states, the role of NGOs, and
corruption. The use of the term “transparency” in the ﬁ eld began in the 1980s
with brief mentions of transparency as one aspect of the behavior of supranational
NGOs (van Bael 1989) and as a value in foreign policy creation (Kratochwil and
Ruggie 1986; Kudrle and Bobrow 1982). It was not until the 1990s that transpar-
ency became a major emphasis of research and started to appear in the titles of
articles (Florini 1996, 1998; Hill 1996; Mitchell 1994, 1998). Transparency along
with power now becomes an attribute of strategic negotiations. Transparency, or
the degree of openness in conveying information, is seen as a device signaling the
trustworthiness of the actor in negotiations (Clark and Reed 2005; Cowhey 1993;
Finel and Lord 1999). External actors press it as a goal for nondemocratic nations.
Increasing the level of transparency in governmental decision-making increases
the likelihood of democracy and citizen involvement. At the very least, transpar-
ency makes the decision-making of nondemocratic regimes more available to
their citizenry. NGOs, including TI, play a major role in creating transparency by
conveying information about government decisions, increasing the effectiveness
of government management, and pressing for standards of ethics (Backstrand and
Saward 2004; Cooper and Yoder 2002).
The writings of international relations scholars during the 1990s also begin to
deﬁ ne transparency as a norm of behavior or public value for nations and NGOs
(Cooper 2004; Cooper and Yoder 2002; Florini 1996; Lewis and Gilman, 2005).
They present it as conveying openness with the public, a lack of secrecy between
actors, the sharing of information to make decisions, and a means to hold nations and
PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009
NGOs accountable. Finel and Lord (1999, 316) provided the most comprehensive
deﬁ nition of transparency in a discussion of its role in strategic negotiations.
Transparency comprises the legal, political, and institutional structures that make
information about the internal characteristics of a government and society available
to actors both inside and outside the domestic political system. Transparency is in-
creased by any mechanism that leads to the public disclosure of information, whether
a free press, open government, hearings, or the existence of nongovernmental organi-
zations with an incentive to release objective information about the government.
Mitchell (1998) added the idea: Transparency constitutes the demand for informa-
tion, the ability of citizens to obtain information, and the supply and actual release
of information by government and NGOs. Underlying this thought is the idea that
the citizenry must be active participants if transparency is to occur; it is not enough
for governments to simply publish information.
The same literature also identiﬁ ed a downside to transparency deﬁ ned as
openness. Greater openness can make negotiations lengthier by making frank
communication more difﬁ cult. Interest groups with greater access to ongoing
discussions can derail, disrupt, or change the agenda. The asymmetry of informa-
tion between democratic and nondemocratic nations may put democratic nations
at a disadvantage. Even in negotiations between democratic states on trade or
other agreements, sovereign nations may not wish to share some information with
the public or with other democratic nations (Finel and Lord, 1999; Florini 1998;
Roberts 2004; Schultz 1999).
Accordingly, the evolving deﬁ nition in international relations contains the seeds
of a paradox. At the same time that government actors support greater openness, they
also may wish for privacy and secrecy (Brin 1998; Fung, Graham, and Weil 2007;
Roberts 2006). NGOs, too, may be reluctant to open decision-making, believing
that they have a responsibility to the nations that fund them not to reveal certain
information (Katt 2006; Woods 2001). Thus, believing in the value of transparency
does not mean support for the activities of transparency in all situations. When
transparency is implemented, secrecy is reluctantly given up.
The international relations literature is important because scholars began to ex-
plicitly give a deﬁ nition and reason for transparency: to reduce corruption, increase
public disclosure, and create trust. This trust characteristic should carry over into the
nonproﬁ t literature. A major theory in this literature is that nonproﬁ ts exist because
of public trust (Ortman and Schlesinger 2003). Instead, the nonproﬁ t perspective
interprets transparency as similar to accountability through greater public disclosure
and only secondarily as a mechanism to create trust.
Nonproﬁ t Research
An understanding of transparency is only now beginning in nonproﬁ t research. If
corruption is a concern for NGOs globally, it is exorbitant salaries and a lack of
accountability in the use of donations to nonproﬁ ts in the United States. Gibelman
and Gelman (2001, 2004) have described serious problems with the accountability
of nonproﬁ ts: incidents of theft, mismanagement of resources, misconduct, excessive
compensation, personal life-style enhancement, and sexual misconduct. To remedy
some of these problems, Congress recently called for greater transparency, and the
What Is Transparency?
PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009
Internal Revenue Service enacted a new reporting form for nonproﬁ ts (Grassley and
Baucus 2007; Panepento 2007b).
At the same time that Congress was calling for greater transparency, the major
professional association for hospitals, the American Hospital Association, embraced
the idea of transparency by aggressively responding to congressional concerns
(2006a, 2006b, 2006c). The associated practitioner literature quickly adopted the
word “transparency,” deﬁ ning it as a means to create accountability and credibility,
and as a defensive measure to maintain nonproﬁ t tax status (Ferman 2007; Galvin
2007; McPherson 2006; Mueller 2007). Transparency is a series of actions creat-
ing credible governance systems, visible performance measurement systems, and
readily available decision-making information about pricing of services and the
amount of charity care (Summers and Nowicki 2006). Corruption does not enter
the transparency deﬁ nition except in the sense that high executive salaries are a
misuse of donor funds.
Transparency references in the nonproﬁ t scholarly research are largely synony-
mous with accountability, particularly ﬁ nancial accountability.
Nonproﬁ ts create
accountability by releasing IRS 990 forms and other information to the public, such
as the costs of fundraising (Thornton 2006) and the pricing of health care (Altman,
Shactman, and Eilat 2006; Summers and Nowicki 2006). In the evolving deﬁ nition,
transparency increases the public trust in the work of nonproﬁ ts and is part of good
governance (Melendéz 2001). As is true in the international relations literature,
transparency is a double-edged sword. Fear of greater government regulation and
loss of ﬂ exibility is an issue (Panepento 2007a). Melendéz (2001) argues that the
amount of information available to the public is already substantial, and what needs
to occur is improved access to the information.
Just as there is an element of reaction to pressure in the creation of transpar-
ency noted in the international literature, so too is the same element present in the
nonproﬁ t literature. Crossing from the actions of government and business (James
D. Bentley, personal communication, September 25, 2008), nonproﬁ t transparency
is more closely related to accountability and regulation. At least for now, it does
not contain the same positive idea of openness found in the international relations
corpus of knowledge, although that is a likely outcome of accountability mecha-
nisms. Rather, transparency has negative connotations of regulation, something that
developed when nonproﬁ ts and researchers had not yet made sense of the word.
This contrasts with policy researchers, who see transparency not only as a solution
but also as part of every component of the policy process.
Public Policy Research
Transparency as a solution to problems has a global ﬂ avor in public policy research.
The ﬁ rst scholarly uses of transparency ﬂ ow nicely from the international ﬁ eld to
comparative public policy and monetary policy. Transparency in Public Policy:
Great Britain and the United States (Finkelstein 2000), authored by a group of ten
scholars and practitioners, describes the differences in the degree of transparency
or opaqueness in public policies in the United Kingdom and America. Coming
from and studying widely divergent ﬁ elds, the members of the group had little in
common. What they did recognize was that some policy decision-making is veiled
in secrecy. The word “transparency” was not particularly well known to the group,
PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009
but perhaps slightly more familiar to the health analysts and practitioners (Thomas
Judge, personal communication, September 30, 2008; J. Leitzel, personal commu-
nication, September 5, 2008; O’Sullivan 1997). As discussion progressed in writing
the book, transparency became the common theme for studies ranging from gun
control to education to health care.
The authors of Transparency in Public
Policy accept transparency as a given attri-
bute of policy, and they reason that transpar-
ent policies are better than opaque policies
(Finkelstein 2000, 1). Good transparent
policies contain methods of accountability.
Transparent policies also provide informa-
tion to citizens and improve their ability to
make choices about the services they re-
ceive. A transparent policy is deemed effec-
tive when the public acts on the information
the policy provides. If an education agency provides information on the quality of
schools through performance measurement, and parents choose their child’s school
based upon this information, the policy is said to be effective. Transparency, then,
relates to inputs, outputs, and outcomes of decisions.
How to design transparent policies is less than clear. Conﬂ icting goals in policy
design make it difﬁ cult to create transparency, and as a result the degree of trans-
parency differs from one policy to another and from one country to another. For
example, many policies are established to promote competition (school choice,
utility competition) or to regulate (occupational safety, environmental protection),
and some are a conﬂ icting jumble of regulation, competition, and professional dis-
cretion (Judge 2000; Prottas 2000; Shekelle and Roland 2000; Woolf 2000). At an
administrative or programmatic level, the degree of transparency has transactional
and informational costs. Programs designed on transparency do not simply report
to oversight bodies, they must provide understandable, usable, quality information
to the public on inputs, outputs, and outcomes.
Other public policy research is tied to the international relations ﬁ eld in subject
matter, but examines its subject from a policy-analytic perspective. This research line
further identiﬁ es and deﬁ nes transparency within the policy process (Geraats 2002;
Libich, 2006; Stasavage, 2003). Geraats (2002) ﬁ rst recognized that transparency cre-
ated greater openness and hence accountability in central banks by reducing the asym-
metry of information between the public and the bank. But information availability
in itself does not create transparency. Libich (2006), elaborating on Geraats’s initial
work, spelled out ﬁ ve types of transparency and made clear that all ﬁ ve—political/
goal, economic, procedural, policy, and operational transparency—have an effect on
the outcome and implementation of the policy. Political/goal transparency has to do
with the mission of the organization. It occurs when the ultimate purpose is known
and is likely to increase if leadership is accountable (in the case of monetary policy,
the purpose would be to maintain low inﬂ ation and high employment). Economic
transparency takes place when banking institutions make their decision-making
tools (e.g., forecasting models) available to the public. This type of transparency
increases the credibility of decisions once made and provides information about
why the bank did or did not meet its goal (in a broader policy context, this type of
Transparent policies also provide
information to citizens and improve
their ability to make choices about the
services they receive. A transparent
policy is deemed effective when the
public acts on the information the policy
What Is Transparency?
PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009
transparency might be called input transparency). Procedural transparency refers
to the process whereby decisions are made. The use of formal voting procedures,
open and publicized meetings, and the recording of meeting minutes are all familiar
components of government sunshine laws, but are not necessarily used by some
institutions, such as the Federal Reserve and the World Bank. Finally, operational
transparency takes place through such activities as performance measurement and
admission of errors in planning or meeting goals, all of which enable the public to
determine the extent to which the institution has met its goals.
In one of the earliest uses of the word “transparency,” Kudrle and Bobow (1982)
label a desirable outcome of foreign direct investment policy as impact transparency.
The selection of the term “impact transparency” foreshadows one of the current uses
of transparency. Kudrle and Bobow chose impact transparency more by happen-
stance than by a desire to coin a term or to note an important value in policy-making
(Kudrle, personal communication, September 4, 2008). A policy is transparent not
only if the goal is clear, but also if the impact is clear. This is most likely to occur
when information about the policy is available and easily obtainable.
If nonproﬁ t scholars partially deﬁ ne transparency in negative terms, policy
analysts embrace transparency as more positive than negative, one more tool in
the policy analyst’s basket. By incorporating transparency into the policy process
language, analysts broaden the meaning of transparency, moving it from the simple
idea of creating greater accountability and reducing corruption to an attribute for
American Politics and Administration Research
Which transparent policies are enacted and implemented is the work of politicians
and administrators. State-level research assessing transparency moves from interna-
tional monetary to ﬁ scal and budgetary transparency, crossing over into politics and
administration studies. In state level research transparency has a speciﬁ c purpose,
to increase information and trust of the public.
Alt, Lassen, and Skilling (2002) operationalize transparency as visible decision-
making. They explain transparency in terms of principal-agent theory. Transparency
increases conﬁ dence in the decisions of government and elected ofﬁ cials by reducing
asymmetries of information between political actors and voters, in turn creating a
greater degree of public trust in political actors.
Using different approaches, Piotrowski and Van Ryzin (2007) and Roberts
(2006) add to the deﬁ nition of transparency to include the ability of the public to
access government information. The degree of government transparency is both a
legal construction and a perception. Roberts judges transparency by the degree of
secrecy written into law. Piotrowski and Van Ryzin judge it by the public’s desire
for transparency. Public perception is measured by the frequency of contacting
government, the level of concern about secrecy, and the perceived amount of access
to government (too much, too little, or about the right amount).
Hirsch and Osborne’s (2000) theoretical work embraces transparency as a means
to improve government outcomes. Transparency improves administrative effective-
ness as well as policy effectiveness. It means greater information for decision-making
and, in the end, for the public, so that citizens can support policy decisions. Hirsch
and Osborne identify transparency by its opposite, policy opacity, as did Libich
PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009
(2006) and Roberts (2006). Policy opacity occurs when policymakers decide to con-
tract services out without the full beneﬁ t of cost-comparison information or without
making that information available to the public. Publication of such information is
more likely to reduce union opposition and garner citizen support for contracting
out. Indeed, many unions and managers have embraced win-win or interest-based
bargaining in which both sides openly share the same information, creating input
transparency and operational transparency (Ball 1996). Lewis and Stiles (2004)
counter that when transparency is the priority in decision-making, it leaves no room
for cross-subsidies and leads to shortsighted managerial decisions.
Stirton and Lodge (2001) take up an idea similar to what was proposed by
Geraats (2002) and Libich (2006) but from an organizational-design perspective.
They identify four mechanisms to create transparency in organizations: voice,
representation, information, and choice. Transparency occurs when organizations
promote visible decision-making, are open to public input, allow the public the
maximum choice of services, and work in cooperation with other organizations for
common public purposes. Voice and representation relate to the process of creating
a service; information and choice relate to the implementation and provision of the
service. Recognizing the blurring of sectors, Stirton and Lodge theorize that these
mechanisms can maintain the public character of services even when government
itself does not directly provide the service.
Through state-level research, transparency gains a new antonym, secrecy, rather
than corruption in the evolving deﬁ nition of transparency. Transparency is not an
either/or situation. It is on one end of a continuum, and opaqueness is on the other.
The academic notion of transparency ﬂ owing from international relations scholars is
at home to those who study political decision-making on secrecy and openness, the
dance of the media and politics, and the more mundane but possibly more relevant
ﬁ nancial and budget decision-making of states and nonproﬁ ts.
It is clear that transparency is generally accepted worldwide by many activists and
their organizations as a process, a way of conducting business. Its institutionaliza-
tion may have caught on by an accident of translation that assumed that the German,
French, and English meanings of Transparenz, transparence, and transparency are
similar (Kudrle, personal communication, September 4, 2008). Many academics
who have used the word in their writings are not sure how it came to be part of their
vocabulary. Bobrow (personal communication, September 4, 2008) recalls that the
choice of transparency in his article cowritten with Kudrle (1982) might have occurred
because their subject matter, foreign direct investments, often involves acts of cor-
ruption and subterfuge rather than an above-board policymaking process. Whether a
speciﬁ c person coined the term, it undoubtedly became more popular because of the
interconnectedness and networking of the supranational organizations. In addition,
media attention increased when Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions
Index was prematurely released.
In its evolving meaning, transparency is a public value or norm of behavior
to counter corruption. In this metaphor, transparency is indirect: When citizens
have information, governance improves. Transparency occurs through the support
of society, government, media, and business for open decision-making. Yet this
What Is Transparency?
PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009
metaphor relies upon and is subtly entwined with accountability. Transparency
is an intrusive mandate with associated rules created by the pressure of interna-
tional conventions and national laws. Distinctions between private, nonprofit,
and public organizations erode as all activities become more open to public
scrutiny. Within the shared meaning of transparency as combating corruption
is a hope for democracy, but also a paradoxical acceptance of the current state
of international affairs, which includes both democratic and undemocratic na-
tions. Accordingly, transparency is the counter to corruption if democracy is
not possible. Through this metaphor, organizations and nations bring about or
restore the trust of their publics.
Transparency is also open government and organizations (Piotrowski, personal
communication, September 7, 2008). In this second metaphor, transparency has
little or less to do with accountability and corruption than with the process of
governing or managing. In the first metaphor, open decision-making is a com-
ponent of transparency, but in the second metaphor, open decision-making is
synonymous with transparency. Transparency is about the ease of access and
use of government and nonprofit information. The more open and easy it is for
the public to obtain information, the greater the transparency. Paradoxically,
transparency brings about greater concerns for privacy and secrecy. In the second
metaphor, policy and organizational design focus on determining when privacy
and secrecy are appropriate and when they are not. Practitioners and scholars
hope to stem legislative, executive, or judicial interpretations that reduce public
access to decision-making. Yet they recognize that new technology—the Web,
huge databases, and computerization—make the protection of confidential per-
sonal information necessary.
A third metaphor of transparency is one of complexity and relates particularly
to policy and program analysis. Analysts and politicians create transparency in the
design of policy and through their evaluations of organizational actions and pro-
grams. Transparency is complex because who decides, what decisions are made,
and how to use information are all part of transparency. A policy, organization, or
nation cannot be said to be corrupt or not corrupt, open or not open, transparent or
opaque, because transparency is a continuum. In this third metaphor, transparency
does not address a speciﬁ c problem of corruption or secrecy; rather it is compo-
nent of good policy. Academicians, in helping to deﬁ ne transparency, have created
an attribute as complex as measuring effectiveness and efﬁ ciency and equally as
important as accountability.
This article introduced a rhetorical question: Does transparency convey the same
purpose as accountability? Transparency, in fact, has many meanings, and will
continue to have many meanings that in part subsume accountability. Transparency
metaphors convey a way that organizations and nations are expected to conduct
their day-to-day activities. Policy analysts and politicians are expected to create
transparency as a norm and as a means to evaluate programs and actions. Given the
newness of the idea, the confusion over its many meanings, and the tug for privacy
and secrecy, some elected ofﬁ cials, managers, and analysts may ignore transparency.
Ignoring the unofﬁ cial mandate, however, can be problematic and may lead to the
PUBLIC INTEGRITY FALL 2009
enactment of legal mandates. For example, in the 2009 ﬁ nancial crisis, a chance
to increase the trust of the public was lost when Congress failed to establish legal
requirements for banks to report their use of bailout funds, the Treasury secretary
failed to provide oversight to the same end, and bank ofﬁ cials were not forthcoming
with relevant information.
1. The analysis in this article relied upon JSTOR for older journal articles and
Academic Search Premier and Business Source Premier for current articles with “trans-
parency” in the abstract or the article title of the major journals in political science,
public policy, and public administration and the major nonproﬁ t journals: Nonproﬁ t
Management & Leadership, Nonproﬁ t & Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Voluntas, Health
Affairs, Journal of Healthcare Management, Journal of Health and Human Services
2. At the time of TI’s founding, Eigen was on leave from the World Bank and had
worked as a lawyer managing African and Latin American economic development pro-
grams. Michael Hershman had served in a number of positions, including deputy staff
director of the Senate Subcommittee on International Organizations and deputy auditor
general of the Foreign Assistance Program of the Agency for International Development.
Kamal Hossein was one of the authors of the constitution of Pakistan and former foreign
minister of Bangladesh. Laurence Cockcroft worked as a development economist advising
governments and international NGOs and had recently written a book chapter on South
African economic development (1993). Also involved was Hansjörg Elshorst, a German,
and chair of the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), a sustainability and
economic development organization, and Frank Vogl, an American and a former World
3. The World Bank has focused on creating transparency primarily by disclosing
documentation after the fact, i.e., after entering an agreement with a member country,
rather than on transparency in its internal processes. It has, however, provided more and
more documentation on its Web site.
4. This article does not attempt to assess whether the organization is truly transparent
or to assess its success in pushing for transparency in other organizations or states.
5. The search also uncovered one article in Nonproﬁ t & Voluntary Sector Quarterly
that was about nonproﬁ ts in Spain as opposed to American nonproﬁ ts. Transparency is a
speciﬁ c value of nonproﬁ ts along with good governance and political independence.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carolyn Ball is an associate professor of public administration and director of graduate
programs at the University of Maine. She recently co-authored Organization Theory: A
Public and Nonproﬁ t Perspective with Harold Gortner and Kenneth Nichols. Her research
and teaching interests include religion in the workforce, labor issues, and organizational