29 Mar 2021

Real versus Legal: A Tale of Two Transparencies

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

Since Sweden’s historical invention of the Freedom of the Press Act in 1766 over 100 countries around the world have implemented some form of freedom of information legislation. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16 includes as target to ensure public access to information as part of the broader fundamental citizenship rights meant to enable accountable, inclusive and just institutions. Ever since the creation of Transparency International the word ‘transparency’ was used in connection with corruption. Although nobody has ever argued that transparency is a panacea for corruption, the international anti-corruption movement has long invested in transparency with the goal to deter corruption. Brandeis has already argued in 1932 that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman”. Seeing the explosive development of transparency in many forms – anti-corruption treaties, EITI, Freedom of Information Acts, open budgets, open contracting – one would expect that control of corruption improves. Still, as discussed at length in this working paper of ours, control of corruption lags with nearly no significant progress since the advances made by Georgia, South Korea, or Costa Rica nearly two decades ago. So which one is it? Transparency is not enough or there is not enough transparency to deter corruption?

An answer to these questions has been seriously hindered so far by lack of data. We do not have a measurement of transparency, although various types of it do get measured (e.g. fiscal transparency). We do have some proxies and indirect measurements for corruption. Now presuming we can measure both at the national level we can start having some answers.

To start, we need to differentiate between legal and real transparency in order to understand if we have an implementation gap accountable for the lack of impact. To get there we measured de jure and de facto transparency in 122 countries. We operationalize de jure transparency by constructing an index that captures a country’s freedom of information legislation as well as membership statuses with transparency initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership (OGP), the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), ratification of UNCAC, and others. De facto transparency is operationalized by compiling data on 14 selected items vital for corruption and accountability – from public spending transparency and ownership of firms to disclosures of interest and assets for public officials. Corruption levels – i.e., the dependent variable – can be proxied by the Corruption Perception Index, the World Governance Indicators, and the Index of Public Integrity.

The first results of this pilot project supported by our donors and friends from the National Endowment for Democracy were presented at the OECD Integrity Week in March 2021. The slides below show that de jure transparency explains just a quarter of de facto transparency, which in its turn is strongly associated with control of corruption. The gap between is the agenda for governments and civil societies, made clear by the list of missing or incomplete public websites and data repositories that we need to fill in and post to enable citizens to do their role. Which, of course, is to control their ruling elites from acting solely in their own interest at the expense of broader social welfare. So transparency helps, but only if it is real, not just legal transparency.


Check out our new transparency index (T-index): ERCAS Presentation OECD 2021 Integrity Week