The Political Origins of Transparency
50 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 18 Nov 2014
Date Written: November 19, 2011
Freedom of Information (FOI) laws have been passed by over eighty countries around the world, despite substantially constraining the political actors who pass them. By institutionalizing transparency, FOI laws make it more difficult for political actors to profit from control of government information or use public office for private gain, and increase the risks of exposure of corrupt activities. Why have so many states passed FOI laws despite these costs? I argue that FOI laws create both political and expressive benefits for political actors. Political benefits derive from competitive political environments and the uncertainty they engender, which create incentives for those in power to pass FOI laws to ensure future access to government information. Expressive benefits derive from social pressure and the potential for recognition and praise from international stakeholders. These arguments receive support in illustrative case studies and an event history model of the timing of FOI law passage. I find that the competitiveness of the political environment is significantly associated with the timing of FOI law passage. In particular, passage is more likely following increases in the extent to which opposition parties pose credible challenges to those in power, and following periods of frequent turnover in party control of the executive. Both of these factors create substantial political uncertainty, creating incentives for political actors to pass FOI laws as insurance. Passage is also more likely when international socialization pressure through intergovernmental organizations and within geographic neighborhoods is high.
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