Does Transparency Improve Governance?

Posted: 21 May 2014

See all articles by Stephen Kosack

Stephen Kosack

The Brookings Institution; Yale University - Department of Political Science

Archon Fung

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: May 2014


In recent years, there has been increasing interest in the potential of transparency — the provision of information to the public — to improve governance in both developed and developing societies. In this article, we characterize and assess the evolution of transparency from an end in itself to a tool for resolving increasingly practical concerns of governance and government performance. After delineating four distinct varieties of transparency, we focus on the type that has received the most rigorous empirical scrutiny from social scientists — so-called “transparency and accountability” (T/A) interventions intended to improve the quality of public services and governance in developing countries. T/A interventions have yielded mixed results: some are highly successful; others appear to have little impact. We develop a rubric of five ideal-typical “worlds” facing transparency that helps to account for this variation in outcomes. Reform based on transparency can face obstacles of collective action, political resistance, and long implementation chains. T/A interventions are more likely to succeed in contextual “worlds” with fewer of these obstacles. We find that 16 experimental evaluations of T/A interventions are largely consistent with the theoretical predictions of our five-worlds rubric.

Suggested Citation

Kosack, Stephen and Fung, Archon, Does Transparency Improve Governance? (May 2014). Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 17, pp. 65-87, 2014. Available at SSRN: or

Stephen Kosack (Contact Author)

The Brookings Institution ( email )

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036
United States

Yale University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Box 208269
New Haven, DC 06520-8269
United States

Archon Fung

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-9846 (Phone)
617-496-1722 (Fax)

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