Indignation or Resignation: The Implications of Transparency for Societal Accountability
ACRN Research Correspondent Brigitte Zimmerman reflects on the findings of an article by Monika Bauhr and Marcia Grimes that considers the conditions under which transparency results in citizen engagement.
The authors begin by pointing out that there are many assumptions behind the theory purporting that increasing transparency should reduce corruption. They use a straight-forward plot of countries’ transparency and corruption scores from the Worldwide Governance indicators to illustrate that the relationship between transparency and corruption is muddled, especially for countries with high levels of corruption. The assumption they chose to examine in this article is whether citizens translate information about corruption into action against it, and if so, under what conditions.
Bauhr and Grimes first theorize about how citizens can play the role of “roving auditor,” categorizing citizen response to transparency as “indignation” or “resignation.” Indignation results in citizens moving forward to take action against corruption, whereas resignation results in citizen discouragement and abstention from the political process. Given the reliance of citizens on the behaviour of other actors and presence of other institutions – other citizens, hotlines, auditing institutions – in seeing an effect of fighting corruption, the authors hypothesize that information is more likely to result in resignation where these mechanisms are weak. At this point, the authors make an assumption of their own: that these mechanisms fail where corruption is high.
But are the weak anti-corruption mechanisms always found in areas of high corruption? The years of well-funded anti-corruption projects have installed particularly strong auditing institutions, reporting hotlines, citizen support networks, whistleblower protections, and leader education programs in some of the world’s most corrupt places. It seems the authors are theorizing more about the mediating role of institutional integrity than they are about the mediating role of the level of corruption.
After laying out their theory of citizen indignation vs. resignation, the authors present an empirical analysis regarding the interaction effect of transparency and corruption (from the Worldwide Governance Indicators) on citizen political interest, political involvement, institutional trust, and an index combining all three (form the World Values Survey), finding robust evidence that transparency results in indignation at low levels of corruption and in resignation at high levels of corruption. They carefully consider and address several endogeneity concerns, including the many criticisms of their two primary independent variables from the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI).
It would have been interesting to read more about the potential bias introduced by using the sample of countries associated with the World Values Survey. While the global average level of corruption in the WGI is zero, the countries associated with the World Values Survey have an average of 0.16 on a scale of -1 to 1. This is not concerning as long as the countries that represent the higher corruption side of the spectrum are indicative of the others that are not included. Whether this is a reasonable assumption or not is uncertain and it would be interesting to get the authors’ views on this concern. Similarly, it would be interesting to see what happens when controlling for “Voice and Accountability,” another variable in the WGI that would relate to the underlying mediating factor discussed in the theoretical section of the article.
Generally, this article is convincing and precise. It is an important contribution to the growing literature explaining heterogeneity in citizen response to information about corruption.
International organizations, policy experts, and nongovernmental organizations promote greater governmental transparency as a crucial reform to enhance accountability and curb corruption. Transparency is predicted to deter corruption in part by expanding the possibilities for public or societal accountability, that is, for citizens and citizens associations to monitor, scrutinize, and act to hold public office holders to account. Although the societal accountability mechanism linking transparency and good government is often implied, it builds on a number of assumptions seldom examined empirically. This article unpacks the assumptions of principal-agent theories of accountability and suggests that the logic of collective action can be used to understand why exposure of egregious and endemic corruption may instead demobilize the demos (i.e., resignation) rather than enhance accountability (i.e., indignation). We explore these theoretical contentions and examine how transparency affects three indicators of indignations versus resignation—institutional trust, political involvement, and political interest—given different levels of corruption. The empirical analyses confirm that an increase in transparency in highly corrupt countries tends to breed resignation rather than indignation.
M. Bauhr & M. Grimes, “Indignation or Resignation: The Implications of Transparency for Societal Accountability”, Governance, 27(2): 291-320 (2014).