A recent transparency survey of more than 5,000 Americans found that more than three-fourths gave the government low scores (59 or lower out of 100), and only seven percent rated the government as highly transparent (a score of 80 or higher). The White House received the highest transparency score in the study, and Congress received the worst score among government entities. However, limitations of the study make any final judgment on the success or failure of the government’s transparency efforts difficult.
The Government Transparency Study was conducted by ForeSee, a customer satisfaction survey company, and NextGov, a federal technology news website, to establish a baseline of public perceptions of transparency. The research was done in the context of the Obama administration's promise to be the most transparent in history and the launch of several high-profile policies such as the Open Government Directive and transparency websites such as Data.gov. The random online survey of 5,107 U.S. citizens from Aug. 25 to Sept. 4 inquired about participants’ perception of transparency, satisfaction, and trust, of the White House, federal agencies, Congress, and four regulated industries (airlines, banking, health care, and oil and gas).
All entities scored relatively low on the hundred-point scale for transparency, with the White House leading the group with a score of 46 and the oil and gas industry scoring the lowest with a score of 30. Congress had the lowest government transparency score, 37, which placed it one point behind the airline industry.
As to the White House’s leading score, the study acknowledged that “if these entities were graded on a curve, the White House would get an A.” However, the study quickly dismisses this conclusion, stating that “given the fact that federal websites regularly achieve online transparency scores in the 60s, 70s, and 80s … it’s hard to give the White House too much credit for being the best of a sub-par group.”
This study represents an inaugural effort; thus, there are no previous scores against which to compare these scores. It may be that the government scores, though low on the total scale, represent a significant recent increase in public perceptions from previous years. The survey did ask if people’s trust in government had increased or decreased from a year ago. However, no similar question on the trend in transparency was asked. Such a question, though not enough to create a retroactive baseline, might have provided more context for the current scores.
Additionally, the authors note that the low scores may also relate to the purpose of the study, which was to obtain general perceptions of transparency in government, not assess web user satisfaction with particular agency transparency efforts. “Had we surveyed people who had specific interactions with these government entities, their transparency and other scores could very well be higher,” the report notes. In fact, ForeSee also provides a quarterly Transparency Index, doing just that – tracking reactions to transparency in 30 federal agencies from those who interact with agency websites. The average transparency score of the measured websites during the third quarter of 2010 was 75.8, much higher than the public’s general perception of government transparency shown in the ForeSee/NextGov report.
It should also be noted that the ForeSee/NextGov survey did not target those well informed about the government’s transparency efforts. The only qualifying question asked of participants was if they followed the news about the White House, government, etc. The study notes that “when people are asked about a broad experience or awareness rather than a specific one, transparency and satisfaction scores are typically lower.” This calls into some question the study’s comparison of high customer satisfaction scores for government websites with the lower general perception scores. If lower scores are typical on a general awareness survey, then it may be reasonable to view the scores on a curve.
Given the lack of particular awareness of transparency efforts in government, the results are also more vulnerable to measuring the wrong things. The study notes in the key findings that “Americans may be blaming the government for tough times.” One-third of participants had lost a job or had a spouse lose a job in the last two years, a quarter had experienced large drops in investments, and almost 40 percent reported family or friends losing a home. These issues have nothing to do with government transparency, but they could influence people’s perception of government overall. As a result, the unrelated issues could influence responses to any questions about satisfaction with government regardless of issue area.
Similarly, the study notes that the strongest correlation with transparency ratings comes with political affiliation, with conservative and Republican participants providing transparency scores in the low 30s and liberal and Democratic participants giving scores in the 50s. This correlation may indicate that respondents’ answers are more a reflection of overall approval of government then genuinely held perceptions of transparency.
Based on ForeSee’s customer satisfaction research, the study also notes a strong link between people’s perception of government transparency and both satisfaction and trust with government. The study suggests that transparency drives citizen satisfaction, which in turn drives their trust in government. The study results appear to confirm a connection between the three concepts, as scores for each government entity (White House, agencies, Congress, and government overall) followed similar patterns. For each entity, the citizen satisfaction and trust scores were identical and lower (between 6 and 11 points) than the entity’s transparency score.
Given the emphasis the Obama administration has given transparency and the fact that we are approaching the midpoint of the president’s four-year term, it is likely that other evaluations of the progress made on transparency will be forthcoming. It will be interesting to see what approach those evaluations take and how the outcomes resemble and differ from this perception survey.