Global Studies Highlight U.S. Transparency Strengths, Weaknesses

Several recently published studies compare the policy and practice of transparency in the United States and other countries. Such studies provide useful measures of U.S. openness relative to real-world conditions, in addition to highlighting global best practices and alternative approaches. The U.S. ranked in the middle range in the studies, demonstrating how other countries have met the challenges of 21st-century transparency while the U.S. has lagged in some areas.

The studies examined the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the transparency of foreign aid spending. Openness in those areas is essential to building a more accountable, efficient government. The Obama administration is attempting to improve U.S. performance in these areas through its participation in the global Open Government Partnership (OGP) and other initiatives.

Transparency of government activities typically brings increased accountability and improved performance. The current work of the U.S. government – putting Americans back to work, protecting our families from harm, rebuilding our infrastructure – is too important to allow excessive secrecy to weaken our performance.


On Nov. 17, the Associated Press (AP) published an audit of FOIA laws in 105 countries and the European Union; according to the AP, it was the first worldwide test of such laws. The AP filed requests in each country for information on terrorism arrests and convictions as part of an investigation into how anti-terrorism laws have been used globally since the Sept. 11 attacks. Certainly, the public deserves to know how effectively governments have combated terrorism – and whether they have abused their authority.

Unfortunately, the U.S. fared poorly in the audit. The AP graded the U.S. as "partially responsive," along with countries such as Canada, France, and Peru. Meanwhile, countries such as Mexico, Turkey, and India were scored as "responsive." In some of these countries, governments took only days to respond to the AP's request. In the U.S., however, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) responded six months late – with only a single page of information.

Globally, more than half the countries audited did not release any information in response to the request. In a notable trend, newer democracies performed better than more established ones. This may indicate that more recent democracies have been able to establish better policies and practices, essentially leapfrogging the problems of entrenched secrecy that have developed in older democracies.

That result is echoed by another FOIA study, the Global Right to Information Rating released in September by Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy. The authors claim that the rating is "the first detailed analysis of the legal framework for the right to information in 89 countries." The study examined 61 indicators across seven categories, such as the procedures to make a request and to appeal a denial.

The analysis found that countries with more recently adopted FOIA laws generally had stronger policies. The U.S., which adopted one of the first FOIA laws in 1966, ranked 36th out of the 89 countries studied. The U.S. received demerits for, among other reasons, excluding the legislative and judicial branches from the law; not having to show a risk of actual harm in order to withhold information; and not having a binding, independent appeals process. Overall, the report noted that "it is quite possible that this score undervalues the true openness of the United States government. Nonetheless, there are significant problems with the USA's access regime."

Aid Transparency

Three recent studies rank the U.S. on the transparency of its foreign aid spending. According to aid transparency advocates Publish What You Fund, lack of transparency "leads to waste, overlap and inefficiency. It impedes efforts to improve governance and reduce corruption and makes it hard to measure results." Those effects weaken public trust in donor countries and cause unnecessary hardship for the intended recipients of aid: those suffering from disease, malnutrition, and lack of opportunity in developing countries.

Using different methodologies, the three studies arrived at different rankings but the same conclusion: the U.S. is not following best practices in aid transparency. The Quality of Official Development Assistance report, published Nov. 14 by the Brookings Institution and the Center for Global Development, ranked the U.S. 12th out of 31 donors in its Transparency and Learning category. While not a leader, this represented a significant improvement from the 2010 study, in which the U.S. scored 24th out of 31.

However, a study by Anirban Ghosh and Homi Kharas, published in the November issue of the journal World Development, ranked the U.S. 22nd out of 31 donors. Meanwhile, Publish What You Fund's Aid Transparency Index, published Nov. 15, examined 58 donor agencies, including six U.S. government agencies, which varied widely in their scores. The Millennium Challenge Corporation scored highest among U.S. agencies at 7th place, while the Defense Department ranked 46th and the Treasury Department's Office of Technical Assistance scored 49th.

Other Indices

These global studies join a short list of others, including the Open Budget Survey and the Revenue Watch Index, that systematically compare certain aspects of transparency across countries. Such studies can help advocates and public officials identify areas for improvement while demonstrating that increased transparency is achievable.

U.S. Ranking in Transparency Indices
AP FOIA audit (2011) 2nd category / 5
Global Right to Information Rating (2011) 36 / 89
Aid Transparency Index (2011) varies per agency, from 7 to 49 / 58
Ghosh/Kharas aid transparency ranking (2011) 22 / 31
Quality of Official Development Aid, Transparency and Learning category (2011) 12 / 31
Revenue Watch Index (2010) 11 / 41
Open Budget Survey (2010) 7 / 94

Learning from Others' Examples

The U.S. has expressed some willingness to learn from the successes of other countries, most notably in its role leading the multilateral Open Government Partnership (OGP). The national action plans each country produces under OGP form an implicit "race to the top," and the partnership also provides for the exchange of ideas and experience between countries. For instance, the U.S. OGP plan includes a commitment to join the international Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which would shed additional light on government revenues from mining and drilling, and implementation efforts are already under way. The U.S. also formed a bilateral partnership with India in 2010, and White House officials have expressed admiration of India's FOIA law. Nonetheless, these recent studies demonstrate that, despite recent progress, the U.S. still requires significant improvements to become an international leader on open government.

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