Active transparency and trust in parliament

By WFD Director of Research Graeme Ramshaw

The WFD Research Programme has been investigating citizens’ trust in parliament both in partnership with the UK House of Commons and through its work on the Western Balkans Regional Openness Index with ActionSEE. We found that the picture is neither as rosy nor as gloomy as others contend.

In September 2017, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) published a reported entitled “Trust: The Fight to Win It Back” reflecting the international community’s growing concern about the disconnect between citizens and their governments. The report’s content is rich, and I won’t attempt to summarise it here, but the underlying premise for many of the authors was the prominence of transparency in the quest for improved citizen trust. Now, I’m not about to argue on the side of less transparency, but I think that in the context of the institutions with which WFD works the reality is more complex.

First, there is an issue with presenting trust as a principal objective for parliaments and political parties. Parties are partisan entities and by their very nature will only be trusted by those who align with the party’s platform. Trying to gain the trust of more of the citizenry may dilute the important function that parties serve in aggregating specific interests. This is distinct, of course, from individual politicians being trustworthy, and there is ample evidence that citizens can hold diverging opinions on the integrity of their specific MP versus the institutions to which he or she belongs (Costa et al., 2012; Davis, 2009).

Parliaments find garnering trust equally difficult. They are designed as fora of debate, making partisan ‘bickering’ a feature rather than anomaly of their function. In an era of growing political polarisation, this makes trust an increasingly rare commodity. Indeed, evidence from the World Values Survey suggests that parliamentary trust generally hovers around 40% in established democracies, with very little movement either way. Interestingly, trust in parliaments in authoritarian regimes is significantly higher, also bringing into question the validity of trust as an indicator for democratic legislatures.

On the extent to which transparency leads to trust, there also remains no clear consensus. Recent evidence finds that in several countries, the more citizens know about the workings of parliament as an institution, the less they trust it or are satisfied by it (Hansard Society, 2017). This has led some scholars to openly question the link between transparency and trust: “Not only have MPs never worked so hard, but also transparency has never been so high and there has never been so much information or access to parliament. What is more, decline in trust in parliament depends more on variables external to parliament than on what parliament actually does. However, as collective, visible and accountable institutions, parliaments are destined to be unloved” (Leston-Bandeira, 2012, p. 525).

While trust in political institutions is likely to remain elusive, we can encourage greater engagement and satisfaction of citizens through transparency efforts. But the quality of that transparency matters. Passive transparency, the publication of data, proceedings, and other documentation without description or explanation, is insufficient, and in worst cases, can be manipulated by those seeking to undermine trust in democratic institutions—a point acknowledged in the OGP report.

What is needed instead is active transparency where parliaments and political parties are not only open about their activities but actively communicate the rationale, purpose, and outcome of these activities. Parliamentary communications remains a nascent field at present, but its development is necessary to ensure that open data initiatives progress beyond merely presenting material to creating genuine citizen access. WFD through our partnership with OGP and others looks forward to supporting this transition and the emergence of truly open parliaments and political parties.

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