Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation The Transparency Policy Project

Research & Publications

Transparency is a simple idea that is exceedingly complicated in practice. At best, transparency can improve markets and governments. At worst, policies that claim to provide the public with information about the toxic chemicals they breathe, what's in the food they eat, or which cars or hospitals are safest can end up deceiving consumers or citizens into making bad choices. They can make the failings of markets and governments worse.
In our books, articles and ongoing research, we try to understand how transparency works—or fails to work—in different circumstances and how it can become a more effective tool of governance. You will find the most complete statement of our findings in Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency. In articles and working papers, we explore how transparency can inform choices and improve companies' practices and products —from workplace hazards, to greenhouse gases, to healthy foods.

In our research, we aim to refine the understanding of the effectiveness of transparency policies. Effectiveness requires that the new information provided becomes an intrinsic part of the decision-making routines of users and disclosers, altering their behaviors in the intended direction. Cognitive limitations, opportunistic behavior by firms that try to game the system, and lack of real choice for information users are important factors that can limit effectiveness. In our book and articles we analyze the conditions for effectiveness and provide suggestions for crafting effective transparency.

Another central idea is that only transparency policies that are dynamic and evolve to address new risks and changes in the behaviors of users and disclosers are sustainable. Key elements for sustainability are increasing the scope of information disclosure, the accuracy and quality of information, and its use by consumers, investors and employees. Static transparency policies can become obsolete and fail to protect consumers in the long run. 
In our ongoing research, we examine some of the frontiers in transparency as a tool of social policy. Can consumers share information among themselves about safety problems in early warning systems that save lives? Can more government transparency improve health outcomes in developing countries? And how should policy makers choose between transparency and other regulatory options to reduce risks? 

For more information on how targeted transparency works, see our FAQs or contact us.