Surfacing the Submerged State with Operational Transparency in Government Services
Executive Summary — Research shows that Americans' trust in government is near historic lows and frustration with government performance is approaching record highs. While debates rage about how effective government is in providing basic services, one explanation for these trends in public opinion is that, independent of effectiveness, many voters may simply be unaware that government provides any services at all. Previous research by the authors reveals that seeing the labor in which firms engage improves customer satisfaction. In this paper, the authors design and test an intervention targeted toward increasing citizens' awareness of the services provided by government. Specifically, they present the results of an experiment in which Boston-area residents interacted with a website that visualized the service requests submitted by members of the public and the City's efforts to address those requests. Does seeing the work of government—fixing potholes, repairing streetlamps, removing graffiti, collecting garbage—lead citizens to express more positive attitudes toward government and increase their support for maintaining and expanding the scale of government programs? The study shows that providing greater operational transparency into government's efforts to address citizens' needs can improve attitudes toward government. Key concepts include:
- Increasing the operational transparency of government services—showing citizens the work in which government is engaging on their behalf—engenders positive attitudes toward government and greater support for maintaining or expanding the scale of government programs.
- In the absence of transparency, constituent awareness of and appreciation for the services government provides may suffer.
As Americans' trust in government nears historic lows, frustration with government performance approaches record highs. One explanation for this trend is that citizens may be unaware of both the services provided by government and the impact of those services on their lives. In an experiment, Boston-area residents interacted with a website that visualizes both service requests submitted by the public (e.g., potholes and broken streetlamps) and efforts by the City of Boston to address them. Some participants observed a count of new, open, and recently closed service requests, while others viewed these requests visualized on an interactive map that included details and images of the work being performed. Residents who experienced this "operational transparency" in government services-seeing the work that government is doing-expressed more positive attitudes toward government and greater support for maintaining or expanding the scale of government programs. The effect of transparency on support for government programs was equivalent to a roughly 20% decline in conservatism on a political ideology scale. We further demonstrate that positive attitudes about government partially mediate the relationship between operational transparency and support for maintaining and expanding government programs. While transparency is customarily trained on elected officials as a means of ethical oversight, our research documents the benefits of increased transparency into the delivery of government services.