The Uncertain Relationship between Transparency and Accountability

Jonathan Fox


What kinds of transparency lead to what kinds of accountability, and under what conditions? This article from Development in Practice suggests that transparency can be ‘opaque’ (the dissemination of information that does not reveal how institutions actually behave) or ‘clear’ (access to reliable information about institutional behaviour). Accountability can be ‘soft’ (‘answerability’ – demanding answers from duty-bearers) or ‘hard’ (answers plus consequences). Information dissemination does not automatically lead to answerability, nor answerability to the possibility of sanctions. If access to information is to guarantee the sanctions that hard accountability requires, public sector as well as civil society actors must intervene.

Civil society campaigners have incorporated the right to know into their strategies and tactics. The hope is that transparency will empower efforts to change the behaviour of powerful institutions by holding them accountable in the public eye. Evidence of transparency’s impacts on accountability is not as strong as one might expect, however, and the nature of these impacts is not straightforward.

To explain why some forms of transparency are better able to leverage accountability than others, it is useful to distinguish between different types of transparency and accountability.

  • Opaque transparency involves the dissemination of information that does not reveal how institutions actually behave in practice in terms of how they make decisions, or the results of their actions. It also refers to information that is nominally divulged, or turns out to be unreliable. (An example of opaque transparency is ostensibly public USA data on farm subsidies that required heavy investment from a watchdog to make it accessible.)
  • Clear transparency refers to information-access policies and programmes that reveal reliable information about institutional performance, responsibilities and spending. (Examples of clear transparency include civil-society data about human-rights violations, independent ombudsman reports and publically accessible third-party policy evaluations.)
  • Soft accountability is demanding that duty-bearers justify their decisions – answerability.
  • Hard accountability includes answerability plus the possibility of sanctions.

These distinctions are necessary because the concepts of transparency and accountability overlap, and one does not necessarily lead to the other. When only information access is present, an institution is transparent, but not accountable, because accountability includes the capacity to sanction or compensate. The capacity to demand explanations is an area of overlap between transparency and accountability.

  • If transparency policies are going to meet their goals of transforming institutional behaviour, they must be explicit in terms of who does what and who gets what.
  • Other public sector actors must also intervene, however, as even clear transparency does not guarantee hard accountability. (In the example of farm subsidies, despite impressive media impact generated by public-interest groups, US government payments to large agribusiness corporations actually increased.)
  • The most meaningful kind of answerability is produced by public and civil-society agencies with the power not only to reveal existing data, but also to investigate and produce information about institutional behaviour. This capacity to produce answers permits the construction of the right to accountability.
  • Addressing hard accountability involves dealing with the nature of the governing regime and civil society’s capacity to encourage public accountability institutions to do their jobs.


Fox, J., 2007, ‘The Uncertain Relationship between Transparency and Accountability’, Development in Practice, vol. 17, nos. 4 & 5, pp. 663–671