Transparency is a characteristic of government, companies, organisations and individuals that are open in the clear disclosure of information, rules, plans, processes and actions. Simply making information available is not sufficient to achieve transparency; information needs to be managed and published so it is relevant, accessible, timely and accurate. Kosack and Fung (2014) distinguish four types of transparency:

  • the right to government information, embodied in freedom of information laws
  • transparency around private organisations and corporate behaviour, often spurred by consumer campaigns
  • government regulatory transparency, such as on financial disclosure
  • transparency for accountability, which can help improve delivery of public services

Transparency for accountability reflects an evolution of transparency from an end in itself, to a tool for dealing with practical and specific concerns of government performance (Kosack & Fung, 2014).

Within a development context, transparency and accountability initiatives have emerged over the last decade and a half as a way to address developmental failures and democratic deficits. The 2004 World Development Report, Making Services Work for Poor People, placed accountability relationships among policy makers, service providers, and clients at the core of development effectiveness (World Bank, 2003).

Traditional supply-side or institutional ways of delivering accountability, such as elections or intra-government controls, have had limited impact, especially where citizens are poor or marginalised. This has led to mechanisms emerging in which citizens demand accountability outside of formal procedures. This emerging field of social accountability combines initiatives designed to improve transparency and access to information with other ways of holding institutions to account, including the provision of choice (see Gaventa & McGee, 2013).