Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2013

Surfacing the Submerged State with Operational Transparency in Government Services

by Ryan W. Buell and Michael I. Norton

Abstract

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.

Keywords: Programs; Perception; Attitudes; Performance; Corporate Governance; Government Administration; Public Administration Industry; Boston;

Citation:

Buell, Ryan W., and Michael I. Norton. "Surfacing the Submerged State with Operational Transparency in Government Services." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-034, November 2013.