Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2016

Surfacing the Submerged State: Operational Transparency Increases Trust in and Engagement with Government

by Ryan W. Buell, Ethan Porter and Michael I. Norton


As Americans' trust in government nears historic lows, frustration with government performance approaches record highs. We propose that Americans’ views of government can be reshaped by increasing government’s operational transparency—that is, the extent to which citizens can see the often-hidden work that government performs. Across three studies using laboratory and field data, increasing operational transparency improves citizens’ views of and increases engagement with government. In Study 1 (N=554), viewing a five-minute computer simulation highlighting the work performed by the government of an archetypal American town—from building roads to ensuring food safety—increased trust in government and support for government services. In Study 2 (N=125), Boston residents who interacted with a website that visualizes both citizens’ service requests—such as potholes and broken streetlamps—and efforts by city government to address them became more trusting and supportive of government. Study 3 (N=21,986) was a natural experiment using data from a mobile phone application through which Boston residents submit service requests to their city government. Users who viewed photos of the city workers responding to their service requests were more likely to continue using the app over the ensuing 13 months, demonstrating that operational transparency led to sustained engagement with government.

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


Buell, Ryan W., Ethan Porter, and Michael I. Norton. "Surfacing the Submerged State: Operational Transparency Increases Trust in and Engagement with Government." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-034, November 2013. (Revised March 2016. Please contact the authors to request copy of this paper.)