The internet has revolutionized information sharing, and government transparency is no exception.
A decade ago, it would have been impractical to learn which campaigns had received large contributions from friends, but today’s mashups of campaign records and Facebook allow people to learn this information in just a few clicks.
This is great news for citizens. Having information more accessible is good for everyone. But a new study shows citizens question this conclusion.
Six researchers, including two from the University of Washington, co-authored a paper “Attitudes Toward Online Availability of U.S. Public Records” presented at the Proceedings of the 12th Annual International Digital Government Research Conference in College Park, Md. The report deals with the intersection of government transparency and privacy, and notes the increased friction between the two now that new technologies have increased the accesibility of personal information.
The researchers received surveys from 134 men and women in the Pacific Northwest asking questions about their political activity and real estate information.
Most respondents were comfortable with information being searched by region or zip code, but that comfort level dropped in reference to searches revealing more specific information such as names, addresses and occupations. The respondents not previously aware of disclosure laws regarding campaign contributions were more likely to want the records restricted in some way. One respondent wrote, “This issue has already made us unlikely to ever donate to a presidential campaign again.”
Surprisingly, respondents expressed greater comfort with fellow U.S. citizens accessing their records than noncitizens or those living in the country illegally.
As government transparency continues being a prescient concern for citizens, psychological research such as the University of Washington study provides information that could help shape attitudes. When the culture of government is such that openness becomes a priority and not a threat, everyone benefits, and the information gained from the University of Washington can help improve this culture. That sort of information on attitudes also helps draw a line between transparency and invasions of privacy, giving guidance policy makers on how best to walk that line.