Translating policy transparency into policy understanding and policy support: Evidence from a survey experiment

AuthorMaria Cucciniello,Greta Nasi,Nicola Bellé,Gregory Porumbescu
Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
Translating policy transparency into policy
understanding and policy support: Evidence from
a survey experiment
Gregory Porumbescu
| Nicola Bellé
| Maria Cucciniello
| Greta Nasi
School of Public Affairs and Administration,
Rutgers University Newark, Newark, NJ
Institute of Management, Scuola Superiore
Sant'Anna, Pisa, Italy
Department of Policy Analysis and Public
Management, Bocconi University, Milan, Italy
Department of Public Administration,
Bocconi University, Milan, Italy
Gregory Porumbescu, School of Public Affairs
and Administration, Rutgers University
Newark, 111 Washington Street, Newark,
NJ 07102.
While transparency is viewed as a means of improving citizen
understanding of public policies and eliciting policy support, there
are few empirical assessments of these relationships. We address
this gap in the literature using an experimental design. We predict
that exposure to less detailed policy information improves policy
understanding, and that this effect varies according to presenta-
tion format. Further, we predict that policy understanding will
correspond to greater policy support. Using a nationally represen-
tative panel of US citizens we find that exposure to detailed policy
information decreases policy understanding and that the effect
varies by presentation format. In addition, policy understanding is
negatively associated with policy support. These findings culmi-
nate in a positive indirect effectincreasing detail reduces under-
standing, which in turn is negatively associated with policy
support. However, interestingly, policy support was highest among
those who felt they understood the policy best, yet possessed the
lowest levels of actual understanding.
Citizens are often found to lack an understanding of how public policies benefit them or society in general (Delli
Carpini and Keeter 1996; Mettler 2011). This lack of understanding is problematic because it can result in a host of
issues, ranging from adverse policy selection, to low trust in government, to breakdowns in democratic accountabil-
ity mechanisms (Cook et al. 2010; Mettler 2011; Koch and Mettler 2012). In this sense, an uninformed citizenry
poses a fundamental challenge to the ability of government to effectively function.
In light of the problems ascribed to an uninformed citizenry, transparency has long been extolled as a means of
ensuring that public institutions function effectively (Hood and Held 2008). This is because transparency empowers
citizens to better understand what their government is doing and why. Such knowledge can empower citizens to
make decisions that more closely reflect their best interests, strengthen relationships between citizens and their
government and foster more accountable and responsive public organizations (Fung et al. 2007; Porumbescu 2015).
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12347
990 © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Public Administration. 2017;95:9901008.
In this respect, much of the transformative potential of transparency can be traced back to its ability to improve citi-
zensunderstanding of what their government is doing.
Today, a rapidly growing body of literature has begun to examine the extent to which transparency is actually
capable of achieving the goals often attributed to it (Cucciniello et al. 2017). In general, these studies have helped
to advance our understanding of the implications of transparency by offering greater insight into how transparency
influences constructs such as trust in government, perceptions of legitimacy or financial management. However,
despite the valuable contributions this line of research has made, it offers little insight into how transparency can
actually be used to improve citizensunderstanding of government or how such an understanding can, in turn, shape
the attitudes and behaviours of citizens (Cook et al. 2010). This is because throughout much of the literature gau-
ging the impacts of transparency, transparency's ability to improve citizensunderstanding of government is not
explicitly accounted for, but rather assumed.
This gap in the public administration literature points to an unbalanced treatment of the often-highlighted trans-
formative potential of transparency in that we spend more time understanding the effects of transparency and very
little time studying the processes that generate these effects (Fung 2013). Consequently, from an instrumental per-
spective, we know very little about how transparency works because we know very little about how transparency
shapes citizensunderstanding of their government and how this understanding in turn bears upon outcomes of
interest such as policy support.
This study takes an initial step toward addressing this foundational gap in the public administration literature.
To do so, we divide our assessment into two distinct, yet interrelated, objectives. The first research objective is to
explore how transparency can be used to improve citizensunderstanding of public policyare some methods of
enhancing transparency more effective than others? The second objective of this study is to gain insight into how a
citizen's understanding of a public policy is associated with their support for the policy. Today, much of the political
science and public administration literature tacitly assumes that citizens who understand government policies pos-
sess different preferences from those who do not. However, there are very few explicit empirical tests of this
often-made assumption.
To examine these research objectives, we carry out our analysis in two stages. For the first stage, we use a sur-
vey experiment to demonstrate how the relationship between transparency and citizensunderstanding of public
policy varies according to qualities of the message. For the second stage of our analysis, drawing upon the same
experiments, we examine how policy understanding relates to levels of policy support. Qualities of the message we
focus upon are level of detail and the way the information is presented.
Government transparency refers to the extent to which external actors, such as citizens, are able to regularly access
information that allows them to understand what their government is doing (Grimmelikhuijsen and Meijer 2014;
Porumbescu 2015). Government transparency is shaped by two factors. The first is the degree to which external
actors, such as citizens, have regular access to relevant information that allows them to monitor their government.
The second factor relates to the extent to which the information that government allows external actors, such as
citizens, to access is understandable.
Extant transparency research emphasizes structural determinants of transparency, such as government's disclo-
sure and citizen access to information (Piotrowski and Rosenbloom 2002; Fox 2007; Michener 2015). Conversely,
there are very few attempts to examine ways of ensuring that the information disclosed is understandable to the
general public. Because this study assesses policy understanding and policy support, the specific form of transpar-
ency dealt with in this study is policy transparency. As Grimmelikhuijsen and colleagues (2013, p. 576) explain, pol-
icy transparency refers to the information disclosed by government about the policy itself, and therefore outlines

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