How the Pressure to Conform Could Make Governments More Transparent

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Researchers cast new light on sunshine laws.

By Nathan Collins

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(Photo: Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr)

In theory, the Freedom of Information Act makes it easier for citizens to understand their government, and for journalists to uncover incompetence and malfeasance. Yet it remains a challenge to get officials to release some records. Now, a team of political and computer scientists have figured out something that boosts transparency: the pressure to conform.

“There’s this gray area” when it comes to public records requests, says Bruce Desmarais, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University, that can be difficult for governments to navigate—so much so that some officials might not even know if they’re legally allowed to release particular records.

What could help, Desmarais and co-authors James Ben-Aaron, Matthew Denny, and Hanna Wallach argue, is knowing whether other governments decided to release similar records. If the county next door released some documents, an official might think, then maybe we should too.

To see whether “conformity pressure” could have the desired effect, the team conducted an experiment as part of an ongoing, National Science Foundation-funded project on local government email communication. First, they requested three months’ worth of emails for 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, eight of which complied. The researchers next sent similar requests to the remaining 60 counties, but, for half of those, they added a little nudge:

For your reference, we would like to let you know that we have issued this request to other county governments in North Carolina. A number of them have already fulfilled our request, including Polk County, McDowell County, Columbus County, Person County, Lincoln County, Alexander County, Dare County, and Transylvania County.

The 30 counties that received that note responded a few days earlier than the others, on average. They were more likely to comply with the requests—35 percent of those who got the nudge released emails, compared with 21 percent of the other counties. And the effect was stronger among counties that bordered one of the eight initial compliers, Desmarais says, suggesting that officials will feel more pressure to comply—or at least feel like they have better legal standing to comply—when their nearest neighbors do too.

“We think this is an interesting area to study because there’s a lot of folklore”—anecdotes from journalists, lawyers, and others about how to get requests met—“but there’s been very little scientific investigation,” says Wallach, the computer scientist in the group.

These scientific results could provide a practical road map for those in search of public records, Wallach and Desmarais argue. Transparency advocates, for example, should call attention to cases where other governments released public records, and when requesting documents from multiple organizations, journalists, researchers, and others should do so sequentially, giving them the opportunity to highlight other agencies that have already complied with their requests.

The research is forthcoming in the journal Public Administration Review.

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