Government transparency is widely considered to be one of the most important means for combating public corruption, a sentiment nicely captured by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous observation (in a somewhat different context) that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” For this reason, many anticorruption activists lobby for the adoption of strong freedom of information (FOI) laws—laws that not only obligate the government to regularly publish certain types of information, but also to respond promptly to citizen requests for a wide range of government records and documents. The thinking is that government corruption is easier to detect when citizens, civil society organizations, and the media can scrutinize information about government operations.
I count myself firmly in the camp of those who tend to believe that FOI laws are useful anticorruption tools, especially given the strong evidence that citizen and media access to government information can indeed help reduce corruption and hold officials accountable (see, for example, here, here, and here). And because of this, I would expect the evidence to indicate that when a country (or sub-national jurisdiction) adopts a stronger FOI law, corruption should decrease afterwards. But I’ve been looking into the research on this recently, and most of the results don’t fit well with my expectations. Long story short, the (admittedly limited) quantitative empirical evidence does not find a strong correlation between the adoption of a strong FOI law and a subsequent decrease in corruption; if anything, the evidence actually seems to suggest that the adoption of a strong FOI law may be followed by an increase in (perceived or detected) corruption.
Does this mean that FOI laws are ineffective or even counterproductive? I don’t think so, for reasons I’ll lay out in a moment. But I do think it’s worthwhile—especially for those of us who are inclined to support broad FOI laws—to consider the evidence carefully and reflect a bit on what it might mean.
So, what does the evidence on the relationship between FOI laws and corruption look like?
- One line of research looks across countries, classifying countries by the existence and/or strength of their FOI laws, and seeing how that variable relates to (perceived) corruption (typically measured by various international indexes, like the International Country Risk Guide (ICRG), Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI), or Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI)). Some of this research simply looks at a cross-section of countries to see whether countries with (strong) FOI laws have lower perceived corruption than countries with no (or weak) FOI laws. This is a problematic approach, however, because it’s hard to isolate the causal effect of FOI laws on perceived corruption, especially since other factors (including general political culture and history) may affect both corruption and the likelihood of adopting an FOI law. And even putting that concern to one side, the results of such research are at best mixed. One study did find that countries that had an FOI law in 2002 had higher average ICRG scores over the preceding two decades (1984-1993), but the result did not hold up when using the WGI score (from 1996-2002) as an alternative measure of corruption. Other research, using different control variables, failed to find statistically significant correlations between the strength of countries’ FOI laws and their perceived corruption scores
- Other cross-country research tries to isolate the causal effect of the adoption of FOI laws by looking across time, rather than simply across countries. This line of research identifies moments when countries adopted or strengthened their FOI laws, and assesses whether such legal changes are followed by notable changes in countries’ perceived corruption scores on various international indexes. (These studies typically use change in the ICRG corruption index to measure change in corruption perceptions over time, though they also sometimes consider the CPI, which I don’t think is a good idea for reasons I’ve discussed at length earlier. There are difficulties with the ICRG as well, though over-time comparisons may be somewhat more defensible with these measures than with the CPI.) One might have expected that the adoption or strengthening of a country’s FOI law would lead to a subsequent improvement in the country’s score on these indexes—that is, a reduction in perceived corruption—but that’s generally not what the research has found. One study, which examined 128 countries from 1984-2003, found no statistically significant overall correlation between the adoption of an FOI law and subsequent changes in perceived corruption. Moreover, when the analysis was restricted to a sub-sample of developing countries, the implementation of an FOI law had a statistically significant correlation with a subsequent increase in perceived corruption. Another study, which used slightly different samples and statistical techniques, similarly found that the adoption of an FOI law was associated with a statistically significant increase in perceived corruption, most notably in the first four years following adoption of the law.
- This cross-country research has been complemented by some within-country research that takes advantage of variation across jurisdictions. One notable study in this vein looked at U.S. states over time, to see what happened in states that strengthened their state-level FOI laws. Here, the outcome variable of interest was not a perception index, but rather the per capita number of federal corruption convictions of state and local officials. The study found that in states that strengthened their FOI laws, federal corruption convictions of in-state officials went up—in particular, the number of convictions in the period 2-7 years after the legal change appears notably higher than the number of convictions in the period 2-4 years before the change. (It’s worth noting, though, that this result is only weakly statistically significant.)
What should we make of this? These results are certainly contrary to my expectations, and have forced me to consider more seriously the possibility that FOI laws might not be as effective an anticorruption tool as I’d previously imagined. Nonetheless, I can think at least two reasons why the above results might be entirely consistent with the hypothesis that FOI laws do, in fact, decrease corruption.
- First, the outcome variables in these studies do not actually measure corruption. The various indexes like the ICRG measure perceived corruption, while the law enforcement data measures corruption convictions. The fact that our usual proxies for corruption are not the same as actual corruption is of course well-known. In many research contexts, that’s not too much of a problem, but here it may be, because if FOI laws work, they do so by revealing information about corruption, information that can then be used to hold corrupt officials accountable. One would expect this effect particularly in the short-term, before government officials adjust their behavior (either by refraining from improper activity, or finding ways to better conceal their activities). So, at the cross-country level, the apparent worsening of the perceived corruption score may be due not to an actual increase in corruption, but rather to more discovery of corrupt activity. Put another way, an FOI law might have cross-cutting effects—lower overall corruption but greater awareness of corruption—which might offset. With respect to the conviction data in the U.S. study noted above, we face a similar issue: an FOI law might decrease corruption (which, holding detection probability constant, would reduce corruption convictions rates), but might also increase detection (which, holding corruption levels constant, would increase corruption conviction rates). Indeed, the authors of that study interpreted their results as evidence that FOI laws are effective—these researchers assumed that the higher conviction rates mean better detection. I think they jumped to that conclusion a tad too quickly, but it’s certainly possible. Unfortunately, the research I’ve seen hasn’t come up with a good way to disentangle these cross-cutting effects, making the results difficult to interpret.
- Second, reverse causality (“endogeneity” in the social science jargon) is a major concern here. Countries or states don’t adopt FOI laws randomly; they do so when there’s sufficient political pressure to do so. And jurisdictions may be particularly likely to adopt such laws in the wake of major corruption scandals (or due to a general sense that corruption is getting worse). If that’s right, then jurisdictions that strengthen their FOI laws will be disproportionately those where we would already expect a significant worsening in their corruption perception (or an increase in corruption convictions of their officials). The fact that that worsening doesn’t show up in the data until after the adoption of the FOI law isn’t all that surprising. It takes time for corruption scandals to show up in international indexes, and there can be a gap of several years between the revelation of a corruption scandal and a conviction. So again, we have potentially cross-cutting effects: It’s possible that a worsening corruption situation increases the likelihood of adopting a FOI law, and it’s also possible that adopting an FOI law reduces corruption, relative to what it would have been in the law’s absence. (I should note that most of the studies I referenced above acknowledge this possibility and try to address it, but—for reasons I won’t go into here—I did not find the proposed solutions convincing.)
Where does that leave us? I fear I can’t really offer a satisfying conclusion here. For the reasons just noted, I don’t think the available empirical evidence offers a convincing refutation of the hypothesis that FOI laws are effective anticorruption tools, but nor does the evidence provide strong support for that hypothesis. I remain sympathetic to the idea that FOI laws are useful measures that more countries should adopt, but I’m less sure about that than I was before I started digging into the research.