One of the big questions in the transparency field is whether the disclosure of timely, contextualized information can change the behavior of individuals. In their 2008 book, Full Disclosure, Archon Fung, Mary Graham, and David Weil offer several examples of how regulated disclosure leads to more informed consumers and, ultimately, better services. For example, in 2000 SUV makers were required to warn potential consumers of the likelihood that the vehicle would roll over during a sharp turn. Consumers began to purchase SUVs with a low turnover probability, and as a result the car companies began to build safer SUVs. Similar anecdotes are offered for restaurant hygiene, water cleanliness, and corporate financial disclosure. (A good review of Full Disclosure by Clifford Winston is available on the Brookings Institute website.)

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Subsequent research has found that banking customers make better financial decisions when they are given clear information about fees and monthly payments. A number of studies have examined the effect of nutritional labels on food consumption. One study from 2006 found significant weight loss among a sample group of non-Hispanic white women after nutritional labels were introduced, though another study released last week found that labels only influence those customers that are intentionally trying to eat healthily, and has little affect on customers that are not concerned with healthy eating. Perhaps the most interesting research — also published last week — found that clear packaging dissuades us from eating unhealthy snacks like cookies, but also dissuades us from eating healthy snacks like carrots. The amoral takeaway from the American Marketing Association: cookie and baby carrot manufacturers alike should use opaque packaging.

The trend toward providing consumers with more information in order to make more informed decisions in the goods and services they purchase has resulted in a White House initiative led by Cass Sunstein called “Smart Disclosure.” However, Richard Thaler and Will Tucker, who planned the Smart Disclosure Summit with Sunstein, are the first to admit that smart disclosure is far from a magic bullet. As they wrote in the Harvard Business Review (full PDF here) earlier this year:

We are constantly confronted with information that is highly important but extremely hard to navigate or understand. Repeated attempts to improve disclosure, including efforts to translate complex contracts into “plain English,” have met with only modest success. This is not a reflection of the talent or effort of those trying to implement such changes. Rather, it indicates the fundamental difficulty of explaining anything complex in simple terms. Most people find it difficult to write instructions explaining how to tie a pair of shoelaces. Try it yourself and see.

Indeed, some critics believe so-called Smart Disclosure simply transfers the burden of quality control from the producer to the consumer. Rather than demanding that SUV makers disclose the danger of the cars they make, why not just require them to make safer SUVs? This is especially relevant in the area of health disclosure (which we touched on last week), where there is a lot of hype around mobile health apps, but not much evidence. Similarly, the same study that found that simple financial disclosure can lead to smarter decisions by banking customers also found that “translating complex financial calculations into plain language isn’t so easy to do, and some disclosures can even be misleading.” And while the Carbon Disclosure Project advocates for more transparency in carbon emissions, a recent study found that disclosing carbon emission information to travelers had little affect on their behavior. As Thaler and Tucker stress in their HRB piece, there is a limit to how much we are willing to sacrifice convenience.

If you’re interested in reading more about disclosure and behavioral change, check out Alex Howard’s piece on Smart Disclosure from last year and, from Thaler and Sunstein, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” Also, a timely Op-Ed from David Brooks: “The Nudge Debate.”

Also, make sure to check out Alex Howard’s new research project at the Transparency Policy Project on “networked transparency” platforms such as PatientsLikeMe, Safecast, and Google Flu Trends.

Shifting gears, two weeks ago we covered the rise of civic technology incubators. Well, this week marks the graduation of Code for America’s inaugural class of their incubator program, and to commemorate they have asked each of the three companies to publish a short post describing their experience. Here are those posts from Civic Insight, which started out as a project to identify and address blight in New Orleans; Textizen, a platform to connect governments with citizens through text message; and LocalData, a geospatial platform that enables local communities to collect data from smartphone and paper surveys. All three projects have received follow-on funding from Knight Foundation.

Parliamentary monitoring groups in Europe claimed a big win this week when the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) became the first international institution to endorse the declaration. Vukosava Crnjanski of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability already has her eyes set on the next challenge: implementing a common API across Europe. Currently the US Library of Congress is offering a $5,000 prize to markup legislative data using the Akomo Ntoso international standard.

Two weeks ago I reviewed the explosion of incubator programs and funds to support the use of technology to increase civic participation and accountability. In that post I stressed the importance of “learning and impact evaluation to ensure that the wheel isn’t continuously re-invented … whether it works or not.” This past week a number of new learning and evaluation initiatives were announced that will surely produce more findings than any one person can absorb. Among the new initiatives:

  • Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation has received $8.1 million from DFID and the Hewlett and Gates foundations for a five-year project to research the impact of community transparency and accountability initiatives on health and other social sector outcomes, beginning in Indonesia and Tanzania.
  • Simon C. O’Meally published a blog post summarizing the findings and implications of a new World Bank paper, Mapping Context for Social Accountability. In short, he proposes six key conditions that influence the effectiveness of social accountability interventions. They are: civil society, political society, inter-elite relations, state-society relations, intra-society relations, and global dimensions.
  • On a similar note, the Sunlight Foundation has asked four policy experts for their thoughts on the conditions that are conduce to effective transparency. Tim Davies stresses inclusiveness and partnerships. Greg Michener stresses visibility (completeness, findability) and inferability (the ability to draw accurate conclusions). Alice Powell, focusing on transparency around extractive industries, stresses the importance of context and political will. Finally, Alexander Furnas focuses on direct, tangible relevance to the life of the consumer of the transparency.
  • Lovers of acronyms can consult the TOR for the T-A-P nexus knowledge repository as part of TAI’s TALEARN. All this is to say that the Transparency and Accountability Initiative is hiring a consultant to collect transparency evaluation studies.
  • WeGov and the engine room have announced their first online skill shares for people using technology in transparency and accountability to learn from one another. It will focus on citizen participation to improve service delivery, and they are looking to convene 15 practitioners. If you’re interested, write to vila [at] theengineroom.org.

Upcoming Events

A much more thorough calendar of international open government events is maintained by Sunlight Foundation.

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