In response to my earlier question, I received valuable insights from Patrizia Fariselli of Universita’ Cattolica di Milano. (Thanks!) Her main argument is that transparency counts only if “related to specific policy/bureaucratic objects and processes”. My argument is that (web-based) transparency could drive this change, rather than wait for it to happen.

I agree on the above comments, but they claim for a clearer definition of transparency, whose ambiguity explains the current rhetorical, often misleading use.

Transparency is not a quality per se – as ‘good governance’ is. In a democratic setting transparency gets value when and if it is functional to the achievement of good governance. In a democratic setting, government (Gov) and public administration (PA) play a public role – to serve the collective – under the collective’s political mandate. Over time, the cumulative knowledge, competence, and practice of Gov/PA apparatus concur to a stability and effectiveness net effect, against the political turnover. Yet, that does not justify any conceptual separation between the policy making/bureaucratic sphere and the citizens sphere, whose continuous interplay make sense of the ‘public’ quality of the Gov/PA role and services.

Instead, such a separation is implicitly assumed in the models forcing the Gov/PA/citizens political relationship into the management mono-dimension, where efficiency and consumer satisfaction become the prevailing evaluation criteria. Within these models, which transform the interactive/political relationship into a vertical/managerial one, the Gov/PA are or are to be (with the support of digital network technologies) efficient suppliers of services to the tax payers/consumers.

Within such a framework, the notion of transparency is the same as in the market context: it addresses typical performance, competition and consumer choice issues, although in the public sphere there are no competitors, no prices, no alternative goods/services.

For citizens/consumers transparency would mean to be ensured that the service is available at the lower cost and that the supplied service is exactly the necessary one.

Further transparency, such as a (digital) window to watch policy makers and bureaucrats at work, or an electronic cahier de doleances for connected citizens, is as much possible as much inessential, because citizens/consumers are given voice options in a double disproportionate way: on the one hand, minorities of citizens accessing additional communication (digital) channels may over-influence the political and policy course, but on the other hand, that would create a mediatic distorsion more than an impact on the political/policy processes.

Within the model of political mandate from citizens to administrators serving the collective with public services, transparency takes a different and more substantial meaning. It has to do with control, accountability, feed-back and change. These criteria make transparency an effective tool for policy evaluation and design, to the extent it penetrates into policy making and bureaucratic processes – that is it becomes structural component – instead of an imperfect overlap of separated communication channels with unbalanced power.

Therefore transparency does not matter per se, but it matters if tightly coupled with specific policy/bureaucratic objects and processes. More than a one-way effort of good-will citizens/consumers to break the glass protecting the ‘suppliers’, transparency must have an organisational dimension, which may be dramatically enhanced in the so-called e-Government.

Citizens’ access to public information related to specific policy/bureaucratic objects and processes is indispensable to make transparency an effective tool for improving the interactive/political relationship between citizens and administrators, rather than a rhetorical escamotage. Open access to public information increases the power of control/feedback/change not only of the end-segment of the political chain (the individual citizen), but also of the intermediaries – who need to be insiders to play their role – and of the Gov/PA communities, who are not only dispenser, but also users of public information for implementing and for being accountable for ‘good governance’.