When Does Transparency Improve Performance? Evidence from 23,000 Public Projects in 148 Countries

Access to information (ATI) policies are often praised for enhancing transparency, accountability, and trust in public institutions, yet evidence that they lead to better governance outcomes is strikingly mixed. We argue that ATI policies do not improve institutional performance unless accompanied by mechanisms for preventing officials from avoiding compliance with information requests that could reveal poor performance. In addition, we expect such enforcement to deliver greater performance dividends in the presence of “police- patrol” oversight by political authorities and “fire-alarm” oversight by civic actors. We test our argument using a new dataset on the performance of more than 23,000 foreign aid projects financed by 12 bilateral and multilateral donor agencies in 148 countries between 1980 and 2016. We find that donor-level ATI policies are only associated with improved project outcomes when they include independent appeals processes for denied requests, and that this positive effect increases with fire-alarm but not police-patrol oversight.