The issue of transparency has been analysed only marginally by studies examining Port Authority (PA) communications in terms of disclosed contents. A content analysis of annual reports of 38 PAs by Parola et al. (2013) examined the innovativeness and potential determinants of the disclosed corporate communication. Notteboom et al (2015) evaluated the annual reports of the Port of Rotterdam Authority, investigating information disclosure as a tool for successfully managing the evolving interests of stakeholders and supporting the implementation of corporate strategy in the management of critical issues. These studies revealed the changing importance of topics reported over time; external pressures and internal key events have led to a shift from financial and governance issues towards broader community themes, like environment and safety/security.

In a more explicit manner, port transparency has been part of studies targeting the assessment of national port governance models. Verhoeven and Vanoutrive (2012) identified four port types using factor analysis on a database of 116 port authorities containing 72 variables. Corporate governance variables played a role in the allocation of ports to groupings by autonomy, port proactiveness, transparency in financial accounting, contracting out, and public versus private funding. In other words, they found four port types and concluded that governance matters. Examining port governance in Canada, Brooks (2017) questioned, among other topics, whether given the potential for private equity participation, Canadian Port Authorities (CPAs) meet the ‘good governance’ principles expected of Canadian publicly traded companies. Focusing on how competition is driving change in port governance, strategic decision-making and government policy in the US, Knatz (2017) addressed action taken by the Texas legislature due to finding a lack of transparency at the Port of Houston as part of ‘fixing the governance’ exercise. More than a decade earlier, Ubbels (2005) studied the Hamburg–Le Havre range in Europe, and advocated that the low levels of transparency and the differences in (national) port management styles are the two major institutional barriers to the creation of a level playing field in the European port industry. Given the competitive nature of the port industry, with almost all ports seeking to be industry leaders, the quality of governance must come into play.

Brooks and Pallis (2012) noted that 63 of 69 ports studied (69 of the 125 largest ports in the world) had a ‘Board of Directors’ (BoD) but what those BoDs did, how they were directed and what their priorities were, differed, calling this ‘the myth of the perfect model.’ It is common in state-owned or state-related entities, and, not least, personally experienced by the researchers, that political influence and/or connections might be critical for the work of a port’s BoD. Besides, public control in such entities frequently translates to many prominent local politicians and former bureaucrats and few independent directors serving the respective Boards. In this context, politically connected BoD members might pursue other than expected goals (Menozzi and Vannoni 2014). They might prefer serving political alliances, in order to perpetuate their tenure on the board and keep themselves in the limelight. Following political masters (who appointed you) is the way towards reappointment or, in some cases, re-election. Other goals, like securing funding for the local community or pursuing a political mission, might be prioritised making the difference in a port’s ability to compete.

Studies indicate that transparency issues come into play when discussing the effectiveness of port governance as well as decision-making by the entity assigned with the responsibility of managing the port. To our best knowledge no study in the port governance literature exists that has actually clearly defined transparency or compared practices in the port sector. As the variety of governance models increases (see the recap of trends in 24 different countries in Brooks et al. 2017), a detailed examination of the level(s) of transparency in place would help evaluate (a) whether any or all ports are today more transparent than in the past; and (b) whether different choices with respect to the interplay of the public and private sector in the governance of ports might affect transparency levels.

Port governance and reforms are frequently highly politicized processes affected by the institutional setting, i.e., the rules and norms of the economies within which they are embedded (Ng and Pallis 2010; Notteboom et al 2021). The levels of transparency of any entity like a PA—whether public, private, or a hybrid (features of both)—are frequently imposed by national legislation and regulatory mechanisms, which in turn are subject to the cultural dynamics of the political economy within which they are embedded. In Latin America, for example, this political economy is infused with cultural imprints, such as persistent military intervention, patronage networks and external intervention by powerful private or government forces, i.e., a context designed by a powerful set of actors unwilling to face up to the connected corruption (Brown and Cloke 2004). The transport sector in general and the port sector specifically would not be unaffected, both because of its vital role in the economy, and the magnitude of investments and accompanying financial operations. Due to the latter, transparency related to the governance, funding, and financing of transport infrastructure has been seen as important, by both scholars (O’Brien et al. 2019) and government initiatives examining corruption worldwide (i.e., Transparency International 2019). However, neither the relationship between transparency and the current institutional setting nor the role of path dependency might be linear; as Notteboom et al. (2013) advocated, a PA’s routines might demonstrate the institutional plasticity to recombine and convert or reinterpret their institutional setting for their own objectives. Thus, different regions and countries were included in this study to understand the extent that cultural and institutional factors might be decisive for the levels of port transparency, and good governance.

Seeking to capture the influence of national institutions and port specific characteristics in sustainability reporting, Santos et al (2016) used content analysis to analyse the extent and content of one dimension of transparency (i.e., corporate sustainability information) disclosed in the websites of 186 European seaports. Applying institutional theory, the scholars suggest that institutional context and institutional pressures, exerted by society and by cities where ports are located, are important to justify sustainability communication by ports (i.e., coercive, normative and mimetic pressures can explain the variety of the performance observed), and suggested that there is still much work to be done by ports in reporting, and further research to be conducted as regards communication of ports with stakeholders.

Dimensions of transparency

Transparency is a multidimensional concept that cannot be thoroughly explored by a single study. It is generally associated with information flows, formal disclosure policies, and publication approaches, as well as discussions and meetings with stakeholders. Communication protocols are also relevant; for example, has the port kept pace with newer ways to communicate, like websites and social media, or are they still publishing notices in newspapers that a large segment of the population no longer reads?

The etymological meaning of transparency refers to ‘seeing through’ or making visible, which is then commonly defined as the principle of enabling stakeholders to gain information about the operations and structures of a given entity. Transparency is often considered synonymous with openness/disclosure (cf. Finel and Lord 1999; Heald 2006; Hood 2006), and facilitating trust (Valentinov et al. 2019; Hultman and Axelsson 2007; Schnackenberg and Tomlinson 2016). Despite a wide use of the concept of transparency, its definition(s) remain(s) somewhat opaque, vague and volatile (Williams 2005; Michener and Bersch 2013; Albu and Flyverboom 2016). Thus, a detailed examination of the concept is used to define the limits of the current research and future research gaps and needs.

Michener and Bersch (2013) define two dimensions of transparency, visibility and inferability. Visibility refers to the degree to which information is complete and easily located (visible). Inferability concerns the extent to which the information, in its form and content, can be used to draw accurate conclusions. These dimensions are interdependent with their combination creating transparency at it base level. An asymmetry is embodied in this definition: “the qualities of visibility are intrinsic to the information, whereas inferability is also contingent on the receptive capacity of the intended audience hence inferability depends on the target audience” (Michener and Bersch 2013: 238). Albu and Flyverboom (2016) describe two other approaches, verifiability and performativity. Verifiability considers a “view of transparency as a matter of information disclosure, a focus on the quality and quantity of information that permits to fully observe organizational action, and a means of solving organizational and societal problems by improving the effectiveness and quality of transparency” (Albu and Flyverboom 2016: 289). Performativity sees transparency as a process which induces social action; a focus on the conflicts, tensions, and negotiations that can arise as a result of the dynamics specific to acts of making things visible in organizations; and an understanding that transparency enactment creates unintended consequences and leads to the management of visibilities in organizational settings (Albu and Flyverboom 2016).

Based on this, a nested concept of the dimensions of transparency emerges (Fig. 1), which enables us to delineate our current research as being focused primarily on visibility.

Fig. 1
figure1

Source: Authors’ own elaboration

Nested dimensions of transparency.

Within the context of verifiability the concept of information disclosure or visibility stands in the centre of the discussion (Eijffinger and Geraats 2006; Wehmeier and Raaz 2012; Berglund 2014). In this manner, transparency is limited to information disclosure via a linear communication model (Fenster 2015) with the visibility of information being a basic condition. However, information to be considered visible must be complete and found with relative ease.

The term of visibility needs to be distinguished from the term public. Public information is not automatically visible. Michener and Bersch (2013) differentiate between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ transparency (that is, visibility). The first refers to information that is voluntarily or obligatorily rendered visible, while the second describes the possibility that information can be rendered visible through a specific request process. Consequently, public information only becomes transparent, if it is made visible, but not by being kept in a repository or by simply being defined as ‘public,’but through a freedom of information (FOI) act or law. This last point is important because many organisations hide key reports that should be visible but require FOI action to make visible.

A further characteristic that defines transparency through visibility is the ease of locating specific information; in the case of this research, this is the ease of locating specific information within a port’s website. Consequently, the basic condition of transparency—the visibility of information—is defined by its completeness and the likelihood that it will be found.

Beyond the matter of accessibility itself, a characteristic of verifiability is the degree of completeness of information. By way of example, a summarized unaudited financial report makes the financial results of a port visible, but does not reveal a complete picture. Rather than considering a priori that accessibility equals to transparency, it is worth researching whether the disclosed information is complete or not.

Over time transparency has evolved from the motive of visibility of information to explicit demands for its inferability. This follows the expectations that the information provided by the organization is not just visible, but also valid and truthful (Bernstein 2012; Schnackenberg and Tomlinson 2016). The interest in inferable data not just originates from the acknowledgment that raw data frequently allows for greater verifiability and is more detailed, yet false transparency and unintelligible disclosures remain persistent problems (Michener and Bersch 2013). Inferability is the extent to which the information at hand can be used to draw accurate inference—both about visible information and information we do not know, and is about the quality of the information or data. It increases via data disaggregation (availability of raw data), verifiability (verified by a third party) and simplification, i.e. it is ‘understandable’ data (Michener and Bersch 2013).

Simplified heuristics make information more accessible. Simplification of data, thus, needs to be adequate. Hood (2007) differentiated between indirect transparency (transparency understood by experts) and direct transparency, which reaches the wider public. Expecting information to speak to every stakeholder is idealistic. Generalizing information might result in less transparency as it limits accuracy.

This paper follows Michener and Bersch (2013) arguing that information to be acknowledged as transparent must be, to a certain extent, visible (complete and findable) and inferable, incorporating some element(s) of disaggregation, verification or simplification. While visibility’s attributes (completeness and findability) are both necessary, inferability’s attributes (disaggregation, verification, and simplification) are substitutable and adaptable to the intended audience. Visibility is the primary focus of this research.

Transparency builds on the notion that information matters and that information can empower and improve. The availability of specific information—on a voluntary or mandatory basis—to all the actors, principals, agents and stakeholders enables recipients to hold a company (in this case the entity responsible for managing the port) accountable by comparing the company’s stated goals to its actual performance and the performance of others. Further, transparency can support a company´s performance as the access to information allows recipients to compare results in the same market (Hess 2012).

Based on this notion, we argue that transparency is connected with other concepts. Figure 2 graphically illustrates the links between transparency, accountability, responsibility, and focus on performance improvement.

Fig. 2
figure2

Source: Authors’ own elaboration

Links between transparency, accountability, responsibility, and performance.

There is a lack of a conceptual consensus regarding what exactly constitutes ‘transparency’ and its link to other concepts. By way of example, transparency has at times been used as a synonym for accountability (Christensen and Cornelissen 2015). Craft and Heim (2008) argues that transparency is a key element in the construction of organizational accountability, but a different concept. Craig et al. (2016) consider accountability as an aspect of transparency. This paper follows Craft and Heim (2008) and argues that accountability is a result of transparency that can be verified, and relates to the generation of trust with stakeholders. Consequently, accountability originates from an institution´s or company´s responsibility towards its stakeholders. This responsibility is linked to the considerations that stakeholder empowerment is one way of seeking and developing improvements and that the consequently altered nature of existing power relationships between actors contributes to a managerial focus on better outcomes.

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