Why Representative Democracies Can't Write Off Transparency

Interest groups from the NRA to the Sierra Club show the power of information to motivate citizens.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

This week, arguing that “transparency is overrated,” Amitai Etzioni presented a familiar critique. In his telling, transparency is ineffective because people cannot or do not act on disclosed information in ways that affect real policy outcomes. What he misses is that disclosure occurs within an ecosystem of interest groups and advocacy organizations that remix, repackage, and redistribute information once it is released. This civil-society context in which data is released significantly affects the effectiveness transparency can have.

According to Etzioni, transparency is vastly oversold because it implicitly relies on a “naïve” theory of direct democracy in which voters learn about, evaluate and signal their preferences on specific government programs and outcomes. “To put this objection in the language of political science,” he summarizes, “Our government is—and must be—not a direct democracy, but a representative one. All we can do is judge whether, in general, taking into consideration all the various votes our representative has cast, we approve or disapprove.”

On its surface, this critique is compelling: Voting is, indeed, a very thin signal of preferences, and it is true that most “people do not have the training necessary to parse and evaluate the mountains of data.” But this does not condemn transparency to the ignominious fate he indicates. Rather, it suggests an additional piece of the puzzle that he ignores: interest groups as intermediaries.

The simplistic dichotomy between direct and representative democracy that Etzioni presents discounts other meaningful forms of political participation and undervalues the role that intermediary institutions and interest-group pluralism play in making transparency work. The United States is not just a representative democracy; it is a society marked by interest-group participation, with a robust ecosystem of advocacy organizations, trade associations, and other groups representing an extremely diverse set of interests.

Etzioni cites byzantine and incomplete campaign-finance disclosure and laughably complex online privacy policies to demonstrate that people don’t behave differently when presented with more information. However, effective transparency is not a “release-the-information-and-they-will-come” proposition. Information needs to be usable in a meaningful sense, and intermediary organizations help make that possible.

David Weil, Mary Graham, and Archon Fung nicely summarize the conditions when government-mandated disclosure can in fact lead to meaningful change:

[E]ffective targeted transparency policies follow a demanding “action cycle” of information provision, use, and response. Consumers must see and comprehend new information and integrate it into choices of products and services; target companies must perceive and act on consumers’ responses in ways that reduce risks, improve services, minimize corruption, or otherwise further a policy goal. Third parties may play critical roles, translating complex information into a form more readily used by individuals in market settings or acting through political or other nonmarket channels in response to disclosed information.

These insights, in this case referring to government-mandated disclosure by companies, can readily be translated to information that the government makes available about its own function.

Presented by

Alexander Furnas is a research fellow at the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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