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.

In contrast to the average citizen, the media and existing interest groups—be they public-interest advocates, labor unions, or trade associations—can pay attention and evaluate complex policy issues, which they are able to observe because of the existence of relatively robust transparency regimes. They can then present information to citizens in more-readily digestible and manageable formats at times when citizens are appropriately situated to act on that information.

Organizations like the Sierra Club or the NRA are classic examples of this. Without the legislative transparency that requires publication of roll-call votes, such groups wouldn't be able to create scorecards that grade lawmakers, and wouldn't know whom to target with ads or advocacy campaigns. By presenting targeted and timely information to their constituents, interest groups can help concerned but time-crunched citizens act according to their beliefs without all of the overhead of being a full-time politico. As Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political Science at UC Irvine, put it in the New York Times,“If all I tell you about a candidate is that he is backed by the N.R.A. or Planned Parenthood, that is all many voters need to know… The disclosure serves a shortcut function.” Moreover, interest groups signal the existence of a constituency with strong preferences and instill fear of sanctions in politicians, beyond what voters can do individually.

Of course, as Etzioni argues, some problems require positive government action. But from where does he suppose the political will for such action will come? In the world of interest-based pluralism and politicians sensitive to incentives, it will come from pressure by interest groups. These groups will, undoubtedly, use publicly disclosed information to make their case and gain support. To use Etzioni’s example, without the recent disclosures of NSA activity, there would be no clamor for reform and no burgeoning political will for change. Indeed, we would not even be aware of the extent of abuse. Any ensuing reform will be, at least in part, a product of transparency.

Transparency is most effective at producing change when information is accessible within people's existing decision-making processes such that they can change their actions. Interest groups and other intermediary organizations help people coordinate and pressure for change beyond the thin participation of elections, which changes the incentives for politicians. Making as much information available, in as timely a way as possible and in machine-readable, open, bulk formats—a big chunk of the mission of the Sunlight Foundation, where I am a research fellow—lowers barriers for these organizations to operate. This allows these intermediary institutions to function more effectively as megaphones for the public, amplifying the demands of the citizenry and activating otherwise inattentive constituencies.

Transparency doesn't solve everything, but it does make the marketplace of competing interests work better, and in so doing it helps align politicians’ incentives to promote responsive outcomes.