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.