Problems With

How sunshine allows for government capture

A collection of scholarly citations supporting the idea that representative accountability to voters is not as robust a mechanism as many scholars assume.

By Ronald Nsubuga – September 2017


Government accountability to the public isn’t as straightforward as conceived. In our CRI paper, we have developed math to support the arguments below.

By far the most common assumption is that transparent, accessible information will generate accountable policies and budgets and responsive, accountable state behaviour – an assumption that in fact glosses over a number of leaps.
– McGee & Gaventa 2011 – Assessing Impact of Accountability
The congressional sunshine initiative became a tool for the very special interests whose power the reforms were supposed to dilute. Corporations and lobbying groups have seized on the open hearings to help them hold legislators accountable as never before.
– Hamilton 1984 – The Washington Post
Opening Up Congress
How can citizens control legislators when most citizens pay scant attention to public affairs? Why should legislators worry about citizens’ preferences when they know most citizens are not really watching them?
– Arnold 1993 – Can Inattentive Citizens Control Representatives?
The problem is, of course, is that if Americans aren’t paying attention, they can’t hold anybody accountable...If we use statistics on what the people don’t know...the statistics are just appalling.
– Shenkman 2008 – CNN (How Stupid Are Americans)
Then there is the question of to whom our elected officials are accountable. One would presume the obvious answer is the electorate; at least, that would be the ideal. However, there are times elected officials must transcend accountability to those they directly represent for the greater ideal of benefiting the country as a whole. There is also the clearly problematic temptation for our representatives to serve the interests of donors or others with influence. Accountability to the wrong people for the wrong reasons is at the root of government corruption.
– Davis 2014 – Transparency vs. Accountability
Voters cannot hold legislators responsible without sufficient information about what legislators have, in fact, done. Yet that sort of information consistently eludes the electorate. It is an article of faith among political scientists that citizens are woefully uninformed about politics.
– Schacter 2006 – Political Accountability

Fukuyama 2014 – Political Order and Political Decay

The American system does not make it easy for citizens to hold elected officials accountable for governmental decisions.
– Arnold 2004 – Congress, Press and Accountability
When you create a regulatory agency, you put together a group of people whose job is to solve some problem. They’re given the power to investigate who’s breaking the law and the authority to punish them. Transparency, on the other hand, simply shifts the work from the government to the average citizen, who has neither the time nor the ability to investigate these questions in any detail, let alone do anything about it. It’s a farce: a way for Congress to look like it has done something on some pressing issue without actually endangering its corporate sponsors.
– Swartz 2006 – When is Transparency Useful?
Forcing the publication of votes in an institutional setting that relies on diplomatic practices can have deleterious effects on accountability: In some cases, the publication of votes might operate as a window-dressing device, prompting the public belief that [legislators] are accountable since they publish their votes, while real monitoring of the decision makers’ stances is not possible.
– Novak 2015 – Secrecy and Publicity
The opening up of the legislative process can make lawmakers much more directly accountable to interest groups whose support they may need for reelection. Lobbyists, after all, now actually sit in on committee markup sessions. This may constrain the policymaking efforts of lawmakers to actions that serve the interests of narrow groups at the expense of the broader public good.
– Bessette 1994 – Mild Voice of Reason
Members of Congress, as individuals, have little incentive to respond to general interests, but have compelling reasons to service organized groups. The electorate rarely knows how members vote and does not hold individual legislators responsible for national conditions. Organized interest groups do monitor the members' activity, and they reward dedicated service with campaign contributions and other support.
– Quirk 1991 – Evaluating Congressional Reform
(Members grow to) feel more accountable to some constituents than to others because the support of some constituents is more important to them than the support of others.
– Fenno 1976 – House Members in their Constituencies
If nobody else cares about it very much, the special interest will get its way. If the public understands the issue at any level, then special interest groups are not able to buy an outcome that the public may not want. But the fact is that the public doesn’t focus on most of the work of the Congress. Most of the work of the Congress is very small things... And all of us, me included, are guilty of this: If the company or interest group is (a) supportive of you, (b) vitally concerned about an issue that, (c) nobody else in your district knows about or ever will know about, then the political calculus is quite simple.
– Rep. Vin Weber (R-Min) 1995 – Speaking Freely (Schram)

D’Angelo, King, Ranalli 2017 – Absurd Accountability

Opening meetings to the public has meant opening meetings to everyone, including lobbyists, who, it has been claimed, take an even greater part in writing Ways and Means legislation than they did in the past...Thus, the open meetings have made members more accountable to whoever cares to pay attention.
– Rudder 1977 – Committee Reform
The assumed link leads from awareness (through transparency and information) to articulating voice (through formal and informal institutions) and ultimately accountability (changing the incentives of providers so that they respond in fear of sanctions). Yet, this chain of causation is seldom explicitly examined. In fact, many initiatives are focussed at increasing transparency and amplifying voice, without examining the link of these with accountability.
– Joshi 2011 – Impact & Effectiveness of Accountability
The final set of claims is that transparency and accountability initiatives lead to greater empowerment of poor people...In the case of accountability initiatives however the logic is less straightforward: does the active practice of holding public providers to account lead to citizens getting empowered and more likely to engage with other processes related to citizenship? The causal relationship might be the other way around, it is citizens who are mobilised and already participating in other ways (advocacy, self provisioning [i.e. special interest groups]) who are more likely to engage in accountability activities.
– Joshi 2011 – Impact & Effectiveness of Accountability
The article argues that existing transparency policies do not actually strengthen public accountability.
– Shkabatur 2012 – Transparency With(out) Accountability
Overall, our review [of transparency and accountability studies] found that much of the current evidence relies on untested normative, positivist assumptions and under-specified relationships between mechanisms and outcomes. Much of the empirical work reviewed is based on poorly articulated, normatively-inspired ‘mixes’, that draw unevenly from the concepts of transparency, accountability, good governance and empowerment. Virtually none of the literature gathered explores possible risks or documents negative effects or arising from TAIs, although some begins to note these at an anecdotal or speculative level.
– Gaventa & McGee 2011 – Impact of Transparency & Accountability (evidence)
Most important — and completely ignored by the champions of transparency — is the fact that even the most conscientious citizens, dedicated to following public affairs, have but one vote to weigh in on myriad issues. Most of the time, citizens cannot vote up or down any specific program. Exceptions include some local or state initiatives, such as bonds for schools or referenda on social issues like gay marriage. However, most of the time, especially at the national level, voters cannot be in favor of, say, much more funding for climate change, only a little more funding for ocean exploration, and less funding for bombers (or any such other combination). Rather, all they can do is vote up or down their representative, who, in turn, votes on many scores of programs.
– Etzioni 2014 – Atlantic – Transparency is Overrated
These first two accountabilities are in tension: too much responsiveness to particular citizens (i.e. too narrowly-drawn “preference accountability”) can lead to classic corruption.
– Lee Drutman 2013 – OpenGov Conversations

Etzioni 2014 – Is Transparency the Best Disinfectant?

*NOTE: What Etzioni is underlying here, rather beautifully, is that when the public do not monitor and follow legislation, they cannot then turn to civic groups to do so either as the citizens will run into the same trust/accountability problems with the civic groups that they originally had with their legislators.

First, the actual evidence on transparency’s impacts on accountability is not as strong as one might expect. Second, the explanations of transparency’s impacts are not nearly as straightforward as the widely held, implicitly self-evident answer to the ‘why’ question would lead one to expect. To evoke the power of sunshine is both intuitive and convincing. Indeed, these principles have guided my past 15 years’ work. Nevertheless, recently, after reviewing the empirical evidence for the assumed link between transparency and accountability, I have come to the conclusion that one does not necessarily lead to the other.
– Jonathan Fox 2007 – Uncertain Relationship
In sum, the potential for citizen-informed accountability is real but unrealized. Although congressional activity is more accessible to citizens, the evidence suggests that sunshine reforms have had limited effects...By increasing the participation of external actors in congressional policy making, the accountability reforms may have made Congress not only more democratic but also more permeable – more open to outside pressures that reduce the institution’s capacity to make effective public policy.
– Rieselbach 1994 – Encyclopedia of Policy Studies
Few citizens possess the expertise or the free time to track complex regulations on new drugs or the latest scientific knowledge on carcinogens. Corporations do.
– Miroff, Seidelman, Swanstrom, De Luca 2009 – The Democratic Debate
It turns out that transparency is necessary but far from sufficient to produce accountability.
– Jonathan Fox 2007 – Uncertain Relationship
The links between transparency and accountability and their impact and effectiveness in the service delivery arena are often largely assumed rather than explicitly articulated...this chain of causation is seldom explicitly examined. In fact, many initiatives are focussed at increasing transparency and amplifying voice, without examining the link of these with accountability and ultimately responsiveness.
– Joshi 2011 – Impact & Effectiveness of Accountability

Mansbridge 2010 - Against Accountability

Some political theorists value democratic control of government for its own sake. Others do so for primarily instrumental reasons. Either way, accountability is a crucial part of the picture. But effective democratic accountability requires voters to have at least some political knowledge. Voters generally cannot hold government officials accountable for their actions if they do not know what the government is doing. And they cannot know which candidates’ proposals will serve the public better unless they have at least some understanding of those policies and their likely effects.

Accountability is also difficult to achieve if voters do not know which officials are responsible for which issues. If the public schools perform poorly, should the voter blame the local government, the state government, the federal government, or all three? Which officials, if any, canbe blamed for economic recessions? Are mistakes in the conduct of the War on Terror the responsibility of the president alone, or does Congress deserve a share of the blame? Answering these questions and others like them requires at least some degree of political knowledge.
– Somin 2016 – Democracy and Political Ignorance
Most (special interests) communicate not only where they stand but how intensely they feel about a specific vote. Surely no legislator can doubt that the various single-issue groups, ranging from the National Rifle Association to the antiabortion groups, make their support absolutely contingent upon legislator’s decisions in these areas.
– Arnold 1990 – The Logic of Congressional Action
These floor procedures (unrecorded votes) protected legislators from their worst impulses and allowed them to do what they all believed was both good policy and good politics.
– Arnold 1990 – The Logic of Congressional Action

Lohmann 1988 - An Information Rational for Special Interests

Because of familiar collective action problems, well-organized groups, who monitor legislative activity closely, are much better situated than the mass electorate to secure real accountability from incumbent legislators. And these groups have more resources for demanding accountability; they have not just individual votes with which to threaten lawmakers, but the ability to aggregate many votes and to withhold or deploy resources like lobbyist assistance, contributions, and the threat of independent spending. Unorganized groups do not enjoy these advantages and often lack the ability even to push their issues on to the agenda. All of this suggests that the rhetoric of widespread accountability n1ay obscure the reality of too much accountability for some and not enough for many.
– Schacter 2006 – Political Accountability
The genesis of it is that Congress is controlled by special interest groups with money. There is no public accountability anymore.
– Judge Charles R. Richey – Kessler 1997 (Inside Congress)
It strikes me as odd that legal scholars have not taken much of a critical look at the assumption that legislators are politically accountable in a strong enough sense to warrant the potent institutional consequences that are routinely attached to that accountability...legislative accountability is not inerely posited or argued to exist, but rather asserted as fact, as if irrefutable.
– Schacter 2006 – Political Accountability

Ranalli 2018 - Weaponized Transparency (upcoming)

The results suggest that most voters do not know what they need to know in order to vote retrospectively...a substantial portion of voters do not possess the knowledge assumed by theories of economic voting. This is true even in the case of Finland, which has high civic literacy and a highly educated public. Only 38% could name all four parties in the government coalition, without also incorrectly naming any additional parties...The implications for government accountability are discussed.
– Rapeli 2016 – Who to Punish? Retrospective Voting
Translation of opinion into actions of electoral punishment or reward is a tortuous and uncertain procedure. The predictability of electoral response to a particular action remains so uncertain that the avoidance of a sensible decision because it will lose votes is usually the work of a man whose anxieties outweigh his capacities of prediction.
– V.O. Key 1964 – Public Opinion and American Democracy