Government transparency is often viewed as a kind of lowest common denominator reform. It sounds good, costs little, and can often be accomplished without offending powerful constituencies. It is also a concept that signifies very different things to different people—everything from the simple act of making government datasets available online to leaking state secrets—which is why examining the specific mechanisms by which transparency works is vital if we want to understand when and how transparency can help democracy function.

Transparency is easy to propose as a solution to a wide variety of governmental ills—poor copyright policy, overregulation, and underperforming schools, to pick three recent examples at random—but its proponents don’t always explain the means by which releasing data to the public is supposed to lead to good results. This was one conclusion of a recent literature review of studies of transparency initiatives in developing countries by John Gaventa and Rosemary McGee (summarized here by Oxfam’s Duncan Green). Gaventa and McGee find that “very few initiatives articulate a theory of change,” making it difficult to assess why some programs succeed and others fail. If scholars of transparency often fail to explain the means by which disclosure will lead to better outcomes, you can be sure that the same is true of transparency advocates outside of academia. In some ways, this is an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the fact that in order to win broad support for disclosure laws, transparency is often portrayed as a politically neutral good-government issue. Since many groups that advocate for transparency (including my employer, the Center for Responsive Politics) are nonpartisan, discussing theories of change is uncomfortable terrain; it means talking explicitly about politics and power.

Transparency is a scarce resource; although potential data are limitless, the attention that the public is willing to pay is not.

Uncomfortable or not, it’s important to be clear about theories of change because “transparency” is a wildly diverse term covering an array of policies. Without some common terms of debate, advocates and skeptics of transparency end up arguing past one another. This point is demonstrated neatly by a recent exchange between George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni and the Sunlight Foundation’s Alexander Furnas at The Atlantic. Etzioni contends that “Transparency Is Overrated” because individuals rarely have the time or expertise to sift through the mountains of data it tends to produce, nor are they likely to cast their vote on the basis of what they learn. Furnas counters by arguing that, despite the inattention of the average citizen, transparency initiatives can produce results because they take place in the context of “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.” These intermediaries take the information generated by disclosure laws and make it meaningful to the average citizen.

In short, Etzioni’s idea of transparency involves citizens acting on information primarily as individuals (in their capacities as consumers, taxpayers, voters, and so on), whereas Furnas’ has citizens acting as members of interest groups or supporters of advocacy organizations. In fact, effective transparency policies exist that make use of both capacities. The health grades posted on restaurant windows in some cities are a good example of the former; as described by David Weil, Mary Graham, and Archon Fung, they contain information that is “relevant to users and is provided at an appropriate time, place, and format that is readily understood,” and so function well without requiring intermediaries. All that citizens need to do to make the policy to work is to fulfill their role as consumers.

Campaign finance disclosure, the field in which I work, better fits the latter model. The raw data produced by the Federal Election Commission would have very little meaning to most citizens, but can be taken by intermediaries and distilled into something actionable. When advocacy groups such as Common Cause or Taxpayers for Common Sense, for example, cite the Center for Responsive Politics’ data to make a case for specific reforms, they’re using that information to activate citizens who share their vision for change. In this case, citizens merely need to act as group members — a role more involved than that of the consumer, but still one that merely asks citizens to delegate their judgment and so lowers the bar to participation.

Why go to great lengths to distinguish these two species of transparency? For one thing, transparency is in some ways a scarce resource; although potential data are limitless, the attention that the public is willing to pay is not, and transparency that isn’t accompanied by avenues for participation can actually increase cynicism and disengagement. This was one of the insights behind Don’t Count Us Out, a 2011 report by the Kettering Foundation and Public Agenda, which argued that while those in charge of public institutions view accountability as a matter of making information available, citizens see accountability in terms of responsiveness rather than mere access to figures. As a result, “members of the public feel confused and overwhelmed by the detailed information they get in the name of ‘disclosure’” or “fear they are being manipulated by the complex presentations.”

In addition, advocates for more disclosure also have to make decisions about which types of transparency to prioritize, which is why some critics argue that initiatives that simply generate data for citizens to act upon as individuals is not merely ineffective but potentially harmful. Evgeny Morozov, for example, has argued that the concept of transparency as accountability has been hijacked or pushed aside by “open source” advocates who want to use government-collected data to foster innovation and make public services more efficient, rather than to help citizens deliberate about fundamental issues.

Morozov’s argument would seem to militate in favor of the type of transparency that empowers interest groups and other intermediaries, but it’s worth considering whether interest-group pluralism really promotes the deliberation that Morozov wants transparency to achieve. A longstanding critique of modern American interest group politics holds that rather than “amplifying the demands of the citizenry and activating otherwise inattentive constituencies,” as Furnas argues, it tends to disempower ordinary citizens.

This line of argument starts from the observation that while professionalized advocacy groups have proliferated over the last four-plus decades, almost all forms of participation in politics beyond simply voting every two years—attending public meetings, reading the newspaper, and working on community projects—have declined drastically. Scholars such as Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg link these phenomena by arguing that modern advocacy groups, which can often achieve their aims by winning a lawsuit or persuading a key regulator, lack the incentive (and the ability) to build a mass constituency for their cause.

Advocacy groups of this sort are intermediaries in the sense that they activate their members for specific purposes—to sign a petition or write a check, for example—but rarely give members the opportunity to participate in more involved fashion, let alone deliberate about policy or strategy. In the golden age of participation in American politics, as Theda Skocpol has argued, the crucial intermediaries were organizations like unions, fraternal groups, and veterans organizations, which didn’t rely on professionals to manage their activism but on the civic skills and motivation of their members. As those groups waned in numbers and influence, civic participation declined, leaving professionalized advocacy groups to draw on a shrinking pool of engaged citizens without replenishing it by giving their members the chance to build the skills of participation.

I bring up this critique of interest group-oriented democracy because it poses a problem for transparency advocates. We want the data and reports we produce to be used, and professionalized interest groups are among their voracious consumers. The Center for Responsive Politics’ data, for example, is certainly put to use by political operatives as well as concerned citizens—PACs that want to quantify and flaunt their influence, campaign vendors looking to identify their competition, and so on. This type of professional use helps make the “marketplace of competing interests work better,” as Furnas puts it, which I would argue is worthwhile but should hardly be the singular goal of transparency policies. Transparency advocates generally want to help ordinary citizens to think more clearly about the most important issues of the day, as well.

The dilemma is that the kind of transparency that involves deliberation by ordinary people requires engaged citizens more than citizen engagement requires transparency. The literature review by Gaventa and McGee cited above, for example, notes that transparency initiatives are most likely to hold politicians accountable when linked to collective action (in the form of “electoral pressure or protest movements,” for example). The mechanisms by which transparency can promote that collective action, though, are much weaker; except in cases where transparency is closely tied to a specific form of participation, as in participatory budgeting initiatives, transparency even runs the risk of making politics seem broken and inaccessible, turning citizens away from the political process instead of bringing them in.

The community of transparency advocates is small by the standards of the interest group world and has its hands full trying to keep up with the closed-door machinations of the powerful. It can’t shoulder the responsibility of singlehandedly revitalizing American civic life as well, even if that revitalization is precisely what would make the transparency agenda most effective. The problem is that it is not anybody else’s responsibility, either.