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Understanding contemporary interest group politics: mobilization and strategies in multi-layered systems

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How to actively involve citizens in contemporary policymaking

In an era of multiple levels of governance, regulatory agencies and professional lobbying, listening to a diverse array of interests is key to strengthening the legitimacy of policymaking, as the EU-funded iBias project has been finding out.

Society

Over the past few decades, a shift in competences from national governments towards international institutions like the EU has been taking place. At the same time, certain powers have also been devolved from the national to the local level. “This has not happened to the same extent everywhere,” notes Jan Beyers, professor of political science at the University of Antwerp in Belgium and principal investigator of the iBias project which was funded via a grant from the European Research Council. “Nonetheless, this shift can be seen even in traditionally centralised countries like France.” The question of contemporary governance has been further complicated by the rise of independent regulatory agencies and expert bodies. These organisations can exert decision-making powers over everything from product safety to banking. Taken together, these shifts away from traditional electorally accountable governments have consequences for how the views of citizens and societal interests are represented and fed into the policymaking process. The iBias project was launched to address this issue, and to more generally assess the impact of new patterns of governance on political accountability, power and influence.

Strengthening citizenship representation

One of the first objectives of the project was to conduct a survey among interest groups across nine European countries. The responses from more than 5 000 civil society organisations have been made available to the scientific community, and provide general insights into current state-society relations. iBias also looked at transnational advocacy, and how interest groups mobilise on issues such as trade and climate. Another sub-project touched on public opinion and responsiveness in Belgium. The survey focused on over 100 specific policy issues, such as higher taxes on fuel and employment benefits. “A highly unique feature of this project is that we have public opinion data for each issue,” says Beyers. “This enables us to analyse how campaigning on specific issues interacts with public opinion during policymaking processes. For example, does interest group lobbying amplify public opinion or not?” The data collected enabled the team to draw some interesting conclusions. “What we found was that NGOs that actively involve their members internally gain more attention from government,” adds Beyers. “This is a positive conclusion – if interest organisations care about representation themselves, they might contribute more towards citizenship representation.” The team also observed that while business groups spend a lot of money on lobbying, the picture is more nuanced when it comes to actual influence. “We cannot conclude that business is always influential,” notes Beyers. “It seems that there is often an overinvestment in advocacy, perhaps as a reaction to the fact that business might be in a losing battle. Again, this is good news – it means that so-called weaker advocacy groups can still be successful in pursuing their interests.”

Governing with consent

Governing, says Beyers, has never been more challenging. In the era of COVID-19, decisions have been taken that will inevitably disadvantage some groups in society, whether they are restaurant owners, airline operators or another economic sector. Governments need to build legitimacy for their actions, which goes beyond the democratic electoral process. “The measures taken to tackle the coronavirus were formulated after most elections took place,” adds Beyers. “But what we found was that through consultations with a diverse array of stakeholders, and then carefully communicating the decisions, governments can increase policy legitimacy. This is especially true among sections of the public that have not necessarily been convinced of the need for government intervention.” The iBias project has helped to connect the research on representation and public opinion with governance and policymaking. “We tried to achieve a better understanding of the link between the input and throughput aspects of politics,” he says. “This will be crucial to governance in the future.”

Keywords

iBias, governance, lobbying, regulatory, advocacy, politics, elections, policy, governments, COVID-19

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