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Blog Part I: Lobbying in times of (Corona)-Crisis: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

An article by Bert Fraussen, Adria Albareda, Caelesta Braun, Moritz Muller & Erin Sullivan, published as a three-part blog series.

They say a crisis brings out the best and the worst in people. Lobbyists are no exception. In fact, the famous saying “never let a good crisis go to waste” might be most applicable to them. In many countries, and perhaps most notably the US, the Corona-crisis has triggered an explosion of lobbying activities. The European Union is no exception to this trend, with a recent report by Corporate Europe Observatory warning for “Coronawashing” as various business interests attempt to capitalize on the pandemic to advance their particular interests, by proposing new policy measures (for instance supporting or (de)regulating new digital technologies) or suggesting to delay certain proposals (such as initiatives related to the Green Deal). In this way, the Corona-crisis might be the best recent example of a “bandwagon” (Baumgartner and Leech 2001), an issue that attracts attention and activity from a very large and diverse number of organizations, who all aim to shape policy measures and government decisions related to this crisis.

Even in normal times, policymakers struggle to sift through the information offered by interest groups, and interest groups face difficulties to effectively voice and represent their interests. A severe and ongoing crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, puts even more pressure on both the speed and quality of information provision and processing. Such a crisis reveals the many faces of lobbying and we highlight three of them: the good, the bad and the ugly. In what follows, we clarify these dynamics in more detail, based on long-standing research in interest group politics, as well as our own research and experiences from five countries where we (currently) live or originate from  (Belgium, Canada, Germany, Spain, and The Netherlands).

The good, ‘this crisis demonstrates the societal and political relevance of membership federations’ shows us that the transmission belt function of interest groups is a unique organizational asset that, when properly organized, connects societal interests with public decision-making and vice versa. Professional and business associations disseminating guidelines and sharing best practices of how individual entrepreneurs can make their business corona-proof is a good example of such a transmission-belt function. The bad, ‘the challenge of looking beyond narrow, private and short-term interests’ demonstrates that the outcome of such a lobby frenzy is likely to result in various disjointed policy outcomes that usually do not offer consistent, coherent and balanced policy packages for a sustainable recovery. It is hard to reconcile bars opening up and schools remaining closed in several countries with a coherent package to address the public interest in the long run. The same applies to the suggested exclusion of students from public transport in The Netherlands during certain times of the day to make public transport ‘corona-proof.’ It will allow public transport to open up after the lockdown, but is likely to yield serious negative consequences in terms of quality of education; side-effects that are not considered in this proposal. Third, the ugly face of lobbying, ‘when many groups are knocking on the door, the usual suspects are already having dinner’, indicates a lobby tragedy that goes beyond the disjointed policy package outcomes, revealing ‘the bad face’ of lobbying in times of crises. Unheard, often vulnerable, voices in society often go unnoticed, because of the many blind spots organized into public decision-making by the (in)formal and institutionalized arrangements of consulting interest groups. The situation of nursery homes during the height of the first corona-wave in many countries, and the exclusion of the elderly from a parliamentary committee in Spain to design regulatory measures, are examples of the ugly face of lobbying, when unheard voices are not being taken into account.

No lobbying is only good, bad, or ugly. When and how its different faces surface, depend on the policy and decision-making context and the way interest groups are engaged by public decision-makers. Research again and again confirms the highly contextualized nature of lobbying behavior, and a crisis is likely to exaggerate these three faces of lobbying. Examining lobbying dynamics under pressure might reveal how we can stimulate the good face of lobbying to potentially mitigate the bad and ugly ones.

The Good: This crisis demonstrates the societal and political relevance of membership federations

To say this is not an easy time for policymakers, is probably the understatement of the year. Unfolding events have not only occurred inconsistently, but at times, with dramatic pace. Take for instance relaxing restrictions on particular economic activities, or tracking the number of infected and deceased persons; reliable information remains hard to come by, heightening the levels of uncertainty that concern both the effectiveness and societal legitimacy of proposed policy measures.

More than ever, this foregrounds core assumptions that elected policymakers and civil servants require and seek input from various actors and organizations. Information necessary need not only to be highly accurate but provided promptly to account for specific political realities and societal needs. While a lot of attention has focused on policy involvement of academic experts (and their (lack of) substantive diversity), the role of other key societal actors in this process—namely interest groups, are often overlooked, or at best, severely misunderstood.

When we use the label interest groups, we refer to a diverse set of organizations, such as NGOs, civil society organizations (such as patients), industry federations (for instance hospital industry) and professional groups (e.g. nurses). All are considered crucial intermediary organizations, who have the capacity to form a crucial bridge or ‘transmission belt’ between citizens and policymakers. More specifically, they provide input and preferences from their members (citizens, professionals or companies) to policymakers, and ensure that information and details about new government measures reaches the target population and is implemented in an adequate way by their members.

While the contemporary relevance of these intermediary organizations is often questioned, in times like these, membership organizations, and so-called umbrella groups that have a broad policy orientation and other associations as members (think of Chamber of Commerce, or Federations of NGOs) continue to show their relevance. Two simultaneous processes seem to confirm and reinforce their central role. First, as clarified above, the demand for information from policymakers is very high and unremitting on a variety of issues, ranging from questions of how to support certain industries and companies in these dire economic times, to insight into the effectiveness of certain treatments for people infected with the Corona-virus. Second, countless professionals and companies are equally dependent on information provided by interest groups. Many industry, NGO, and professional federations have seen a high increase in member involvement or donations in the last few weeks, as their members (or supporters) look for a reliable source of information, and are keen to remain fully up-to-date with policy measures and the ways in which they need to be implemented.

Although this same dynamic occurs regardless of a crisis, interactions between members (such as companies, NGOs and professionals) and the umbrella groups that represent their interests, often intensify in turbulent times with high levels of (legal) uncertainty. Thanks to their intermediary position, interest groups are one of the few actors who can provide reliable information to their members about the repercussions of Covid19 for their working environments. For instance, through their contacts with policy and decision-makers, interest groups are better positioned to inform the firms they represent about the dates they will be allowed to return back to work, and the conditions and regulations they may have to comply with. A prime example in this regard is the many Corona-guidelines professional and business associations in the Netherlands have developed on how to make companies corona-proof when restarting their business again after the lockdowns. Based on a collaborative effort by the national government and the main employers’ and business associations, different professions and sectors have collected Corona-guidelines and shared best practices via a dedicated website. This “other” side of the transmission belt is an important but mostly overlooked function of interest groups, as a transmission belt works in two directions: these organizations do not only aggregate and transfer the preferences of their members to policymakers, they also digest and communicate messages from policymakers to their membership and society at large.

This is part I of a three-part blog series. Click to read part II and part III.

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