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Blog Part III: 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.

The Ugly: While many groups are knocking on the door, usual suspects are already having dinner

Clearly, every interest group wants to be involved in policy discussions, as all professions and industries are severely affected by the current crisis. Yet policymakers cannot possibly engage with all these groups. They need short-cuts to process information in order to decide which groups are legitimate representatives and therefore are granted a seat at the table.

As a result, policymakers have to make difficult choices, as spaces at the table are limited and competition between groups about who is a legitimate spokesperson for professionals or workers related to a specific industry can be fierce. For instance, in Germany the largest services trade union ver.di negotiated the working conditions for employees in the ‘profit-oriented’ public service institutions such as municipal symphony orchestras, public transportation, and museums. However, the individual interest representation groups of employees in these sectors (such as the German Orchestra Union) did not agree with the negotiated outcome, leading to conflict between the different interest associations about who has the right to negotiate on the behalf of these constituencies, and how arrangements to resume work under the conditions of social distancing (i.e corona-proof ) should look like.

If policymakers use heuristics and short-cuts to decide which groups are being heard, and are prone to confirmation bias and availability bias, it is likely that they will prioritize contact with groups they are familiar with and trust. These groups are likely to be organizations that have also enjoyed regular access to policymakers in the past. Hence, policy insiders are at a big advantage, while policy outsiders, groups that less frequently meet with policymakers, will have a hard time making their voices heard, even though their perspectives and solutions might be equally relevant and much-needed (and we know that policymakers have great difficulties taking into account voices they do not hear).

For instance, following a corporatist tradition, the Government of Spain is mainly meeting and discussing the effects of Covid-19 with the two main business associations and the two largest labor unions to discuss some of the major policy measures implemented during the crisis. Moreover, the Spanish parliament has created a commission to discuss with social actors potential measures to rebuild the country. The largest labor unions are of course invited in this commission, yet one of the major umbrella organizations representing the elderly people was left out and had to formally request membership of the committee as it was not formally invited. A prime example of overlooking normally irregular partners, which are now one of the key target audiences for the Covid-19 measures.

As access to policymakers is often biased towards economic interests, civil society organizations are at a disadvantage here, and interest groups representing vulnerable segments in society (such as people struggling with various mental and health issues) will face even greater challenges to be on the radar of policymakers than in normal times (even though they are among the people who are most affected by the crisis). Yet, patterns of access and attention attributed to different professions and industries will also be severely biased. In fact, some groups might disproportionately benefit from this situation. For instance, groups that are highly prominent or “top of mind” among policymakers, are still able to negotiate interesting deals during these times and use other salient topics to ensure their interests are not ignored. This might even open new avenues of negotiations that were previously unattainable for certain organized interests. Think for instance the recent deal with Air-France/KLM in the Netherlands/France, who secured a total of 10 billion euros in aid from the French and Dutch governments, under the condition that their carbon footprint will reduce once Corona has ‘settled.’ Other prominent groups such as Greenpeace have also weighed in on this, claiming this an optimal moment to leverage promises with big businesses, in return for relaxing certain regulations or state aid.

Crisis lobbying: a chance for the Good to offset the Bad and the Ugly?

These prevailing status-quo tendencies described above also characterize policymaking in normal times, yet are likely to be exacerbated during a major crisis. Research indicates that highly salient policy issues with confusing and complex patterns (i.e. Corona), are often resolved with pragmatism, and trusted relationships derived from previous interactions. As a consequence, public officials may be (even more) susceptible to confirmation biases, paying closer attention to groups that endorse them.  While this may facilitate perceived order or control during the policy process, it could hamper the ability to comprehensively tackle policy issues conclusively.  At the same time, a crisis also presents opportunities for ‘resets’ (or reconfigurations) of existing systems. Previously closed roads might be opened, enabling formerly non-existent or underrepresented actors to get a seat at the table or open up new negotiations on policy issues. These times truly are unique, as both policymakers and interest groups will make decisions with long-lasting societal repercussions in the following weeks and months.

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

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