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Politics: lobbying, influence and policy change

Researchers from the Institute of Public Administration study the mechanism of lobbying and influencing political parties and the behaviour of these parties to see how solutions are found to problems. This enables them to reach conclusions as to how best to effect changes in political focus and policy.

‘The lobby of the House of Commons’. Painting by Liborio Prosperi from 1886

The public, interest groups and government all play a role in drafting laws and policy. These different players also depend upon and influence each other. Leiden academics research the exact nature of this interaction and how decisions can be made that have broad public support. They work closely with researchers from other disciplines such as Political Science and Law.

Topics on the political agenda

Professor of Public Affairs Arco Timmermans studies the ‘game’ of lobbying and how parties such as businesses, NGOs or groups of citizens try to influence politicians and policy. If we can find out more about this, we will gain a better idea of how various interests are represented, how to increase support for these interests and why some interests are underrepresented.

In order to reach conclusions, Timmermans analyses how some topics make it to the political agenda, whereas others are relegated to the sidelines. ‘One important development is that it is becoming less possible for the game of lobbying to remain hidden in the “back rooms”. The Dutch House of Representatives has for some time been keen to find out which lobby groups have visited ministries. Furthermore, the role of social media in getting topics onto the agenda is increasing: for instance, the problems with the payment of the persoonlijk gebonden budgetten (personal budgets; pgbs) returned to the political agenda thanks to a public Twitter campaign that used the hashtag #pgbalarm.  But social media do not always define the political agenda. Politicians mainly feel the pressure if a topic is seized upon by the traditional media such as the newspapers or the TV news. But it is important for politicians to follow social media.’
In addition, citizens, amateurs when it comes to lobbying, are penetrating the professional field of lobbying. Social media and referendums make it easier for them to exert direct pressure on politicians. Strong public opinion was one of the main reasons why the government did not end the deposit system for plastic bottles. ‘There is a less positive side to this too, though,’ says Timmermans. ‘The public exerts this direct influence not only to present ideas but also to prevent change, particularly with Not In My Backyard topics, such as wind turbines or proposed refugee centres.’

A third development according to Timmermans is that lobby groups are beginning to find that they need to form coalitions. ‘The number of different players is growing, and each group has its own strengths. One has good connections, for instance, whereas the other represents public opinion. Together they have to show the government that their topic has the broad support of the public. This changing field represents a challenge to the traditional lobby and to public administration.’

Brandon Zicha: ‘Many groups focus exclusively on showing policymakers that their current policy is wrong.’

Groups influence policy

If you are familiar with the behavioural pattern of governments, political parties and policymakers,  you are better able to influence their behaviour and policy. This is important information for the public or groups that wish to bring about policy change in important societal areas. This could mean topics with a big social impact such as euthanasia, the environment or immigration.

Dr Brandon Zicha has reached the conclusion that many groups, in their effort to influence policy and public opinion, make one big mistake: their strategy focuses exclusively on showing parties and policymakers that their current policy is wrong. ‘In many instances this approach proves to be too narrow. Groups can convey a much broader message, which they can package in different ways, and use various resources (such as newspapers, social media and events) to tell their story. They should also think more about the timing of the message: to which topics is the public sensitive at this moment? Finally, groups should also take a better look at the effectiveness of political parties and other institutions: which party gets the best response from the public with regard to the topic that the group is championing? This is the party that will be sensitive to the group’s message. Although this may all seem obvious, groups do not appear to think much about these factors and thus fail to bring about change.’

Zicha has drawn these conclusions by researching how parties and policymakers respond to external change. Such change can be anything from shifting needs in society to an economic crisis to a natural disaster. He uses statistical methods and analysis policy documents to research which changes policymakers respond to and how they respond.

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