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  • Bert Fraussen

How do interest groups engage with policymakers? Involvement, Access and Prominence

What’s the difference between involvement, access and prominence for interest groups participating in the policy process? In this blog post, Darren Halpin and I discuss why some groups seem to make more headway than others when it comes to influencing policy.

It’s hard to study contemporary governance without thinking about the role of non-state actors, such as interest groups, think tanks, experts and non-profits. These organizations are often key participants in policy processes. To understand their role, a lot of research has focused on the level of influence they have on public policy outcomes. This work has shown that interest groups’ influence is highly uncertain and depends on a variety of factors, such as whether groups lobby for the status quo or for policy change, public opinion, media salience and the number of (allied and opposing) groups that mobilize on the same issue.

We argue that a better understanding of different forms of policy engagement is crucial for understanding the relative importance of interest groups in different political systems. We agree with Grossmann (2012, 88), who in the US context argued that:

“Two organizations may each be able to obtain a meeting with an administrator or member of Congress, for example, but those meetings are unlikely to be equally important if one organization is much more prominent and more regularly involved.”

Our work helps uncover why this might be. In the European Journal of Political Research, we provide a new perspective on the policy engagement of groups. Our main argument is that interest groups and other non-government stakeholders can engage in policymaking in three fundamentally different ways (involvement, access and prominence), which has important implications for how we assess their role in public policy and their democratic contribution.

Three forms of policy engagement: involvement, access and prominence

The first dimension, involvement, relates to contacts between a group and policymakers. Important here is that these contacts are considered to be within the agency of the group, with group effort determining the frequency and intensity of these interactions. Think of public communication, such as when groups announce policy positions through websites or social media, or participate in open consultations. The extent of involvement is mainly determined by the ambitions and efforts of the group, (although these are constrained by its available resources and policy focus).

The second dimension, access, is about how policymakers respond to the initiatives of groups. This includes granting meetings with ministerial staff and members of parliament, or representation in exclusive (invitation only) expert groups and committees. The crucial difference from involvement is that whether a group is granted access depends on the outcome of an exchange; it has to be “won” or “granted”. Policymakers, including elected and non-elected officials, continuously look for information to guide and inform their policy choices, and also try to find out how well their proposals are received in the broader society. Interest groups play a key role here, as they are an important source of expertise and information, but also provide insights into how a certain constituency or sector feels about the government’s potential policies. In this interaction, policymakers function as gatekeepers, who will only open the door if the “resources” or “political capacities” provided by a specific organization suit their needs and preferences, such as demands for specific policy knowhow, (public) support for a policy position, or mobilization power.

A third form of policy engagement is prominence. This refers to how a group is viewed by others, particularly policymakers. Given the attention of policymakers is finite, it’s likely that they would have usual groups that they would consider as representing clear constituencies, causes or viewpoints. This means some groups are “top-of-mind” and “taken-for-granted” among policymakers. Often, this acknowledgement is the result of a strong, repeated (and mostly positive) association between a group and a certain constituency, economic industry or public cause. For instance, we frequently have one specific organization in mind when we think about consumer interests (maybe it’s Choice), or environmental concerns (is it WWF, Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth?), even though there are many organizations advocating on these issues. Being this group is surely valuable.

Is there a hierarchy of engagement forms? Involvement could be relatively easy to achieve as it is under the control of the group itself, whereas access and especially prominence are much harder to obtain. Most groups enjoy no or very limited levels of access and prominence. We argue that, in particular, high levels of prominence are hard to achieve. This requires a group to be well-known and also acknowledged by policymakers as a relevant and trustworthy partner in policymaking. In a way, aiming for prominence might be the best way to build long-term relations with key policymakers. The specific relation between these concepts in our view is an empirical question. While there might be a positive correlation between involvement, access and prominence, not all groups might need to be heavily involved in a policy issue to be prominent among policymakers. That is, even if an organization is not at the table, policymakers might be well aware of their policy positions and views. For instance, the Minerals Council of Australia might not be very involved in public consultations on, say, energy policy, but policymakers are surely aware that they are the authoritative lobby group for the mining industry, and are aware of their preferences. In that view, it is better to be absent yet prominent, than to be at a meeting but considered irrelevant by decision-makers.

From group effort to elite acknowledgement

The distinction between involvement and access is relatively well established in the interest group field, even though it is not always applied in a consequential manner. Prominence is a newer concept, but it resonates with the ambitions of interest groups. They are eager to be “top of mind” with relevant policymakers, and very conscious to cultivate a reputation of credibility and trustworthiness. In that sense, prominence goes beyond mere visibility. It is about how groups are being mentioned by relevant audiences. Logically, the prominence of groups may vary across different audiences, such as policymakers, journalists or the general public.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Legislative Studies, we clarify how prominence can be operationalized and measured. We assess the prominence of 1300 Australian interest groups during national parliamentary debates over a six-year period (2010-2016), applying supervised machine learning techniques. We find that “political elites are unlikely to reference interest groups in their discussions unless they carry some weight in the issue under discussion, and by serving as some kind of placeholder or signifier for an argument or issue perspective.” We identify the groups that are “top-of-mind” when legislators make political arguments, and demonstrate that access and prominence are related but distinct forms of policy engagement. High levels of prominence do not automatically imply high levels of access, and vice versa. We also find that patterns of prominence are highly skewed, with only a very few groups being very prominent among members of parliament. But we don’t yet know how they do it: how particular groups achieve and maintain this taken-for-granted nature is a key question for future research.



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